Johanna Sadonis was an introverted outcast in high school. She savored the brooding atmosphere of graveyards. "When I was 15, I started listening to black metal, death metal and doom — sitting around with my Walkman in the cemeteries of Berlin," she says. "Black hair, dressed in black from head to toe. I just thought it was all really exciting."
She's been exploring the intersection between music and darkness ever since. The powerhouse frontwoman first broke out in 2012 as one-half of eclectic doom-rock duo the Oath, formed with Swedish guitarist Linnéa Olsson. But their partnership fractured after one buzzworthy, self-titled 2014 LP — leaving Sadonis to rebuild her career. The result is Lucifer, a love letter to her 1970s hard-rock and proto-metal heroes, including Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Blue Öyster Cult, and a continuation of the left-hand path she started down as a child.
That Sadonis embraced the dark side at all is somewhat shocking, considering that she was baptized at an early age and raised in a family filled with Christian pastors — her grandfather was even a high-ranking member of the Berlin Protestant church. "He actually got Martin Luther King Jr. to East Berlin and spent time with him," she says. "I think he would roll over in his grave if he knew I had a band called Lucifer, although he would have probably just shrugged and laughed it off. He was a highly intellectual person who spoke Latin, Greek, French, German, English and Hebrew."
Sadonis' brother, her elder by 11 years, offered an early escape route from Christianity in the form of philosophy and classic literature. "It was classic German and Greek philosophers, and he handed it over to me, like, 'Read this,'" she recalls. "I was very into my own head as a kid. I found it very thrilling, as real as anything. I wouldn't say that I'm a true believer of anything, but I'm very interested in spirituality. [Religions] are all tools to understand life, and I take it more as a metaphor to guide your way."
Sadonis was stimulated by this extracurricular kind of deep-thinking, but she found her formal education to be an anxiety-ridden experience. Her family, from East Berlin, applied and moved to the West in 1985 while the wall was still standing; as the strange new "weirdo" in class, she had trouble integrating into any social function. "I came from this weird GDR [German Democratic Republic] behind-the-curtain thing that all the other kids thought was strange," she recalls. "I've always been some sort of outsider. I was very quiet and shy, and I hated sports and was very pale and frail. When I became a teenager, I started to listen to rock and metal, and that became my thing, where I found a home."
Sadonis' devotion to all things heavy first began in 1992, when she was 13, and was galvanized by three key events: "My first show was Guns N' Roses, followed by Metallica, followed by Danzig," she says. In particular, witnessing Danzig's eerie, gothic imagery had a lasting effect on the young musician. "They were the first band [I saw] with inverted crosses and so on," she says. "That drew me into the dark side of things."
Occult imagery resonated with Sadonis on a profound level — it's part of the same thirst for outsider knowledge and self-discovery that propelled her into the realm of music. Though she'd already rejected the Bible as a source of literal truth, she was always searching for buried truths in everyday life — even numbers. She was particularly struck by Danzig's 1990 song "777," which features the lyric "Seven is my name."
"It's so weird — my name is Johanna Claudia Sadonis, and each is seven letters," she says. "My birthday is on the 21st, and that's three times seven. Something happened that I can't speak about on the 7th of July in 1997. There are all these weird coincidences with that number. And since I grew up a Danzig fan, I was like, '777 is my name.'"
As an adult, she lived up to that name as if it were a family crest, channeling her rawest emotions into bluesy, cathartic hard rock. With the Oath — which touched on doom, sludge and even punk — she was fearless in mining past tragedies for musical inspiration: "Psalm 7" draws on the Danzig numerology, and the ballad "Leaving Together" was inspired by the accidental death of a close friend in 2003. "He was trying out a psychedelic for the first time in his life, and he unfortunately had a bad trip and jumped out of his window," she recalls. "It was a long time ago. I'm sure now he himself would say, 'What an idiot I was.'"
Sadonis is even prouder of her recent work with Lucifer, particularly the "catchier" melodic content of her latest LP, Lucifer II, which she recorded with a revamped lineup, including guitarist Robin Tidebrink and multi-instrumentalist Nicke Andersson, the latter of Entombed and Hellacopters fame.
"I hate the word 'stoner,' but a lot of these bands pick up on the heavy Sabbath riffs but often forget all the very melodic, bluesy things that Black Sabbath did a lot of," she notes. "A good song should not only be defined by a certain sound — it shouldn't matter what instrument you play it on. I think the first Lucifer album is for a more particular crowd: doom and underground metal people. But I hope the new album opens doors to more people. That was my initial idea."
With Lucifer, Sadonis feels rejuvenated, baptized in the name of distortion. It's a critical chapter of a creative and philosophical quest that stretches back into her childhood. In a way, it's a continuation of her search for life's true essence.
"It's kind of dire and sad to think there's nothing more," she says. "I'm a very deeply emotional person. I've lost some people over the course of my life and thought, 'Is there really nothing more?' I go visit my old best friend at his grave site and think that maybe he'll know I'm there, 20 years after his death. I'd like to think there's more happening than getting eaten by maggots when you die. I'd like to hope there's more. I don't know what to believe, but I'm still interested in learning."