If the likes of Teagan Johnston and Trevor Lang are any indicator then the future of music in Victoria truly is so bright that you gotta wear shades. The two young local musicians were nominees in this year’s Vancouver Island Music Awards, and their respective talents are impressive indeed. Both are 19 years old and fresh out of high school, but that, folks, is where all similarities end.
“For me, it starts with the words,” says Johnston, whose song ‘Devil’s December’ won the award for Youth Song of the Year. “That’s the main focus. It’s storytelling. Writing songs is a way for me to deal with things in my life, sorting through my own emotions. But I try to make it more objective so that the listener can relate.”
As her music has evolved the subject matter of her songs has matured. And, despite her young age, there has been ample time for evolution. Johnston was trained in classical music, starting on piano at age 5. By the time she was 9 she was already writing her own music. The musical journey has not always been a smooth one, however — she has encountered the occasional bump in the road.
“When I was 14 I just didn’t want to practice,” says Johnston with a smile. “Fortunately, I had a mentor who pushed me into being a musician.”
Johnston has, in fact, had several mentors who’ve helped her hone her craft as a songwriter. The most recent of these, Anne Schaefer, a local jazz vocalist, also introduced her to others in the music business, most notably Aidan Knight. With his help she was able to make her first EP.
“I really wanted to record,” Johnston explains. “After all the years of writing I had all these songs. I was a fan of Aidan’s band, so I was shy at first. But the band all got on board.”
The result was 2013’s ‘Winter’s Child’, a seven-song EP. The musical accompaniment is minimal – it is primarily Johnston and her piano. The simplicity of the songs is deceiving, as the lyrics reveal a depth of emotional insight. Johnston’s voice is assured and strong, but there is a distinctive quaver to her voice that conveys her sincerity.
“I am a big fan of Emily Haines,” says Johnston, who can also be favourably compared to Feist, Tori Amos, and even Joanna Newsom. “During recording I was listening to ‘Knives Don’t Have Your Back’ constantly.”
The EP garnered local praise, with the track ‘Devil’s December’ earning her the nomination for Youth Song of the Year. There were four other nominees, including Trevor Lang, a.k.a. Noble Savage.
“Teagan’s win was well-deserved,” says Lang graciously. “That (‘Devil’s December’) is a great song.”
Lang is no slouch himself. He is already a veteran, having played in two bands so far, in addition to his solo work. If the term ‘singer/songwriter’ sits comfortably with Johnston, finding such a label to describe Lang’s style and leanings is not so easy.
“Some people compare me to Animal Collective, especially Panda Bear,” says Lang. “Yes, they are an influence, but I want to form my own sound. I like to think my approach is more daring than other bands, a little bit outside.”
Like Johnston, Lang comes from a musical background, but in his case it is not classical. His father, Tom Lang, is an experienced rock musician who introduced Lang to the drums at an early age. He eventually moved on to guitar, with the desire to one day be fronting a band.
“In school I always wanted to get others to form a band, but they were either not interested or not very good.”
It took an ad on Craigslist for Lang to finally form a band – namely Animal Astronauts. The four-man group put out 2 EP’s of fascinating music, ranging from indie-pop to psyched-out folk. It was a great trip, but sadly it did not last.
“Ritchie (Hemphill) headed back to Port Hardy,” says Lang, “and then the others moved away. Right now Animal Astronauts is on an indefinite hiatus.”
Undeterred, Lang forged onwards, recording music on his own under the moniker Noble Savage.
“I had material left over from Animal Astronauts,” he explains, “so I decided to make an EP. There was enough for about 4 or 5 songs. But it just got bigger, so I added about 30 minutes of material and made a full LP.”
The album ‘Noble Savage’ was a solo project in the truest sense, with all tracks written, performed, recorded and mixed by Lang and Lang alone. Musically it continues on where Animal Astronauts left off, but it heads out into a sonic space of Lang’s own creation. Psychedelic, sci fi surf , indie, lo fi, dream pop, experimental — call it whatever you want. You can make comparisons to artists such as Panda Bear, Kurt Vile, The Knife, but those would just be starting points for reference . The fact is Lang sounds just as self-assured and at ease in his own sound as Johnston does in hers.
Listening to these two artists it is easy to forget that they are still teenagers, with many creative years still ahead of them. Fortunately for the rest of us, they are both doggedly determined to carve out a career in the field of music.
Lang is currently finishing off an album of conceptual electronic music. However, that is just a side-project, as he fully intends to do a proper, full-studio follow-up to ‘Noble Savage’.
“The first album was red, yellow, orange,” he says, “all warm colours. The second album will be cool – blue, green and purple. I’ve only recorded 2 songs so far, but I have enough ideas for 15 more. I should have it out by the end of this year.”
Despite his accomplishments as a solo artist Lang’s long-term plan is to re-unite with Ritchie Hemphill, his creative partner in the Animal Astronaut days.
“Together we’re like the Beatles. I’m McCartney to his Lennon. We plan on chasing a career together, full on. When we first started recoding together we were pretty bad. But we both have a finely tuned ear, and we’re learning. Ritchie has been studying sound – how sound fills a room. We want to get to the point where the music we produce sounds the way it does in our heads.” Lang flashes a grin. “We’ll be indie legends in no time.”
Johnston is no less driven, but her approach is a bit more restrained. The near future is a little uncertain, although it will probably involve some touring. Her long-term plan, on the other hand, has definite structure to it.
“I need to get some form of management,” she says, “I realize that. But I want to be ready, so I need time on my own first. I have to develop a strong musical identity. If you have someone manage you too early on they can take over, and you just become their product. I want a music career on my own terms.”
So take heart, Victoria. As good as Teagan Johnston and Noble Savage/Trevor Lang are today (and they are very good), it would seem that the best is yet to come.
And fish out those shades. You’ll need them.
Check out Teagan on Facebook or her website:
Check out Trevor on Facebook:
Noble Savage on Bandcamp: