People Eating People singer/songwriter/pianist Nouela Johnston is a true crooner. Her voice soars and crushes, hitting notes and gilding them with rich, embossed tones. Johnston can belt, yes, but she can also glide—weaving harmonies with vibrato and a softer palette. There's a storied quality to her sound. Mixed with her dark, rhythmic Vince Guaraldi piano playing, it's poignant and striking, like seeing someone you knew well from a past life in an old black-and-white photo. People Eating People is Johnston's solo project. Live, it's fleshed out with a band. Previously, Johnston fronted the band Mon Frere, then saw time playing and touring with Say Hi. People Eating People's full length came out in 2009 on the Control Group. We spoke, and I was not eaten.
What's up in the world of People Eating People?
I've been frantically trying to write the new album. I keep getting distracted by GarageBand. Why is GarageBand so easy to use? I have written four albums' worth of material for my fake K-pop Motown all-girl band. We are called Bi-Bim-POP. Writing nonfake songs is turning out to be a challenge. The goal I've set for myself is to have the new People Eating People album all recorded by the end of the summer, but, Jesus, who knows?
Have you ever eaten human flesh? If we are ever on a plane that crashes in the Andes and you need to eat me to survive, I give you permission. Eat my calves first.
I would eat you only if you had died on impact. Or if three days into it, I found out you had posted a blog post on Line Out about how difficult I am to work with.
With some paprika, my calves would be fricking delicious. Have you ever thought about a marketing campaign where you package your CD or download card with a human leg made out of tofu? The tofu would really put a spin on it.
No. Enough people think we are a metal band. Which is something I honestly didn't think of when choosing the name People Eating People. I was more worried about people thinking we were a Bloodhound Gang–esque joke band. Which we are not, by the way.
You have such a great, strong voice. Do you do vocal exercises?
I am a piano/vocal teacher, so I spend most of my days doing exercises with students. I tell every one of them that the most important aspect of singing is learning how to breathe properly. Well, and not smoking. That last one I struggle with.
How does smoking affect your singing?
I smoke, on average, six months out of the year. I always manage to quit before a recording session. For me, the more I smoke, the harder it is to produce a clear tone. Smoking makes the breaking point between my chest and head voice uncomfortably obvious. I'm basically using twice as much air and effort to force notes out of my throat. Talking about this makes me never want to smoke again. I'm an idiot.
Is there a magic tea you drink when you're recording vocals? What kind of microphones do you like to use?
There is a magic tea I drink when recording vocals. It's the Gingershot at Fremont Coffee. I swear I can sing for 20 hours straight as long as I have a steady flow of that stuff. It's amazing. Mic wise, I'm not picky. I'm too poor to be picky.
Valentine's Day is upon us. Do you write love songs?
Not so much. Love doesn't make me want to write songs. Love makes me want to do absolutely nothing but be in love. My friend recently walked down the aisle to Tom Waits's "Time." I have no idea if this is a love song, but it sure makes me feel lovey-dovey inside.
What's this about you and Stephen King's The Dark Tower book series?
I am a Dark Tower nerd. Not a Stephen King nerd, a Dark Tower nerd. I'm worried about the upcoming movie version of the books, though. Why? Because I have this Dark Tower–inspired tattoo on my arm. If the movie is terrible, I'm gonna have to get quite the cover-up. I think about this too much, don't I?
What's your Dark Tower tattoo? Is it Catwoman standing on the White House whipping a snowflake off Ronald McDonald's tongue? 'Cause I already have that one.
My Dark Tower tattoo is a hand holding a rose in front of a giant black box with "o, discordia" written under it.
You have a song called "I Hate All My Friends." How did this song come together?
Most of the songs from the first PEP album were written on the piano/Rhodes. I just came up with a little instrumental ditty that I enjoyed playing and formed a song around it. The lyrics were just a placeholder for less literal lyrics that I was going to write. But I ended up loving the idea of belting "I Hate All My Friends" over and over. All the demos for the album were recorded on a four-track with just piano and vocals, and I had originally intended to keep it that way. Then I ran into Ben Libay (Sirens Sister) at a coffee shop, and a week later he sent me my demos with drums over them. We thought it sounded better. He ended up playing most of the drums on the album. Mark Gajadhar played drums for "I Hate All My Friends." I asked him on a whim because certain parts of it have always reminded me of a Blood Brothers song. Christiaan Morris (Black Houses) was kind enough to produce/engineer the record in his home studio. He also played some guitar and bass as well.
Ever get crazy with vocal effects?
I like a little bit of reverb, but that's it. Reverb makes out of tune notes more bearable to listen to. I've only ever used reverb and distortion on my voice. Distortion for the all-girl K-pop Motown band. It just makes it sound more down, ya know?
You don't really hate your friends do you?
No, I don't hate my friends all the time. Everyone hates everyone a little bit eventually. The song was a musical overreaction to a specific incident I couldn't get out of my head.
Have you ever played nude Twister on a Twister mat of tofu? I'm just throwing it out there.
Does doing Bikram yoga count? 'Cause I love it. And the classes are mostly filled with vegans. So yes. Kind of. It's great.