Heartbreak is Timeless: Kohla on her debut album

Rachel Alice Johnson, aka Kohla, reflects on the personal metamorphosis that shaped her delicate and immersive "coming-of-age" debut album Romance

Feature by Fraser MacIntyre | 04 Sep 2023
  • Kohla

Kohla is Rachel Alice Johnson, an Edinburgh-based multi-disciplinary artist who co-founded the increasingly influential Popgirlz collective in 2019. Speaking from the home studio she started piecing together during the pandemic, the newly-turned 29-year-old talks us through the long period of personal reflection that inspired the creation of her debut album Romance.

“It’s such a time capsule,” Johnson says of the record. “I wrote most of it in about six to eight weeks in 2021, about six months after a pandemic break-up. I just needed to write my feelings out, because I wasn’t processing things properly. Such an important part of healing from something is allowing yourself to feel, and giving yourself the time and space to do so.”

Her self-described “coming-of-age” album welcomes the listener into a tender, immersive journey of “self-growth and realisation of self-worth”. Johnson laughs while reflecting that the stereotypical contemporary coming-of-age tale may still be seen as a film in which an American male in his late teens goes to college and obliterates his liver. For Johnson, her mid-20s proved to be her definitive time of personal metamorphosis, where she became more aware of “the patriarchy, what I want and what I stand for."

She muses: “I wouldn’t say the album is political, but the feminist themes add a weight to it.” The pain at the core of this outwardly optimistic album arrives not only from the end of a relationship, but the beginning of her seeing the world, her place in it and her own history in a “less naive” way. “Before the pandemic, it didn’t really matter that I wasn’t getting exactly what I wanted, because I was finally in a committed relationship," she says, "and as a young girl you’re taught that you reach nirvana when you’re in one!” 

One realisation led to another, and Johnson began questioning what else society said would bring her happiness. "I healed by stepping away to figure out who I was without any pressure from the outside affecting my judgement.” Nature and spirituality, along with “prioritising my own personal goals” and a pandemic-enforced break from “parties and clubs” led Johnson to a more serene headspace, reflected in the soothing sound of the album, a delicate pop offering that showcases Johnson’s love of soul music. 

Romance is careful not to let its production detract from the emotion at the heart of each song. The tranquil sonic realm Johnson and her co-producer Dave Lloyd forged together pairs well with vulnerable, heartfelt confessions and reflections that give the songs a sense of diary-like immediacy. The specificity of Johnson’s lyrics ('You kissed me to Orbital in Broadcast ‘til closing') do nothing to diminish the universality of their reach: “When I was making it, I kept thinking all the young girls are going to love this adorable album! It’s actually been reaching a lot of emotionally mature men.”

Johnson’s inaugural offering as Kohla – an EP entitled Flux – featured _gorgeous, a single with 90s-inspired production. “That song was the spark that led to Romance,” Johnson recalls fondly. “I realised I could take elements of contemporary culture and mix them with something from a different time.” Classic, uncynical romantic songs from the 50s and 60s inspired Johnson, particularly their lush, dramatic arrangements. “Heartbreak is timeless, it never goes out of style. I didn’t want to make an album that you’ll listen to in five years and think, 'oh… that’s such a reflection of the music of that time',” she says. “I wanted the entire project to feel larger than life, and to transport the listener into a different world that they could then place themselves and their own experiences in.”

Building that world extended far beyond the music for Johnson, who painted the artwork for each of the singles and collaborated with an all-female team of photographers and videographers to create the striking visual accompaniments to the record featured on her carefully-curated Instagram. “When you make really personal art it’s all or nothing with everything surrounding it.” 

Naturally, this leads to us touching on the number of roles a modern solo artist takes on while developing and promoting their work, and how disheartening it can be when their efforts are brushed aside. “I’ve got a radio plugger for the first time, but it’s still feeling hard to break through,” Johnson admits. “For example, I don’t get played on BBC Introducing in Scotland.” 

While this aspect of the release isn’t going as well as she’d hoped, the album has elevated her live performances in a way that she never could’ve anticipated. “The audiences have been so quiet and respectful,” she smiles, referring to recent shows with Carla J. Easton and Sofar Sounds. “I’ve cried at a couple of them! I played on the rooftop of a hotel recently with [Popgirlz member] Carron Miller playing acoustic for me, and we did the whole album start to finish completely unplugged without a microphone. It’s been nice to play these songs in so many different ways.” 

Members of Popgirlz can frequently be found accompanying Johnson on stages and in the studio, whether they are well-established figures like Siobhan Wilson or artists with no previous recording experience. Recent shows have featured a violinist, and Johnson is excited to note that her Edinburgh album launch for Romance next month will also feature a harpist. 

“I’m always trying to learn something new with each project,” Johnson concludes. “Romance was about production and poetry. I became really obsessed with poetry in lockdown after I found my Mum’s copy of Darling by Jackie Kay.” The Kohla social media accounts reflect this. Poems and carefully curated visuals intertwine with personal reflections to elevate Johnson’s Instagram in particular into something far beyond a simple vehicle for self-promotion. Instead, it's treated it as an extension of the record itself… an opportunity to dive deeper into Romance.

Romance is released on 8 Sep; Kohla plays Sneaky Pete's, Edinburgh, 9 Sep