Oregon Music News: Oregon’s all-genre music magazine since 2009

05/13/2015

Song and Spirit

BY ROBERT HAM // At the perfectly impressionable age of 13, Johanna Warren saw the light

It was in the first year of her teens that she joined a gaggle of high schoolers on a trip to see The White Stripes play live in the sticky summer heat of a Georgia summer. She remembers every last detail of that night, especially when Jack and Meg finally took the stage, an experience that she described to the website Smoothie Tunes like this:

[T]he band played, and in my memory I see my whole body being vertically penetrated by a column of lightning. It was the loudest, sexiest, most electrifying thing I’d ever experienced, and in that moment I felt in every inch of my body that I wanted to be that, whatever it was.

While Johanna Warren still resonates with the feeling of that one incredible night, the path she has chosen, musically speaking, has led her in a direction far away from lacerating garage Rock. Her Folk-based sound is much more delicate, almost frail. The two albums she has released to date highlight her gently picked acoustic guitar playing and her crystalline vocals; a combination that can cut right to the core of anyone within earshot, causing them to completely stop in their tracks or at least feel a small shudder of emotion rumble through their being.

“A lot of that is working with my engineer Bella Blasco,” she said, fighting slightly to be heard on the phone over the wail of a passing freight train. “She’s a songwriter herself and is so gifted at hearing what a song wants to be. Ever since I started working with her, we’ve looked at a song as a spirit and tried to listen for what it wants to express and how it wants to express itself. Our job is giving it what it needs and getting out of the way.”

Like her music, Warren doesn’t really sound of this world. Her perspective and worldview gives her the air of a spirit, floating through her days feeding off the auras of the people she encounters. Not to say that she sounds zonked out or wispy. Rather, she sounds completely at peace and completely connected to forces outside of herself, open to listen to the music of the spheres or, as with her work as a Reiki healer, able to transfer the energy of the universe through her hands.

Her latest album is a pure reflection of this feeling. It’s entitled nūmūn, a word that should be pronounced “new moon.” She uses the 11 songs on it to pay tribute to the lunar cycle. The links are necessarily direct, apart from the gorgeous instrumental “Apogee,” which uses its title as a foundation for a clatter of percussion and synth drones – all the better to evoke the feeling of being as far away from someone or something as you can get.

Otherwise, she uses poetic license, exploring the pain and joys of life, and the cycle of life and death. nūmūn feels like an album-length reminder of impermanence; that every emotion, just like every person’s stay on this planet, is temporary. But there’s that beautiful balance of knowing that, for now, we can count on the earth spinning and rotating around the sun.

If we dare try to sum up the album in one song, a good choice would be “That Is Why.” The lyrics caution us that “all we know how to do is run, run, run, run, run…” The full collection of songs attempts to counter that, taking its time to unfold and sweeping us along on its quiet path. It feels sacrilegious to put nūmūn on shuffle with the rest of your iTunes library.

The heart of Warren’s work as a musician emanates from her attempts to, as she says, “transcend mundane boring reality, and enter another space that’s more interesting and colorful and magical.” She feels that same spirit within her favorite songwriters—Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, and Elliott Smith—her patron saints who helped her find her current sound rather than following in the footsteps of Jack White.

“They created my understanding of what songwriting could be,” she says. “It’s hard to believe so many people could connect with it. They’re being so honest and specific about their own personal experiences. Yet they tapped into something that a lot of people can resonate with. They set the bar really high with what’s musically possible in the structure of a three-minute song.”

Kind words for some musical legends that have already had heaps of praise thrown upon… and the type of language that will surely be used about Warren’s work before too long.

See her album release performance on Saturday, May 16 at Sun Gate Studio, 2215 NE Alberta St. 97211, #10-25 sliding scale, tickets.

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