Eliza Johnson considers herself a hoarder, but of the digital variety. She's obsessed with keeping all the music she's ever owned as sound files, and with arranging them just so. To prove it, she pulls out her laptop and clicks on an icon on the crowded desktop, revealing a sort of virtual discography: Each album that she plans to release under her Eliza Catastrophe moniker has its own folder, and those folders contain yet more folders, each one representing a track and sequenced in the proper order.
Some of the song folders are empty. Others contain completed audio files. The songs are all written; it's just that some of them need another coat of sonic paint before they go out into the world.
"Those are songs I wanted to give love to," Johnson says.
In the meantime, Johnson's newest album, You, is being released this weekend, and she's promoting it as a Black Friday special. It features 15 short-and-sweet pop tunes built upon what she describes as "strengths based on weaknesses" — there's always a catchy hook and witty, sometimes punny lyrics, and it never takes too long to get to the chorus.
Growing up in Spokane, Johnson was a theater and choir kid, and she started playing guitar at 13 and wrote her first original song two years later. Her father was a poet, "so poetry and wordplay were always really important in the house," she says. That's reflected in the playful nature of her lyrics, which cover subjects as diverse as inherited wealth, terrible breakups, terrible bosses and Star Trek.
Johnson began performing as a solo artist when she was 18, but she has also played bass for the defunct pop band Friends of Mine and briefly fronted her own rock four-piece called Violet Catastrophe. She's back in solo mode as Eliza Catastrophe, a project that has her choosing from a well of songs that were written over the course of 13 years — some from when she was still in high school, others from just a couple months ago.
You might think it'd be awkward or embarrassing, standing before an audience and earnestly expressing your own teenage feelings as a 28-year-old. But Johnson says she keeps those older songs in rotation because... well, they're good songs.
"There's a really sick riff in one, and a great vocal part in another," she explains. "If I could, I would rewrite the lyrics to some of these and keep the melodies. There are two songs on the album — one's [about] 'he hurt me,' one's [about] 'why aren't you more sensitive?' — and both of them, I'm past and beyond. But the hooks are just so good.
"I have good relationships with everyone I've written songs about, so hopefully we can all view it as a time capsule. It's a snapshot of my feelings in that moment."
Johnson says she initially set out to finish You as a New Year's resolution, and she's finally making good on it, albeit down to the wire. She also aimed to record, engineer and release the album herself, and to do it for next to no money.
"Poorness is my medium," she says. "And I wanted whatever I put out to reflect only on me."
Most of the songs on You are predicated on Johnson's distinct sound — acoustic guitar mixed with electronic beats and squiggly synth sounds, courtesy of a MIDI keyboard Johnson got last Christmas. The album is a sequel-of-sorts to an earlier Violet Catastrophe LP called I, and a companion album, Oh, is already on the horizon. (Johnson says this titular trend is inspired by a childhood quirk wherein she removed consonants from words and only spoke in vowel sounds.)
You, so named because all of its songs have the word "you" somewhere in the lyrics, will eventually be available on all the usual digital channels. But for the upcoming Black Friday show, Johnson is employing an unusual physical release strategy: She ordered 50 off-brand MP3 players and uploaded the album to each one — they come with charging cables and earbuds, as an all-in-one package. It'll be like buying a band's cassette and having it come with a boombox, albeit far less cumbersome.
Despite the lo-fi charm of You's release, Johnson is already thinking big picture, and thinking about the future. After all, digital files could go away, but iPods are forever. Sort of.
"I'm kind of building my legacy through this album. I've been thinking lately, I'm going to have Eliza Catastrophe on my tombstone, so people going by will look up my music," Johnson says. "The way technology is, I wouldn't be surprised if we're listening to music that's made today a hundred, 200 years in the future. And that's more than I could ask. That's my way of living forever." ♦
Eliza Catastrophe Album Release with Bandit Train and Water Monster • Fri, Nov. 29 at 8 pm • Free • 21+ • Berserk • 125 S. Stevens St. • facebook.com/berserkbarspokane