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Local Music Spotlight: Rocker Vanna Oh! shows her softer side on EP ‘Sad Mode’

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 27, 2022

By Julien A. Luebbers For The Spokesman-Review

Vanna Oh! is one of Spokane’s most vivacious and outrageous rock personalities. Her music is in the grindy, catchy vein of rock that you just can’t wring out of your head. It’s outright headbanging music with the crazy cool energy to match.

Which is why the latest record from Vanna Oh!, birth name Lindsay Johnston, might come as a surprise. In creating the Oh! personality, Johnston “wanted an alter ego. I’m very Type A. I was very sheltered growing up. I wanted a separate person so that I could channel all of the crazy wild energy that I had inside.”

Before the pandemic, that’s exactly what Johnston did. “When I’m onstage, I’m in my element. I’m gyrating and moving and screaming and making faces.” With a 30-stop West Coast tour, it seemed like Oh! would gyrate her way to every willing ear in the western U.S. and perhaps farther. But then – as you must be accustomed to hearing by now – the pandemic happened.

And there is no redeeming “but” here. The pandemic truly changed everything. Johnston went from a full-time rocker to working in digital marketing to make ends meet. Not only did the sudden halt push back her timeline, it forced her to reconsider it altogether.

“There just have been a lot of big world and cultural and sociopolitical issues that have come up,” she said. “It has really made me rethink what I was doing with my life.” The times led to many a consideration.

But in particular, the absolute reliance on self-promotion and social media became a burden Johnston judged was not worth carrying. “I just don’t know if that is what the world needs from me. I love performing, but I will have to figure out a different way to do it. I haven’t figured it out yet.”

As her perspective on her career began to shift, Johnston found herself in the midst of writer’s block. Finding herself without a rock song to write, Johnston went where her creative energy was concentrated: sadness.

“That was actually a lot more natural to me than writing rock and roll songs,” Johnston said. “It’s been a sad couple of years. So, I think that this is just a reflection of the truth. And I guess I would rather be honest than just be rock-and-roll lady.”

That’s not to say that the character of Vanna Oh! wasn’t real. It was, but in this present moment, it feels different, reframed by current contexts and recently lived experiences. It is into this context that EP “Sad Mode” enters: four pared-back, stunning tracks emerge out of the hole of heartbreak and into the world.

Four tracks. That is all. Yet in such a short time, Johnston formulates and inhabits a distinct, deep emotional space. It begins with “Missin’ You,” a song so simple that at the outset, it just rests ever-so-gently on the mind.

But as Johnston’s singing becomes more animated, you can feel the music pulling on you, pulling toward something it never quite reaches. It’s the palpable and wonderful tension of lack, and it’s unmistakable.

“I didn’t have a whole lot to work with,” Johnston said of the minimal palette. The songs all began as acoustic guitar and vocals. Whatever else is there was mixed in later. “It was actually more of a challenge to figure out how to add stuff to them.”

The tendency toward less paid off. Johnston’s voice dominates the tracks as she instrumentalizes it in clever ways. On “Better/Worse,” her background vocals draw out a sad acceptance from the swaying, shuffling melancholia. All across the record, this stark minimalism emphasizes every choice, and every choice feels right.

It may not be the Oh! record fans expected, but “Sad Mode” is an immense accomplishment. It truly captures, in a way that was perhaps unavailable to the rock genre in which Johnston worked previously, the tones and textures of sadness.

“I think there’s more to Vanna Oh! There’s more to the story. And I don’t know if I’m going to put it all out there right now, but this is the sadder, slower side.” Listeners can only wait and see.

Stream “Sad Mode” now on all platforms, follow @VannaOhNo on Instagram to stay up to date on releases, and visit her website vannaoh.com. Additionally, stream the music video for “Better/Worse” on her self-titled YouTube channel.

Julien A. Luebbers can be reached at julien.luebbers@gmail.com.

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