Meet Me @ The Altar need the world to see their artistry before their race
When I ask Edith Johnson, the formidable frontwoman of pop-punk outfit Meet Me @ The Altar, which emotion perfectly describes her past year, her answer surprises me. “Bittersweet,” she responds, still sounding and appearing bright from the other side of the screen with her blue-and-pink braids framing her face and her black lipstick ornamenting her smirk. Last year, the band signed to Fueled By Ramen, and in 2021, they released their first major-label EP, Model Citizen. They’ve toured the world, gotten co-signs from Hayley Williams of Paramore and have been ordained as part of the young, diverse second coming of rock. Still, as she explains the sour that’s come with all that sweet, it makes sense.
“This past year has been so crazy with the pandemic and the George Floyd murder and us signing. It was very bittersweet because I feel like a big reason why we were getting a platform and people were noticing us and our music was because of how big the BLM movement became,” she explains. “We started getting attention when George Floyd was murdered. People were like, ‘Oh, we need to support Black art. We need to support Black businesses.’ People hired more Black journalists, more Black photographers, artists, musicians, Black bands. It’s very bittersweet for any Black person that was working during that time because people woke up because of the murder, but it just sucks that we were able to succeed from such a bad thing.”
If Johnson and her bandmates — drummer Ada Juarez and bassist/guitarist Téa Campbell — hadn’t already been making music, growing their fanbase and expressing themselves through a genre that had yet to be described as having a resurgence, maybe it wouldn’t sting as much. “We were there before,” Johnson explains. “And no one was seeing us or paying attention to us.” People are, however, paying attention now. Regardless of the reasons behind what first ignited focus on Meet Me @ The Altar, Johnson’s live vocal range, the mixture of wit and confidence she pours out between songs and her ability to will the crowd into a mosh pit as if her sparkling microphone is a wand leaves no doubt that she’s a full-fledged rock star, full stop. No further adjectives or descriptors needed.
Are you someone who writes out goals or resolutions before the year starts? And if so, what were they?
We’re all super big about it. That’s how I got into the band. I would literally manifest myself into situations that I wanted to be in. [I] remember we had a list from maybe two years ago of things we wanted to achieve, so we all sat down, and we talked about it, and one of them was playing a show with twenty one pilots, which we’re about to do, and one was signing to a label, and, of course, we did that as well. I feel like once you’re satisfied with where you are, that’s when your success stops. We’re never satisfied. We were never truly satisfied with where we were. That’s how you keep growing. It’s having goals and going up the ladder. Our new one is to have hits on the radio.
If you could time travel and go back to before 2021 started and give yourself some advice to get through the year, what would you tell your past self?
I would say to live in the moment because that’s the thing I struggle with when I’m on tour. You’re playing shows every day. It’s easy to not realize how great what you’re doing actually is. You get tired. You’re just always going at 100 miles per hour. I would give myself the advice to sit down and look around and really take in what’s happening. It’s a surreal thing to be able to do this because so many people want to, and it’s easy to forget what’s actually happening right in front of you.
As a band, you’ve achieved so much already, but what’s your biggest personal achievement?
I understand that I am what a lot of people wish they saw [growing up]. I love meeting fans and having them tell me how much they appreciate what I’m doing and how much they love that there’s a Black frontwoman. So, I think my biggest achievement is being the first Black woman fronting a band to be signed by Fueled By Ramen. That’s definitely it.
Outside of professional goals or career highlights, what’s your favorite personal highlight from 2021?
I became a lot more confident in myself, and I feel like I’m growing into a very well-rounded young woman because I’ve sat down and looked at myself, and I have changed things I wanted to change about myself. I’ve become more courageous in myself. I believe in myself so much more than I did before  started.
What was a challenge that you ended up running into that you weren’t exactly expecting to deal with in 2021, and how did you handle it?
We went on tour with the Used and Coheed And Cambria, which was an amazing tour. But we ran into so many van troubles, and I think we ended up tearing up our transmission and needed a new [one]. I don’t know how we did it, but we ran into the issue where we could only drive 30 miles per hour. We couldn’t find anyone to fix our transmission in time to get to the next show.
It was ridiculous because we’d leave the show, and then we’d drive overnight to the next place, so literally do an all-nighter, and then get to the next show when soundcheck was, and we’re driving 30 miles per hour. So three-hour drives were like 10-hour drives because we couldn’t go faster. Everyone would sleep, and then one person would be driving. We’d do it in shifts. Then whenever we got tired, we’d just keep switching and sleeping and switching and sleeping, but I don’t really count sleeping in the van as real sleep.
You all were driving yourselves?
Yeah. I’d like to change that very soon because it was killing us, to be honest.
That’s the real rock ’n’ roll behind-the-scenes story people need to know about! Speaking of sleeping rituals, are there any other rituals or traits you want to bring into the next year?
Just to have fun. Another struggle I had when coming back to performing in front of so many people was not trying to overthink the performance because you’re already an artist. People already know how you do things, and you know that you’re talented, but I think sometimes when you overthink it, it makes everything not very fun. I know how to have a lot of fun now and not think about the technical stuff when I’m performing because that was one of my problems. Before, I would think way too hard and be so focused and really scared of messing up. But it’s a show, and people are there to have fun, and you don’t need to stress yourself out like that. Don’t think about it and just do it and have fun.
Now that some time has passed since the initial reaction to George Floyd’s murder and the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement, do you feel like attention in the rock space has shifted, or do you think people still go to your identity instead of talent first?
The diversity in the rock scene in general has gotten a lot better. But I would like people to see that we are artists before we are Black. We are Black, and that is something we have to talk about, and we’re happy to talk about it, but sometimes it does seem like our race really is the only thing people care about. First and foremost, I’m a writer, I’m an artist and I’m a musician. I’m a singer. So sometimes it’s like people just want to cover you because of people wanting to learn more about Black artists, not people wanting to learn more about just good art in general.
You mentioned feeling more confident, but what are some of the other differences between you now and you at the start of the year?
I’m a lot lighter with my energy. I’ve always been a light, fun person, but there is a light that shines inside of someone when they succeed at what they want to succeed at, when they’re getting to the point where they always wanted to be at. So I feel like I’m a lot lighter, and I’m a lot happier than I was because I’m doing what I love. I’ve always dreamed of doing this.
I caught your show at LPR in New York, and you have such a command of the crowd. So, now that you’ve had the chance to perform these songs live, what do you want to bring to future Meet Me @ The Altar performances?
I want to make songs and a live show that’s a lot more inclusive with the crowd. We’re already doing a couple of things. We have people clap. We have people start a pit, but I want it to feel like the crowd’s onstage with us. We’ve discussed this with one another before, and we’re going to try and figure out how to make it more inclusive to the crowd and get the crowd more involved in our performance.
Is there anything you set out to accomplish in 2021 that you didn’t make happen?
Honestly, no. I do feel like I hold myself to an unrealistic but very high standard when it comes to my goals. I hit most of them, but not all of them. Also, everything that I want in a short amount of time is pretty far-fetched for one year. I’ve checked off signed to a label, going on tour with my favorite bands and becoming more confident in my singing and being onstage. The only one I missed was having a song on the radio, which will always be my yearly goal.
Do you feel like you give yourself an opportunity to enjoy what you’ve achieved, or are you typically on to the next goal?
I’m very much like, “Keep it stepping.” One goal after another!
I know you want to get those hits on the radio, but what other goals do you have set for the coming year?
You’ve done a lot of interviews in 2021, thanks to your success and the EP, but what do you think people get wrong about you?
I feel like a lot of people think I can only sing what I sing. [I] grew up singing everything. I grew up singing gospel. [I] grew up singing in a classical chorus from when I was in fourth grade up until senior year. I’m very versatile in what I can provide with my voice. I love R&B. My voice is very soulful, but I feel like my voice is so diverse. I can sing anything that you put in front of me.
For people who are in that place you were in, when you were growing up listening to artists and feeling inspired to pursue music, what do you hope they feel when they see you perform?
I hope it’s the same thing I experienced, of seeing these women doing this and really understanding that you can do it as well. I hope that I encourage people because, like we talked about, representation is so important, and it really does give someone that extra oomph. They need to try and do something that they want to do. It can be really discouraging seeing what you want to do and not seeing anyone like you doing it. So I hope I can give them a boost of confidence in what they want to do. I hope with them knowing our story, even if it’s not music, they’ll know that they can do anything they want because we set out to do what we wanted, and it’s happening.
This interview first appeared in issue #401 (the AP Yearbook), available here.