“There was a place four or five years ago where I stopped and realized I don’t enjoy being onstage,” confesses Johnny Solomon, lead singer of Twin Cities indie-rock band Communist Daughter.
That could be an issue, considering he plays around 200 live shows per year.
“I’m in my 30s, and it feels weird to have to show up and dance around for 16-year-olds," he continues. "There’s so much more involved in selling yourself onstage, that somewhere, maybe because I got sober and older, I stopped enjoying it. There’s a part of me that doesn’t feel I need to validate myself."
Instead, Solomon finds purpose in his notebook and in the recording studio.
"The thing I really like, and will always do, is write songs," he says.
The latest batch of those songs were released on Communist Daughter's most anticipated album yet, last month's The Cracks that Built the Wall. Sitting in a booth at an Italian restaurant in St. Paul on the eve the album's release, Solomon emits an energy that falls somewhere between nervous and sanguine.
In his low timbre that's often punctuated with laughter, the singer talks about the six years between his band's debut LP and Cracks. The conversation ping-pongs between music and his daily life, where he’s taken up yoga and found a new favorite restaurant in Brake Bread -- jokingly admitting he's given up drugs for carbs.
Creating the sophomore album proved to be a slow burn for Communist Daughter.
“Maybe that’s why this album took longer -- because I knew my tendency would be to be like, ‘Done. It’s out,’” Solomon admits ahead of the record-release party for Cracks on Friday at First Avenue. “I’ve been trying to work on patience. Maybe I worked on it too much. Everything doesn’t have to happen at once.”
Technically, the album was finished two years ago, but Solomon wasn’t satisfied. So he scrapped all of the songs, except for two. Around that time, Adam Levy soothed Solomon's doubts during a chat at First Ave.
"You know, no one’s going to come and say, ‘Nobody liked 'Not the Kid,'" the Honeydogs frontman said, referring to the single off ComDot's 2010 debut. "They can’t take away what you’ve already done."
That gave Solomon the motivation to write new and better tracks, no longer burdened by expectation. The group once again hit the studio with producer Kevin Bowe (the Replacements, Meat Puppets). Solomon stressed one aspect during the recording process: That he and Molly Moore, his wife and co-vocalist in the band, could record vocals on their own time at home. Bowe understood.
With Cracks, Solomon says he ceded more control than ever, an effort to open up lines of collaboration and dialogue with his bandmates. He even gave up lead vocal duties to Molly on "All Lit Up."
“The band would argue I didn’t open up as much as I should have,” he says. “I went with them on new interpretations. If it didn’t work, I could always take my basketball and go home.”
When prodded as to whether that's a theme throughout his life, Solomon pauses and asks, “What, a control freak? I think so. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing, but it’s an aspect of my addiction. I let it come out in my music a lot more, because that’s something at the core of my being.”
Solomon is candid about the past drug use that led to the implosion of his old band, Friends Like These.
“The reason I’m so open about my past is because I’m one of those musicians that wants people to get all of the references that I put in the music,” he continues. “If you build a puzzle, and nobody out there gets it, then it’s not an interaction that I get to have. My biggest fear as a songwriter is I’m going to have this point and story, and that no one will get it. That’s the part I love the most -- the connection.”
The Cracks That Built the Wall should have no trouble connecting with listeners, simply because it conjures imagery that is both familiar and new at once. The group nurtures their inner emotions throughout the album -- a flurry of firmly struck melodies, rousing and delicate choruses, and a breathless sense of adventure.
Mid-album, on “Balboa Bridge,” Solomon unpacks many of those emotions, remembering his attempts to get sober when writing Soundtrack to the End, the band’s first album. In her subtle way, his mother would urge him to kick his vices by suggesting he move to her home in San Diego. To escape the never-ending Minnesota winter, he visited a few times.
The drive from the airport to his mother's house went by Balboa Park, which has a bridge that cuts right through the middle of it.
“My mother told me when I was out in San Diego that’s where people used to jump when she was younger,” he recalls. “They call it Suicide Bridge. The bridge always represented this thing to me: the escape of where I was, so it was interesting to hear that it was also where people went to escape from their lives. It became a song that wrote itself after that.”
With the release of Cracks that Built the Wall, it seems as if Solomon has finally let go of the many ghosts that have haunted him. Or perhaps he’s finally learned to embrace them, depending on how you look at it. The album's title really says it all.
“I had to live that life to be happy with who I am now,” he concludes. “I look back, and I think, ‘I don’t understand what I was looking for so much [with alcohol and drugs].’ It was right around me this whole time. You want to hear that there’s some magical thing that will change your life. You just have to live it.”
With: Alpha Consumer, Fraea, Catbath
Where: First Avenue
When: 7 p.m. Fri., Nov. 11
Tickets: $10-$12; more info here