joan is a duo whose bright, retro, anthemic pop sound has a sweetness and genuineness that overflows in both Alan Thomas (vocals/keys/guitars) and Steven Rutherford (drums) when they talk about their art. It’s an infectious energy that makes you want to celebrate in their growing success and share in their excitement. If you want to join in as well, you can read ahead as we talk songwriting, design, and what makes a perfect pop song:
Melodic Magazine: You guys have been really involved with music pretty much your whole lives; what kind of music were you involved with before joan?
Alan: I’ve been writing since my senior year of high school. My parents got me a little fender acoustic that had a big crack in the back of it, it was a b-stock refurb. That’s what I started doing, and I called it The Running Back, I don’t know why. It was just me, but I always wanted it to be bigger. Every song I wrote I was like, it can’t just be me and an acoustic. So then I had friends that jumped on board and that band took various forms. And then after college I moved to Nashville to pursue that band. Then after that I was in a band called Canopy Climbers and it was just like an electronic… do you guys know who the Postal Service is?
Alan: It’s kind of inspired by that. We would do everything online like back and forth over the internet. That led up to joan actually, that’s how me and Steven met. Our bands played some shows together, and we had mutual friends and stuff like that.
Steven Rutherford: I started playing in a band in junior high with my brother. It was called TRB.
Alan: Not The Running Back.
Steven: Yeah that’s true! TRB.
MM: That’s quite a connection! The Running Back and TRB.
Steven: It is! Before we even knew each other! And it was really heavy music but we were also like thirteen years old, so it was like, really high pitched screaming. And that was until sophomore or junior year of high school, and then during college I was in another band called Brothers and Company and it was like, sort of indie pop/rock type stuff. But yeah that’s how we met. He was in Canopy Climbers and I was in Brothers and Company and we were playing around Little Rock, different shows and stuff and we met through that. Because there isn’t a huge scene in little rock so it was like…
MM: Bound to meet!
Steven: Yeah! We ended up playing a bunch of shows together because there were only like four bands total in Little Rock.
Alan: To elaborate, towards the end of Canopy Climbers being my full thing Steven started being my booking agent, because he was getting all these gigs regionally, like Texas and Oklahoma and all these places that we weren’t playing. I was like, ‘dude you’ve gotta help me get these shows how are you doing this?’ And he was like ‘yeah I’ll do it.’ So I was going to pay him a normal booking fee but we ended up not doing it because we started joan.
MM: So was it through those conversations that you were like, ‘okay so we’re going to start writing together’?
Alan: I think so. Basically what happened was I think both bands- you know they had just graduated college and were trying to figure out the real world: what’s next, do we want to pursue this? And some of the band members were getting into adult, real life jobs that weren’t music.
My band, the other two members had full time jobs and were battling with, ‘we want to do this but we can’t just quit everything to do this.’
So me and Steven in both scenarios were the two who were like, this is what we feel like we’re supposed to do and were, it sounds cheesy, but kind of put here to do. And so we were like, let’s just get together and write and see what happens. And we wrote our first single take me on literally the first day we wrote together. So it was like, this is something bigger.
MM: So did you guys have any other jobs?
Alan: No not really. It’s pretty much just been music since we left school.
MM: It sounds like you had an immediate writing connection. What do you think makes you guys work so well together?
Alan: I would say that we both have strengths in two different areas way more than the other person, but at the same time we have a lot of knowledge in those areas as well. So it’s like, where I’ll have a melodic idea or a track idea for a song, Steven’s brain is already churning on where to take the storyline and I’m like, my brain does not work that way very well.
So a lot of times we’re really good at staying in our own lanes and then also veering over when needed. Like if I need help on a melody he’s jumping in and helping with the melody. If there’s a lyric we’re stuck on then I’m trying to think of the lyric. But we largely have our roles that we feel really comfortable in and we just shoot for the stars on every song.
Steven: I think what we connected well on at the beginning and what ended up being really good for us is, I don’t know what to call it, maybe visual writing or something. We started with the idea of doing licensing for film and TV music, so there was a specific- Alan says a lot that we’re searching for a feeling in a song. Like, what sort of kind of feeling did you get growing up listening to music or whatever. So when we started we were trying to get into the movie scene, like what specific scene in a movie does this song feel like? And since we do the visuals ourselves and we do all the writing ourselves, it connected immediately because it was like, this is what we’re going for, this specific scene in a movie or a specific sound.
MM: So is film something that influences you guys? What kind of films?
Alan: For portra for instance there were a couple of key scenes in different John Hughes movies. And I grew up loving any John Cusack movie that he was in. There was just some weird connection I felt with that style of film, some of it was the eighties, some of it was nineties. But I think we would take a scene where he’s holding the boombox over his head to woo the girl through the window with her favourite song and go like okay, why does that make me get goosebumps? Why does that make my heart flutter faster when I watch that? And how can we write a song that in turn does the same thing?
So yeah, I would say there were a couple of movies and a couple of even scenes or feelings that we get when we see those things. The visual and the music were always intertwined for us from the very beginning. And that goes back to even the first day Steven was throwing out band name ideas. He was like, I think joan is really strong and showed me a mock-up design of just this italicized, lower case font and I was like, that’s it. It was exactly what we envisioned the band to be from the first day. It was crazy.
MM: Alan, you went to school for drums and it was the first instrument you picked up, but Steven, you’re the drummer. So was there a conversation about who is going to be the drummer?
Alan: We held an audition at his parents house and were like alright families, let’s duke this out! No, it was easy because even though I did go to school for drums, and I’ve been playing drums since I was eleven and all through college for some reason in high school getting that first guitar and feeling what it felt to write a song and be like okay this is… it was a new feeling and a new inspiration for me and honest to goodness, that day I remember being my room and being like, I’m as excited now as I feel when I’m behind a kit. And they became kind of equal to me. So I’ve never really viewed it as I’m missing anything. It was a natural like, Steven is really great at drums and we needed a singer and a keyboard and guitar and stuff like that. It was like, I love that role equally so we just kind of landed in those roles together.
MM: Do you think that having two talented drummers in the band affects the way you write at all?
Alan: I would say both of us are thinking about the groove more than just the drummer thinking about it. You know, we’re both trying to write very rhythmically.
Steven: We definitely don’t write a song on the acoustic guitar and then later try to figure out parts. It’s very much like, it either starts with a specific sound or it starts with a groove and it all kind of works together where we’re like, the drums could be this, and we’re very on the same page with that. So I think yeah, it definitely comes into writing. And I think it helps to know what we can do live while we’re writing. Some producers might write a drum beat that’s absolutely impossible to do live, but for us everything that we write on every instrument we can do live, which is really cool I think.
MM: Alan you mentioned a few times about Steven doing storylines. What kind of stories do you like to explore in your lyrics?
Steven: I keep a list of notes, concepts, or just story ideas on my phone and I think it just starts there. Literally I wrote like five down today just when we were driving. When I’m listening to a song or I’m listening to a podcast that is a comedian talking, different ideas will pop up and I think we kind of start from those kind of concepts.
Alan: And some of it is personal, and some of it is fictional. It kind of depends. What’s interesting is that sometimes you start with a concept that doesn’t seem related to yourself at all, but then you start writing it and you’re like, oh I’ve lived through this in some way, there’s a girl I dated in high school and we went through that, or me and my wife have dealt with that in the last year, you know whatever it is. It can be really interesting. It’s really interesting when you write sad songs but you’re not in a sad place. You start to channel how someone else would feel in this moment, and I love that. I love concept writing because I think it helps empathize with other people, it helps you channel other people’s emotions and walk in their shoes. Or else it can be something that you felt like ten years ago.
MM: You guys have talked about how much you love pop music and you write great pop music. What’s a pop song that you would consider a perfect pop song?
Alan: I have been listening to Halsey’s Graveyard, I’ve listened to that song a hundred times in the last three days. Now, it’s a new one, but I think it’s a darn near perfect pop song. It’s produced by a guy named Louis Bell and he’s done Post Malone and a bunch of killer pop stuff now. And I don’t know man, every section of the song I’m like, this can’t get better. And then it gets better, and it gets better. It’s just perfect from start to finish.
Steven: Post Malone’s whole record is so good. The melodies are insane. I don’t know why but I immediately thought of New Rules by Dua Lipa. I don’t really listen to it a ton anymore but I wore that song out because I thought it was just so well done. And she’s just a powerhouse.
Alan: We are like… the song is important, but even more important than the song is who was behind it for us. Since Spotify added song credits every song it’s almost a game where you can try to guess who did it.
MM: Do you have any producers or behind the scenes people that are your favorites?
Alan: Yeah, two of my main favourites lately are Louis Bell and Ian Kirkpatrick. Actually, there’s a newer guy that we’re actually going to be working with really soon, a guy named Andy Seltzer- oh you know his name?
MM: Yeah he did Valley!
Alan: Yeah! That’s how we actually heard about him, we’re buds with them. And he’s done Maggie Rogers. And he’s just- we’ve had four or five phone convos now just getting ready to lead up to recording and he’s a really really sweet guy and seems to get our vision. He’s another like, he’s newer on the scene but he’s already absolutely slaying it at a young age.
MM: Is that normal to have that many conversations with a producer, are you very picky?
Alan: I would say not.
Steven: No, well even with us we’ve worked with a couple producers before and once you get into the studio you’re buds. But before that no, it’s usually very business-like, but with Andy it’s been not that at all, it’s been awesome.
Alan: You may have like, a phone call. I can think of two producers we worked with in the past that, it was like an introductory phone call like great, get to know each other kind of thing, break the ice, and then some emails. And if you work remote, like we’ve worked with a guy over seas, and it’s like we’re not going to see him for months, so we had to send sessions. And it was personal once you get to know them, but Andy has been definitely a cut above the rest in terms of the day I reached out and we connected over a dm on instagram and just, he knew joan and was a big fan, we we’re like ‘we’re big fans!’ Just gushing over each other, it was pretty corny.
And yeah the initial phone call literally lasted I think fifty-five minutes and I’m just like pacing around my house and we’re talking music and nerding out together, where we might take this in the future. There were five phone calls after that and we’re working with him next month. So it’s different with him, it’s a lot more personal.
MM: Any sneak peaks you can give me? What’s the vision, what are you guys going to be doing?
Alan: Basically we sent him fifteen or twenty ideas, some of them are full songs some are verse and chorus. We kind of work- we normally get a verse and a chorus and then we sit on it. We get it out of our brains how we feel it is, then we sit on it, and send it to our manager and to friends we trust and to Andy and guys like that. And we sent him about fifteen or so and then he in a good way critically went through them. I gave him no notes, we were just like here is a Dropbox folder, blank slate tell us what you think. And then he kind of gave us his favorites. So what we’ll probably do next is do some remote work back and forth as we just kind of build on these foundations. And then we get in the studio for four or five days in Little Rock, he’s flying to Little Rock, and yeah we get to work in the studio for hours upon hours until we get something going.
MM: So expect new music coming up?
Alan: Always. Always.
Steven: We’ll have new music very soon and hopefully a lot more consistent going forward.
See our live coverage of joan here!
Interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Interview by Zoe Orion + photos by Hannah Maynes.