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Interview with Elenowen

A guy, a girl and a singing contest.

Elenowen (Josh & Nicole Johnson) had a stand-out performance on NBC's The Voice with their dreamy rendition of The Swell Season's Oscar-winning song "Falling Slowly." The couple radiated a tender sincerity further magnified by their luminous harmonies. They didn't make it to the final round but Elenowen is on the path to carving out their own brand of success.

Their single "Honey Come Home" rose to #1 on the iTunes singer/songwriter chart. They launched a web series, The Basement Sessions, that chronicles their music journey and recorded a new studio album. With lyrics like "let me pour you a glass of red / to get your mind off the things I said" layered with depth and maturity, and steeped in bittersweet storytelling, Elenowen is one of the best duos to emerge from the 2011 music scene.

I chatted with Nicole about her quest for authenticity in her music, fashion and beyond.

On watching the Oscar-winning Irish film Once:

It was a really special moment when Josh and I saw the movie for the first time.

...Sitting in the theater and when that scene comes up when they're in the music shop and singing that song ["Falling Slowly"] it's just so real and passionate and we just, both of us started crying, in the theater, like man, this is what we want, this is who we want to be, real artists. And... shortly after that we started Elenowen.

What does authenticity mean to you and how does it influence your art?

A lot of it is a matter of opinion. One song, one movie can stir you, can move you and can really change you. And then for someone else it doesn't do anything for them, so I think Josh and I's goal has really been to make sure our music is really moving us.

It's meaningful to us but not everybody is gonna understand it. We're not expecting everybody that hears our music to become a mega fan because everyone's entitled to their own opinion. We're just always trying to make sure that we're writing genuine music. Whether it sparks from an idea that we get from a story we heard ...or whether we're writing literally from a story that happened to us today, whether we're writing about an argument we just went through, a hard time, a great time, whatever it is we're writing about we really try to make sure that it moves us. And that at the end of the day when we listen to our music that it's real. That's the way we try to stay authentic and stay true to ourselves.

What core beliefs did you and Josh promise to stay true to, whether or not fame came into play?
Before we went out to L.A. for The Voice we honestly did not see it coming. We were kind of plowing through our plan which was make music, put out a new record and just kind of do our own thing. When our management company was contacted by NBC to see if they had any new upcoming talent and our manager said 'Would you guys be interested in this?' And we're like 'Sure, why not, we'll just see what happens.'

It became real when we got the callback and knew we were actually going to be on the show and that's when it got, 'okay this really happening'. We talked a lot, obviously when something is put on the table in front of you, this could happen to you, you could win this show, becoming a recording artist and start this mega-huge dream. Of course we're gonna talk about it. It was the same then as it was now. Our core belief is that our marriage is always number one. That is such a huge part of Elenowen's identity. The fact that we really believe in marriage and believe that it can work no matter what. That if both parties are willing to forgive and work with each other there's always going to be heartache, there's always going to be struggles but before music, before fame, before whatever you want to call it, it's  me and Josh. No matter what that comes first. And that's something that will always be our values for sure.

Before The Voice you were working at a coffee shop in Tennessee. What did you do to cheer yourself up on days when it felt like your music hadn't quite found an audience?

A couple different things. I'm a big chocolate person so whenever I've had a bad day, you know, I usually go to Kroger and get some chocolate and some wine. As far as to keep me inspired, umm, and to keep plowing through, would be I love discovering new artists and new music. It can be anywhere from Beyonce to Ryan Adams. It all leads back to if it's real music it doesn't matter the genre. It can be any kind of genre if it's real... there's gonna be passion behind it. I love discovering whether it's new or old artists, that finding a song that's like 'Man, I want to get there. I want to be able to be that person.' How do i explain it? I want to be the artist that is inspiring another person or another artist to continue plow through a hard time, a hardship, whatever it may be and that's kind of what always get me going.

I really believe that I'm called to do music and this is what I'm supposed to do so I'm just gonna keep trucking through and see what happens.

What music do you listen to when you're in an introspective mood?

...I'm a huge Ryan Adams fan. He always just puts me in the right place.

LaRue in the studio with Elenowen
What was the recording process like? How was it working with Phillip LaRue as a producer in the studio?

Working with Philip is truly an inspiration because I've never met anybody who can literally crank out more genuine, creative awesome ideas than Phil. He's full of ideas. He can bring new life to old songs and he can bring a classic timeless sound to new songs.

...We'd toss them [ideas] around and Phil always had the best idea. It was like I would have a great idea or Josh would have a great idea and Phil would spill his out and 'okay you win that's just what we need to do.' Josh and I are really great friends with Phil so it was fun. It was laid-back and relaxed. 

...We kinda picked apart the songs before we actually got in the studio, and figured out what we wanted to do. It was kind of fast. It was a whirlwind, you know, we only had a certain amount of time and got in there like four days straight and just pounded them out. It was great. Studio time is always challenging for me because I get really claustrophobic and you're like cooped in this one room for hours on end, but this last time was really, really, really great. I thoroughly enjoyed it and probably got more into than I have any other time.

What epitomizes a great live performance? And what's your approach to performing on stage? What do you do prepare yourself, does it all come natural, or is it a little bit of both?

I'd say it really is a little bit of both. Not every show is our best. We're still trying to figure out the formula for putting on your best show every time because you know circumstances will come into play. There's times when there's no air-conditioning in the venue and I'm sweating and I'm uncomfortable and you know there's just those kind of things that can give you a weird head trip. But every single time before Josh and I go out on the stage we say a quick prayer and tell each other that we love each other and remind each other that this is what we want to do. This is our dream and even though there's bumps along the road and there's times when you come off the stage and you go 'Man, that was not my best' there are lot more times when we come off stage on fire, amped up because we know we did a good job or the audience was just super into it. There's different things. But we really just try to have fun when we're on stage and you know, if something goes wrong and if we screw up a song or something happens and the sound goes out or throws us off course we just try to have a good time. You know things are gonna happen, you can't plan it all so we just try to roll with the punches.

In your web series you've made mention of fashion and style. Home and clothes. Is it something you'd like to do with your creativity outside of music?

Fashion is a huge, huge, huge part of, I don't really know what the word would be, it's a big deal to me. It's not just a 'I love to shop I'm a girl.' It's like I have a real passion for it and I really believe that how you dress can really influence how you feel about yourself and therefore can influence what people think of you. You know how when you walk into a room, whether you're an artist or... It doesn't matter who you are or what you do. I think everybody has their own style. I really love trying to figure out more ways to get new and old pieces working together and I have amazing friends who have amazing fashion sense as well so I don't get to help too many people out. But I do enjoy meeting people along the way who say 'Can you help me just figure out what would look good on my body and what do you think I would look good in?' I love that kind of stuff. 

I'm more of a street fashion kind of person. The higher up the runway, the high-end fashion, I love it still but I'm more of a day-in, day-out. I get really into dressing to go to the movies.

I really enjoy mixing vintage old pieces that I found at a thrift store for, you know, 25 cents and then adding it with new modern sleek pieces... I have a kind of secret goal in my head to never wear the same outfit twice because I'm always intermingling different things. You know, never wear the same outfit with the same jewelery, or just whatever. I try to make sure I'm always doing something different, which is fun.

...I think I really struggled for a long time trying to figure out what style I was and what I like because I like so many different things. I thought you had to pick kind of one sense of fashion and I finally learned, at least for me, that's not the case. I mean, I love all types of fashion and so I feel like it's just been in the last two years that I've kind of really settled into who I am and what I love and that's been really fun. When I go out, when I'm looking for things whether it's thrifting or new stores... I have a better idea of what I like.

Any chance you'll do a fashion blog or fashion web series?

As far as computers and blogging and all that I'm a little bit intimidated. I want to try to figure out a way to start some sort of fashion blog. But I want to make sure it's good and it's kept up well. I'm kind of waiting to start one 'cause I want to make sure I do it right. But I'm hoping to start one soon, to start something like that.

Was there ever a time when you felt completely awkward in fashion?

Oh absolutely. [laughs] Pretty much my entire adolescence, and some of my adulthood. I remember being, gosh, probably 12-years-old and I was always wanting to be a hippie, always was barefoot and I would drag out my Mom's old clothes from the 60s and 70s... I always wanted to be different and to stand out but I didn't know how to do it in a way that made sense. I would wear two different colored shoes and I would paint my nails every color under the rainbow, every nail with a different color. I would wear crazy, crazy, things and my parents would say, 'okay, this is a new, interesting look. Rocking your individuality, we can get down with that.' But there was a definite lack of confidence and all through high school I was, um, like I said before I was still trying to figure out who I was. 

Honestly I cannot pinpoint when it was that I kind of had that turnaround but it was about two years ago. Even the first year of Josh and I's marriage when we started making music and stuff, I felt I just didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know what looked right on my body and what to do. I think the thing that really probably turned it around and gave me some more confidence to be willing to try new things and try things I would pick up on the rack and go 'uhh, I could never wear that' was I had gained a lot of weight after we got married being fat happy and it really started to bother me. So I really made it a goal to lose weight. I lost 40 pounds and when I lost it all I was like 'wow, I can do this. I can set my mind to something and do it.' And so I started trying new things in fashion and I think that's when I was like 'wow, I can get into this' and I feel like I know who I am now and I'm settled into my body, into my skin. But everybody goes through those times of just feeling like you're awkward. You're not putting out that message that you feel in your heart. So yeah, I don't know, everybody's got it in them to settle in their own style for sure.

What do you hope people get from your music? What do you hope that people take away from Elenowen?

I really want people to see the genuine. The real and the genuineness of me and Josh. And it ties back into our marriage being #1, it's something that we want people to know. We want people to look up to in a way. We haven't been married very long but we've been together for eight years and married for three. At the end of the day, if I know that people walked away from our shows whether they liked the music or not could say that ‘I know that they were real and genuine and they loved what they do. And they weren't acting, they were passionate about what they were doing.' That's all I want. That's something that's really important to us, and of course I want people to like it. I want people to be fans of Elenowen. I want people to know that we're trying our best to be true and truthful to our audience and to each other. You know, we're gonna screw up and we're gonna fail but we really do love what we do with all our hearts and are just happy to be doing it. And blessed to be doing it, and just are grateful.

Would you and Josh like to do a soundtrack? Or a score? Have you been approached by any filmmakers?

We would love to do something like that. I really like the idea of not just being a traveling playing shows kind of artist. I like being the type of artist that's across the spectrum, that does a lot of different things. That's something I would be absolutely, super interested in going further into. That would be so much fun. No, we have not been approached by anybody. Not yet.

[Photo Credits via Elenowen's Facebook]


Clarabela said...

Thanks for posting this interview. I saw them perform on The Voice and loved them! They remind me a little of The Swell Season from the movie Once.

I think they have a big future ahead.

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