Lucifer Singer Talks '70s Influences and Frontwomen in Heavy Rock

German vocalist Johanna Sadonis could have given up on music when her group The Oath broke up last year only weeks after the release of its acclaimed self-titled debut. Instead, the singer poured her energy into putting together her new project, Lucifer, a celebrated new hard-rock quartet she founded with Cathedral guitarist Garry “Gaz” Jennings.

[jump] Collaborating with Jennings by trading files online, Sadonis quickly put together an album's worth of material that nods heavily to Black Sabbath, Pentagram, and other classic '70s sounds while spotlighting the singer's soaring melodic delivery. Issued earlier this year on Cathedral vocalist Lee Dorian's imprint Rise Above Records, Lucifer I was met with glowing reviews.

The group — rounded out by Angel Witch drummer Andrew Prestidge and bassist Dino Gollnick — may have only played a handful of shows, including an appearance at this year's Roadburn Festival in the Netherlands, but the strength of the album got Lucifer a spot supporting Oakland's own metal juggernaut High on Fire on the band's current summer tour that also features rising Little Rock, AK-based doom act Pallbearer and Houston headbangers Venomous Maximus.

The vocalist recently spoke with All Shook Down about the differences between her creative process with the Oath and Lucifer, her embrace of '70s rock, and the increasing number of women fronting metal and hard rock bands ahead of the tour's stop Saturday, Aug. 1, at the Regency Ballroom.

Did your approach to songwriting change working with Gaz versus how you worked with guitarist Linnea Olsson in the Oath? Or did you have the songs mostly finished when you started working with him?

No, it wasn't like that. Let me explain the difference. With the Oath, it was more that we were in one city. We had rented a rehearsal room and we would jam and create ideas on the spot. With Lucifer, I would send my ideas to Gaz of how I wanted something to sound. And he would ask me for references,  so I would say, “How about you write me a song that reminds me of 'Be Forewarned' by Pentagram, or 'You Won't Change Me' by Black Sabbath from the Technical Ecstasy album?” Another time I said, “How about one that's like something from the Scorpions' In Trance album?”

So I would give him all these references, and he would send back the riffs and songs and I would sort through all of it and take out what I liked. Then we would arrange things together. I would say, “How about we take out this crazy heavy metal part and we put in something more moody?” So then according to how I filtered the stuff, he would re-record it. So we would arrange the songs together, and then I would take these and sit down to write the vocal melodies and the lyrics. So it is really a 50/50 songwriting collaboration we have.

Lucifer draws on some of the same '70s hard-rock influences of a couple of notable contemporaries in the British band Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats and Swedish occult rockers Ghost. Do you feel a kinship with those acts?

These are two contemporary bands that I respect and know. I'm friends with both bands and I think they're both among the best bands around right now. But when it comes to Lucifer, I'm not really looking at other bands that are contemporary, influence-wise. I really am looking back at the originals, and I think I can say that for the others in the band as well. I'm taking all the original spirit and channeling it into Lucifer. And I think these other bands are doing the same thing, though I don't think we look at each other. We all are kind of different, but what we share are the influences. I know that Ghost like Blue Oyster Cult, and they're a big influence for me. We're all looking back at the same things. 

In the past few years, there's been a sizable spike in the number of doom bands out there fronted by female singers. You have bands from all over the U.S. like Witch Mountain, Royal Thunder, Windhand, Ruby the Hatchet, and there's a Bay Area band named Castle. In a lot of ways, it's kind of surprising that the combination of melodic vocals from a woman singer with droning heavy guitars didn't become popular sooner, since they sound great together. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the trend?

Well, back in the late '60s and early '70s, you had a lot of female lead singers in heavy rock. I just think that lately in general, female or male, you have a lot of bands looking back at those influences. I think there's a reason why bands like Black Sabbath are considered the ultimate forefathers of everything that followed afterwards in hard rock and heavy metal. They're just that good. Obviously, you can't reinvent the wheel in hard rock. There have been, over the past decades, so many horrible abominations of hard rock and heavy metal, especially in the '90s and early 2000s.

Of course, you go through phases of musicians trying out new things, but the return to the roots is because I think people realize where the quality is: in the original spirit and fire of where it all started. To the bands that still blow you away 50 years later. So it's nothing new that women do this, but it's just a general realization of turning backwards and putting these roots on a pedestal where they belong.

I saw that there's a limited vinyl edition of the Lucifer album that has a single with a couple of unusual covers of tunes by Angel Witch and a band I was unfamiliar with called The Rattles. Were they tunes you'd thought of covering in the past, or that you thought would fit well with Lucifer's style?

Yeah, well there's two reasons. The A side is Angel Witch's “Loser.” Our drummer Andrew Prestidge, who also plays in Angel Witch, and I were sitting in my kitchen listening to music. We're like nerds, just listening to music all the time and the chatter is always about music. So my iTunes was on shuffle and we were discussing that we needed two bonus tracks for the Japanese edition of the album. We were talking about what we could cover and I had so many different ideas, but all of a sudden that Angel Witch song came on.
And I said to him, “I love this song!” They have so many great songs, but that one is just so catchy. It's almost like a Sweet song. So we just decided on the spot to do it. He texted Kevin Heybourne, the singer and guitarist from Angel Witch, and asked if he would mind if we covered his song and he said, “Oh, please! Go for it!” So we did it.

And the B side is of the band Rattles. They're a German band from the '70s and I wanted to pay a little bit of tribute to the fact that Germany used to have such an amazing heavy rock scene during the '70s. The Rattles are kind of a forgotten band and for three years they had a female singer. They had two really great songs; one is called “The Witch” and the other is the one we covered, “Devil's on the Loose.” It's a 7-inch single that I have. I DJ a lot in Berlin, and every time I play that song, people come up and ask, “What is this?” So it seemed like a good choice.

Lucifer plays with High on Fire, Pallbearer, and Venomous Maximus at the Regency Ballroom on Saturday, Aug. 1, 7 p.m. $20

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