Danielle Johnson is the creative powerhouse (music, podcasts, writing) that propels the bluesy funk band
I was interviewed by Danielle Johnson, and I hate being interviewed. I’m absolutely terrified of it. I would rather take large, laborious gulps of the Christina River. But in order to write this article…I had to. We agreed on terms, Johnson and I—an interview for an interview. A quid pro quo, if you will.
So, in a bout of panic-induced preparation, I binged on everything with her name on it. Johnson is an enigmatic performer and creative powerhouse. She has a lot of projects going, ranging from music to video interviews, podcasts, and writing. I started with an episode of Johnson’s YouTube show, Pints and Pals.
In the episode, she is talking to local psych-rock artist Grace Vonderkuhn. I watch, my eyes glued to my laptop screen, trying to conjure what on earth she will ask me.
They are in Johnson’s kitchen in her Wilmington home. The place is littered with ferns, paintings and instruments. Johnson is smiling and scrolling through her phone.
“Look,” she says. Vonderkuhn peers over.
In a slow upward pan, we see black boots, orange, hairy legs, and a big blue belly button marking the center of a sea of stomach. She’s showing Vonderkuhn (and all of us) Gritty—the Philadelphia Flyers mascot—arms outstretched, his eyes and mouth wide open, looking at what we assume are rows and rows of cheering fans. “He’s butt naked!” Johnson says, pointing out the undeniable fact.
Johnson, 28, is the lead singer of Hoochi Coochi, a bluesy funk band founded in Dover, where she used to live.
The blues is a far cry from the music she started making when she was fresh out of Campus Community High School in 2009. Back then, she was in the hip hop group FlowCity with her cousin, who performed under the alias “Shorty Rock.” They had record deals brewing, big production shows with dance routines, music videos, showcase events in New York City, and a lot of pressure.
This is in stark contrast to today, when the freewheeling, tambourine-rattling, off-the-cuff action that typifies a Hoochi Coochi performance rocks a bar until it closes. The group acquired its name after one such night in 2015. Full of cheap wine and high from extended jamming, Johnson and guitarist Fatz Hawkins began calling themselves—for no definable reason—Hoochi Coochi.
Comprising Johnson, Hawkins, Chelsea Grant (drums) and Mark Reed (bass), Hoochi Coochi has two EPs: $3 Wine (2016) and Walkin’ (2017). They are both wild, fuzzy records, redolent of a black Cadillac, a worn and faded leather jacket, and a winding road.
“Onto Something,” the second track on $3 Wine, is a love-soaked beginning. Light finger-plucking from a guitar opens the song, followed by keys, and a pounding bass drum as steady and as fragile as a heartbeat. “My baby’s gonna play the drums so I can dance,” Johnson sings, “Nothing can hold me like my baby’s hands.” Like a warm blanket, it’s soft, slow and kind.
The video, one of their first, begins outside a bar. It’s dark, green. Hawkins is doubled over on a picnic table bench. You can see a red Toyota sedan in the background, a flowerpot converted into an outdoor ashtray sits to the right, next to the back entrance of the building. Johnson reaches for a bottle in Hawkins’ hand. “Give it to me!” Johnson says, grabbing it. He grumbles incoherently. She puts the bottle in his back pocket and helps him stand up. “You ready to do the show?” he slurs out. He sticks his arms behind him to hold her and she jumps on his back, thrusts her fist in the air, and yells, “Hoochi Coochi!”
Moving to Wilmington
Smyrna has been changing. What was once a small, mostly rural town, the kind of place with a restaurant that serves muskrat and where crisp mornings were accented by volleys of gunfire from not-so-far-off duck blinds, has become increasingly suburban. An improved Route 1 provided an easy commute to Wilmington and has in turn transformed lush soybean fields into housing developments loathed by some and lived in by many.
Before moving to Dover, Johnson spent her adolescence in Smyrna, in the midst of this rapid development, watching first-hand as neighborhoods popped up and people from distant places moved in. That’s when she met Erin Silva, on a school bus to Smyrna High School.
There weren’t many like Johnson—interested in the arts, charismatic, with an adventurous tinge, an avid rollerblader. She took two wheels off each of her skates so that she could do tricks on rails. She listened to Jimi Hendrix. Silva was from out of town, and brought with her tastes and interests similar to Johnson’s, sparking the first bonds of a lasting friendship, one that would eventually drive Johnson north.
Silva fronts a popular Wilmington garage rock band called EyeBawl. (I’ve never lit a house on fire. Or flicked a cigarette onto something soaked in gasoline, but if I did, I’m sure every moment leading up to that incendiary climax would feel like an EyeBawl song). They are gritty and visceral. Four chords, heartbreak, and a baseball bat.
After Silva moved to Wilmington, Johnson started going to her shows and hanging around music hot spots like 1984 and Oddity Bar.
She says the opportunity for collaboration and to produce different kinds of work is primarily why she moved north. Since coming here last year she has gone full-force with various projects, including writing for events website InWilmington, shooting Pints and Pals, and recording a podcast called The Composure Exposure Podcast where she interviews area artists, musicians, and…um…me.
But what lies ahead for Hoochi Coochi is still steeped in a moment from home. “All the love songs are about Chelsea,” Johnson tells me, referring to Chelsea Grant, her longtime partner and collaborator. And their new music is no exception.
“The Party,” which has yet to be released, is a time jump nine years into the past to the moment Johnson and Grant first met.
Johnson grew up in a strict religious household, which, she says, became uncomfortable, so one day she decided to leave. “I felt guilty for a while,” she says.
She began living on her own, working, and going out with old friends. On a spring night at a party in Felton she met Grant. “She was so cool, man,” Johnson says with a smile. “She had long pigtails. She was the only other black person at the party. She had these badass boots on.”
It would be months before they would meet again, and Johnson finally got the courage to ask Grant out. They’ve been together since then—nine years.
I meet Johnson at her house in Wilmington. It’s on a quiet street behind the Washington Street Ale House. Trees burst out of brick sidewalks.
A couple is walking their dog. Down the road is the Brandywine River, and the waterfront is a bike ride away.
She invites me inside. On the wall of the porch hangs a painting of a woodland scene, the paint faded by constant sunlight. She takes me on a tour of the house. The basement is packed with couches and guitars, a hangout and home base for Hoochi Coochi. She opens a back door, which provides easy access for loading and unloading gear. One night, a man wearing a bucket hat came down and sat outside their basement, listening to them practice, Johnson tells me. It’s the city, after all.
Upstairs, Silva, who lives with Johnson and Grant, is sitting at the kitchen counter, the setting for Pints & Pals. She’s on her laptop, editing a design for EyeBawl. But today no episodes are being shot; instead, Johnson is interviewing me on The Composure Exposure Podcast. Which sucks, because I’d like to get drunk.
We sit down at a table on the porch, not getting drunk. Johnson has a notebook filled with questions. She opens it briefly and then never again. We start talking and she hits “record” on her phone. We talk about the speed at which bears can run, Twitter, songwriting, and “Do you have any ummmm…..what’s your ideal lifestyle?” A conversation as variable and casual as any between two people who are beginning to know each other well.
Throughout our interview, Grant stops in and so does a man wearing camouflage pants and carrying a box of new EyeBawl merch. Johnson tells me about a Hoochi Coochi show scheduled for that night, back home, in Smyrna. She seems excited.