Best of 2023: Johanna Samuels Thinks It Was an Awesome Year for Records

On Feist, Dylan Rodrigue, and Joanna Sternberg.

Feist’s Multitudes ended up being a real constant in my year. I’m a huge fan of hers. Both sonically and lyrically, the record is lush and intricate at the same time. Her writing style is super personal while she’s exploring topics that really struck home for me this year — it’s obviously interpretable, so whatever I say it’s about is just my interpretation. But I heard her trying to sit with her own personal dualities and contradictions. So much of it is about love, but it’s also about something much deeper — our human ways of engaging, surrender and fear… why we’re so afraid of those things, how we relate to them in love and in relation to ourselves. Mainly how multifaceted and braided all these elements that comprise our experiences are… 

There were so many moments when I was listening to it where I was just like, Ugh, that lyric, and then I would just start the track over to hear it. So I would get into it song by song. In this song “Hiding Out in the Open.” There’s a lyric that I sang to myself often: “Love is not a thing you try to do/It wants to be the thing compelling you.” Then on “The Redwing”: “The endless weight of our lives/Can be lifted up like wings/The underneath of our lives/An effortlessness in it sings.” She’s not afraid of going there.

I also really love this record that was put out by one of my favorite artists and writers, Dylan Rodrigue. I think he’s one of the best singer-songwriters in the writing community here in LA. He wrote this record called Entropy, and it’s this brutally raw, personal record about his dad passing away. He has this style of writing where his lyrics are really striking and vivid and he has a chord sense that’s super emotional and sophisticated. There’s almost a punk quality to his writing, the way that he writes, plays and sings without boundaries.

I really, really adore it. I’ve had different moments with different songs on the record, but my favorite is called “The Mighty Unveiling.” In a similar way to Feist (but in a completely different flavor)… there’s such density to what he’s writing about — like writing about tiny and detailed moments that end up comprising a song about mortality. I really respect that ability, to focus in on something very personal and small, but in the end the song is really about the vastness of life and death. He also has these very humorous little details in his writing. In this song, he’s kind of singing about the phases of life of a little girl, and one of the verses he says, “She’s finally learned how to say, ‘I want’/It’s all you need to order at the restaurant/If they don’t give it to you, you can cry/Now the little child knows how to lie.” It’s very humorous, but at the same time, it’s devastating. 

I also thought Joanna Sternberg’s record, I’ve Got Me, was a front-to-back perfect record. Again, totally different lens of writing style, but their style is so deeply personal and humorous and in-the-moment. Their songs feel like poppy folk songs if they were written by Buddha or something. It’s so honest, present and matter-of-fact that the songs become extremely profound. And again, an amazing musician — their chord sense is very classic and I love their playing. I’ve talked about it with my friend Ben Lee and he had this great take on it and said that the songs sound like songs that were written in the Brill Building. Just solid, stand up songs that could have been written a long time ago, but also have this very present, modern take on what’s going on. I frickin’ love it. And I’m excited — I’m going on tour with them in February!

I think this was an awesome year for records, writers and listeners. It feels like people have so much to write about at this point — the world being back to life in the way that it is this year, people are finally starting to process a lot of really complicated – sometimes painful things. I think it’s a really hard time for a lot of folks, but it’s good news for art. I really hope that 2024 is an easier year for everybody

As told to Annie Fell. 

Johanna Samuels is a singer-songwriter based in LA. Her latest record, Excelsior!, is out now on Mama Bird Recording Co.