As Vanna Oh!, Lindsay Johnston is turning a full-on rock persona into a full-time career

Nick Pelletti photo

Vanna Oh! lets it all hang out. If you've seen one of her shows in the last 10 months that she's been exhaustively performing, you'll know she's a rip-roaring rock star in the classic sense of the term — stomping and spinning on the stage, shredding one killer riff after another, making a small room feel like a sold-out arena. That exclamation point is no joke.

It's the newest project and persona courtesy of local guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Lindsay Johnston, her first since her popular guitar-and-drums duo Donna Donna disbanded last year.

"I was pretty heartbroken when that ended," Johnston tells the Inlander. "I was planning on just kind of giving music up."

It was around that time that she recalls having the desire to pack up and move to L.A., where she'd hopefully find something bigger and better. What exactly that was remained unclear. She had worked as a high school teacher and as a bartender, saving up money to make the move to Hollywood, but she was yearning to start performing again.

"I decided, well, I've never really tried to do music as a job," she says. "Maybe I'm going to just try it."

So she bought a car she could live out of if she needed to ("Though there's only been one night where I actually stayed the night in the car," she says), moved in with her mom in the Tri-Cities for a spell, and conjured up a new personality of sorts. She says she's always been drawn to names with double N's in them — think Donna Donna — and that she also wanted her nom de rock to communicate some sort of surprise. Thus, Vanna Oh! was born.

Johnston is now working as a full-time musician, performing multiple times a week — almost 20 shows in June and July alone, in Spokane, Coeur d'Alene, Leavenworth, Richland, Olympia and down to Pendleton, Oregon. She says she's heard a common refrain of "that wasn't what I was expecting" from venue owners, who have often paired Vanna Oh! with acoustic singer-songwriters who are typically blindsided by the snarling blues-rock she's become known for.

Life on the road has other challenges, of course, namely the uncertainty that comes with the nomadic lifestyle. When she's not touring, Johnston lives out of her dad's house in North Spokane, and mostly couch surfs on the road.

"I thought, 'This is going to be a really hard existence, to just live out of a duffel bag,'" Johnston says. "The hardest part [is] just not feeling ownership of any place, feeling kind of like a nuisance or a burden on people, just being an extra person in the house. But people have been really gracious."

It's a job that, by its very nature, involves scraping by, meting out just enough of a profit to make it to the next gig. Step by step, you're working to make the whole operation financially sustainable.

"The hard thing is just being patient," Johnston says. "Any time I do get money, where I could pay rent this month, it's like, 'Or I could buy more T-shirts.' ... It's having to be my own investor. It's so slow going, and you can only put such a small percentage back in. And it is growing."

It's mostly a one-woman operation in that sense, though Johnston often plays with a rotating backing band the Anys (so called because she'd play with anybody) that typically includes drummer Chase Howard and bassist Gabe Cazenavette.

"I want to be able to pay my band. They would be the first people I would want to take care of," Johnston says. "I would love to get choreography and visuals into our shows, and make cool music videos, and collaborate with other musicians and continue to make albums. But all of that costs money. Unless you're expecting people to do you favors and do it for free, which I really don't believe in."

Johnston has been performing songs from the catalog of originals that she's written over the past six years, as a solo artist and as the frontwoman for Donna Donna. But now that she's building up crowds — not just in Spokane but in Seattle and Portland — she's started working on new material again. A debut Vanna Oh! album should materialize in late summer or early fall.

"I'm less stressed, and I think that's a huge part of the creative process," Johnston says. "The band is finally at the point where I can start giving them new material, because all the old stuff is solidified."

Because she has a master's degree in teaching, Johnston says she sometimes thinks of working a rock audience the way she'd command a classroom — trying to keep everyone engaged for a full period.

"There's the part of me that just wants to be wild and wants it to be just crazy, rock 'n' roll taking over. And all of us on stage, just like really feeding off of each other and that energy," she says. "And then the other part of it is calculated, a thought-through setlist where we're moving from super upbeat to bluesy and dark to something a little bit slower, and back up again at the end." ♦

Vanna Oh! with King Ropes and Tyler Alai • Thu, July 25 at 8 pm • $5 • Pacific Pizza • 2001 W. Pacific •