Today’s video of the day is ‘99 Luftballoons’ from alt-synth rockers Carissa Johnson and Steph Curran of Boston based band, the Cure-Alls. Written by new wavers, NENA, the duo pays tribute to the 80s hit by staying true to the original german lyrical version and embodying the spirit of this anti-war protest song. The video appears to take place in an ominous looking chamber that feels like a simultaneous echoing of despair, angst and hope while the two thrash about letting loose to the contagious melodies of the gritty synthesizers and icy-cool guitar riffs.
The single is their second cover song installment follow-up to ‘Now Or Never Now’ by Metric that we featured in August and includes my interview with Johnson and Curran (read here).
Recorded by Mad Oak Studios in Allston, MA Produced by Benny Grotto Video by Fuel Heart Productions
Carissa Johnson and Steph Curran release a new single and video today, “Now Or Never Now”, written by one of my favorites, synth-rock band Metric. This is their first single release of a two-part cover song installment. They have been performing and collaborating together since 2016. Curran joined forces with Johnson that Summer after meeting at a Boston club, as lead guitarist, shifting Johnson’s solo project into what would become the full-band known as Carissa Johnson & the Cure-Alls (with Nick Hall on drums) and they have toured the U.S. extensively.
Curran is from Boston and Charlotte and has been a part of other musical projects such as Marianas, Breathe, The Static Dynamic, and Goddess of my Religion. Her thoughtfully crafted driving guitar riffs take Johnson’s indie folk punk stylings down a grittier alternative rock path. Johnson is from Boston and Los Angeles and is influenced by bands such as MUNA, Veruca Salt and The Sounds. Her lyrics are poetic, melodies are memorable and music is edgy with a pop sensibility. The songwriting is organic and infectious leaving you with a feeling of instant nostalgia.
This past Winter and Spring, Steph Curran and Carissa Johnson got together (both remotely and in the studio) to record this cover single. The track was recorded and mixed by Curran and the video was done by Fuel Heart Productions, Johnson’s art and media company. It captures a dark, textural and playful vibe of the two performing in the studio that makes you want to dance around and release your inner demons. I caught up with these queer women multi-instrumentalists to discuss the inspiration behind it all.
1. How long have you two been collaborating/playing together and what is your writing process? Carissa: Steph and I have been working together since Summer of 2016. When Steph joined the band I was used to writing by myself and bringing the songs to her and Nick (our drummer) and then elaborating on them all together. It was really special when Steph joined the project because it was really the beginning of real collaboration in my project – her and Nick brought such important elements to the sound that the songs felt like they began writing themselves, and it wasn’t just a solo effort anymore. Steph usually writes her own guitar parts and we work out the structure together after the main idea is brought to the table.
Steph: Since this song is a cover, the fun part was putting our spin on it and trying to do it all ourselves remotely. I recorded the instruments at my home studio in Charlotte then sent Carissa the roughs to sing over. We went back and forth on vocal production ideas to switch it up from the original. This was my first time mixing a song with so many synth layers, so it was quite the learning experience.
2. Congrats on the song and video! What made you choose this particular song to cover? And how did the video come about? Carissa: Steph and I have always bonded over our love for Metric. Their album Art of Doubt really struck a chord with both of us and we agreed that the song Now or Never Now stood out to us as one of the albums’ best songs. I obsessed over the song for a while after hearing it for the first time, it was all I listened to. The words just really resonated with me and have taken on so many meanings over time – it actually really fits well with this time during coronavirus – feeling stuck, nothing’s the same, and just that feeling of time slowing down but not waiting for anything either.
Steph: The genius of this song is in the musical nuance. The core of it centers around the same chord progression, but the band makes small variations each time the progression repeats. If you aren’t paying attention, you might not notice but put on some headphones, focus on the music, and BAM–the subtle changes are brilliant. During the lockdown, Carissa and I were talking about feeling a bit out of sorts. Both of us were sheltering in place in new situations. I’d recently moved to a new city far away from everything I knew, and she was alone in an Airbnb in L.A. We are planners and workaholics by nature, so having an empty calendar all of a sudden was a bit unsettling. I thought working on a cover could give us something fun and stress-free to rally around outside of our other musical ventures.
3. What is the song’s meaning and how does it speak to you/translate into your version of “Now or Never Now”? Steph: My interpretation of the song’s meaning is kinda like seize the day while you can. I think we all hit a point in life where we get tired of being kicked around, we reflect on our past and the choices we’ve made. We can choose to focus on the negative stuff and let it drag us down to the point of giving up or we can choose to say screw it, it’s now or never so let’s get on with it. When it came to translating it into our version, I wanted to emphasize a hopeful message since it’s been such a trying time for everyone this year. We did an extended outro repeating the words “Never” and “Now”…“Now” being the word we end the song on. Carissa: The song, to me, means facing change and growing pains at a time that’s not expected or easy to deal with. It’s almost an internal monologue of “go for it, the time is now,” and facing your fears head on, while also being emotional about past events or things falling apart that are out of your control. The verses of Now or Never Now really resonate where I’ve felt like I’ve been in a whirlwind a lot of the time, traveling and leaving places and things of comfort behind. The lines “I’m fine to sit and stare at the door, can’t run anymore, too weary to stand” and “my life is on pause, it’s out of my hands” take on a far greater meaning with the pandemic happening around us. It’s gotten far more literal now, almost eerily literal. Also the lines “to perfectly perform in reverse, there’s no way to rehearse, there’s nothing to plan” are just too spot on for how I’ve felt these past few months!
4. When did you start playing? Please share with us why you wanted to become a musician and your first instrument and band. Carissa: I picked up a guitar at 9, and started performing with my first band in high school at age 15. That band was called Left Hand Blue and we played together for about 5 years until the singer and I both took on solo projects. I didn’t venture into my solo thing until I was about 18, but had always known I’d find my way onstage as a front person, singer/songwriter ‘cause I always felt like I had something to say and to share with people. I am a quiet person and am really internal – so performing is where I can be a bigger version of myself and kick and scream the things I don’t know how to communicate any other way other than through song. It’s my own version of therapy and way of coping with frustrations and growing pains.
Steph: I started getting serious about playing guitar around 8 years old after seeing the Guns N’ Roses’ video for “Paradise City.” I wanted that life—sex, drugs and rock n’ roll along with killer riffs, cigarettes, and whiskey. By 17, I’d moved on from the sunset strip to heavier bands like Pantera and got into my first band called “Resistance.” We covered “Roots Bloody Roots” by Sepultura and I fell in love with the more physical side of performing live.
5. Carissa, you recently released two remixes by Ryan Manning that incorporate synthesizers and some different production into your music. Did this have any influence on recording this song and will you be continuing on this path in the future? Yes! I love synth. I have always loved synths in songs and bands that focus around keyboards and danceable melodies. Even more so now, I’ve begun to listen to so much synth-pop and keyboard based artists that I’ve wanted to incorporate it even more into my own music. I feel like there’s a whole world I haven’t even begun to explore yet and through the collaboration with Ryan I realized how many different routes I can take with the same song. I don’t want to create the same thing twice, or make albums that all sound the same, and after playing punk and rock based music for a while I can sense myself drifting into something entirely new and different. It’s one of my favorite things, experimenting with genre and new sounds, and discovering new artists who inspire me to stretch my comfort zone, so I’m looking forward to how things fall together musically for future albums.
6. What is your favorite dessert? Steph: I’ve been super into Dairy Queen’s cherry dipped cone lately. I have no idea what that cherry dipped stuff is–half sugar, half wax, 100% perfection.
7. What is the weirdest show you’ve played? Carissa: I once played a show at a thrift store in Vallejo California, for my tourmates, the thrift store owner, a radio DJ (god bless his heart for coming out and supporting) and a handful of locals there to see the other act on the bill, “Socks,” an older, soulful guy who I believe danced and sang to some tracks on an old school radio. It’s all kind of a blur but I remember playing the same song twice because the one person in the crowd requested it, and then locking my keys in the car and waiting a long time for AAA to find us.
Steph: One of the weirdest shows I’ve played was a “freak show” festival in Pennsylvania. During our set, a guy was swinging in the air from hooks in his back with a woman hooked to his knees from her back. It was horrifying yet impressive all at once!
8. What is it like releasing a single under lockdown and what do you have in store next? Steph: For me, the only difference is the lack of physically performing it live as a way of promoting it. We have another cover coming out in a few weeks, which is quite the departure from the original production, so I’m super curious to see how people react to it.
Carissa: It’s been difficult navigating the promotion for anything lately, but it feels good to get something out there. It feels good to be connected, and to do what I’m used to doing, creating and releasing things. It was a fun challenge for Steph and I to create this (we did it remotely while I was away in CA and she was in NC). There will be another cover TBA very shortly that will be out on August 28th! Steph and I recorded this one this past fall/winter at Mad Oak and are SO excited for you all to hear it.