Google the band Communist Daughter and here’s what you find: Almost every article mentions the mental and chemical health struggles that have marked leader Johnny Solomon’s life.
Aside from the graceful harmonies, listening to Communist Daughter’s first record (2010’s “Soundtrack to the End”) feels a little like eavesdropping on a therapy session. “We took six of one/ And nothing from the dozen,” confesses the drug-addled protagonist in the title track. “I guess I’ll never need another hand to stay awake.”
“Soundtrack to the End” received great buzz in the music press, but it was ultimately an inauspicious debut. The stress of the recording and touring landed Solomon in rehab.
By 2013, he had been sober for two years. Solomon began writing material for what would ultimately become the band’s sophomore LP, “The Cracks That Built the Wall,” issued in October and finally getting a local release show Friday at First Avenue.
The writing was slow going in the beginning, however. Songs weren’t evolving as quickly as they used to. Looking back, Solomon recalled, “Nothing sounded good, it all felt wrong and depressing. I think I was relearning how to write songs. And I probably still had some anhedonia left over.”
Enter Twin Cities producer Kevin Bowe (the Replacements, Etta James, Meat Puppets). He had fallen in love with Communist Daughter upon seeing their 2011 performance at the Minnesota Remembers Vic Chestnutt concert in northeast Minneapolis. In fact, Bowe had immediately marched backstage and approached Solomon about working together.
“I met Johnny right when he was emerging from a dark time,” remembered Bowe. “And what can I say? I always love an underdog.”
Bowe offered to produce the band’s next album on spec, meaning no money upfront. Why would he sacrifice billable hours with paying clients? “Communist Daughter has everything I love about great bands,” answered Bowe. “First, a great songwriter. Second, great vocals. The sound is inimitable and perfect.”
Solomon was flattered by Bowe’s proposal, but he was not immediately sold on the offer. “I was skeptical, mostly because I wanted to work at my own pace and in my own way,” he said. He also wasn’t prepared to handle the stress of working with a professional producer. “I knew I wasn’t in any shape to bang something out in a studio.”
But Bowe kept at it, eventually approaching the band’s label about recording a song at Minneapolis’ Institute of Production & Recording, where Bowe is on faculty. Solomon was pleased with the results of that session — the song “Avery” can be heard on the band’s 2012 EP “Lions and Lambs.” And he finally agreed to recording a full-length album with Bowe.
In 2014, Communist Daughter began what would become a two-year journey with Bowe. At the time, the band was in a delicate position. It had been four years since their last album and two years since “Lions & Lambs.” These previous releases brought critical acclaim and broad popularity, but the band needed a new album to sustain that momentum. “A lot of coaxing from our manager and Kevin got me working at it even if it didn’t feel right,” said Solomon.
The effort took patience. Bowe resorted to unusual methods that were both time- and labor-intensive to capture the songs in Solomon’s head. For an example, listen to the chorale vocals that dominate the new album’s opening track, “Hold Back.” That was achieved not by digital trickery, but by Solomon and his wife/bandmate Molly Solomon recording endless vocal tracks in their bedroom.
A less sympathetic collaborator might have balked, but Bowe actually encouraged the practice of recording vocals in the family home. “The alchemy and magic he gets there is central to the Communist Daughter sound,” said Bowe. “Right from the beginning I knew it would be a great idea to give him one of my fancy microphones and say, ‘Go to it, man.’ ”
And go to it Solomon did. He frequently returned to Bowe’s Minneapolis studio with countless takes to clean up and assimilate into the inchoate songs. “I think there are a lot of producers who wouldn’t feel comfortable working the way I did on this record,” said Solomon. “I really give him a lot of credit for that. This was really personal stuff and I don’t think I could get all of it done in a studio.”
The recording process also required flexibility, especially from Bowe. Solomon has a tendency for tweaking songs to the point where the final version bears little resemblance to its original demo. Ever the diplomat, Bowe insists “the artist decides” when a song receives the “done” stamp in his studio.
Once the recordings were complete, the band’s manager asked Solomon to assemble a list of his five dream mixers. Rough cuts were then sent to Solomon’s top picks.
Solomon and Bowe were surprised when the songs caught the ear of Nashville producer Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Benjamin Booker, Tina and the B-Sides), one of the industry’s buzziest names.
What spurred Tokic’s interest in the record? “Killer melodies and infectious harmonies,” he answered via e-mail. “Personal lyrics supported by clever arrangements. It’s worth a lot of listens.”
Given the demand for Tokic’s services, the band had to wait six months before mixing the record in Tokic’s studio. Despite the delay, it sounds like Solomon still can’t believe his good fortune in landing Tokic. “He told me he gets sent stuff all the time,” said Solomon. “He picked ours out of the pile because we didn’t sound like any other bands.”
What would the album sound like without Bowe and Tokic’s contributions? “Hard to say,” answered Solomon. “It probably would sound a lot more like a basement indie rock record. That’s where my aesthetic lies.”
Whatever the case, the experience shifted Solomon’s thoughts on collaboration. He no longer sounds like the kind of artist who prefers working in silos. “I like working with somebody who pushes me — Kevin did that,” said Solomon. “He took what we had and polished it and made it work. Then Andrija took some sandpaper to it and made it a little rough again. I love the way their sounds worked together.”
So it’s a good time to be a member of Communist Daughter. The Solomons are joined by stalwarts Adam Switlick on bass, Al Weiers on guitar and Steven Yasgar on drums, while newcomer Dillon Marchus (a multi-instrumentalist) has expanded the band’s sonic palette. Johnny is healthy and enthusiastic about touring. The band’s cultlike fan base is expanding. And music journalists nationwide are taking notice of “The Cracks That Built the Wall,” garnering a murderer’s row of comparisons. Brian Wilson? Check. Fleetwood Mac? Check. Bruce Springsteen? Check. Nirvana? Check.
Any yet, something is still nagging at Solomon.
“I still don’t know if I picked the right songs,” he said.
Richard Morgan is a Twin Cities music journalist.