After years of honing their sound with scattered EPs and singles, joan, a Little Rock, Arkansas-based pop duo made up of Alan Benjamin Thomas and Steven Rutherford, is finally gearing up for the release of their debut album superglue later this year. Their musical output, up to this point, has all fallen under the umbrella of indie pop, but is, ultimately, a sound defined and diversified by trial and error, experimentation, and adapting to the landscape around them. Singles from the upcoming album such as “don’t wanna be your friend” and the new single “loner” are out now.
Arkansas may not appear to be a haven for artists in the same way that Memphis, Nashville, or even Dallas may be just a few hour’s drive away, but joan did not let their location stop them from pursuing their dream on a grand scale. “I think the reason we’re able to stay at home and be doing what we’re doing is 100% because of the internet,” said Stevens, who stated that, for the first few years, they kept their location hidden due to possible assumptions of what their sound is/would be. “When we did a soft launch of ‘I loved you first’ on SoundCloud, we immediately got calls and emails from different labels, managers, and people who were just super stoked about the song. We were kind of able to put the pieces together as far as a team goes just from that.”
What followed would be a string of droplet singles and EPs that showcase the duo’s varied musical interests. From “cover girl,” an Echosmith-like synth-pop tune, the punk-inspired “Flowers,” and the rocking “brokenhearted,” the boys have not shied away from challenging themselves as artists, always wanting to push their sound further. In a live setting, Thomas serves as frontman vocalist, and guitarist, while Rutherford handles drums and additional instrumentation. Musically, they embody a more hardened, edgy persona, maintaining the consistency and energy of a full band despite being a duo.
Thomas repeatedly referenced Coldplay, and Chris Martin individually, as artistic inspirations, but the boys have consistently shown love to the boyband sound of the 90s and early 2000s. “It’s probably partial nostalgia, like growing up on it,” said Thomas. “I remember getting NSYNC’s No Strings Attached CD from Walmart… and just hearing pop production for the first time. It was probably, for me, coming of age and just starting to recognize music. Not just a melody I would hum in the car, but like, ‘Oh, why do these drums make me feel something?’”
Like many indie and/or alternative pop-rock acts such as Lauv, Wallows, and Jeremy Zucker, joan has found a loud and passionate fanbase overseas in Asia. An article titled, “Influence and Integration of American Popular Music,” found on Pachamama Culture explores the idea of the globalization of American music: “It enables foreign companies to distribute American culture products, including popular music in markets abroad… the products of popular musicians are also likely to be distributed by non-U.S companies such as Japan-German alliance Sony/BMG, France’s Vivendi, or UK’s EMI Group (Prada, 2006.)”
While this could, potentially, explain the phenomenon on a broader level, Thomas and Rutherford share their thoughts. “It’s partially because of our association with the LANY’s and the Jeremy Zucker’s… bigger indie pop stuff,” said Thomas. “Sound-wise, I don’t know. They freakin love it. We can go play over there for crowds that know every word to every song of ours and it feels like we’re at a level that maybe we’re not actually at.” He also explored the idea of inaccessibility, stating that, perhaps, it is due to the infrequency of visits to those foreign countries vs their ability to tour in the US. Rutherford shared his thoughts as well, focusing on the personal aspect rather than the technical/analytical. “The fans there are so special,” he said. “It feels like a warm hug every time you’re over there and you know that every show is going to crush. People just love live music there and are just really homed in on what you’re doing… it feels intentional and cool.”
In preparation for their upcoming album, joan began searching for collaborators to help assist in the creative process. “We felt like we had a voice,” said Thomas. “Like we knew what joan was. So, we felt comfortable bringing in other people to get their taste.” They developed a rapport with Jonathan Capeci, lead singer of Nashville-based pop group Nightly, who helped flesh out what would become “nervous,” an upcoming album track, as well as their 2022 single “don’t wanna be your friend.” “Jon is one of my favorite writers, like period,” said Thomas. “If Nightly didn’t exist and he was just a writer, he’d still be one of my favorites. His melodic sensibilities… every time we write I’m like, ‘Yep, that’s it. I wouldn’t change a thing.’” “don’t wanna be your friend,” a definitive kiss-off to an old flame, is one of their catchiest yet with one of their most accessible melodies to date; “You just wanna act like you don’t take a part of me every time you turn and leave / Let’s just say that I don’t want it to end, but I don’t wanna be your friend.”
New song “loner” is the kind of mid-tempo pop-punk song you’d dance around in your room to in the early 2000s. Sporting a “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus type of vibe combined with impeccable rhythmic cohesion and an inviting yet slightly sensual vocal cadence, the track is one of their best yet; “Pulled out my headphones to drown out my insecurities / I thought I lost them but they’re still here mocking me.” The song, about feeling like an outsider in a social situation, was one of the first songs recorded for the album. “Conceptually and thematically, we wanted to make a song with a little bit of a twist,” said Rutherford. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m at this party, I’m all alone, but then I meet someone that totally gets what I’m feeling and all of a sudden I’m not alone.’ There’s some nuance to it where you feel seen at a time where you also feel unseen… but then that one person shows up and you’re like, ‘Oh, you get it,’ and having comfort in that.”
With years of touring and recording under their belt, the release of their debut album will be a major milestone for the duo. Albums are, typically, a collection of work that would not have been possible without the triumphs and missteps before it, and both Thomas and Rutherford do not take their opportunity with this upcoming project for granted. “I’m interested in, ‘In five years, will superglue the album hold up?” asked Thomas. “If it does, and in five, ten, or thirty years later be recognized and still stand in a timeless manner, that is the win to me.” He spoke of this album like he had a death wish while creating it, which, from an artistic viewpoint, he may have. “The album, to me, has a little bit of everything,” he said. “Some of that is intentional. We had a theme in mind… part of that is with the intro track, “life death and everything between.’ We wanted to set a motif, an idea, and then the rest of the album explores different facets of that idea. At the same time make it all feel cohesive, but also be different enough that it doesn’t feel like every song is a repeat of the last one. Rutherford doubled down, almost looking at this album as the band’s mission statement. “I think this album makes a lot of sense sonically because of what we’ve released in the past,” he said. “It still feels cohesive, and still feels very joan… that’s always been our M.O., to treat joan like that. We’re definitely going to do that with this album.”
You can stream “don’t wanna be your friend,” “loner,” and the rest of joan’s discography on Spotify: