Sitting Down With Daniel Johann (Formerly Known as Salvia Palth)

After Salvia Plath’s indie-rock album Melanchole surfaced on bandcamp a few years ago, it quickly  became an internet hit. Gritty and intense, the album received cult success and became a staple album in the contemporary lo-fi genre. With a sound reminiscent of Teen Suicide and Neutral Milk Hotel, it’s easy to see why it became so popular. But this singular album was all the internet saw from Salvia Palth. While the name may be retired, the artist is not. Daniel Johann, formerly known as Salvia Palth, continues to publish his work on Bandcamp under the moniker Adore 1996.  I reached out to Johann to ask some questions, and I came out understanding the music industry in a new light—
that of a cult classic artist.

Lithium: How would you describe your music to someone who just discovered you?
Daniel Johann: I make music that makes me happy and reflects my environment.

Lithium: Why is it that Salvia Palth was only a single-album project? What meaning do those songs have in comparison to your other works?
DJ: I started writing this album when I was fifteen/sixteen, and at the time I was fascinated by Sylvia Plath in a macabre way which, soon after releasing the album, I realized was inappropriate. The name was also a homage to the Teen Suicide song “Salvia Plath” from Waste Yrself, which had a deep impact on me when I heard it back then. I stopped using it out of respect for Sylvia Plath's memory, but once music gets past the internet and onto computers there is no possibility of a rebrand, really. The album is essentially a solo album, with my good friend Ike Zwanikken playing drums on a few tracks, so in my view there is little to differentiate it from the rest of my discography except a few key points: I had just started to use a new [recording] program and did not understand a single thing about mixing music, so the mix is raw and prominently features digital distortion in a way that would be both difficult and foolish to recreate. Every guitar on that album is recorded clean, without distortion, and pushed so far into the red it's unrecognizable. 

The other difference would be lyrical content. I grew up in a completely isolated area called Golden Bay at the top of the South Island of New Zealand and went to an area school with 100 pupils for twelve out of thirteen years of my education. By the time I had started writing this album my year had reduced to around six people, and I only really had one or two close friends out of town. I wrote this album pretty much entirely for those out-of-town friends, and soon after moved for my last year of high school. This is essentially what the album is about to me.

Lithium: Do you remember when you realized that album gained a following on the internet? How did you react to your "success"?
DJ: I wasn't really aware at all until last year when I found out I was owed a modest amount of Spotify royalties - I had been poor my whole life up until this point, and I mean actually poor. So finally being able to live with a degree of certainty that I could provide all the things I needed for myself was a big signifier that people were paying attention. I find it weird, but I know that it was a right-place-right-time thing. I just hope that after all this time, people will still listen to what I've been working on when it finally comes out.

Lithium: How has your music evolved since you first started releasing it?
DJ: I just try to keep it new and exciting for myself. When I started out, I was recording everything on Apple earphone mics and mixing in a cracked version of FL Studio on my dad's computer. It was all just whatever I had access to. At this point, I like to think I've come a long way—I've been studying at the New Zealand School of Music for the past four years, and for better or for worse I have a [much more] balanced and informed style of production than I used to.

Lithium: What does your typical writing process look like?
DJ: For me, the writing process must be varied—this is true in many aspects of life for me. I'm terrible with routines and rituals, especially when it comes to music. I have generally kept to the idea that a song is only good to listen to if it is fun for me to play, which generally means dividing the songs into distinct segments. I do everything by ear and have an almost nonexistent understanding of basic music theory, so everything is based on purely textural play. Functionality comes second in my opinion, with musical texture being the true driving force behind recorded music. 

Lithium: What would you say is the biggest challenge you've had to overcome as a musician?
DJ: After I wrote Melanchole, I worked on a follow-up called Winter for a long time. It was pretty far along. Then, I lost my laptop in a house fire. I ended up releasing a version that was taken from old mixes... It was maybe 60% done when I lost the master tracks. 

Lithium: Do you have any upcoming projects you are working on? 
DJ: I've got probably over a hundred [unreleased] tracks from the past four years. [There are] heaps of electronic stuff but also some of my favourite guitar songs I've ever done, too. I don't know when or how I'm going to release [those] yet, but hopefully something new will materialize sooner or later. There will also be a vinyl reissue of Melanchole in the near future, so there's something to keep an eye peeled for. I'm gonna be doing this forever probably. I don't have anything new planned for release in the immediate future but a lot of stuff in the vault, so who knows. 

Lithium: If you could collaborate or tour with any artist who would you chose?
DJ: [I’m going to] pick a few ‘cause I'm bad at choosing: Phil Eleverum, Ma$e, Brian Wilson, or Springsteen could probably could probably all drag me out of hiding, and I wouldn't be too mad about it. I'd go anywhere if mid-2000s Imogen Heap called me up.

Lithium: Who are some of your favourite artists right now?
DJ: At the moment, I've been getting back into The Lemon of Pink by The Books and Paul de Jong's solo stuff, I think it's hilarious. Also a lot of electronic music, Arca, Mesh, Lotic, Seiho, DJ Spinn, DJ Taye… a lot of Brazilian music like Elza Soares, Meta Meta, and Cornelius. I just listen to whatever I can get my hands on. 

Lithium: What is something you find to be underrated which you think everyone should check out?
DJ: I don't know. Everyone's into different stuff. I don't like to pretend that my tastes are particularly unique or prescient. Maybe I would say shortwave radio. That's pretty underrated.

Lithium: What advice do you have for new musicians?
DJ: My advice would be to be less trusting and to take control of digital distribution very early [on]. It costs very little to get your music on Spotify and Apple Music these days independently. If you can't see the person in real life, only trust them if you can be sure the deal is in your favor. Find ways to make your art sustainable, both mentally and financially—this will be different for every single person. The music industry is a minefield.

Lithium: What's the best and worst part of being an independent artist?
DJ: The best part is having no one in your business, and the worst part is how the entire musical landscape is full of hacks who paid their way to the top. That’s okay, though.

Lithium: Do you think because of that, there's a sense of feudalism in the way the music industry is built? 
DJ: It's a tangled mess of multiple independent distribution systems, all [of which are] antiquated and designed for a world that is not globalized in the sense that it is now. It's all just bureaucracy and middle management. I try to stay out of all that or do what I can myself. When I say "paying their way to the top" I guess I'm joking for my own sake a little, because this is a perfectly acceptable way to become a popular independent musician. There are so many moving parts (read: human beings with their own motivations) involved when it comes to getting publicity for an independent artist, and most of the time independent acts with mainstream/name recognition made their way there not only with hard work but through the help of well-placed promotional items and being highly connected. I don't have any hate for this, but as someone who has lived in New Zealand their entire life, the idea is pretty amusing. At this point, I just like to stay out of it.

Lithium: How do you think the system can better accommodate independent artists who have less connections and money? 

DJ: I have no idea. Especially in non-Western countries, this seems to be an issue. The only way it seems you can make money in independent music these days while still staying truly independent is by chance. I'm very grateful to have lucked out a little bit. 

Interview by James Straub