By Eric Evans
Johanna Warren is on a roll. Following her self-released debut (the gorgeous Fates), the second solo album nūmūn is available now on Team Love. Everything that worked on Fates is present on nūmūn but magnified, more prominent: the gentle rock/folk instrumentation, the poetic introspective lyrics, the expressive crystalline voice. The new album’s reviews range from positive to ecstatic and it’s easy to hear why. Nūmūn’s suite of 11 songs recalls the classic singer/songwriter ’70s in emotional weight but is unmistakably modern. And her voice… Very few singers have this pure a tone combined with such range as well as something to say. You might have to go back as far as a young Harry Nilsson to find a songwriting voice that combined this kind of honesty, expression, and vulnerability.
Had the weather been more cooperative Black on the Canvas might have interviewed Warren in Portland’s Forest Park, sitting amid the moss and grass and dew. What better venue to speak with an artist who is so attuned to nature? As it was, a vegetarian café in the Alberta arts district was as appropriate as could be managed. Throughout the interview Warren was open, direct, and whip smart, discussing her childhood, former band StickLips, getting an education of sorts singing backup for Iron & Wine, and of course the new album nūmūn.
How long have you been a songwriter?
Johanna Warren: The first song I ever wrote was a two-finger toy piano love song for the cutest kid in my kindergarten class.
Did you come from an artistic family?
Warren: I did. My dad was a gifted musician, he would play piano, sing sometimes… he has an amazing ear, if he heard a song he could figure it out in his head, sit down & play it. It was like magic to me.
So you didn’t have that typical parental fear, oh no, my child may be a musician.
Warren: Almost the opposite, actually. I remember a few intense fights in high school where I’d be on instant messenger or something and my dad would burst in and yell “Why don’t you start a fucking band?!?” [Laughter] I think both my parents had some unfulfilled artistic ambitions that they’re now living out vicariously through me. I played classical flute as a kid. there was some push and pull there… I’ve never been a good practicer so i had to be prodded slightly.
So at what point did you choose music as a lifestyle?
Warren: It was a slow unfolding. For a long time it was neck and neck with other artistic ambitions. I painted. That’s what I studied at school, visual art, and literary translation. Writing, acting… I kept my options open and invited the universe to guide me in whatever direction I was supposed to go. Eventually it became pretty clear.
Where did you grow up?
Warren: I moved around a bunch as a kid. Born in Florida, moved to Massachusetts, Georgia, New York… moved out here a year and a half ago.
New York was where you went to school and formed StickLips?
Warren: Yeah, we met at college in the Hudson Valley. I was the baby, my collaborators were seniors when I was a freshman. After that they were all based in the city, so I was commuting down to Brooklyn a lot.
So how did you land in Portland?
Warren: In 2013 I was singing backup with Iron & Wine and we rehearsed out here. I thought I’d use that job, all that travel, to scope out a new place to live because neither the Hudson valley nor Brooklyn was exactly my speed. Of all the places we went, Portland just won across the board. I felt like I needed to be in a city for professional reasons, but it’s so important to me to be connected to the land and the seasons, so I love how much farming happens in and around this city, how much natural beauty there is nearby, the accessibility of local food, and how much people generally give a shit. Although I was just touring the midwest, expecting to starve because I can get pretty weird around food if I don’t feel good about where it’s coming from, but I was pleasantly blown away everywhere I went. Each place had at least one awesome co-op with a thriving community around it of people giving a shit!
You’ve worked as a backing vocalist with Iron & Wine and Natalie Merchant. Tell me about the Iron & Wine gig, how did you get that?
Warren: A friend in Brooklyn had played saxophone with them for a while. The manager asked him if he knew any good singers, he put in a good word for me, and that was that. I was on the road with them on and off for a year. And the bass player and co-engineer of Sticklips, Eli Walker, works with Natalie Merchant. He mixed her most recent album. He gave her a Sticklips CD and she was into it, so she asked me to sing on her record.
So, that year on the road with iron & Wine—was that like an apprenticeship?
Warren: Yes. So educational. It was like getting to do it with training wheels or something, and I learned a lot. It wasn’t like I had a slow, steady lead-up to that level, I had never been on the road before with anyone or as a solo artist. It was like being catapulted through this glass bubble that had been impermeable to me… like, how do you get to be one of those mystical demigods who’s on stage in front of 10,000 people? To me, suddenly being there and learning that these are just people doing their human thing, well… it dusted the intangible stardust off and allowed me to imagine myself being there. It’s not unfathomable. It’s this silly misconception we have that these people in the public eye are superhuman—
Warren: [Laughs] Sorry, hate to break it to you guys…
But what a difference. Iron & Wine plays big rooms.
Warren: In terms of the ladder that I’m ostensibly climbing, that is the top rung of indie singer/songwriter success. It was really, really educational to see… well, honestly, his struggles on so many levels. His relationship with the hordes of fans who relate so personally to his music, how he tries to be there for them and connect with them. But on that level it’s impossible to connect with everyone who wants to connect with you, so you have to set up boundaries. At my level it’s totally manageable but I’m already starting to feel how when I play a show there are some people who really want more time than I can give them. You have to make decisions about how you’re going to divide up your attention, how to make the greatest impact within that time, how to really be present for people and give them what they need, you know? But also how to not burn out or make yourself sick or deny the other people who are there wanting your attention…
It’s got to be incredibly difficult. And no one wants to be the artist who wakes up the morning after a show to read a tweet from a fan saying “I tried to say hi after the show and got blown off.”
Warren: Totally. And with the Internet it’s even crazier and more personal, how people feel about these things… lots of personal messages, often deep beautiful messages you really want to respond to, but you have to do the same dance of dividing attention and prioritizing action.
Something else I saw in the Iron & Wine world was what kinds of choices you have to make when you’ve got so many people’s careers riding on yours. You’re driving this ship and you’re responsible for a lot of people’s livelihoods. It’s a challenging life! At first I thought I might need to find a new career path [laughs] but by the end it was just the opposite. I felt really empowered by the understanding that he’s a human, he’s on his path and I’m on mine, and there are challenges and blessings at every step along the way. I was really grateful to come back to my very humble existence as a singer/songwriter playing under stairwells in college basements with that expanded perspective.
So where are you now? You have a new album out.
Warren: nūmūn came out May 19 through Team Love, a small independent label in upstate New York. It’s the first time I’ve released something through a label.
So you book your shows, you’re doing all that stuff? How do you budget time?
Warren: At this point, I’m doing ten people’s jobs. It’s a lot of hats to wear, but it’s cool… I look forward to the day when I can afford to delegate responsibility, but for now I feel grateful to be getting to know the inner workings of all those different positions. I’ll know when it’s worth it for me to hire someone to do a better job than I can. But it’s really empowering to know that if I want to tour from say, Minneapolis to New York, I can make that happen. It’s three months of sending emails, but it’s your job, you know? It’s given me such an understanding of how to make this work the way that I want it to, make it more sustainable in the long run. I’m so grateful that I didn’t get, 5 years ago, what I thought I wanted. I would have signed anything… If some big record company had swooped in and said here, sign away your soul on the dotted line, I would have been like, YES. Now I feel savvy. I see what’s going on out there and I know what I do and do not want. I’m happy doing what I’m doing right now. I don’t need anyone to swoop in and save me. I’ve got this.
I think for the longest time I had a chip on my shoulder that I wasn’t being recognized by the universe and given everything I wanted on a silver platter. But it’s like dude, you gotta work. It’s a job. Just because you’re an artist doesn’t mean you don’t have to work. I’m treating it like a job for the first time in my life and it feels really good. It feels awesome to have enough work to do to fill my days. Look, everybody’s path is different. But I spent years sulking, wondering why no one was paying attention to me because I was so “special”. But I got to thinking that maybe the carrot on the end of the stick was never going to go away; maybe if I suddenly was gifted everything that I thought I wanted, I still wouldn’t be happy. So you’d better make peace with where you are, and find happiness now. [Laughs] I’m not playing at coffee shops and resenting where I’m at, wishing I was in a stadium filled with thousands of people. I’m here, I’m where I’m supposed to be, and I’m going to make the most of this moment.
Tell me about the new record nūmūn. Reviews have been glowing, everyone likes it.
Warren: Well, not everyone. Some dude on my Facebook page commented after I shared the first single, “It’s not as deep as her previous work” or something like that, and I was like, do you not understand I’m right here? [Laughs] You don’t have to talk about me in the third person.
The music feels like a natural progression from Fates.
Warren: Totally, it’s evolution. I’m just developing my own relationship with songwriting and myself and what songwriting can be to me. For the longest time it was a fickle mistress that would visit me when she wanted to and I had no control over when or how it would happen. But now that I’ve started to identify more as a songwriter—this is my path, this is what I should do—it’s changed. I have more control over it. The mystery has deepened and I’m letting it serve me personally in ways it never used to. My writing used to be more abstract, I would rely more on my subconscious. Just kind of free writing to see what would get dredged up from my subconscious. Now it’s more autobiographical, more of a way for me to process what’s going on in my life. The songs on Fates I see as these abstract, ghostly forms. This one is more grounded in my life and experience. Listening to the album is like opening up a diary and seeing all the places I’ve been this past year.
Musically it’s an evolution of the same elements that I started out with. My engineer and I had a mission to flesh out these songs with only simple acoustic instruments that we play ourselves, creating this lush ambient atmosphere for the songs to live in. With nūmūn we took that to the next level. On Fates we only got into it at the very end of recording, we didn’t have time to go too deep. This time we were able to pick up right where we left off.
I wanted to ask where you stood on the whole digital vs. physical thing. While digital is convenient for a lot of people, I love the tactile sensation of opening a new record, reading the lyric sheet, and seeing the visual manifestation of the artist’s vision. I’m guessing from the Fates CD that I have that you’re into it—it looks handmade.
Warren: Oh wow, thank you. By necessity of financial limitations I just did it as cheaply as I possibly could. But it ended up being cool, like, that’s my fingerprints on it!
Warren: It’s a way to remind people of the importance of physical reality. It’s a thing I touched, it’s not something from a factory. Although the new one is. [Laughter] The artwork on nūmūnis awesome, I’m really psyched about it. My friend Emily Gui makes these amazing prints that I’ve had hanging on my walls for years, it’s her work. I’m psyched.
The art is by a friend? That’s cool. It’s nice when bands have artist, designer, or photographer friends whose work grows and evolves with theirs collaboratively.
Warren: I definitely have that with music video collaborators. I just made a video for the song “True Colors” with Gretchen Heinel and Damon Stang I’m very excited about. I made a video with her for the last album, but it’s totally what you just said—she’s evolved so much, as I have on my path, so reconnecting at this point further along in space time…
How often do you write music? Constantly?
Warren: No, I can go weeks without touching my guitar then I pick it up and stuff comes out.
How do you know when you have an album?
Warren: I was just thinking about this. Historically I’ve called it an album when there’s enough songs to make an album. But nūmūn turned into kind of a concept album, and that felt exciting, so I might keep running with that…
RECORDING, PERFORMING, BEING
Technically nūmūn is the second Johanna Warren album but counting the two StickLips records it’s the fourth album of songs you’ve written. I wanted to ask about the myth of the sophomore slump but I don’t think it’s applicable with you.
Warren: I think the thing is, if you do something and anyone likes it they start projecting things onto it and deciding what your next thing should be. So there’s this battle with expectations. It was hard making nūmūn… the week of tracking was intense. I felt a lot of pressure that it needed to be the greatest thing ever. The first one, no pressure at all—let’s just see what happens! But with this one it was like, [adopts deep voice] OK this is serious, we need to do this well.
Your vocal range on nūmūn is amazing. Do you have any difficulty recreating that live? Are you ever tempted to change the key or rearrange songs that are more challenging to perform night after night?
Warren: Thus far no. The editing on my records is pretty minimal – we comp together vocal takes to get “the perfect take,” but it’s not like we autotune or anything… we do what we need to do to let the songs express themselves as clearly and perfectly as they want to, but ultimately it’s really important to me that my voice sounds human, albeit slightly superhuman.
When I first started recording in studios I had a lot of trepidation around using any kind of editing, but I’ve come to appreciate that recording is a space where you can and should do things that aren’t necessarily possible to do live. If people want to hear you live they should come to your live show. Recording gives you tools to sculpt this wonderful surreal landscape… but to get back to the question, no, everything I record is played in the same key as I play it live. It’s important to me to maintain humanness in the digital age. Leave in some imperfections, make sure people know youre not a machine.
How do you describe your music to someone who’s never heard you before? How do you describe what you do?
Warren: [ponders] …I need to work on that. I say I’m a songwriter and the songs are what they are. I let them be what they need to be without genre classification. As far as how I approach it, I think of it as a healing modality—creating space for people to work through whatever they need to work through. That’s what music that I love the most has done for me, it provides a portal into an alternate universe where you can transcend your problems but also go deeper into them, be with them, and explore parts of yourself you don’t always have access to. The most rewarding feedback I get is from people who say man, I was watching your set and I’m going through all this stuff in my head, processing it… We go through this culture where we’re so programmed to go forward, move on, repress, keep going. We never give our darkness the time and space it needs to resolve and heal. That’s what art can offer us, a reminder that it’s valuable to sit with discomfort and turn it into medicine.
You have an unusual presence. The last time I saw you play you quieted that room without trying.
Warren: Who says I’m not trying? [Laughs]
nūmūn is available now on iTunes and at your local record store. In addition to the digital download, LP, and CD, you can find the lyric book with calligraphy and illustrations by Warren at her Bandcamp page: https://johannawarren.bandcamp.com/