joan is more than a name—it’s a feeling. Together, Arkansas duo Alan Thomas and Steven Rutherford craft indelible synth-pop with a strong emotional quotient that sounds timeless. Thomas and Rutherford are crafting new memories for future generations, and if last year’s portra EP and the new single “drive all night” are any indication, they’re just getting started.
Both members of joan grew up in the same state, but it took a bit for them to join forces. Thomas grew up playing sports but was drawn to music early on by his father, who gigged as a bassist in various bands throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. He took to the drums at age 11, and studied music in college while becoming proficient in production software in his spare time—but a chance encounter with a professor unlocked his true calling. “I had a music teacher who taught ear training,” he remembers. “I went in for my first ear training test and I started singing scales, and she stopped me and said, ‘Alan, you have a really nice voice.’ I said, ‘I do?’ I knew my mom thought so, but from then on I thought, ‘Maybe I could sing.’”
Rutherford spent his early adolescence picking up piano, guitar, and the drums after being raised on a diet of classic rock pumping from his parents’ soundsystem. In fifth grade, a viewing of the feel-good comedy classic School of Rock inspired his future career path: “It was the first time I’d seen people performing onstage, and I was like, ‘I don’t care how hard it is—I’m doing that.’” High school and college saw Rutherford doing time in a series of bands that were “Kind of serious—we were playing shows, keeping busy.”
After college, Thomas and Rutherford separately found themselves in bands that seemingly had limited futures—a stasis that, ironically, led to them joining forces. “The music scene in Little Rock can be kind of insulated, so you end up playing a lot of shows with the same people,” Thomas explains.
“We met through that and became best friends.” The first song the duo wrote together, the punchy anthem take me on, came to them over a single night of songwriting: “From that day we were like, ‘Maybe this is what we need to be doing.’” “The stars aligned,” Rutherford adds. “We were texting each other after writing that song, ‘Should we be a band?’”
The pair settled on joan from a list of band names that Rutherford had left over from a previous project, explaining, “We felt it immediately fit super well with the songs we were writing.” Drawing from formative influences ranging from Prince and Don Henley to James Taylor and classic pop, joan followed Take Me On with the swelling ballad i loved you first, which almost immediately became a SoundCloud sensation, attracting record labels and management alike. take me on got an official release through the distribution platform Hillydilly, as joan continued to work on what was initially planned as a series of singles.
As work progressed, however, the men of joan realized they had enough material to constitute a full release—what would become last year’s exquisite portra EP. “We were chasing a feeling—the feeling that you get when you hear a certain song for the first time,” Rutherford explains regarding the band’s creative fertility around this time. “How do you tap into that?” “We set out to elicit the feeling you get when you watch a John Hughes movie,” Thomas elaborates. “We never sat down and consciously said, ‘We want to brand ourselves like this.’ We just love the sounds. Why do we get these feelings when we listen to these songs?”
The six-track release included the effervescent stop and stare, as well as a soothed-out take on take me on and the online sensation i loved you first. “I listen back to that one and think, ‘It was so sick that we wrote that,’” Rutherford marvels. “When we’re home, we treat this band like a day job,” Thomas explains. “We write a lot of songs, and there are certain ones where you play it back and say, ‘This is special.’ This was that kind of song. It represents a spectral connection—the first season of joan. Everything we were going for, it embodies 100%.”
Having since signed to Snafu Records, the new label spearheaded by hit-making pop songwriter Carl Falk (One Direction, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen, Nicki Minaj), joan’s new single Drive All Night—the first of a series of releases set for the band’s sure-to-be-sensational 2019—represents their bold next step. The gauzy, pedal-to-the-metal tune was initially written in 2017 to fill the set of their first show: “We were like, ‘Crap, we have to fill a 30-minute set,’” Rutherford recalls with a chuckle. “In retrospect, it’s one of my favorite songs.”
The song also reflects joan’s unabashedly sentimental and romantic side. “It was written from the perspective of, you’re in junior high and you want to ask that beautiful girl to dance, but you’re the nerdy kid trying to muster up the courage,” Thomas explains, elaborating that the “drive all night” carries a deep personal connection, too. “When I was first dating my wife, we’d get in my car and drive for hours, just talking to each other. That’s what that song’s about—a late night drive with the person you love.”
What’s next? Studio time and writing sessions, tour with the Utah alt-rockers the Aces, festival dates —and, of course, more glowing and gorgeous tunes, written with an explicit purpose in mind. “How do we, as songwriters, help people transcend mundanity and find joy?” Thomas asks. “That’s my personal goal. Connecting with a song can lift your spirits. Seeing how our music brings people joy—why else would we do it? It’s what keeps me going every day. I love it.” And once you make first contact with joan’s music, you will too.
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