Eating apple. Kelly O

Everybody makes mistakes. Nouela Johnston's was signing a record contract when she was barely 18 years old without reading the fine print. In 2004, Johnston was the lead singer/­keyboardist for Mon Frere, a piano rock trio that won that year's EMP Sound Off! competition (an annual youth-­oriented battle of the bands). With that victory and some positive local press, Mon Frere secured a record deal with Tacoma-based Cake Records. But in 2007, after an EP and one full-length, Johnston abruptly quit the band, announcing the breakup via MySpace—no explanation, no last show. Nothing left except a pricey contractual obligation to Cake Records.

"I broke up the band in the worst way possible," Johnston says, sipping a cup of tangerine-ginger tea at a busy Ballard coffee shop. "I just freaked out. I was like, 'I don't want to play the show we have next week. I don't want to talk about this band ever again—it's done.'

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"You're not supposed to do that if you want to continue a career in music, and I did it. I called the label and was like, 'I want out; I don't want anything to do with this.' And they were like, 'Well, you owe us thousands of dollars.'"

Mon Frere were finished, but Johnston was unable to legally release any new material without first buying herself out of the Cake contract to the tune of $5,000.

"They gave us a contract 'memo,' like the bullet points, and we signed that," she explains. "We didn't actually sign a full contract, so [when I quit the band] it was a shit-ton of legal messes."

So she started working as a musician for hire. She played keyboards in Say Hi for about a year—touring the United States and Germany—and she appeared as a guest keyboardist and vocalist on the Fall of Troy's Manipulator, playing a few shows with them as well. She also had a short stint as the touring drummer for the SoCal-based rock band Creature Feature.

But all the while, Johnston was writing new songs of her own. She called her new solo project People Eating People (the product of trying to come up with the worst band name possible, she says), and it was everything that Mon Frere were not.

Mon Frere were a rock band with touches of punk and blues—heavy drumbeats, distorted guitars, and overdriven keyboards—and their age-appropriately juvenile lyrics dealt with stuff like blood, vampires, and orcs (asked what those songs were about, Johnston laughs and says, "I don't even know").

Johnston's first batch of People Eating People songs didn't hide behind heavy distortion or punk-rock posturing. The lyrics were direct, inspired by whatever was eating her at the time, including unrequited crushes, shitty so-called friends, and self-centered assholes.

"I wrote the songs to make myself feel better," she says. "I wrote 'For Now' because I felt like shit and I decided to write a song that I would enjoy listening to. I'm not like that, as a person, I don't talk about dramatic things. I think [People Eating People] has helped my brain; it's helped me feel better about myself."

The project also finds Johnston returning to her roots as a classical and jazz pianist. Both her parents are musicians—her mother has a doctorate in piano performance from Juilliard, and her father is a composer who currently teaches music on a South Korean army base—and Johnston was giving piano recitals by the time she was just 4 years old.

"I was getting tired of spazzing out onstage every day," she says of her decision to end Mon Frere. "I didn't want to do that for the rest of my life."

Once she had a small batch of new songs, Johnston recorded a demo that made it into the hands of Nabil Ayers, founder of the Control Group (and current label manager for 4AD), who offered to put out her full-length record if she wrote more material. With his legal advice, and $5,000 of her own money, Johnston finally got out of her contract with Cake Records, and the Control Group released People Eating People's self-titled debut full-length last November.

The album is her finest work yet.

"I Hate All My Friends" begins every bit as pissed off as its title implies, with Johnston pounding against the keys, playing a fast and fiery melody, while all but screaming the lyrics. Her touch softens toward the song's end, slipping into an almost piano-lounge vibe before building back up to a final crescendo of piano and drums.

"For Now" starts more preciously, with Johnston playing dainty, fluttering piano notes as she sings about longing for an unrequited love. The preciousness evolves into powerfully emotive passion on the chorus, with Johnston belting out, "One day I'm gonna make you love me!"

Johnston says that sharing such personal songs with strangers is something she's still getting used to.

"Playing [these songs] live for the first time was terrifying," she says. "Clearly, the songs are about my life, so it's very strange to get onstage, knowing no one in the audience knows who you are and has ever heard your music before, and be like, 'I'm going to tell you the most personal things in my life.'

"I still get nervous," she continues. "But the more people who come to the shows and know the songs makes it a lot less nerve-racking."

Johnston—who has the words "FUCK YOU" tattooed on the inside of her bottom lip—is a bit of a firecracker both on and off the stage. More than once she's scolded the crowd for being too loud or shushed them in the middle of a song. "If they're loud and obnoxious, my brain freaks out," she says. "Then I start saying mean things to the audience."

When she recently played the Showbox at the Market for the first time, opening for the Presidents of the United States of America's sold-out show, at the end of "For Now" she chided, "Thanks to everyone who wasn't talking. I can tell everyone in this area is pretty awesome." Gesturing in the opposite direction, she said, "Everyone in that area is ruining my Showbox dream."

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While it's easy for the quieter numbers to get lost in a noisy bar, these songs are undeniable. "Rain, Rain," both the best song on the album and the most striking live, is a spirited pop number about letting go of past mistakes (like, say, old record contracts). It starts out with delicate and bright staccato piano notes that land like little raindrops, building to a flurry of notes and the confident declaration "I deserve to be washed clean of this."

When Johnston plays the song live, she sings it with a huge, sincere smile on her face. It's a poignant statement of where Johnston is now as an artist—she's paid her dues and is ready to begin anew. Releasing the best record of her career isn't a bad place to start. recommended