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Rob Burrowes

Meet the songwriter exploring confusing teenage emotions

Lontalius’ atmospheric pop songs navigate the strange and alienating feelings that every teenager experiences

Dawn is breaking in Wellington, New Zealand as softly spoken singer, songwriter and producer Eddie Johnston – AKA Lontalius – picks up the phone. Johnston has been releasing music on the internet since he was 13 years old, and first gained attention for his unique covers of Top 40 radio hits. His Soundcloud was littered with covers of Drake, Ciara and FKA twigs that were morose, lo-fi and slathered in AutoTune.

Now aged 19, Johnston is readying his profound and deeply emotional debut album I’ll Forget 17, swapping cover versions for his own poetically honest, diary-like lyrics. Johnston relives his painful coming-of-age experiences, exploring a time in his life when sexuality, identity and relationships felt impossible to understand. Johnston takes a journey into adulthood and learns how to understand the love of another man and how to respect himself.

Here, we talk to Johnston about the power of online friendships, conveying his sexuality in his songs, and moving out of Wellington. You can also watch his video for “Glow” below.

Are you feeling anxious about releasing an album that’s so deeply connected to your emotional life experiences?

Lontalius: I’m not really anxious about that – I’m just anxious about releasing an album. I’ve gotten used to releasing personal songs, so that doesn’t really faze me anymore, (but) I’ve never really released anything that could be properly critiqued in a magazine before.

You’ve talked in the past about appropriation – something you’re very aware of, given the artists you’re drawn towards. Can you talk a bit more about this?

Lontalius: I find it quite annoying. There are a lot of white R&B singers who used to be in rock bands, and they start wearing nice clothes and singing these R&B songs that don’t sound original. They sound like copies of black artists from America or from the UK. It's wrong, obviously – but it’s unoriginal as well. I came to discover my sound by identifying that the instrumental parts of Drake or Rihanna songs, which were my favourite melodies, were the same in Wilco songs or Bon Iver songs. They’re all very atmospheric and feelings-focused.

Did you find the security of your emotional inner world comforting?

Lontalius: Definitely. Music has always been something that helps ground me. l have friends at university who aren’t really sure about what they want to do at this point in their lives, but l’m totally sure, which is a real comfort. I think when l was writing, there wasn’t any music around that accurately depicted what l thought myself and a lot of my friends were going through, when you’re 17 and you have all these emotions that feel really important – but you also know that, in a few years, you won’t even remember them.

‘Kick in the Head’ is my favourite song on the album. What’s the story behind that track?

Lontalius: That song’s actually quite a bit older than the rest of the tracks on the album. l wrote it when l was 15. l made a really shoegaze-y, distorted version of it. l always liked it, and l always liked the lyrics, so l decided to keep it on the album. It’s not really about anything. That was made before l started writing about real experiences, but it’s still interesting hearing those lyrics, because l don’t think l could write anything like that now. It was so spontaneous.

Did you ever feel like your emotional intelligence ostracised you from our peers?

Lontalius: Not really. I’ve just always wanted to make emotional music. That’s been a big motivator for me: to make emotional music that’s relatable. (That said,) l have friends who make techno, which isn’t emotional at all, but we have the same drive to make music, which we love.

Do you find making music healing?

Lontalius: Definitely, but it can be hard listening back to something. It can be kind of embarrassing, listening to emotional songs from two years ago. It may sound silly, but it’s definitely an emotional release. I enjoy performing live, but it's nerve-racking. l make a lot of my music by myself, alone in my bedroom, so it’s also hard translating that to a live audience.

You’ve said that you’ve met some of your best friends on Tumblr. Do you find it easy to connect with people when you are not physically present in a situation?

Lontalius: l can’t really explain why, but most of my closest friends are people l met on the internet and then transferred into real life. I think that’s just the common thing with my generation. We grew up on the internet.

Can you imagine living anywhere else other than Wellington?

Lontalius: I’d like to move to Los Angeles. l’d love to work on a lot of music, not just my own, so being in a creative place like that would be really exciting, but it’d be hard to leave home. We did some shows in LA when l was working on my music; it’s such a creative environment and an exciting place to be in, where there are so many producers and studios. I met so many different people, it’s crazy. You could meet an engineer that you might not recognise, but then he’s worked with Kanye West and it becomes overwhelming.

The album explores themes relating to your own sexuality. Was that a subject you struggled to include on the album, or did you set out wanting to make a statement about being comfortable with yourself?

Lontalius: It took me a while to be comfortable with that. l started putting music on the internet, and then l became comfortable having people hear my feelings, so l was able to use male pronouns like ‘he’ and ‘him’ instead of being vague. People seem to really like that. I think it’s important. l’ve had moments where l’ve listened to music and then realised it came from a gay perspective, and l related to it a lot more and found it really exciting, so l wanted to make sure people can listen my music and can share that feeling.

It’s shocking that there’s not more music that’s honest about sexuality.

Lontalius: It’s interesting. There’s a lot of famous gay singers, like Sam Smith, but even then they won’t call their love interest ‘he’ in the song. It’s weird. l’m sure people are scared about audiences not relating to your songs if the male singer writes about a boy, but l found that if l’m more honest, it becomes more relatable to everyone. They can tell that l’m being honest.

I’ll Forget 17 is out March 25 on Partisan