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Since 2014, unsigned artists and bands from across the country have entered NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest, vying for a chance to perform at the Tiny Desk and go on a national tour with NPR. We’re highlighting three local entrants to this year’s contest, starting with Oh He Dead, a five piece indie soul group.
The band started out as a folk duo consisting of singer Cynthia “CJ” Johnson and singer/guitarist Andy Valenti. As the group expanded to include Alex Salser (lead guitar), John Daise (bass) and Adam Ashforth (drums), Oh He Dead began chasing a groovier sound. CJ maneuvers her powerful voice — a combination of Stevie Nicks and Tracy Chapman, according to Kojo — across folk-inspired ballads and funkier soul pieces.
We sit down with Oh He Dead to talk about their creative process (involving a cabin in Leesburg, Virginia), their thoughts on the D.C. music scene (are we too obsessed with cover bands?) and what’s next for the self-described “rock ‘n soul” band.
Produced by Mark Gunnery and Cydney Grannan
- Oh He Dead An indie soul band from Washington, D.C.; @ohhedead
KOJO NNAMDINPR Music's Tiny Desk concert series features some of the biggest names in music. And each year, NPR holds a contest where unsigned artists can win a chance to perform their own Tiny Desk concert. Many outstanding bands from the region entered, and we're featuring a few of them before NPR announces the national winner next week. Today, it's my pleasure to sit down with one of the grooviest bands in D.C., Oh He Dead.
KOJO NNAMDIAndy, who all is in Oh He Dead?
ANDY VALENTISo, Oh He Dead is a five-piece band. We're all members that live in the D.C. area. Our lead singer is Cynthia Johnson. We call her CJ, for short. Alex Salser is our lead guitarist. John Daise plays bass and Adam Ashforth on drums, and then I'm Andy Valenti.
NNAMDIHow'd the group first get started?
VALENTISo, we started back in 2015. I had a mutual friend introduce CJ and I. It was kind of an arranged marriage. (laugh) My friend Claire taught CJ in high school, so I met CJ when she was 18. And I was in a rock and roll band, wrote these, you know, soulful rock songs. And Claire came to my show and basically thought, this guy writes really soulful music. This girl should be singing these songs. And I was offended at first, and then I heard CJ's voice, and then I thought, you're right.
VALENTIAnd so CJ and I have been together since, like, 2015, and over the last three years, have been acquiring the other members in the band. First Alex, on guitar. CJ and I were at a show and Alex was playing and we were sitting on the side stage. And we just kind of looked at each other and made eye contact and said, we want that guy. So, we grabbed Alex. And then we were really fortunate to scoop up John and Adam within the last year.
NNAMDISo, CJ, tell me about your first meeting with Andy. How did that go?
CYNTHIA "CJ" JOHNSONWe actually met at Claire's house. I had gotten home from college in the summertime. College was done, summer break. And she was, like, come over, I want you to meet this guy. I met him on H Street. He's in a band, but he's really cool. I think you guys should meet. And I get there, and I was a little nervous. I was like, oh, I don't know this guy. I don't like meeting new people, sometimes. (laugh) And I think we actually worked on one of your songs, Andy. He had a song, I think we -- was it "Blood in the Water"? Okay. We worked on "Blood in the Water," which he had wrote. And he was, like, try to do some harmonies on these songs, and I was, like, okay.
CYNTHIA "CJ" JOHNSONAnd when we started singing together, we just -- amazing. It was kind of like we didn't even need to, like, practice or anything. Like, it just instantly, it was a click. So --
NNAMDIWell, you mentioned you worked on one of his songs. That's because you had songs of your own.
NNAMDIYou had started writing songs even, I suspect, before you went to Caesar Chavez.
JOHNSONYeah. I picked up the guitar when I was around 12, taught myself how to play. Down the line, and when I started getting better, I just started writing my own songs.
NNAMDIAnd, Alex, when you joined the group, that was when the group was still essentially doing a kind of folk-country.
NNAMDIWas switching from folk to R&B and soul a pretty drastic transition? What was it like to switch gears creatively?
SALSERCreatively, it felt actually, like, very natural. You know, I had listened to some of their songs, and we started, I guess, writing more R&B-type influenced songs. And it just felt like when we added more people and more, you know, sort of maybe jazz-based musicians from D.C. that we met, it just like -- it just worked. And I thought it really highlighted CJ's voice. And it seemed like when we kind of have been playing, that everyone just feels, like, really happy when we play. And I don't know if that was around the same time as I transitioned, but it did feel, like, very easy.
NNAMDIHow was it for you, Andy?
VALENTIIt's been really fun to kind of observe the transition. I think a big impetus was we'd play these live shows, and the folk songs would hit home. There would be this kind of group movement in the audience when we played some more, like, upbeat songs. And most recently, we had a show at Union Stage down on the Wharf, one of the new venues, this really cool venue. And I had a couple friends there, and a friend came up to me afterwards and was, like, did you know that people in the audience were grinding to your music? And that blew my mind, because I --
NNAMDIYou mean people weren't grinding when you were doing folk?
VALENTI(overlapping) Not when we were doing folk-country, no. You know, that's what I was hoping. No, I'm kidding. (laugh) And that just kind of blew my mind. I was, like, okay. I guess we're chasing this path now, and it's just been really fun. It's fun to play. It's fun to perform, and I think that translates to a good audience experience.
NNAMDICan you and CJ sing for us part of a folk song that you used to perform?
NNAMDICJ, you have a powerful voice. Which singers influence you? Just listening to you, it's like if Stevie Nicks and Tracy Chapman had a daughter, it would probably be you. (laugh)
JOHNSON(laugh) Oh, that's funny. I was actually talking about this earlier today. Actually, Stevie Nicks is definitely a woman I look up to. I listen to her music a lot. I listen to Fleetwood Mac. Someone else would definitely be Sade. If I could somehow, you know, if I'm channeling something or someone, it'd probably be a mixture of them two, with Stevie Nicks voice and soulful music. Yeah, that's probably my two women, right there.
NNAMDIAlex, which musicians influence you?
SALSERIt's hard to say, but the album that I learned to play guitar from was "Eric Clapton Unplugged." My dad had it, which is funny, because I was, like, we put some videos online. Everyone keeps saying I look like Eric Clapton. So I don't know if that's just, like, a self-fulfilling prophecy. But, yeah, Eric Clapton is, like -- that's the album I think really hit home, is acoustic kind of blues music. So, I don't know, any of the old blues guys would be my --
NNAMDII'm not going to tell you how old I am, but when I first listened to Eric Clapton, he was with Cream, with Ginger Baker on drums. (laugh) That was just a little while ago. How about you, who influenced you the most, Andy?
VALENTIYeah, I grew up on some really good classic rock. I'm from New Jersey, so there was a lot of Bruce Springsteen played in my house, a lot of Beatles, and just radio. I listened to a lot of radio, and I had kind of a strange brain when I was a child. I just cataloged lyrics to, like, every song I'd hear. And so I'd go to friends' houses and have sleepovers when I was, like, five or six years old, and sing all of the words to, like, an R.E.M. song. And I remember at one point, my aunt called my mom after a sleepover and was, like, something's wrong with your child. Why does he know all of the lyrics to "Losing My Religion" at age five? So, a lot of radio, and I think that kind of translates to the kind of pop sensibilities that we try to infuse.
NNAMDIAlex, your background is as a jazz guitarist. What drew you to join Oh He Dead?
SALSERWell, really, these guys just talked to me after a show, (laugh) and they literally were, like, hey, you know, we might need a guitar player at some point. Want to meet up and rehearse? And, you know, I heard CJ and Andy sing harmonies together, and I was, like, it was very captivating. So, I figured I would play a show with them and see how it went. And immediately, I think the first show I played was at Boundary Stone, which is a bar somewhere in D.C. And I decided, like, I had such a great time, it just felt like it was really electric. Everyone was just -- and, you know, from there, it was like, all right, this is my project.
NNAMDIAndy said he's from New Jersey. I know CJ's from D.C. Where are you from?
SALSERI grew up in Reston.
NNAMDIOh, so you're from this region.
SALSERYeah, this region.
NNAMDIHow about the other band members, Andy?
VALENTIYeah, John is from Maryland, and Adam is from Virginia, as well. So, all within the region.
NNAMDISo, in a way, Oh He Dead represents D.C., Maryland, Virginia and some outsiders. (laugh)
JOHNSON(laugh) One outsider.
VALENTIYeah, one outsider. (laugh)
NNAMDIHow did the sound of the group change when it became more than just you, Andy, and CJ?
VALENTIYeah, it became way groovier as time went on, starting with Alex, who's a brilliant guitarist, but don't tell him I said that, because I don't want it to go to his head. (laugh) But we added Alex, and then John and Adam, all guys who have jazz backgrounds. And when we would kind of work out some of the songs, we purposely created a little more space in the songs and tried to find a groove. So, we try to keep the soulful harmony aspect of the folk style music that we played. And now kind of deconstruct all the songs and rebuild it back up with something really groovy, something that makes you kind of bob your head to.
NNAMDIIs there a phrase that you can use to describe Oh He Dead's sound?
VALENTIWe've used the phrase rock'n soul before. We tap into a lot of genres. You might call it indie soul. You might call it, you know, R&B-infused funky rock. We don't really care what you call it, as long as you listen to it. (laugh)
NNAMDIYeah, one article I read described you as indie soul. CJ, Oh He Dead, that's a memorable band name. (laugh) What's the story behind it?
JOHNSONSo, one day -- this is still when me and Andy were, like, still getting to know each other -- I came to him with this song called "Better Than You." And it's pretty much about me dating this guy, and walking in on him cheating on me. And I grab my gun and I shoot him. It's a very beautiful song. (laugh) And, Andy goes, whatever happened to that guy in the song? And I went, Oh He Dead. (laugh)
VALENTIOh He Dead, with a straight face. (laugh)
NNAMDII'm beginning to think this is an absolutely true story. (laugh) I'm looking for a dead body somewhere.
VALENTIRight. We've never confirmed or denied, but if something washes up in the Anacostia -- (laugh)
NNAMDIAt the top of the show, we heard your song "This Time Around." What's the story behind that song?
JOHNSONThat song is actually about my dad, who I love very much. Love you, dad. We've had some bumpy times through our relationship, and that was just one of my outlets of one of our times, pretty much. So --
NNAMDIHas your dad heard the song?
NNAMDIOh, good. Glad you're still getting along.
JOHNSON(laugh) My dad has heard the song.
NNAMDIYou guys also created the stunning, single-shot music video which follows CJ around what looks like an abandoned warehouse with office space. How did you come up with the idea for the music video?
VALENTIIt was a total accident. We have a second music video called "Blood in the Water," which we shot in that same warehouse. We had planned out an entirely different shoot, and we had hired actors and bought all of these props. And, last minute, one of the actors bailed on us. And so, we were forced to kind of look at it ourselves and think, you know, we've either lost the money that we spent on this warehouse and these props, or we could spend a little bit of time and try to come up with something.
VALENTIAnd it happened to be this really fascinating, like, (word?) this space in Baltimore that we were recording, and had all of these really weird office spaces in it. And every room was, like, vastly different from the previous room. And so, we thought, you know, what if we just followed CJ around? And CJ really came into her own for that specific performance. She really owned the camera and kind of took on an alter ego that we're calling JC. It's the opposite of CJ, because she's really actually quite quiet and soft-spoken. So, she really nailed it, and that video came together. I think that was the second shot, and it literally took us about an hour to put that whole thing together. And it's done way better than we hoped it would, so it's turned out to be a cool story.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break in a minute, but before we do, tell us about the next song we'll hear, called "The Situation."
JOHNSONI wrote that song when I was, like, 15 or 16, in high school.
NNAMDIYou were a sophomore, I heard.
JOHNSONYeah. (laugh) I was going to Caesar Chavez, and I had the hugest crush on this guy, and I definitely told him I had a crush on him. And I won't tell you how that situation played out, but -- (laugh)
NNAMDIOh, come on. (laugh)
JOHNSON(laugh) Just know that --
NNAMDIInquiring minds want to know.
JOHNSONHe had a little game -- he had some games going on. (laugh) And I had wrote that song about his game.
VALENTIAnd that song actually took us a really long -- we all loved the lyrics of the song, but it took us like -- I, like, didn't want to put it on set lists, because I was, like, I love that the lyrics are kind of like childish and playful, yet, you know, they're really meaningful, and we have to get this arrangement right. So, it took us about a year. And then once we got it, I think we all, like, really, really love it. So --
NNAMDIWell, hopefully that guy's still alive. (laugh)
JOHNSONI don't know.
NNAMDII'm speaking with Andy Valenti, Cynthia Johnson and Alex Salser from the D.C. band Oh He Dead. They're one of the local entrants of NPR Music's Tiny Desk contest that we're highlighting this week. We'll hear more about the D.C. music scene and listen to more of their songs after a break.
NNAMDIWelcome back. I'm talking with Cynthia Johnson, Andy Valenti and Alex Salser from the band Oh He Dead. They're a D.C.-based band playing rock'n soul. They're one of the local entrants of NPR Music's Tiny Desk contest. What kind of challenges do you face as a band in D.C.?
SALSERYou know, I feel like we've been -- D.C. has been, like, very good to us, like, over the last year or two. It seems like the scene is, like, really blossoming. We found, like, a lot of venues to play. I guess overplaying sometimes, like, keeping an audience going is a challenging thing, but, overall, like, you know, growing up in the D.C. area, I guess I didn't have like -- I always thought I needed to move away to play music. And now we're all, like, so excited to be here and playing. And, I don't know, I'm just, like, so proud to be a D.C. musician.
NNAMDIYou're from New Jersey. How does it feel?
VALENTIYeah, it's been a very welcoming community. I think we've made a lot of really strong friendships and built really great relationships with other musicians. And, you know, I'm constantly texting and hanging out with people in other D.C. bands. And it feels really collaborative, in that way. You know, one thing I will say is D.C. has embraced our music a lot, but D.C. really loves its cover bands. And there's a couple really good cover bands in the area. And this is a challenge out there for the D.C. listeners. Go out and watch some of the original music. There's some really great original music in D.C. And I need the original musicians in D.C. to be selling out the 9:30 Club like some of the cover bands are.
NNAMDIWhy do you think these cover bands have such a loyal following and other bands don't?
VALENTIThere's a quote from the TV show "The Simpsons" about cover bands, which I think speaks really well to it, which is that Homer forms a cover band in the episode. And he said, cover bands, it's the excitement of live music without any of the fear of hearing something new. And so people want to hear something that they're used to, and they don't want to step outside their comfort zone. But, again, I'd like to challenge people to come check us out and come check out some of the other great bands that are playing in the area.
NNAMDII'm going to stop saying that you're from New Jersey, because it's my understanding that you now feel like a D.C. native. Is that so?
VALENTIYeah, I moved here in 2011, and I feel as much that D.C. is my home as any other place.
NNAMDIWell, CJ, D.C. is your home, has always been your home. What challenges do you see being in a band in D.C.?
JOHNSONI will say this is my first band, so I don't have much experience, like these guys do.
NNAMDIHow much are you enjoying it?
JOHNSONI love it. It's very different, because we all come from very different backgrounds. And just being in D.C. and, you know, seeing the changes, like, it feels good to know that something like this, like this band is still, like, possible and can work. Like, I don't know about you guys, but I do feel like, you know, kind of like breaking barriers here, with this band.
NNAMDIYou get to play your own music. You don't have to cover anybody else's music. (laugh)
JOHNSON(laugh) I don't have to cover anybody else's music.
NNAMDISo how do you all balance your day jobs with your music pursuits, Alex?
SALSERI'm fortunate enough to just mostly do music-related things. I teach guitar at American University and then...
NNAMDII've heard of it.
SALSERYeah, so I guess it's affiliated with this. So that's what I do one day a week. And then I teach other -- and so everything in my life, I guess, is music-related which has been really fortunate, because I have a lot of mornings free to rehearse. So I sort of schedule my whole life around music.
VALENTIMine's real easy, because I'm unemployed. (laugh) Partially by my own will, partially not, but I worked at different tech startups. The last one I was working for wasn't doing very well and laid off about half their staff. But I've made a conscious decision to not look for work again, because the band is starting to get to a place where we can do this full time. And so my hope is that it becomes our full time endeavor and that all of the other guys have to quit their day jobs at some point soon, too.
CYNTHIA “CJ” JOHNSONI'm also, like Andy, unemployed, but (laugh) I was a bartender. So it was kind of hard, because, you know, bartenders make most of their money on the weekends and most of our shows are on the weekend. So it was kind of like I'm doing this one for the band. (laugh)
NNAMDIWell, you've got an album coming out in July. Tell us about it. Is it full of your trademarked rock'n soul sound?
VALENTIYes, indeed. I think it spans a lot of genres. It's a really good kind of combination of songs that we've written over the last four years or so. And for songs like "The Situation," some songs that CJ or I have had in our back pocket for a while that we were kind of waiting for the right time to show it. And we're recording at a studio called Ivakota, which is in southeast D.C. which is one of the few studios that's in D.C. proper, run by a guy named Ben Green who's just phenomenal. And we were just in the studio yesterday finishing some of the tracking and mixing some of the songs. And we're really excited about how they're sounding.
NNAMDIBecause listening to that and the fact that you're going on tour, it's my understanding, suggests to me that you're not really unemployed. You're employed, but you're just not always compensated for it. (laugh)
VALENTII'm definitely not bored.
NNAMDITell us about the tour that you're going to be going on.
VALENTISo we're going to tour up and down the east coast in July right after we kind of release our album, to support the album. Then we're going to go up all the way to Burlington, Vermont. We're going to hit all the kind of main cities up and down on the way back, including my little hometown in New Jersey. So excited for that one.
NNAMDIWhat is your hometown in New Jersey?
VALENTIIt's a little town called Stillwater, New Jersey. Our claim to fame is that we're the only town in New Jersey that has no traffic lights. (laugh) So --
NNAMDISounds like a good time to me. (laugh)
NNAMDIAlex, some of your favorite local artists?
SALSERI think -- I feel like I speak for all of us. A band that, like, really inspired us and we played a couple shows with, is a band named Novo. They're like a jazz funk kind of weird band that we all like. And another band that I just, like, love is the Messthetics.
NNAMDIHow about you, CJ?
JOHNSONThis person's not a band, but I definitely love Carly Harvey. She's definitely a soulful singer around D.C. and Juxt, a cool -- what would you call them -- like indie rock band. They're pretty cool too. (laugh)
NNAMDIHow about you, Andy?
VALENTII like all those guys. I'll throw out the name Reed Appleseed. He's a folk singer songwriter, who writes just like insanely memorable provocative lyrics. And he's got a ridiculous voice.
NNAMDIFavorite venues, either to listen to music or to perform yourself.
VALENTI9:30 Club for both. We were fortunate to play there twice and we can't wait to get back. And I think DC9 for me for the other one. It's a smaller venue but a really great sound system. And it's a lot of fun to play.
NNAMDIHow about you, CJ?
JOHNSONI definitely -- I'm going to have to throw the pie shop in there, Dangerously Delicious. We definitely had a nice little time there actually yesterday. And it was actually pretty nice. And I go DC9 as well, sorry Andy. (laugh)
NNAMDIHow about you, Alex?
SALSERYeah, I think we're all DC9 fans but, yeah, if I had to pick another one, I don't know, classic Black Cat is still probably my favorite to go see shows at.
NNAMDIAnd you probably grew up going to see shows at Black Cat.
NNAMDIFinally, we want to hear "Lonely Sometimes," the song you performed for the Tiny Desk contest. This song has over 28,000 views on YouTube. How'd you write this song?
JOHNSONWe actually took some time away from D.C., went down to West Virginia, stayed in a cabin and as a band, collectively wrote 'Lonely Sometimes." And it was actually an amazing process, because it was actually one of the first songs we've ever written all together. So it was something magical. (laugh)
NNAMDIBut this is a song that really grooves, however it's about being lonely. How come that combination? Because I hear that song and, well, your aforementioned grinding comes to mind. No, no. (laugh)
JOHNSONWell, we actually built this -- I believe the rhythm of the song was built up first so Alex came with this great guitar riff that he had. And we kind of all built around that and then came the lyrics of being lonely sometimes.
VALENTIYeah, I think I -- so I wrote some of the lyrics to the hook and it was a Sunday evening. And I think everybody gets a case of the Sunday scaries from time to time. And I was just kind of mumbling stuff and then that came out. And then it felt like it fit and it was kind of a nice kind of juxtaposition to the kind of groovy riff. And then CJ came up with the verse lyrics, I think, probably in like two minutes, like, we watched her write it all out in, like, two minutes and we're like, all right, well (laugh) let's just do that then.
NNAMDIWhat was your role, Alex?
SALSERWell, this song actually means a lot to me. Well, both the A part and the B part, there's like a minor part and then a major part of the song. And there had been two sitting -- like two different riffs on my computer for over a year and I couldn't figure out what to do with them. And then one day I was like, I'm putting both of these together and I'm going to see what happens. So basically it's just two songs that I couldn't do anything with. And then when I put them together and sent them to Andy and CJ, they both really liked it and I was like, man, that was way easier than I thought it was going to be.
NNAMDIThe cabin that CJ mentioned, I saw it in your performance for the Tiny Desk video. What's up with the cabin?
VALENTISo two different...
NNAMDI(unintelligible) apparently in West Virginia, right?
VALENTIYeah, two different places (unintelligible).
NNAMDI(overlapping) Oh, it's at two different places.
VALENTIYeah, the cabin is where we went to write the song. The place where we filmed the video is a place called the Lilly Pad, which is a barn that Alex's family owns out in Leesburg, Virginia. And I'll let Alex kind of explain the story of that.
SALSERYeah, so it's a -- my parents have this barn in their backyard basically that was looking kind of shabby. It's probably from the late 1800s, early 1900s. My brother and I kept looking at it thinking, like, this would be an amazing recording studio, and he's an architect. So then one day we just basically took down the building and built a new building inside and put the old wood back on. So we have kind of our like little recording studio out in Leesburg. And we actually -- I didn't think anyone would want to go out there, especially in this band, but they, like, come out every week and we practice. And so it got them out of D.C. to experience the barn. (laugh)
NNAMDIAre you hoping that space can be a resource for other local musicians?
SALSERYeah, like we're starting to do some more projects and I would love it to be a place where we can film a bunch of different videos for, you know, just artists that we like, artists that aren't on record labels or that, you know, no one's, you know, I don't know, supporting, classical music, jazz music. So we want it to be a space that is welcoming to everybody.
NNAMDIWell, I'd like to thank you all for coming to our converted barn here (laugh) and for performing in this space. CJ, thank you very much.
NNAMDIAndy, thank you.
VALENTIThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlex, thank you. This segment was produced by Mark Gunnery and Cydney Grannan. As we go out we're listening to the song "Lonely Sometimes" by the D.C. band Oh He Dead. You can listen to all of the songs we recorded with Oh He Dead at KojoShow.org. And you can also read about all the bands we're featuring this week, who entered NPR Music's Tiny Desk contest at DCist.com. Join us back here tomorrow at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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