Dance Moves: Rachel Alice Johnson on Kohla

We speak to Rachel Alice Johnson, aka Kohla, about choreography, honesty, her new single and ambitious live debut

Feature by Fraser MacIntyre | 11 Dec 2019
  • Kohla

Rachel Alice Johnson’s live debut as Kohla on 20 December is set to offer a small, sold-out gathering of friends, contemporaries and curious strangers a performance very different to those most will be accustomed to seeing in Scotland’s smaller venues. “It’s going to be dance-focused,” she begins. “I used to gig in Sneaky's quite a lot, it was always my first choice. Nick [Stewart, manager of the venue] called me up and said: 'We can change the staging for you and build a catwalk'.”

Johnson has changed a great deal since she was forced to step away from releasing music under her given name two years ago. “I hurt my voice, and had to see a speech therapist and learn how to sing again,” she explains. Having been accompanied by a more traditional band in the past (channeling the likes of Hole and The Dead Weather), she suddenly found herself with “a lot of time to kill. Listening to a lot of different music changed my perspective on what I wanted to do; I guess I picked up more of an ear for production listening to hip-hop and R'n'B.”

No longer focusing on playing live, Johnson “picked up a lot of different hobbies.” She says: “One of them was dancing – I started going to a weekly class.” One of the dancers she met there featured in the video for recent single T O U C H, after Johnson found herself intrigued by the way dancers “think and perform. I never thought about how movement can be part of live performance until I started Kohla; how it can enhance my songs,” she says. 

Two dancers will accompany Johnson onstage at Sneaky Pete’s this December. “We’ve choreographed the whole show,” she enthuses over the phone. “The girls are so good, they pick up things really quickly. I’m still learning, so I learn a lot from just working with them. It’s like nothing I’ve done before, and I don’t really know anyone else in Scotland that incorporates dance to take inspiration from, so it’s kind of scary!”

Johnson, who recently completed a self-portrait that will serve as artwork for her debut EP, has a background in fine art. “I’m used to incorporating a lot of different things and making it up as I go along,” she tells us. This may explain not only her amalgamation of two disciplines, but also her songwriting process. While the upcoming debut Kohla EP is a cohesive listen, it’s also a rewarding document of a period of time in which Johnson’s influences and abilities were changing and evolving constantly. The four tracks were written, recorded, mastered and released one at a time, with her latest single, _Gorgeous showcasing her current affection for “trip-hop, Moby and Massive Attack” alongside bold, euphoric hooks. 

“I’ll come up with the chords, melodies and lyrics on piano and take them to Dave,” Johnson begins, referring to her producer David Lloyd of Stillhound. “I normally come in with something quite jazzy,” she continues. “The style changes quite a bit in production – some of it is quite industrial – but it starts off organically. I listen to commercial music but that’s not what we’re going for.”

Johnson lists BANKS, FKA twigs and James Blake as key influences in her work. “They’re quite blunt,” she says, “they never hide anything with their songs. They’re never ashamed. I’m quite inspired by that, and try to be super honest.” Each of Johnson’s singles are elevated by her candour. Intimate admissions (‘feels so good when you watch me’) and playful demands (‘tell me I’m gorgeous’) become intoxicatingly powerful when delivered with Johnson’s conviction and control.

Seeking out the right musicians to recreate and build upon the soundscapes formed in Lloyd’s studio would have been a significant obstacle had label-mates L-space not volunteered to be Johnson’s live band after remixing Pxrxdise. “I’ve only known them for six months!” she laughs. “They’re such lovely people. I’m so lucky to have them.”

Kohla and L-space are both signed to Last Night From Glasgow, who maintain a 50/50 gender balance on their roster. “If you look at the whole of the music industry, not just performers, but booking agents and so on, you deal with a lot of men all of the time,” Johnson begins. “Ian [Smith] and Rose [Little] look after my music... it’s just nice having women on the team.” 

Kohla has already received significant radio play, and Johnson is appreciative. “I didn’t really know what people were going to think about what I was doing,” she says. “I’m hoping people will leave Sneaky’s thinking they’ll come [to see me] again, because the next gig, which I’d like to be in Glasgow, will be different. There’s so much we can do with choreography.”

Despite the less than ideal circumstances Kohla was born out of and, to an extent, shaped by, Johnson has been liberated by the project, and in the process she's managed to bring together disciplines and genres with sublime results.

Kohla plays Sneaky Pete's, Edinburgh, 20 Dec