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Singer Carissa Johnson turned bad timing into her new album 'Blue Hour'

Carissa Johnson (Courtesy Melissa Desmond)
Carissa Johnson (Courtesy Melissa Desmond)

In early March of last year, Carissa Johnson packed up her guitar and her gear and flew cross country from Boston to Los Angeles. The singer-songwriter had some success on the East Coast, with albums both under her name and the group name of Carissa Johnson and the Cure-Alls. They scored a victory at the 2017 Rock & Roll Rumble. But it was time for a reboot. She’d previously lived in LA; signs were encouraging out there.

Alas, the timing was not propitious. The COVID-19 lockdown was soon upon us.

“I went out to Hollywood to find this new place and now it’s completely closed off,” Johnson says, on the phone. “I was aimlessly driving around, so I went to the ocean every single day I was in LA, sitting there, looking at the water, wondering what else is there to do with my time? What’s going on? Where am I? Why is this so hard?”

She came up with a song, “Polaroids,” one of the 10 tracks on her upcoming album “Blue Hour,” mostly recorded a year later in Boston at Mad Oak Studios. Johnson used the lockdown scenario as “kind of a metaphor for a relationship, too. [The song] was kind of blending the two.”

In the song, Johnson sings, “Thought I could extend my spring by escaping the winter back home/ Opened my heart to you but baby your arms are always closed. …I’m inside this dream I’ve been dreaming/ Didn’t know this city was a ghost town.”

In late April of last year, Johnson came back east to the Boston area, and put together the music for “Blue Hour” with drummer, producer and co-songwriter Benny Grotto. She also ended up taking a job at Fishman Transducers, in Andover learning how to build pickups. She did that for a year, but when things opened up again in July 2021, Johnson says, “I felt I needed to get out. Even though I had this new job, this isn’t what I want to do. I don’t want to live this existence for the rest of my life… I’m glad I got to try it and now I know what it’s like to do this, but I need to do my music. I’m not a routine-based person. I like doing a bunch of different things and I started traveling and making music videos.”

Indeed, Johnson, 27, has made four videos from “Blue Hour” songs and intends to do the same for the remaining six. “Creating turned into recording and then [I started] doing the music videos because the live music wasn’t happening,” she says.

In recording “Blue Hour,” she also decided to release it under her own name, as she’d done at the onset of her career with 2015’s “For Now.” Johnson and the Cure-Alls — the moniker a combination of guitarist Steph Curran and drummer Nick Hall’s surnames — had played together nearly five years, but they weren’t currently active and the players on the new record were a group of “hired gun” friends, anchored by Grotto.

The album, Johnson says, is her most personal yet. There are no real “character” songs; the “I” and “me” she’s singing about are her. “I kind of realized that after I finished it,” she says. “I was like ‘Man, this is all about me,’ and I was feeling kind of guilty about it. This is really intimate and very personal.”

An example is “Tourist,” where Johnson sings about loneliness and “being a tourist in my own skin.” Describing the impetus for the song, she says, “I’m feeling I’m stuck in this one place and I have to start pretending I’m somewhere else. And I don’t know how to handle this.”

One of the advance songs that has gotten a lot of attention already is a song she wrote two years ago, “Running Uphill” — nearly 420,000 YouTube views in four days after its Oct. 7 release. Johnson likes the thematic connection to Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” and 4 Non-Blondes’ “What’s Up?” and says the song works on two levels. One, she really has gotten into running and two, “I’ve got to persevere right now and other people are feeling that too — time is not going to hold me still, even if time is standing still.”

The “Blue Hour” songwriting grew out of COVID-forced isolation. Johnson says she’s an introvert by nature and typically writes alone anyway, “but there was stuff I had to work through that I’d distracted myself from. I ended up spending a lot more time in nature, going outside, being in water, and really spending time with my true friends. The band had kind of split up, but not entirely. I felt this is me now, it’s all up to me.”

Johnson’s music falls in the same commercial new wave realm as does that of her heroes, Debbie Harry and Joan Jett — late ‘70s-infused rock and power pop with both bright melodies and an edge. Harry and Jett, of course, came to prominence well before Johnson was born; the first singer Johnson dug as a kid was Avril Lavigne. Later, in college, she got into Elastica and the bands in the riot grrrl movement.

Johnson celebrates the release of “Blue Hour” Nov. 12 with a record release gig that night at Sonia in Cambridge. It’s an important date but not her live re-emergence — she did a couple of solo acoustic gigs and a full show with her band at the Paradise in September.

She also has plans to recharge her batteries in January, when she’ll move to Brooklyn. “I live in the suburbs now, and I’m just looking for a big change,” Johnson says. “I was thinking of moving back to LA because that’s where I was, but I feel a bigger pull toward New York. There’s a lot of opportunities that have been coming that way. Let’s go somewhere new — find a new challenge and a new chapter.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the guitar shop Carissa Johnson worked at. We regret the error.

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Jim Sullivan Twitter Music Writer
Jim Sullivan writes about rock 'n' roll and other music for WBUR.

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