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Johanna Warren

Johanna Warren

photo by Mercy McNab
photo by Mercy McNab

Everything has been falling into place for singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Johanna Warren as of late. The release of the Portland-based artist’s much-anticipated third album, Gemini I (after the highly promising, home-recorded nūmūn and Fates) is nigh. And with it, so is a whole new chapter not only in her work but that of her friends, as this third album will be among the first batch of releases off her newly-formed label Spirit House. Warren’s Gemini I (out Sept. 16, with a Sept. 21 release show at Holocene, to be followed eventually with its stylistic companion Gemini II) is joined by Indira Valey’s Recordar, Forest Veil’s Zoolights, and Vellum’s Not So Far. (You can support Spirit House on Kickstarter to help them cover the considerable costs of distributing and printing CDs and cassettes of their work.)

Warren’s cozy, gossamer psych-folk goes down pretty easily whether you’re a folk devotee or deep into ambient soundscapes. For Gemini I, Warren not only played guitar, flute, and percussion, but relished the opportunity to incorporate analog synths, mellotron, and harmonium while recording the album at Dreamland, a studio based out of Woodstock, New York. Her diaphanous lyricism charts the germinations and passing of relationships as well as the asperities of self-doubt with an uncommon honesty, evoking Neil Young just as much as Linda Perhacs and Nick Drake. You could sum up what makes her music special with the title of one of the songs off this new record: “Glukupikron.” It’s a phrase meaning “sweetbitter,” from the work of the Ancient Greek poet Sappho. If there should be an almost cheery ring to Warren’s voice as she interrogates a friend or partner, it’s only to show again that there’s almost always a little bit of sweetness to the trials of life. Eleven caught up with Warren over email to discuss the album, the label, and her work.

Eleven: So you’ve told us that your new label Spirit House will be putting out three other releases in addition to Gemini, two from fellow Portlanders Indira Valey and Forest Veil, another from New York-based collaborator and engineer Bella Blasko. Describe how you got hooked up with Valey and Forest Veil. How/where did your professional/personal relationship Blasko begin? 

Johanna Warren: Monica (Forest Veil) and I had bumped into each other a few times in the Portland music world but really clicked last summer when we carpooled to Oregon Country Fair. We ate salad rolls and talked about communing with the spirits of our deceased loved ones, haha, and I just knew she was going to be a major player in my life.

I saw Indira Valey play at a birthday party two days after she moved to Portland and immediately after her set I basically threw myself at her feet and told her I was starting a radical record label and wanted her on it. That was about a year ago, when the initial lightning bolt of inspiration had first struck me… and here we are, and it’s really happening!

I met Bella in 2011 at a recording studio she worked at in upstate New York, where my band Sticklips was doing some mixing. She and I had both just graduated college and moved to the same sleepy small town with very little going on in our lives, so we pretty much spent a blissful year together smoking a lot of weed and making soup and listening to records on her porch. During that time she was beginning work, very secretively, on the album she’s releasing on Spirit House this year, Not So Far. She was really private about her music (because, as it turns out, she once shared it with a male coworker who made a disparaging comment!). It took me months of persuading, but late one night I came to pick her up from work at the studio and I asked her if she would play me one of her demos. She hesitantly agreed, and as soon as the song started, I burst into tears. I had been feeling painfully blocked and disempowered in my creative life, and what she was doing sonically—capturing the sounds of her guitar and voice in such a way that sounded so lush and colorful and fascinatingly intimate, you really didn’t need any other instrumentation—was exactly how I had been wishing I could present my songs, but hadn’t even been able to pinpoint. Her recordings sounded delicate, expressive, emotional… distinctly “feminine.” It was like nothing I had ever heard before, and it had never occurred to me how screwed up it was that I had never before in my life met a female audio engineer or thought about what it might be like to work with a woman in the studio, an environment that in my previous experience had been filled with intimidating, overbearing masculine energies. So, I asked her if she would record my music!

Eleven: What kind of narrative or feeling did you want to convey on Gemini I? How would you describe the process behind recording the album and what preceded it?

JW: This album and its twin, Gemini II (to be released next year) are concept albums about the blessing and curse that is romantic love. They document the joys and sorrows of the “twin flame” dynamic, and the essential human work we can only do in relationship to another person: reflecting back parts of our intimate partners they may never have noticed otherwise (both the beautiful and hideous), pointing out each other’s blind spots, pushing each other’s buttons, dredging up past traumas… hopefully, all in the name of healing, finding compassion, and gaining understanding of ourselves and each other.

It’s by far the most autobiographical body of work I’ve ever written—every song was written about/inspired by my relationships to two very influential Geminis in my life: my lover and my Tarot card reader. I have been doing a lot of heavy internal work with both of them, and these songs are intimate snapshots of my trajectory on that path of reflection and growth.

There were some intense esoteric layers to my experience of making this album that I won’t get into in detail here… but one thing I will say is, in structuring and conceptualizing this project, I was consciously invoking two cards from the Tarot—The Lovers and The Devil—and those archetypes started manifesting in my personal experience in eerie ways. That ties into another recurring theme of these songs, which is the power of our minds to alter and create reality. A sorcerer is someone who acknowledges the creative power of our minds and chooses to consciously cultivate that power. I feel like all artists are sorcerers, in a way—art is a highly concentrated, directed expression of consciousness that opens a portal through which etheric forms can be made manifest in the physical realm. This experience of invoking two specific archetypes in my work and then feeling them follow me around for months like a couple of big interdimensional pets really made me appreciate how real that power is, and how intentional I want to be about what I bring through the portal in the future…

In more earthly dimensions, this recording process was a big level up for me and Bella—everything else we’ve ever made was done in makeshift home studios with a couple of not-so-great borrowed mics, but this time around we had access to a world class recording studio, which really opened up a lot of creative doors for us.

Eleven: Who are some of your favorite poets and novelists?

JW: The title for a song on this album came from a book called Eros the Bittersweet by Anne Carson, who has one of my favorite brains. The word, Glukupikron, comes from Sappho, another hero of mine—If Not, Winter, Carson’s translations of Sappho’s fragments, is one I used to flip open to random pages for inspiration. There’s also a little shout-out to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a book that was very influential for me, in “The Blessing/ The Curse.”

More generally, I really appreciate Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, and Barbara Kingsolver. Sylvia Plath was a major guiding force in my adolescence.

Eleven: Who/what were your earliest musical influences?

JW: My early childhood family roadtrip playlist laid some pretty solid foundations: Tom Petty, Paul Simon, REM, Shawn Colvin, and Zappa… thanks, Dad! Then there were a few years (age 8-10?) when I literally refused to listen to anything that wasn’t The Beatles. I learned every little nuance of their music by heart, and was always trying to wrangle my friends into singing three part harmonies with me. Then I found Elliott Smith, who in a lot of ways seemed to pick up where The Beatles left off. And then Nick Drake and Joni came along and taught me how to play guitar.

Photo by Alex Schelldorf
Photo by Alex Schelldorf

Eleven: Which instrument is your favorite? With which do you feel most confident?

JW: My vocal cords.

Eleven: Who are your favorite contemporary musicians/composers?

In all sincerity, my Spirit House labelmates (Vellum, Forest Veil and Indira Valey)! And Adron, Grammies, WL, Eleanor Murray, Young Hunter, Julie Byrne, Alexander Turnquist and Florist.

Eleven: What do you think is important about collaboration and what has it taught you in the long run?   

JW: It’s like Captain Planet. We’re each cool on our own, but it’s “with our powers combined,” that’s where it’s really at.

Eleven: What are your plans for touring for this album?

JW: I’m touring down the West Coast in late September/early October, and doing a Northeast run in November. In 2017 I intend to tour pretty extensively across the US and find my way over to Europe.

Eleven: What’s the best bit of advice anyone ever gave you?

My dear friend JP started a visionary record label back in 2009 before he peaced out from this dimension a few years later. He left the label to me in his will. At the time, I was kind of like, “…Why me? I am so not a business woman!” Spirit House is me finally picking up the torch he passed to me.

The night before he passed, I visited him at his home and he made me promise I would follow two pieces of advice I will never forget: “1. Never give up, and 2. Keep it weird.”»

– Matthew Sweeney