Loren Johnson: Learning in a Changing World

Change is hard, even in the best of times. Adjusting to change when a pandemic cancels your touring plans right as your career is gaining momentum is downright devastating.

But that’s exactly what happened to Grand Rapids singer-songwriter Loren Johnson. Back in March 2020, she had set out to celebrate her 24th birthday with the release of her EP, “Into The Morning,” when COVID-19 hit, and changed everything. 

“I think going through the pandemic we as a collective, we had to change,” Johnson said about the harsh epiphany she had at that moment. “You have to change. It changed worldviews. It changed lifestyles. It changed economic statuses for some people. It changed the way the world works for a lot of us.”

So this month, when she returns with the long-awaited release of her debut full-length album (on April 8 at The Midtown), the record’s title, How to Change, has more than coincidentally taken on a different, and deeper, significance.

“I actually wrote the title track to this album years ago, I think five or six years ago, and I always kind of knew the full-length album would be called How to Change,” Johnson said. “That was always just something I carried with me.”

When lockdown put everything on pause, and pushed Johnson into performing livestreams online rather than concerts in person, she stayed in touch with her longtime drummer/collaborator/co-producer Ben McNeil, and over the course of the last three years they’ve brought together a batch of songs that encapsulate her life up to this point, and reflect the feeling of the album’s title track.

“It’s funny because the hook of the song is actually I don’t want to know how to change,” Johnson said. “And so it’s this knowing, this aware resistance to making the changes that you have to, almost like a resistance to coming of age, like a resistance to growing up and seeing that the world can be a really intense, unfair place, and sometimes it’s hard to make sense of it all and not feel like just a speck of dust floating in the wind, trying not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Even after everything that happened, she now feels like she’s in the right place at the right time to release this album, even if it still feels surreal after so long.

Johnson started making music as a teenager in Grand Haven, where she ironically first met her now longtime drummer/collaborator/co-producer Ben McNeil (also of Grand Rapids acoustic outfit Deep Greens & Blues).

“He’s about 10 years older than me, and he ran a surf shop in Grand Haven, and I was 16 and I walked in there pretty much every single day and asked for a job, and every single day he said no,” Johnson said. “And then one day he finally went, ‘OK, fine, we’ll give you a shot.’ And I worked there for a few summers, and it was really fun. So to meet back up again all those years later, and to become musical collaborators, it feels like family. And he’s been so instrumental in making this album happen.”

Johnson and McNeil co-produced How to Change together with The Accidentals’ Michael Dause, and Joe Hettinga. Hettinga recorded and mixed the 12-song album, which features a long list of guest artists from the West Michigan music scene including The Accidentals’ Sav Buist and Katie Larson, The Crane Wives’ Emilee Petersmark and Kate Pillsbury, Jordan Hamilton, Seth Bernard, saxophonist Caleb Elzinga and others, many of whom Johnson has gotten to know quite personally by also working with them as a professional photographer.

“It’s been one of the most beautiful, magical, incredible experiences of my life, bringing people into this album that I’ve looked up to for so many years,” Johnson said. “And to be able to call them my friends, and to realize that it feels more like hanging out with your friends and just seeing what comes up.”

Johnson also has a long history with The Midtown, formerly known as The Listening Room, where she and McNeil performed alone onstage during a pandemic livestream, and where she will now return for her first headlining show.

“The Midtown to me is just the platonic ideal of a music venue,” Johnson said, complimenting everything about the venue from its speakeasy vibe, to its immaculate sound, original cocktails, and central location right downtown in Studio Park. “It just feels like home.”

The homecoming feel extends to the album itself as some of Johnson’s songs have changed with time.

“I think sometimes you write songs and maybe they change for you as your circumstances change,” she said. “Maybe you wrote it about one thing over here, but maybe it’s becoming a little bit more applicable over in a new area of your life. It’s really interesting as a songwriter to watch those things come to fruition.

“But that’s the big question,” she added. “How do you change? How do you change with the world moving the way it is? How do you open your eyes to the realities of how things are without becoming jaded, while still having the drive to be creative, while still having the drive to meet new people, to become more open, to expand, to let like hardships and the harsh realities of the world expand you and inspire you to do more and do better and not just board up the windows and give up. Changing is hard. I don’t want to know how to change, but you have to do it. You have to step forward. You come out the other end with a statement about this is the way it is. We don’t know how it’s going to go, but we’re here and we’re open.”

Loren Johnson

How To Change Album Release

The Midtown, 123 Ionia Ave. SW, Grand Rapids

April 8, 6 p.m. doors, 7:30 show, $25

Themidtowngr.com, lorenjohnsonmusic.com