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When I hop on the phone with Johanna Warren, we’re both sitting in our cars – our “space pods,” she quips. She’s just emerged from a healing session, which is, on top of making music, another one of the crafts Warren is keen on. During these sessions, she says that her job is to reconnect people with the healing current that flows through the universe. Love, she describes, is a vibration that makes healing possible, and nature houses the process.
The Portland folk musician isn’t new to the scene – she’s offered her voice in collaboration with the likes of Iron & Wine and Julie Byrne, and sprung up on the radar with her 2015 sophomore album, nūmūn, a self-reflective recount of spiritual transformation and revelation aligned with the cycles of the moon.
Already, you can probably get a sense of the type of music Warren creates. One of the trite descriptions that feels most fitting is that her songs sound the way incense smells: some parts leering and enigmatic, other parts comfortingly sedative. That mysticism isn’t lost on Gemini II, the newest body of work that Johanna is introducing to the world on February 16 through Warren’s own Spirit House Records. The album comes in tandem with her 2016 release, Gemini I; every tune has a twin on their respective tracklists.
Duality is the crux of Gemini II, and it’s discoverable on several planes. Inspired primarily by Johanna’s relationship with a Gemini man, the album is a crystallization of the experiences they shared, both the transcendent and the tragic. It’s not a chronological retelling, but takes shape as more of a spiral, metaphorizing how Warren and her lover acted as reiterations of dark and light dancing together, moving in and out of each other’s shadows.
“He was very open to that kind of thing too and it was really this portal opening where we both experienced the most beautiful, mind-blowing, paradigm-shifting stuff together, and the worst human suffering, off-the-charts abuse,” Warren explained. “It was a lot of everything. But I got a couple albums out of it.”
Gemini II is the first album of Warren’s that includes contributions from musicians other than Bella Blasko, her best friend and longtime co-producer. The two had access to a legitimate recording studio this time around (a step up from their previous makeshift ones), allowing them the opportunity to diversify their range of instruments, and the result is a more visceral, full-sounding production.
Another dichotomy exists here, too, as Gemini II features some of Warren’s most uncomplicated and confessional lyricism yet. It’s not lacking in profundity, though. Many of the songs on the album contain a palpable sense of sacrificial yearning, particularly on “Boundaries,” which Warren describes as an offering to the earth on behalf of humanity for transgressing the sacred code of living in right balance with nature.
“Mother, forgive me, I’m lost / But I’ll find my way home, whatever the cost / I’ll lay down my weapons and crawl my way back / Over all the boundaries I’ve crossed.”
As Johanna heads out on her Plant Medicine Tour this month, bringing Gemini II to listeners, her goal is to nurture that balance by focusing less on the technicality of the music and rather turning inward, relaxing her internal approach.
“I’m going on this medicine tour that I’ve dreamed up, and it is my commitment to myself to embody and live the medicine,” Warren said. “It’s a challenge for me to sign that dotted line and say, ‘I am available for bliss.’”
Do you see musician Johanna and healer Johanna as two separate entities, or are are those things that play into each other more fluidly?
It’s all very interconnected. I think I approach everything that I do from the perspective of healing and so much of it is just about surrendering and trusting that I’m part of a larger plan. That when I get onstage and perform, or when I’m recording or writing, when I’m on top of my shit, I’m taking time to intentionally align myself with that healing current before I put myself in front of people like that, or make an offering to the world like that.
Knowing that healing processes are mysterious and the road is not straight, it bends and curves and sometimes it might make someone really uncomfortable, or sometimes I might publicly fuck up, like, I might miss a note or forget some words, and if I’m aligned with the intention to heal, I have faith that that is part of the healing that’s necessary, like the medicine of that moment for that room full of people.
Someone out there might need to see me publicly fail so that they can have an internal experience around their own fear of failure or their own feelings of inadequacy. It’s all very humbling to have that orientation to the world, knowing that healing is messy and sometimes it’s really uncomfortable, and I just kind of have to get my ego out of the way and clear myself out to make room for that benevolent intelligence that sees the bigger picture and has a wiser plan than I could think of.
When did you begin making music? Did you start making it while you were a kid moving around, or is that something that you started later on in your life?
I’ve always made music in some capacity, just came into the world singing and making up little songs, kind of imagining a world of song around me. I played flute when I was in elementary school and middle school. That’s the only instrument that I’m classically trained in at all. I think I learned a lot from that. I had a really cool teacher who’s very wise and bestowed me with a lot of wisdom, and I think flute is such an extension of the voice, it’s just breath and a lot of what I learned there influenced the way that I sing and write. In classical music too, I’ve noticed that the way the melodies that come to me have a bit of a classical influence going on, just the way that they twist and turn.
Who are your biggest influences in terms of musical style and lyricism?
So many. The ones that I kind of most often reference are Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell and Elliott Smith, just because they’re all working often with alternate tunings in the guitar and just really inventive, sort of intuitive self-taught shape-based approach to an instrument. And that’s how I learned. You know, I never really took guitar lessons. I just listened to those songs a lot. I just start exploring, coming up with my own alternate tunings. I couldn’t tell you any chords to any of my songs. Like, that’s the triangle one.
This album is produced by your own label, Spirit House Records. What prompted you to start this label?
A label is an option for self-motivated, autonomous, empowered, free spirited magical artists who have kind of struggled for whatever reason to fit into the status quo of the music industry. I and many of my dear friends are inspired beings who are making art from a very authentic and personal place, but that doesn’t always get recognized by the people, usually men, in power who are making these decisions about who gets the $50,000 paychecks. I was sitting on these albums for a while, shopping them around, and hoping for a big label deal, and it just wasn’t happening, and I was just getting so unanimously rejected from everyone I reached out to.
So just at some point, I was just like, thank you for the clarity that I don’t need to waste my time to validate me or give me permission to do this thing that I already did. And it just happened to be a time in my life when I was surrounded by other amazingly powerful women who were in the same boat, that were just sitting on albums that were pretty much done, and like, just feeling this mounting frustration of like, screaming into the void, like, wondering why isn’t this working, does anyone hear me? So I was just like, we can do so much better. We’re doing this. We’re already doing this. I see you, and I know you see me, so let’s just start our own party.
The production on Gemini II is a bit more experimental, bringing in collaborating musicians for the first time. Who did you work with and how did that affect the album?
I had so much fun playing electric guitar and bass and percussion for the first time, and some really funky vintage synths. There was a real mellotron, which was exciting, and the Geminis were the first time that I ever invited any other musicians to come in just for a couple tracks, like “Boundaries” and “Hungry Ghost” on Gemini I are the two songs that have like full kit. I got my friend Jim to do drums, and there’s a cello on one song, so it’s pretty much me playing everything, but it was the first time that I opened up the studio to anybody else too.
You’ve mentioned that you draw inspiration from various theories, such as the Many Worlds Theory. Is each song informed by a separate theory?
It’s just kind of a lot of everything that’s happened to me in recent years. I’ve always had some pretty mystical stuff happening in my life, but the last five years it’s really been kind of off the charts. I was in a fatal car crash right before I moved to Portland and that was really a huge catalyst that just catapulted me into what felt like an alternate dimension where just magic is real and healing is a thing, and anything is possible.
I was even put in direct contact with the spirit realm and forced to expand my paradigm as a person who considered myself an empirical, evidence-based scientifically thinking person. I was always intrigued by ‘paranormal’ events and mysticism, spirituality, but I was always just kind of like, I’ll believe it when I see it. And I personally don’t advocate taking anyone’s word for anything. But then, stuff just started happening to me, so I was like, okay, I’m seeing it, so I guess I better figure out what I want to believe about that. A lot of that has made its way into these songs in explicit and subtle ways.
You’re heading out on a three-month plant medicine tour. What exactly is a plant medicine tour?
We are teaming up with local herbalists and farmers in every city that we visit to have them present at the events, to be selling their products and distributing information, and just talking to their communities about what they’re doing and how people can support them and be involved. So that’s one component of it, just like connecting the dots in local communities, raising awareness about how people can work with the local plants that are growing abundantly in their area.
And then the other element is my friend Josh who I’m touring with, he is also a healer, both Reiki masters, and he’s in India right now studying sacred sound and yoga. We are going to be bringing a sound healing element to the performance. Just kind of a guided meditation, invoking a certain plant spirit and offering herbal medicine to anyone who wants to try it in the audience, guiding people on an experience of meeting a plant spirit and inviting that energy into their lives, and going on a little sound healing journey.
Gemini II is out today via Spirit House Records. Get it here.