computer magic’s sci-fi synth pop is already big in japan

Danielle Johnson loves Philip K. Dick, wears spacesuits and is finally ready to take over the US.

Nov 5 2015, 3:11pm

If you call Danielle "Danz" Johnson's cell phone, you get a crackly recording of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" instead of a ring tone. She had actually wanted to make it "Hello" by Lionel Richie, which she says would have been even funnier (agreed), but they didn't have it. Voluntarily calling up Verizon so that her callers would be serenaded by Elton John is the kind of magical thing you imagine she does all the time.

Danielle goes by a few names. She was born Danielle Johnson in the Catskills in upstate New York, but makes eerily cute electronic music as Computer Magic (a reference to a quote from This Is Spinal Tap). She also had two earlier careers: one as a 15-year-old music critic, blogging at a Blogspot name she tells me only very reluctantly involved the word "mewsik". And another as a teenage DJ in New York, spinning under her nickname, Danz.

Computer Magic began when she dropped out of college, left New York and was killing time and watching too much TV at her mom's house in Florida. It's taken her the five years since she first started making music to put out a full-length record in the US. But it's finally here. She released her debut LP, Davos - full of synthy 70s Pink Floyd vibes and sweetly whimsical lyrics - last month. Not that she's been twiddling her thumbs for half a decade. In Japan, Danielle has been releasing annual compilation CDs, writing music for trippy condiment commercials, and appearing in ad campaigns for years. In 2013, she became the face of Sofia Coppola's clothing line, Milkfed (now a Japanese franchise), and appeared in lifesize posters around the country.

But right now, she's home in Brooklyn, relaxing after a month-long US tour. Her favorite stops? Albuquerque, where she checked out all the Breaking Bad sites, and Arizona, where she posed for photos in the Meteor Crater.

How did the shows go?
I was nervous, because it was our first headline tour, but they went well! In February, we're going on tour in Japan again. For some reason Computer Magic is big in Japan.

How did that happen?
I was just goin' about my business, putting out EPs by myself. Then I did an EP with Kitsuné, and Tugboat Records emailed me about compiling and releasing a bunch of my songs in Japan. So now every year I'm putting out a full-length record there. It's very Lost in Translation sometimes. I've also written songs for Japanese commercials - for a mayonnaise brand, a Panasonic hair dryer and a salad dressing. It's really surreal. But I'm so happy that it's happened in Japan of all places, because I love going.

Do you get stopped in the street in Japan?
If I play a show there or if I'm walking around, people might recognize me. Then I come back to the US and no one really knows [me]. I still feel pretty underground here but it's growing.

You just released Davos, your first LP. What does the name mean?
Where I grew up in the Catskills there are a bunch of resorts that went out of business in the late 80s and early 90s. My dad lives on an old ski resort called Davos that closed down when I was three. He was the caretaker. There's a big abandoned ski lodge, an abandoned clubhouse, and all the huts at the tops of the lifts are empty. When I was in high school, I would sneak into them all the time. I thought it would be neat to name the record after something that pertains to my life.

Why was now the right time to release a record in the US?I wanted to go into a studio and record it properly. I'm an amateur producer and I wanted Claudius Mittendorfer, who produced my record, and it was really expensive, so I waited for three years to have the right conditions.

How did recording in a studio, not your bedroom, change your sound?
It's like Computer Music on steroids. Claudius used all these old analog synths that he had, which I don't have access to in my bedroom. And we recorded live drums, which I also don't have access to in my bedroom!

I know you're really into sci-fi. Are you excited for Star Wars?
I mean, I've watched Star Wars since I was little, so for sure! When I was about 19, I also got really into older sci-fi stuff from the 70s, like Barbarella, Logan's Run - movies that are made to look futuristic but actually now look like high school plays. And Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, which Blade Runner is based on, is one of my favorite books.

You also often wear a spacesuit in your press shots.
Yeah! I wore one for the first time in a video then I thought I'd just appropriate it. It kind of goes with my music, and it's fun to wear!

NASA announced yesterday that its accepting applications for new astronauts. You should apply!
I should. I'm saving up all my money for a Virgin Galactic ticket!


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Image courtesy Computer Magic