Lindsay Johnston is at a crossroads. The platinum-blonde frontwoman for the Spokane-borne electric, ecstatic rock ‘n’ roll act, Vanna Oh!, is mulling many things over in her mind. For an artist who threw herself deeply and decidedly into her musical project and persona, Johnston isn’t sure what the future might hold and if it will even contain music and her signature larger-than-life performance style. Capable of playing guitar like Jack White or singing like one of his solos, Johnston says when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it changed everything she’d been working on. Now, what the road ahead may hold is as up in the air as a bouquet of balloons.
“I like to be in control,” Johnston says. “And me doing music, I got to be the boss of everything. Then COVID happened, and music went out the window.”
To those that follow her, Johnston was an avid touring musician. She seemed to play more than any other in and around the Pacific Northwest. But this regimen — booking the tour, writing the songs, performing, conceptualizing music videos and everything else that comes with being an independent artist — burnt her out. When the pandemic dried up every chance to perform, Johnston decided to move south.
“I’ve been wanting to move somewhere sunny for years,” says Johnston, who was born in Spokane and lived for many years in the Tri-Cities. “The Pacific Northwest is really dark and grey through the winter, and I get seasonal affective disorder.”
Johnston was going to head to California, but at the time, the state was flooded with wildfires and, so she chose San Antonio. For Johnston, there is an allure for secondary or tertiary locales. She doesn’t want to live where it’s “cool” like, say, Austin, Seattle or Portland. Rather, she likes the gritty smaller areas that one must comb through to find the right nooks. At times, she’s as much a pulp-culture detective as she is a songwriter. Now, in Texas, Johnston says she is thinking about other moves — perhaps to Washington D.C., or even off the grid entirely.
“I hate social media,” she says. “I think it’s the biggest cancer of society right now. I want to do something that no one gets to see and do it because it’s actually something I want to do.”
On its face, this decision seems like one many could make. Living in an era when so much of our lives are seen, judged and commented on, why not do something that’s out of any limelight? But for Johnston, this choice is especially significant. For years, even now, perhaps, she’s sought proverbial and literal pats on the back. But, she’s wondered, if she’s now not in search of approval, of a clapping audience or commenting Instagram following, what does she really care about?
“There are different personality types,” she says. “The one I identify most with is a person that basically thrives off other people’s approval. I’m also a first-born child, which oftentimes means you’re just striving to make your parents happy.”
Throughout her life, Johnston has endeavored in areas that she also tends to drop sooner rather than later. At first, it was piano lessons as a kid, and then it was studying the oboe and classical music through a prestigious scholarship. Later, she earned her master’s degree in education and taught Spanish to high school students in her mid-twenties. But these never stuck. In some ways, the goals she achieved weren’t ever her own. Perhaps the same goes for music and its novelty.
“There have just been things that have come up during the last year that I’m more excited about — like wilderness survival,” Johnston says. “I would love to create something and make my way for myself in a different and more challenging way. That’s where I’m leaning right now.”
Like many, Johnston has been reflecting at length on multiple things — her work and COVID-19, to name two. But she’s also been thinking about her place in a genre of music — blues-rock — that originates with Black people. On top of that, the sheer amount of time and resources she’s spent trying to succeed in the music industry may have been simply too much. Johnston doesn’t have the answers to these questions, but she is working to find them.
“The country erupted,” she says. “And I was like, how dare I do anything that is so self-aggrandizing and ‘look at me’ when people are dying. That’s a big reason why I stepped away, and it’s a big reason why I hesitate to come back — and might not.”
Being away from Washington has helped to give some perspective. In some ways, the choice to leave was one of the most important she’s made. She’s not playing music at all now. She’s dabbled writing a few songs, but that’s it. She’s working a day job and sorting out her thoughts before knowing what’s next. She’s patient.
“Even in such a terrible year as 2020,” Johnston says. “I was mentally way better than I’ve been in a long time.”
Johnston, who grew up in a music-loving household, sang a lot as a kid. She accompanied Disney movies and Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. When she began as a performer later in life, she’d practice her shows in the mirror, refining segues and transitions even before her feet hit the stage. She adopted blues and rock ‘n’ roll because it had energy, and she could find a home in their recognizable pattern. Later, after she quit teaching, she worked relentlessly at building up Vanna Oh! She released this amazing EP and a handful of videos to go along with it. Then everything changed. Now, she has the rest of her life ahead of her — all she has to do is figure out the next steps.
“I did all this work, and it didn’t happen,” Johnston says. “But it was a huge learning moment. It was like, okay, universe, touché! I’m not going to force myself to do anything right now, and I’m not going to say this is my only chance, either. If it comes back in a way that’s authentic, I can do that, rather than force it because people may want me to.”