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Interview New Music

How Prince Johnny Merged Pride, Absurdity, and Melodrama on Their Newest EP

New York is the place where many of us flee to in hopes of starting anew. The senses become heightened as we absorb the smog that permeates the air and contaminates the lungs, passing street vendors selling fruit, and having near death experiences every time a taxi carelessly swerves around a tight corner while we are crossing the street. 

The isolation that comes with living in pockets of the city can either transform us beyond recognition or break us entirely. We will occasionally escape the noise by fleeing to places like the West Side Piers and Rockaway Beach, inhaling the salty air, listening to the rippling of the trash-filled bodies of water before the inevitable return to the whirring white noise of midtown traffic, chugging subway cars, and business deals being made over the phone. It’s a city that tests our capacity for resilience, before we eventually decide to leave or begrudgingly grow to love it, even if it never cared about us.  

New York is the place where many queer individuals migrate to when we are attempting to purge the oppressive poison that we internalized growing up. We become hardened and hyper-sensitive, careful not to let our guards down while simultaneously trying to liberate ourselves from shame and prove to ourselves, our families, our co-workers and our lovers that we are busy, relevant, and special. 

Queer New York is as vast and complex as it is confusing. The city is easily malleable, allowing queer communities to find spaces that we can transform into our own. We commiserate with each other in underground nightlife spaces—bars, clubs, and cabarets—the few places where we can escape the violent heteronormative gaze of the streets, public transit, and work and create a world of our own. 

After moving to New York and surviving by busking in subway stations, singer-songwriter Viktor Vladimirovich began making waves in the Brooklyn indie scene by writing and recording music under the moniker Prince Johnny, a reference to the St. Vincent song of the same name. Their music is an amalgamation of cabaret-infused folk and indie pop that finds a middle ground between tragedy, humor, and radical emotionality.

Prince Johnny is no stranger to the power of transformative work. Refusing to shy away from how their identity informs the ways that they see the world, their music encompasses every feeling imaginable from uncomfortable confrontations to warm hugs and sighs of relief.

Prince Johnny’s newest EP, Stupid Sex, which is slated to be released on May 17th, is a blisteringly emotional and delightfully lighthearted portrait of the modern queer experience in the shadow of the AIDS crisis. Places like New York and Amsterdam provide the backdrop to their introspective journey to exist on their own terms while navigating the world of self-loathing on slow, sorrowful ballads like “Sex Party” and “Fort Tryon,” which each have shades of Mitski, Leonard Cohen, and Daniel Johnston. Meanwhile, more lighthearted cabaret-themed songs like “Boys Just Wanna Have Fun,” and “Stupid Sex,” do an impeccable job of tackling the pervasive hyper-sexualization of the queer male gaze and the fine line between sex and mortality.  

Stupid Sex EP

Below is my full conversation with Prince Johnny, where we discuss how they came to fully embrace their artistic impulses, starting their own collective in Brooklyn’s artistic queer community, and finding inspiration in Regina Spektor’s capacity for empathy. 

If you wouldn’t mind, I would love for you to walk me through your first foray into music-making. How did you come to decide that it was something that you wanted to pursue?

My body told me who I was before I had the courage to accept it. My parents told me that as a child I would go around belting “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” any opportunity I got. Starting in middle school, I began compulsively writing Regina Spektor and Amanda Palmer lyrics in my notebooks during class. I don’t know why I started, or anyone else that did it, but I’d always de-focus from the subject being taught and find myself writing out lyrics. I also remember writing them on whiteboards in our choir wing’s piano closet. If I’m walking anywhere alone I still sing about 83% of the time and have been since I can remember. 

In terms of making something myself, I remember really wanting to write songs but thinking I wasn’t “chosen” to do it. I remember watching an interview with Alanis Morisette in middle school where she talked about walking around her house and melodies just “floating into [her] head.” I was super bitter because my favorite people were my songwriters and I wanted to be like them. Then one day I was practicing Moonlight Sonata and a pattern of notes struck me as really beautiful and I repeated it over and over and added my own chords underneath and then suddenly a melody floated in and I wrote my first song. 

I continued to write songs throughout college but my neuroses were far too powerful to allow me to share anything publicly. I remember having little meetings with my closest friends and “coming out” to them as a songwriter. I felt ashamed and hopeless. The volatility of a musician’s life scared me. I didn’t think I was good enough. Why couldn’t I be someone that could be content with something safer & more normal? I resented that I had no control over what I needed to be doing to feel alive. I continued to keep everything bottled up until about 22 when I was having the classic first year in NYC rock-bottom moment and I found myself screening therapists. I sheepishly told one that alI thought about all day was lyrics and songs and I thought I was a musician. He asked if I was actually doing music. I got really defensive and tried to explain that I couldn’t even afford my food—how could I do something so silly and childish as try to be an artist. And he matter of factly said, “if you are an artist and you don’t let yourself make art you will never be happy.” That was the mindset shift I needed and a few months later I went to my first open-mic and the rest is herstory. I see it less as something I decided I wanted to pursue, but more as something I finally accepted I needed to do.

I think of my work as winking with a tear in your eye. It’s direct emotionality and eye contact, but also an acknowledgement of the inherent absurdity and melodrama of our neuroses.

– Prince Johnny

In what specific ways have your most formative influences (Perfume Genius, St. Vincent, Regina Spektor, Amanda Palmer, etc.) affected the ways that you create your own music?

Oh man, they’re my everything. I believe the stories they gave me in my adolescence developed the infrastructure of my mind. They all taught me so much but I’ll try to pair it down to a few things for each. Amanda taught me how to play with exaggeration, theatrics, character work and “lying” in order to better tell a truth. Regina taught me empathy. What it means to live in another’s world and how to take details from the world and craft lyric from it. She also encouraged idiosyncrasy, reminding me that I could deliver things [however] I wanted in whatever style.

Perfume Genius taught me the power in wielding my inherent fagginess & femininity as a source of strength, instead of shrinking away & hiding it. He taught me simple but visceral lyricism. He taught me to ask myself with every lyric I write “what am I risking? What am I revealing?” Annie [St. Vincent] taught me about the power of contrast, juxtaposing something soft and delicate with something acidic and brutal. Mitski taught me to reframe my relationship with yearning, and how to integrate that primal tension into my lyrics. She showed me how I could get my lyrics to glow all soft and romantic.

What this EP does so well is balance the heavier themes–like the fine line between sex and mortality in the shadow of the AIDS crisis–with lighthearted humor. The cover art [for ‘Boys Just Wanna Have Fun’] in particular was giving me “horror and decay but make it camp,” which I loved. Was that in keeping with the theme of exploring these specific anxieties?

Yes [ …] you hit the nail [right] on the head. I think of my work as winking with a tear in your eye. It’s direct emotionality and eye contact, but also an acknowledgement of the inherent absurdity and melodrama of our neuroses. I want to honor the emotions they bring up, while never falling into victimhood about it. I think our demons get most mad when we laugh at them. & I love to see them pressed.

Something that a lot of queer youth recognize is the necessity to create spaces for ourselves outside of mainstream society. In what ways do you feel your actions and art have allowed you to transform certain spaces into your own?

I think what we want, at the end of the day, is to be accepted for who we see ourselves as. I know I expected this queer wonderland when I got to New York, but could not find my community. So, I created “The Troubadour Lounge,” which is a monthly performance showcase of queer songwriters I curate to play sets alongside my band. It’s like Tiny Desk mixed with Sofar Sounds, but gay. Those nights are some of the best of my life. Because it isn’t asking to fit into traditional spaces, it’s a space specifically made for queer people to queer TF out. I aim to bring them back post-quarantine and I would love to hear any suggestions for queer songwriting talent in NYC! Anyone [who has any suggestions] can feel free to email me.

Being around so many strong personalities is a test of your sense of self because it’s so easy to just fall into what’s happening around you.

– Prince Johnny

I really resonated with the way songs like “Stupid Sex” capture, in your own words, “being queer in the way you think you should be” in NYC (cause I very much relate). How has New York in particular informed your work?

Ah, New York. Smoke free lungs, alien pods, game show hosts, the souls of the dead, crumb free bread, the back of a car, roadway maps, the back of a head, the back of YOUR head, to be more specific. Those are the things Regina says you can find being sold from the back of a truck in this heinously gorgeous city. 

New York cuts your teeth sharp as hell, but then you’re constantly biting your lips and bleeding everywhere before you get used to it. You can also find yourself biting into foods you don’t actually like, but think you’re supposed to, since everyone else seems to be enjoying it?

Being around so many strong personalities is a test of your sense of self because it’s so easy to just fall into what’s happening around you. [But] oftentimes, the loudest thing is not what actually aligns with who you are. You have to learn to ask yourself what you actually want.

Once you connect to your true essence, that’s when the party really begins. I felt like New York cooly and coyly challenges you to show up as the Super Saiyan version of yourself. Find that swagger, take up that space, reclaim what’s yours, become your own hero. 

I began my career busking in the 175th street station. New Yorkers WILL tell you how they feel. I had all sorts of experiences. A man screamed in my face to “SHUT THE FUCK UP,” a kind grandma made me promise her I’d never stop performing, this one man gave me $5 so that I could “go get some voice lessons.” One time I looked down and someone had left me a bag with a water and chips from the bodega in it. I see busking as a bootcamp for performers and everyone should try it. I’d go hours and hours being ignored while singing my heart out. It eviscerated my ego into the best way.

Living in strict opposition to dogma can be just as confining a prison as buying into it. I want to be what my body wants me to be, not an exaggerated inverse.

– Prince Johnny

On “Sex Party” and “Boys Just Wanna Have Fun,” you explore the urge to liberate yourself from shame but also somehow never feeling quite satisfied. Tell me a little more about that.

There’s a spiteful rebelliousness I’ve felt concerning my sexual expression since I can remember. I always resented all the forces that come together to undermine a queer person’s right to find their own version of healthy sexuality. I think shame is one of the most pervasive and insidious detractors of a queer person’s sexuality. What I explore is how this overcorrection with hyper-sexuality that a lot of queer people fall into can be just as detrimental as shame-fueled avoidance. 

There can be this urge to prove to yourself that the bigots haven’t won and that all of the shame you’ve internalized against your will hasn’t stopped you from becoming who you’re meant to and doing all the shit that pisses them off. But living in strict opposition to dogma can be just as confining a prison as buying into it. I want to be what my body wants me to be, not an exaggerated inverse.

In those songs I explore the emptiness, confusion, and anxious self-loathing that I felt after trying to make myself fit into what I saw as modern queer culture. Why did going to that Dutch dark room in Amsterdam send me into a week-long depressive spiral? Wasn’t I supposed to love random hook-ups? Why were my ears ringing and my body going into fight-or-flight even before this stranger showed up to my door? Maybe I just needed more practice. Why was I so fucking ~~sensitive~~?? Did I want the sex or was I just trading my body in hopes of a cuddle after? I think other people enjoying these things is fantastic, but I had to figure out that for me—right now at least—it was not serving me.

I also wanted to ask you about Regina Spektor (who we are both massive fans of) because she is a figure who you seem to connect with over both music and a similar background. What does she mean to you?

My heart feels glowy just reading that. I could write a dissertation. I think of her as family, not in the sense that I want to be invited to her kid’s bar mitzvah, but in the sense that her worldview has consistently guided me through my adolescence and young adulthood. When I imagine the way she sees the world I feel buckets and buckets full of empathy and loving attention to detail. 

I think of the “new shoes stuck to aging feet” she notices of older people in the Upper East Side thinking of “how things were right when they were young and veins were tight“ in “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” I think of the “heroin boy” in “Daniel Cowman” realizing he just died of an overdose. I think of the “androgynous powder nosed girl next door” in “Back of a Truck” wanting “more, more, more.” I think of the “Genius Next Door” drowning himself in the lake. I think of the “Man of a Thousand Faces” smiling “at the moon like he knows her.” I think of the old woman in “Happy New Year” wrapped in her blanket greeting the New Year alone with her bottle of champagne next to her open window. I feel her quietly contemplating and reflecting on the way her life has gone.

Damn, I literally [just] got teary eyed. That lady always makes me cry when I spend enough time with her. I adore the way Regina brings us these details about these people, the way she takes the time to try to understand them. These people float around in my head and show up in my songs too. [Empathy is my best quality] and I believe listening to my [favorite] songwriters and their lyrics is how I developed mine. Regina means so, so much to me. I met her a few years back at a small Amanda Palmer concert. We talked about raw emotionality in songwriting while I did my best to dissipate the panic in my face by white-knuckle squeezing the back of a chair. It was a lovely experience.

What do you feel is the most important takeaway audiences should have when listening to your work?

A Joni Mitchell quote comes to mind: “If you listen to that music and you see me, you’re not getting anything out of it. If you listen to that music and you see yourself, now you’re getting something out of it.”

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Interview

AntiHana: Rewriting The Rulebook of Indie Pop

Pulling from glittery dream pop, disco and new wave, R&B, and the boisterous DIY ethos and aggression of punk and garage rock, the considerably impressive catalog of 23-year-old musician AntiHana completely transcends any label or categorization.

From the airy dream pop soundscapes of “WANNA SEE U CRY,” to the slinky bass on “Do U Want It,” and the simmering talking breakdown on the deliciously vengeful “Call Your Mama,” AntiHana does not disappoint when it comes to writing and recording deeply introspective and personal pop tunes that are incredibly fun to dance to.

I had the pleasure of speaking with AntiHana last week, and we discussed a myriad of topics including the beautifully sporadic nature of crafting different song stories, the liberating experience of channeling one of her most beloved rock icons for a music video, and the unmatched euphoria of nailing a songwriting session.


Q: What is the writing and recording process normally like for you, and what part of creating do you enjoy the most?

A: It’s truly different every song. Sometimes I create a beat and go from there, sometimes I’ll start with guitar, or bass, or keys. Sometimes it starts from the vocals – I’m constantly jotting down lyrics and recording little voice memos of melodies that pop into my head, so sometimes I’ll try to build something around that. And sometimes it comes from playing around with another person.

My favorite part of it all is when I feel like I’ve cracked something, when I’ve hit my stride with a song. Kinda corny, but it really does feel like it’s this thing coming from inside me and it’s just pulling me somewhere, like I’m barely even trying, it’s just pouring out of me. I get a legitimate buzz from it, like I’m high. That feeling is so precious to me that I actually have a bit of a fear that one day it’ll go away.


To be able to synthesize the confusing mess in my head and heart into something outside of myself, and that I can share with others, definitely brings some peace sometimes.

– AntiHana
Photo by Lukas Markou

Q: Would you say that your songwriting comes from personal experience, crafting fictional narratives, or a little bit of both?

A: Definitely a bit of both! Sometimes I write things that aren’t literally true but feel true, if that makes sense. I guess sometimes I play around with writing from different perspectives, or from the perspective of a persona. And sometimes it’s total nonsense that just sounds good.

Q: Your attitude and voice in so many of your songs is very commanding and incredibly fun. The talking breakdown on “Call Your Mama” is one of my favorite parts of the song, it reminded me a little bit of Robyn’s “Body Talk.” Would you say that writing and singing about exactly how you feel in ways that you might not always be able to articulate in daily situations is a cathartic process for you?

A: So cathartic! To be able to synthesize the confusing mess in my head and heart into something outside of myself, and that I can share with others, definitely brings some peace sometimes.

Q: What is the number one thing that you hope listeners will get out of listening to your music?

A: Dang such a good question. One of my favorite things I get out of music is when it makes me walk a little taller and strut down the street, fills me up with this feeling like no one can fuck with me, or when I’m driving in my car and it makes me and whoever’s in it dance or belt it out at the top of our lungs. If any of my songs could make anyone feel like that, that would make me really happy.

Q: Who would you say some of your biggest inspirations are songwriting and sound-wise?

A: Oh man there’s too many to list, but to name just a few: Blondie and Gwen Stefani, not just in their sounds but in their performance styles, are go-to’s for me. I grew up listening to David Bowie because he’s my dad’s favorite. The Strokes were the first band that ever knocked me out and made me go “wait someone else feels that exact way too? and they put it in a song?” Missy Elliott’s music was some of the first to give me the feeling I described in the last question and never fails to pick me up when I’m down. ABBA – I mean coooome oooon. Mitski – I’d love to hang out with her and brush each other’s hair you know? And what I would give to have Selena’s stage presence, to bring the same emotion to my voice, and oh my god to be able to dance the way she did on stage – pretty sure that will never happen for me though. I just don’t have it in my body, try as I might.


 One of my favorite things I get out of music is when it makes me walk a little taller and strut down the street, fills me up with this feeling like no one can fuck with me, or when I’m driving in my car and it makes me and whoever’s in it dance or belt it out at the top of our lungs. If any of my songs could make anyone feel like that, that would make me really happy.

– AntiHana
Photo by Tao Antrim

Q: Something you and I have in common is that we’re both massive Strokes fans, and I understand that they were part of the inspiration for “Heart in a Cafe.” I really loved the pulsing urgency in your voice/the production on that song (the music video is also immaculate). If you don’t mind, I would love for you to walk me through what creating all of that was like for you.

A: Okay so my last semester of college was in LA. I was at the 101 Coffee Shop, sitting at the counter, and, in the mirror hanging on the opposite wall, I happened to see Julian Casablancas walk by. I turned around just to see him leaving. At first I didn’t want to bother him but then I was also like what are the chances and when else am I ever gonna have the opportunity to tell him how much he means to me, so I ran out to see if I could catch him, but he was gone. They’ve been my favorite band since I was old enough to have a favorite band, so I got really excited and unexpectedly emotional, like some actual tears welled up. 

And then for my final project in one of my classes, about LA as a character in film, we could either write a paper or do a creative project. I definitely wasn’t trying to write a paper, so I wrote Heart in a Cafe. I didn’t end up getting the best grade on it because my professor was like wtf does this have to do with LA? But I hit a stride with the song and I just had to keep going, writing more about my feelings for Julian than about LA. 

Our last week in LA, me and my friends Emme, Tallulah, and Morgan were bored and itching to make something. We had just watched Dominic Fike’s music video (the original one) for 3 Nights, and felt inspired by that, so we decided we were just gonna make something. We came up with the concept of throwing clothes at me, and me sort of becoming Julian in some way, or like an ode to Julian, fostering the masculine rock star living inside me (and dare I say in us all?). We drove up to the Hollywood Hills and did two takes, but that’s a joint I’m smoking, so after the second take I was… not fit to film another. The take we ended up putting out was the first one anyway. It was so fun. 

At the beginning of this month, the 101 became another tragic casualty of the pandemic. For me, a little piece of the 101 is immortalized in Heart in a Cafe. I hope it rises from the dead.

Q: Has quarantine changed the creative process at all for you, or has it remained more or less the same?

A: I’ve been using my extra time cooped up in my room to try to get better at guitar. Wouldn’t it be so cool if one day I could rip a solo on stage? Maybe one day…