The last slot of the night is usually considered an advantage in the Rock & Roll Rumble, but that changed in April when a fire alarm emptied the ONCE Ballroom in the middle of Carissa Johnson’s finals set. When the crowd was readmitted, singer/bassist Johnson, guitarist Steph Curran and drummer Nick Hall only cranked harder, unleashing a cover of the Dead Boys’ punk gem “Sonic Reducer” and closing with a three-way tribal drum bash into their final chords.
“It tested me,” Johnson says of the interruption that became a triumph, as she led the first female-fronted band to win the contest since Amanda Palmer’s Dresden Dolls in 2003. “A lot of women came up to me at the end, like ‘You did this for all the girls!’ I can’t believe it’s the first time in 14 years. That’s crazy.”
Johnson hails from Andover. (“There’s no music here at all,” she says. “It’s such a sports town.”) She got her start in high school by joining local band Left Hand Blue, building her confidence by playing an all-ages club across the New Hampshire border. And while she cites both Palmer and 1983 Rumble winner Aimee Mann (then of ’Til Tuesday) as influences, her main inspiration is clearly punk rock.
“It means independence to me, freedom, being yourself, standing for what you believe in,” Johnson says, naming Joan Jett and the Ramones among her idols. “That’s when I really found myself, when I started listening to that music.”
Her melodic drive nonetheless adds luster to the pop-punk, borne on her second album, 2016’s Only Roses, and standout April single “You Lost You,” about waiting for friends who need to go their own way to figure things out. Aided by Rumble studio prizes, she’s working on her next full-length album and has spent July touring the West Coast, either with her band or alone with an acoustic guitar.
“It’s kind of a weird transition,” says Johnson, who writes everything on guitar but plays bass both in her band and with grunge-rockers Swivel. “When I do solo acoustic shows, I can be more intimate with the crowd and try out new songs, [but] if I do two weeks straight of solo shows, I start to really miss the band, that power.”