After almost a decade of steady touring and hustling to make their harmonious indie-rock group Communist Daughter one of Minnesota's great shoulda-been bands, Johnny and Molly Solomon just wanted to get off the road and live in isolation for a while.
"Little did we know that every musician would be forced into the same boat," Johnny Solomon said.
The married musicians also didn't foresee just how isolated they'd be — that their new home would literally be "off the road" — when, in 2019, they started looking for a high-need area for Johnny to take a counseling job helping fellow addicts and alcoholics clean up.
Suffice it to say the Solomons are the only Twin Cities bandleaders promoting a new album this spring from 30 miles above the Arctic Circle in Kotzebue, Alaska, a town of about 3,000 people that has no roads coming in or going out.
"I kept looking farther and farther north and waiting for Molly to say, 'OK, that's far enough,' " Johnny remembered.
The singing partners traded a tour van for travel by bush planes. Not long before heading to Alaska, though, they made one last go-round in the studio with their bandmates for what they knew would be Communist Daughter's farewell record — or "at least the last one in the tradition of the band we were before," Johnny said.
Titled "Unknown Caller," the 11-song collection is the most bittersweet yet by a rock group that made a high art of melancholic melodies and longing, nostalgic lyrics.
"I wrote a lot of this record our last month living in Minnesota, so a lot of it is a goodbye love letter," Johnny recalled in a phone conversation with him and Molly last month from his mom's place in San Diego — their first trip out of Alaska since the pandemic started, and a rare chance to enjoy good cell service.
The couple had initially moved to San Diego. In fact, Molly said she only agreed to go so far north "because it was around the holidays, and I was feeling extra-depressed not being around any snow in California."
Teaming with Minneapolis producer Kevin Bowe (Paul Westerberg, Joyann Parker), they flew from California to Minnesota several times to record with the band before heading north.
So it's not surprising to hear lyrical references to moving on, starting new lives, etc., throughout "Unknown Caller."
"Packed up, and I moved out," Johnny sings right away in "Living With Your Ghost," a somber start to the farewell album — and a song whose music video shows scenic footage from the Solomons' new life in Alaska.
At the same time, the band audibly relished its last hurrah. Tracks range from a bouncy boy/girl romance song ("You'll Never Break My Heart") to a wistful ode to a miserable first apartment ("Leave the Records On") to the dreamy "Make Believe," an obvious tribute to the group Solomon has proudly fronted since 2009:
How could you really leave? How could all of this be done? We were killers, we were young. We were stuck behind the sun.
Communist Daughter formed after the tumultuous end of Johnny's rowdier band Friends Like These in 2007, when the singer was jailed on drug-related charges and tried to sober up.
His first attempts didn't take. After a messed-up performance of the Beatles' "Golden Slumbers" at First Avenue in 2010, Solomon checked himself into the Hazelden Betty Ford facility in Center City, Minn., and finally got hold of his demons. He felt triumphant enough to regularly return for the addiction center's HazelFest concerts.
Even as his band continued to earn hints of bigger things — touring with Jason Isbell, recording with Alabama Shakes producer Andrija Tokic, landing the regional hit "Not the Kid" — Solomon felt the pull of Hazelden. He enrolled in its graduate program to become a full-fledged counselor.
"Johnny's dedication to his new life can never be questioned," Communist Daughter guitarist Al Weiers said.
While other bandmates have left town, too — drummer Steven Yasgar and bassist Adam Switlick both moved to Denver — Weiers boasted that the still-tight-knit group "could meet up and start a tour tomorrow if we needed to." But he sounded equally proud of Johnny and Molly's brave decision to start over.
"It was exciting for us, not only to see Johnny's continuous actualization," he said, "but then when I found out where they actually were going to be, I was amazed.
"You can almost see Russia from there!"
Kotzebue is "the big city" among the most remote outposts of northern Alaska, with a heavy population of Iñupiaq people and other Indigenous residents, the Solomons explained.
Johnny frequently flies to other towns and fishing villages where addiction and alcoholism rates are among the highest in the country, partly from the lack of easy access to help.
"People can't go to a local AA meeting or group things when your town only has 100 people," he explained.
"The [COVID] pandemic has actually helped in a way, because it's really improved all the tele-health options everywhere. The rural Alaska population can finally participate in some of these programs now."
It was a hard adjustment for the couple, of course. The hardest part was actually the endless summer days when the sun never sets.
"We were most worried about the dark [winter] months with no sun at all," said Molly, who has been taking virtual classes to become a registered nurse. "But those days of 24-hour daylight really make you cranky and just seem unreal."
Still, there's also plenty to like there besides the nobility of their work.
"The people here are uniquely laid-back and funny," Molly added. "It's really a beautiful and inspiring place."
And with that comes the bad news for Com Dot fans: The Solomons like their new surroundings enough to have signed on for three more years of service in Kotzebue. While other musicians are looking to come out of isolation, they're asking for more of it.
"Nowadays with the internet, you can never say never, even when you're living thousands of miles apart," Johnny said of the band's future. "We probably will still all make music together at some point."
However, he added, "Molly and I are very happy with and set on the idea that we've moved on to a different chapter in our lives — a very, very different chapter, but one we're committed to."
By: Communist Daughter.
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