It’s already difficult to remember what everyday life was like prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the chilling reality of life under quarantine, social distancing, and sporting masks everywhere you go, there was a sense of possibility. You were able, to some extent, plan for the future. For many of us, the past seven months have been filled with overwhelming stress and anxiety, forcing us to find ways to cope as we collectively struggle to bring happiness to our daily lives.
One common coping mechanism was looking to the past. Opening old photo albums, watching early 2000’s Disney Channel Original Movies, calling old friends. One thing that continues to bring joy to my days is looking at my photos and videos from a year ago when I was studying abroad. It was my first time leaving the continent and I spent four months living in Wimbledon in London, England. Not to fall into the cliché “I went abroad and now life is forever different” trope, but it obviously had a huge effect on my life and provided me with some incredible experiences that I will truly never forget.
As a kid from Massachusetts, my vacationing was limited to mostly Cape Cod and Maine, with the occasional trip to visit my Grandparents in New Mexico. Living in Europe provided me with my first real chance to do my own exploring of the world, on my own terms. Along with my housemates, I had the privilege of visiting some extraordinary places including Marseille, a few different places in Italy, Amsterdam, and Barcelona. And each trip had its own carefully constructed playlist. Marseille was filled with a good mix of Stevie Wonder, Eryn Allen Kane, and Clark Beckham. I hiked 15 miles along the Cinque Terre in Italy listening to every Frank Ocean album (starting with “Nostalgia, Ultra” of course) as well as a heavy stream of my “Straight Bops” playlist. The most exciting musical moment in Italy however was when Frank Ocean’s single “DHL” dropped out of nowhere, and if you’re a Frank Ocean fan, you know how big of a deal him releasing music is. And naturally, Amsterdam was backtracked by The Beatles’ “Revolver” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and “The Dark Side of the Moon” as well as King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King.” If you want to see some wild album art and check out some great music, that album is definitely worth adding to your list.
Barcelona was the final travel destination before the semester wrapped up and I would board a flight back home to the United States. I went with my roommate Joey, and the whole
trip had a different feel than all of the previous ones. We recently reminisced about the trip and both of us agreed that it aged like fine wine. The further away from it that we get, the more we come to realize how profoundly important those three days were to our entire semester abroad.
Sure, we saw the main attractions like La Sagrada Familia, Casa Batllo, Park Guell, Fundacio Joan Miro, Museo Picasso de Barcelona. But what really made the trip so important was that it was so innately emotional. We stayed with family friends of mine; my aunt’s old college roommate and her husband and daughter. We would wake up in a gorgeous apartment, lined with shelves full of books and beautiful art from around the world hung up abstractly on the bright white walls. A hot pot of coffee and pastries from a bakery down the block, waiting for us on the wooden table in the kitchen. And we would sip our black coffee while Walter the dog would lean up against our legs, and Frank the cat would be tip toeing across the bookshelves. It reminded me of a home I never knew. It reminded me of my home that I would soon return to, unaware of what would lie ahead. The album that surrounded it all was “Sunshine”, by Rain Johannes.
To be immersed in a place is the same feeling as being immersed in a piece of music. You crave experiencing everything it has to offer you. In this way, Barcelona and “Sunshine” were one of the same. They were the surfaces that we grounded ourselves upon daily. Even now when I listen back to “Sunshine,” I can't help but imagine Joey and I walking the streets of Barcelona, peeking our heads into every store we passed, loading our mouths with the cheapest tapas we could find.
Released in 2016, “Sunshine” is simply a masterpiece. With hints of Simon & Garfunkel, Sufjan Stevens. and Elliot Smith, it’s mysterious lulling melodies provide a hauntingly beautiful backdrop for its deeply intimate lyricism. With each note that Johannes plucks on his guitar, a different emotion is simultaneously seen and heard. It evokes feelings of loss and restitution, romance and loneliness.
I heard a few songs from this album for the first time my freshman year at Ithaca; my good friend Jamila played me the intro track “Magazine” on a car ride home from our a cappella rehearsal, and I was instantly mesmerized by the delicate fingerpicking intro. By the time Johannes first opens his mouth to sing, I was swooned. I listened to Magazine over and over again, unable to get the guitar melody out of my head. It was so captivating, so meditative, so moving. It wasn’t until my 5th or 6th listen through the song that I even bothered to think about what the lyrics were about, and I think, at least for this song, that’s what Johannes had in mind when constructing it.
A clear theme throughout all the songs on “Sunshine” is the emphasis Johannes puts on the sound and space within the song, not just limiting himself to move the listener lyrically. He so powerfully allows the instrumentation, and the space within it, to move you.
I was thrilled to recently sit down with Rain via Zoom to talk about “Sunshine” and hear him speak about the stories and the craftsmanship behind the album. He called in wearing a gray beanie, his studio headphones, speaking into his recording microphone, with his keyboard piano beside him and his nylon string Cordoba guitar that he used to record “Sunshine” behind him. It was such an honor for me to start the interview by telling him how incredible I think “Sunshine” is. With a big smile draped upon his face, he so humbly responded, “That’s crazy. Wow. Thanks man I really appreciate that. It’s so wild when people – especially people I don’t know- get so into it [Sunshine]. It’s really nice.”
A conversation with Rain Johannes:
Aaron Bogin: I feel like there’s such a clearly defined atmosphere of Sunshine, could you tell me a little bit about that?
Rain Johannes: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I feel like with both of my albums, they’re collections of songs from certain periods of my life. They weren’t necessarily written to be put together, they just happened to be written at the same so that by the time I was recording a record they were the candidates, you know? But I think the general atmosphere is more of a consequence of that specific time period and the specific tools I had at my disposal at the time.
I was going through some real, kind of, high school heartbreak from my junior to senior year and that’s when pretty much all of the songs on Sunshine were written and then I recorded them my freshman and into my sophomore year of college. The atmosphere definitely comes because they were written in a one to two-year time frame and in a very specific mood. Not all of them are about the same thing necessarily but I think the general tone of that time in my life just kind of imparts itself on the music naturally. And sonically I didn’t really have all that much to work with at the time. I had this one USB microphone and I had just gotten my first pair of studio monitors and a lot of the recording and mixing stuff on Sunshine was me hobbling stuff together and it definitely has a distinct sound to me now because of the gear I had and my skill level at the time.
Aaron Bogin: One of the things I like so much about your album is that cohesive sound. All of the guitar lines are so beautiful, and they work so well together even though – they’re clearly by the same artist- but none of them are remotely the same. And I love how at different moments of the album it breaches out of that sound, specifically at the end of “Confiding in Flowers” where it hits that electric section and in “Looking Through the Glass,” which is sort of the coming out finale of the album, and it really feels that way.
In a ton of my favorite albums you get there to that last song and you really feel like you’ve earned it. I think of “Are You Okay” from Daniel Caesar’s most recent release “CASE STUDY 01” or in Frank Ocean’s “Blonde” getting to “Futura Free” and I think that’s a really good indicator that you get to that last song and you’re like, yeah this is it.
Rain Johannes: Yeah that’s a really good point and I’ve had the same experience with some records too. It’s always sort of a letdown when you get to the end of a record but you don’t realize it until it’s over. I guess there’s sort of a special feeling with that too but there is sort of a cohesiveness too, having that last song being a cap to the record. It’s always nice having something to wrap it up. I really like listening to music in album form. I’m definitely the kind of person that likes to listen to music in album form. I’ll hold off listening to a single if I know there’s an album coming cause there’s something about how the songs are put together that creates something more for me to enjoy as a listener and when it comes to my music I try to think of that too. How am I going to put these songs together in a way that gives the listener something else, rather than just what’s in the songs?
With Sunshine, it sort of puts itself together for whoever’s listening. You get to interpret the flow however you want. I mean that’s true for any artist’s record but…
Aaron Bogin: On that note of listening to other artists, who are some artists that you love and who are some artists that directly inspire your music, or you look to for inspiration?
Rain Johannes: Yeah, I mean that’s always changing but around the period of Sunshine I was directly influenced by Nick Drake a lot because I had been listening to him throughout middle school and high school and I always loved his music but I had never really written anything like what he does. In high school I started to pick up my acoustic guitar and write songs intentionally for the first time and I was definitely drawing a lot from him because I didn’t really listen to a lot of acoustic music other than him. I really liked Joni Mitchell and Beck’s more acoustic songs, so I had somewhat of a vocabulary in that sort of music, but I didn’t get passionate in acoustic music until I started to play acoustic guitar myself. And Nick Drake is still definitely a big interest. Musically I draw from a lot of things that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to draw a straight line from my influences to my music.
Aaron Bogin: Yeah of course. And going down that line, what draws me so much to Sunshine, besides just being great music, is the lyricism, which I find so intimate. I feel like there’s a lot of personal lyricism that wades into a more diary entry style that is so personal and so raw, which I feel like is yours and there’s also like a Lizzy McAlpine or Phoebe Bridgers style which is very true and honest and clearly crafted for other people’s ears as well.
Rain Johannes: Yeah that’s a good point. With Sunshine, a lot of the songs are coming from two different places. One of them is me alone with myself trying to work through some sort of feeling, which is the more diary part of it. I’m kind of sitting with something that draws me to the guitar and it’s something to express and clarify for myself. It’s a way to put words to a feeling and ground myself a little bit by putting those words out there rather than letting the thoughts just float around inside my head.
Most of the songs I wrote on Sunshine I wrote in a class at LaGuardia called New Music. The girl that I was sort of dating at the time was also in that class and we had a lot of trouble communicating with each other and one of the ways we ended up communicating was musically, in a very strange movie-like way. I don’t know if I was conscious of this at the time, but I was really trying to be honest because that was one of the few ways I had to open up in a way that seemed… I don’t know, socially encouraged? I used those songs to put myself out there. My niche in that class was that really honest and quiet and vulnerable style.
Aaron Bogin: In my writing I find that the hardest part is actively working to not change what I really want to say, because I’m nervous about how it will be interpreted or what people are going to think it means. It’s honestly really brave to do that in a high school class where everyone is going to know what you’re talking about. I’m sure there’s a layer of fear to that. That’s hard!
Rain Johannes: Yeah it was really hard. I think what made it easier was the response I would get. I wasn’t even that comfortable with my voice, but it made it easier to be so vulnerable like that because people would respond so positively. They’d resonate with it and compare me with artists that they’d really like. It was encouraging. Even if they didn’t do so on purpose, they encouraged me to continue to open myself up because they enjoyed it, and that helped me enjoy it too.
Aaron Bogin: I’m so glad you said that because your album is such a deep breath. There are so many songs on the album that I relate to or have an ‘everybody feels that way’ kind of thing. And you narrate those feelings in such a beautiful way that even though they’re your own personal lived experiences, they’re able to be interpreted and felt by a wider audience in a number of different ways. It’s so individual yet so universal.
Rain Johannes: One of my favorite experiences about being a musician and being a songwriter is going back to something you’ve written in the past and giving it new life from wherever you are in your life now, you know? I’ve had that experience with my music a lot where I’ll listen back to it – especially if I’m going through a difficult time when I’m coming back to it – it’s nice to hear myself working through things to get perspective from my past self on how I was feeling then. It helps you know yourself better. And I think that what really motivates me to write in the first place is to get more comfortable with things that I’m feeling and work through them and try to get to some kind of understanding. That’s especially true with Sunshine because it feels like so long ago now and I feel so far away from the person I was at that time. It’s nice to look back and keep some kind of connection with that, it’s kind of nostalgic.
We finished the interview up by talking about his guitar playing, open tunings, song development, and various musical pursuits. By the time I thanked him and hung up on Zoom, I craved hearing the album once more, listening as intently as I ever have, with all of Johannes’ words in my head. And as always, it was beautiful.
“Sunshine” is an album that means so much to me. It was the soundtrack of a time in my life that was filled with so many unanswered questions. It was a musical canvas that allowed me to get in touch with my own deeply buried emotions, forcing me to be more vulnerable and emotionally available with myself. It’s an album that I’ve cried to, it’s an album that I’ve sung to, it’s an album that I’ve meditated to on long car rides. It’s a hard day. It’s a soft touch. It’s a glimmer of hope, one that all of us can reach to for comfort at such a universally difficult time. It’s the light at the end of a dark tunnel. It’s “Sunshine.”