Johnson follows her dreams, releases first EP of music career

By Zach Jensen,

Helen Johnson performs during a recent show in Decorah. (Driftless Multimedia photo by Zach Jensen)

Decorah native Helen Johnson has been musical all her life, and in the fall of 2023, she celebrated the release of her first EP containing five songs for which she’s written all the music and lyrics.

“I named the EP ‘Confessions of a Girl in Love’, because that’s what it is: Five songs that are essentially confessionals about my love life,” said the 24-year-old Decorah High School alumna. “They are all about my real life, and I liked the name ‘Confessions’, because most of them were written at a time when the things I was writing in my songs were things I couldn’t actually say to those people in real life. So, I was confessing my feelings via my songs instead. The songs are also ordered very intentionally, so if you listen to the EP in order, it tells a story.”

Johnson, daughter of Andy and Emily Young Johnson of rural Decorah, said music has always been an essential part of her life. Growing up, she remembers her parents listening to the Wailin’ Jennys, Greg Brown and Peter, Paul and Mary. And, when she wasn’t listening to music, Helen’s mother sang to Helen and her sisters, and Helen began taking piano lessons at age five.

“Music is one of the most important things in my life,” said Helen, who majored in political science, music performance and Hispanic studies at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “I always say I’d rather be blind than deaf because I couldn’t live without music. Music can make people feel less alone, connect total strangers, bring joy, be a release for stress and emotions, the list goes on. When I hear a song that perfectly articulates exactly how I feel, it heals something about that feeling and makes me feel less alone, because someone else out there has felt that exact same thing. I want to make songs that connect to other people like that. Music provides people with a community, too. I have met some of my favorite people through choir, musical theater and other music related activities. And you can connect with total strangers over loving the same music.”

Around age nine or 10, Helen began teaching herself how to play the guitar, and she recalled that was a bit of challenge, because her hand didn’t fit around the instrument’s neck, so initially, she learned some chords incorrectly.

“I started teaching myself to play guitar by learning Taylor Swift songs,” she said. 

Helen said she started writing her own music, when she was about 10 years old, but she wrote her first whole song a bit earlier.

“I wrote my first actual song with the guitar in fifth grade, but I will not be sharing that, because it was about my fifth-grade crush,” she said with a laugh. “That will never see the light of day.”

Currently working as an immigration paralegal at a small Minneapolis firm, Helen describes her niche as a combination of pop, bedroom pop, Americana and country. And, she said her style is most influenced by Taylor Swift, Lana Del Ray, The Chicks (formerly known as the Dixie Chicks) and Shania Twain.

“More recently, in my adult life, I have been loving pop artists like Maisie Peters and Olivia Rodrigo,” she said. “I’d love to try my hand with that genre — more mainstream pop — in the future.”

Helen, an All-State musician in high school, began performing in Decorah, when she was 11 or 12 years old, and she said releasing an EP was simply the next logical step in her music career.

“It was important, because in order to have any kind of career in music, you obviously have to release music!” she said. “I hardly had anything released to show people my songs, my sound, etc., so I needed to get a larger project out there in the world. It was also important to start realizing my music as fully produced songs. All my life I have performed as a solo artist with just me and my guitar and keyboard. That’s fun, but it’s not how I hear my music in my head. I always wanted to make my songs with a full band production.

“I am super happy with the EP,” she continued. “As an artist, there’s always going to be things you think you could have done better, or ideas you have after you’ve already finished the project, but for a first EP I’m pretty proud of it.”

Although the Decorah area knows Helen as a mostly-solo artist, she said she couldn’t have done any of it without her parents’ unwavering support.

“My parents have always supported me unconditionally, in everything I do, but specifically with music,” she said. “They have always been my biggest cheerleaders and supporters. They have helped me financially with my music too, which I am extremely grateful for, because making music costs a lot of money, and as an independent artist, just starting out, you don’t really make anything back. My grandparents and sisters have also always supported me and cheered me on. I really couldn’t ask for a more supportive family.”

Helen’s short-term goals include making a music video for her song “Round and Round”, building her audience through social media and doing more shows. And in the long run, she hopes to make a living in the music industry.

“One of my long-term goals is getting a lot better at music production, so that I can make songs and play around with my sound by myself,” Helen said. “And, of course, the big long-term goal is to have a career from music. I’d love to tour someday. That’s the dream, right?” 

For more information on Helen and her new EP, visit www.helenmusicofficial.com. 

 

(Originally published in the January 11 Decorah Public Opinion Newspaper, available in print and online. Certain content is presented first to subscribers (print and digital), then released for consumption later)

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