It’s morning in late March, and I’m getting a constant stream of texts from Johanna Warren, who, like me, is running late. Before I reach Menasha, a small town in central Wisconsin, Warren changes the address of our meeting point. We’ve never met in person, though I solicited her writing for a project a few months ago. The nerves start kicking in, right on schedule. When I finally arrive, Warren’s a few blocks away from the apartment where she and her tourmate Adron are staying. All of my trepidation immediately fades when she waves from across the street and greets me with a hug and a quick “hi.”
Like her music, Warren comes off tranquil — perpetually lost to, and at the mercy of, her own devices. Over the course of the day, she’ll lose herself in tangential thoughts only to loop them back into her original point. She’s in a state of constant calm, visibly content with her surroundings and delighted to be spending time on the road with Adron, a songwriter she holds in the highest regard.
We set up camp inside the apartment. Even though the room’s provided by a local for the sole purpose of housing whatever touring band happens to be passing through a small town in the middle of Wisconsin, the complex could double as the set of a horror film. Dark colors, creaky staircases, flickering fluorescent lights, even a demonic-looking straw doll literally nailed to a neighboring apartment door — this place has it all.
Last November, Warren funded a Kickstarter campaign to produce the haunting collection of songs she’s now housed under the title nūmūn. It’s both an uplifting and emotionally draining album, and it marks her first release with Team Love Records. In 2013, she self-released her first solo record, a nine-song effort called Fates. She’s worked in the past as a backup singer for high-profile indie artists; you can single her out behind Iron & Wine during their performance on Letterman and hunt for her voice on Natalie Merchant’s last record. She’s also a noted energy healer and a Master of the Japanese alternative medicine technique known as Reiki.
The garish interior of the room we’re in unnerves me, but Warren’s presence is strangely calming. While I collect myself, she moves through a series of ritualistic breathing exercises. Suddenly, she snaps out of her meditation and flashes me a smile. She’s ready.
I ask about the parallels between Reiki, an energy therapy designed to improve a person’s life flow, and her songwriting process. Warren lights up. “Getting in touch with energy medicine and opening up my channels to receive that kind of energy has greatly assisted my understanding of the creative process,” she says. “For years, my artistic habit was a very frustrating, fickle mistress that would only visit me when she wanted to. I couldn’t really tap into it at will. Now I understand that inspiration’s a real thing that strikes when it wants, but there is a certain amount of basic preparation that you can do in terms of making space for it.”
While we talk, Adron rushes around the apartment gathering her things and preparing for the show they’re scheduled to play tonight, but Warren’s concentration never wavers. Her eyes close from time to time as she searches for words. She goes on.
“For me, that involves getting to a meditative space…” she says, before furiously backpedaling. “Actually, no, not even. I shouldn’t say that. I shouldn’t make it sound harder than it is. It really just involves humbling yourself and acknowledging that these forces are much bigger than you. It feels like an opening at the top of your head. It’s just a state of mind — just let the wind blow through you.”
Before long, Warren’s off sprinting, talking about her existential angst and how she was able to directly address it through music, which she now sees as a strong healing modality. Later in the day, I’ll witness part of that angst firsthand when Warren, who only recently deviated from seven years as a strict vegan for health reasons, prays over a steak. She identifies completely with the animal that became her meal. Though it was grass-fed and humanely raised, I see her silently tear up while eating the meat slowly, consoled by Adron all the while.
“Music is such an amazing way to interact with the vibrations of the world, to unify the frequencies of a space,” she says. “When we were mixing [nūmūn], I was thinking of the process as a healing. When I’m healing a person energetically, I feel the whole organism and the ideal way that energy should be moving through that organism, and I feel parts that are out of harmony with that ideal shape. They often present themselves as colors — a color that’s muddy where it should be bright, or a texture that’s prickly and sticky when it should be smooth and clear. That translates perfectly into my understanding of the sonic universe where you want everything to be working harmoniously with the whole. Sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh, that frequency is poking out in a way that does not feel good to me.’ That’s what I want my recordings to do.”
Her attention turns to the album she’s about to put out, a dazzling collection of songs rooted in self-exploration and sadness – some subtle, some intensely explicit. When nūmūn was in its initial development stages, Warren turned to Kickstarter to get the necessary funding to see it through to completion. She cracks a joke about how not being able to afford a fancy latex outfit for more adventurous Craigslist gigs led her to the crowdfunding platform.
“The prospect of crowdfunding had always intimidated me. Especially as a solo artist, it sounded pretty terrifying to put myself out there and be like, ‘Hey everybody, I think what I’m doing is important and you should, too!’” she says. “But like most things that are scary that I do anyway, it ended up being really, really good for me. It revealed to me that I am deeply rooted in a beautiful, mycelial community of support and a lot of people out there value what I’m doing and have my back. The whole thing has been a profound exercise in asking for help when I need it, experiencing and expressing gratitude, stepping into my own self-worth, and accepting the responsibility that comes with having that much love directed at you.”
Any further difficulties with the recording were smoothed over when Team Love signed Warren in January, a deal that also enabled a vinyl release — a lifelong dream of hers. Warren and engineer Bella Blasko recorded the album over nine days in a makeshift studio between a solar and lunar eclipse. The duo played and arranged every instrument and found object you hear on nūmūn, which includes wine glasses and an egg slicer. The deal has also allowed her to explore new ideas, like the video for “True Colors”, which presented her with the challenge of appearing nude on camera.
Filming the video took a few tries. “I had a strong but vague feeling about what I needed to do — essentially, to push my limits, confront some societal and personal hang-ups around physical beauty, present a complex and provocative depiction of female sexuality, and make myself deeply vulnerable in a radically empowered way,” Warren says. “That little seed needed to germinate. Timing is everything.” After the first shoot for the video was scrapped, she confronted her fears and finished filming in what she describes as an offering to the Moon, a spiritual entity that heavily affected the record.
“I was initially drawn to the Moon because of my chronic battles with an extremely irregular menstrual cycle, for which I was prescribed synthetic hormones at a young age,” she explains. “Years ago, I caught wind of the possibility of alleviating menstrual pain by simply paying attention to the lunar cycle, which coincidentally also consists of 28 days. I think it gently stirred awake some deeply buried, forgotten part of my soul and planted a seed of skepticism toward Western medicine, which at the time was also heavily medicating me for Bipolar II Disorder.
“As it turns out, the lunar cycle works as a poetic, productive mirror and metaphor for the dramatic mood swings that have plagued me since early childhood. Now, when I move into a period of darkness, I do not judge myself, just as you would not judge the Moon when she is in shadow. Fast-forward to the present: I am no longer taking pharmaceuticals for or suffering from either of these allegedly incurable conditions, but I am taking ritual Moon baths, marking my cycles on the lunar calendar that hangs over my altar, making ceremonial offerings of my blood to oceans and forest streams, and hosting bimonthly women’s Moon Circles in my garden.”
When we see the moon in the night sky before Warren performs, she cracks a wide smile; for the moment, she’s at home. “The Moon has illuminated my journey down this road as a constant guide and ally — literally, a light in the dark,” she says. “I feel comfortable worshipping her in a way that I never wanted to worship any Judeo-Christian God figures, and I have come to appreciate the practical function that ritual and spiritual faith serves in the human brain. By connecting with nature in a devotional way, I remind myself that we are all little wheels inside much bigger wheels.”
Over the course of the hours following our escape from a room that someone was almost certainly murdered in, I’ll join Warren in an impromptu trip to the barnyard neighboring The Source, the dimly lit restaurant and venue where she’ll later play with Adron. We go visit the animals. Warren holds out her hand in greeting, and an enterprising farm cat, a few ponies, and some goats gather around her like she’s some sort of messiah.
Together with Adron, we follow a dirt path behind The Source that leads us to a pond. The three of us stare at it in silence; the water is visibly frozen mid-ripple. It’s a breathtaking image – two opposites, motion and stillness, at their exact meeting point. We look at the water for a while, and then Warren, grinning deviously, shows Adron and me the best way to explode a cattail: Carefully slide both of your thumbs way up the stem and underneath the spike before pushing outward to create a burst of cottony fluff, she instructs us, relishing every moment.
The moon stays out, and both songwriters are in good spirits in the moments before their performances. Warren talks about the importance of touring her songs. “What I’m here to do is to put myself in front of people to facilitate an experience, a group experience. That’s really what we’re all here to do,” she says. “When we go out to see music, we want to be transported. For me, I want to be healed. I want to have my heart opened. I want to feel connected to the people around me. I want to feel this direct line of communication that reminds me that we’re all in this together — that we’re all one organism.”
That evening, Warren and Adron both play to a sparse but captivated crowd, occasionally joining one another to supply pitch-perfect harmonies. Adron plays first after the local opener wraps up. Her sharp wit punctuates an impressive performance and sets the tone for Warren’s set, which begins with a simple act that seems perfectly representative of Warren herself: the lighting of a candle.
Warren plays for an hour, drawing heavily upon tracks from nūmūn while making space for a few of the standouts from Fates. She introduces nūmūn highlight “Figure 8” as a tribute to Elliott Smith and pauses for an anecdote about how one of her exes once told her “Following” was her saddest song because it was about “sad boning.”
Those flashes of levity enliven a somber mood as Warren, perched on a wooden stool, makes her way through a myriad of heartbreaking tales. “I think all of my songs are sad songs,” she tells the audience mid-set, drawing everyone closer to crossing a bridge that begins to feel voyeuristic. Everyone watches intently and waits for resolution. Every time one of her songs progresses, the ambient chatter in the room reduces to a minimum or extinguishes completely. The atmosphere is electric.
Nearly all of the songs take on a much more intimate shape in the live setting. On nūmūn, Warren allows them to breathe through deceptively ornate production that enhances each individual song’s underlying atmosphere. Live, everything’s presented on a more intimate basis: guitar and vocals. No pedals, no backing tracks, and no additional instrumentation. Everything’s minimized in scope but maximized in slow-burn intensity, allowing for a full showcase of Warren’s image-heavy prose. Examinations of self-doubt, shortcomings, and haunting narratives permeate the performance – “True Colors” lands especially hard in this raw context. For such heavy subject matter, Warren’s voice remains impossibly light.
Adron joins Warren for her final two songs, and then the duo welcome a small but fervent string of well-wishers, established fans, and new converts. I steal Warren to The Source’s back patio for a few photos before heading back to the apartment. Once there, we say a few quick goodbyes, but not before Warren leaves me with two parting gifts.
First, she takes out a deck of cards, spreads them, and tells me to select one as if she’s performing a magic trick. I pick the seven of spades, and she informs me that it grants me protection from authority. As I turn to leave, she tells me to wait — she has something else as well. She hands me an obsidian crystal and lets her hands hover around mine, never breaking eye contact. I can feel the warmth coming off of her palms, but our skin doesn’t meet until she clasps my hands, smiles, and whispers a soft “yes” with an encouraging nod.
We each say one last goodbye as I turn to brave the storm that’s brewing. Our conversation will continue in earnest via text after I make it home safely. I ask one last question.
As always, Warren replies with a detailed answer. Blasko has once again joined her for another record. Together, they just recorded the basic tracks for Warren’s next full-length. Light touring’s in the cards, as is cultivating meaningful relationships with loved ones and deepening her relationship with nature.
Warren knows that she’s got a compass countless miles overhead. She’s building momentum through a string of hard-won successes, stopping only to make peace with her surroundings. With the Moon on her side, all that matters is creating a healing environment for both herself and her audience through her music.
I think back to something she said earlier in the day and lodge it in the banks of my memory for safekeeping.
“I want my music to make me feel good and to make other people feel good. To work as a healing art. I’m trying to make sounds that are pure and resonant, that can clear stagnation and blockages in my own physical body and in the space I’m filling with sound. Music is the coolest. It’s so powerful.”
As I check my rearview mirror for one last glance at Menasha, I realize I’m still clutching the obsidian crystal. Rain and snow both start assaulting my windshield as I drive away. Warren’s words ring in my ear. Before I return home, the clouds will part and the moon will emerge. In the morning, the moon is still visible, and I see a small batch of encouraging texts from Warren on my phone. I take a deep breath, thank her, turn on nūmūn, and lose myself all over again.