introduction by tom johnson
photograph by shervin lainez
There’s always been a dark, poetic brilliance to the work of Johanna Warren. Throughout her beguiling solo work, which began with 2013’s ‘Fates’ LP, there’s been an undercurrent of peril bubbling away, whether that be related to the self or some brilliant set-piece she’s sculpted with her words.
New album Chaotic Good, released last week via Wax Nine Records, might well be her most impressive work-to-date, that anguish even more pronounced than ever before. “I’m tired and I feel ashamed, of how I’ve let my narcissism reign untamed,” she sings on the lilting opening track ‘Rose Potion. “And yet, I know that to blame myself is part of the same old game.”
As words upon a page they would sit with a melancholy power, as living and breathing songs they spiral into the world like a spell coming to life, a black magic twisting into soft and subtle shapes we don’t immediately recognise. There’s a lightness here that is vital to the album’s success, however, a kind of pop-led flourishing that alleviates the weight of its lyrical content and produces something to truly marvel at.
To accompany the album’s release, we’re very pleased to share this track-by-track guide to Chaotic Good, written by Johanna. Stream the record right here and then read her words below.
words by johanna warren
I think a lot of my songs are conflicting parts of myself trying to come to some kind of agreement. When I say “you,” I usually mean me. Like this chorus, “What you call God, I call the mysteries of the Universe.” I’m both those people. I grew up an atheist who was inconveniently prone to intense mystical experiences. The last couple years I’ve taken to using the G-word as an abbreviation for the vast connective benevolent intelligent loving presence that seems to permeate and surround all things. It’s economical, but I still sort of cringe every time I say it in certain company because I know how harshly my past self would be judging me. Also I have synesthesia and the guitars on this song make me see neon rainbows.
Part Of It
I hesitate to call this a “breakup album,” although it was written in a period of immense suffering of that variety, because I think it’s more interesting than that, and because honestly it’s not about him. The working title of this song was Notes to a Non-Committal Narcissist, and again, that could be me or him or both I’m talking to. At this point in my life I find no value in pointing any fingers and blaming anyone for doing anything to me. I’m more interested in figuring out what was going on with me, what made me feel like that was something I needed to expose myself to or tolerate. These songs, and this period of my life, have been a deep excavation of my own psyche in the space and stillness that was created after years of the noise and chaos of one co-dependent relationship after another. And it’s as much about the new life that grows from the rot as it is about the thing that died.
One of my favorite moments on the record is the tiny tip of my hat to the Beatles in the form of a clandestine clarinet cameo (all of the whopping three notes I can eek out on a clarinet) when I say, “What are you gonna do when you’re, say, 64?”
Only the Truth
It’s just exhausting to care so much, isn’t it?
Bed of Nails
The guitar and vocals on this song were the first things I tracked on the whole record. I originally recorded all these songs years ago as a totally stripped down acoustic affair, just voice and guitar/piano. The slippery slope of adding a ton of other instrumentation started with this song also, when I heard in my head the synth part that comes in at the very end… the sneaky little melody that opened a portal to another three years of production! While now there’s a lot going on sonically, almost all the final album versions still have my original barebones home recordings in them as their foundation. We overdubbed the rhythm parts over my acoustic tracks, which weren’t even done to a click. That’s a pretty unusual way of working and was only possible because my friend Chris St. Hilaire, who plays almost everything else on the record, is a superhuman genius.
Screaming is fun. I used to be too concerned with maintaining a certain crystalline prettiness in my high register to ever let myself go there. It was a very restrictive approach to such a versatile instrument as the human voice. But now that prettiness is something I specifically try to avoid. I’d much rather my voice sound rough and textured. I’m more interested now in trying to make as many different kinds of sounds as I can. The vox for this song are double-tracked but other than that there’s no effects on them, and both tracks were done as single unedited takes.
Hole in the Wall
Chris wrote a beautiful mandolin part for this song and I’m kind of heartbroken it didn’t make it onto the record. We were down to the wire on time and only had a subpar mandolin available and could just never get it to sound right in the mix. But maybe some day if the gig economy ever resumes, I’ll be able to bring Chris on the road with me and he can play that part live every night to scratch the itch I will always have whenever I hear this song without it.
These lyrics are a mash-up of three real dreams I had. The one about the mouse traps really stuck with me. I was walking through a warehouse with flickering fluorescent lights—sinking Titanic vibes. I opened the door to a white room where my extremely troubled boyfriend-at-the-time was sitting alone, strapped to a chair in the middle of the room, covered in mouse traps from head to toe. The floor around him was also completely covered with set mousetraps. I had such a strong urge to save him, but the dream was clearly telling me that would be a very stupid thing to try to do.
This song was inspired by a failed hookup with someone who looked practically identical to my ex. There’s just something about that cocktail of comfort and alien-ness, desire and PTSD-fueled repulsion that really gets the creative juices flowing.
Thru Yr Teeth
The first and only time I’ve played this song live (it’s in standard tuning, unlike literally any of my other songs), my friend Lago said, “It’s like if Johnny Cash were a gay witch.” Seldom have I ever felt so seen or so proud.
Bones of Abandoned Futures
The day after my ex moved out and took all the furniture with him, I filled the void with a piano. I bought it on Craigslist for $80 and paid two randos (also from Craigslist) to move it for me in a snowstorm on their jerry-rigged pickup that couldn’t go in reverse. They scratched the shit out of my wall but, miraculously, the piano survived and became my best friend during the following year of excruciating metamorphosis. At the end of that year, when I got the signals it was time to move out of that house and commit to a fully nomadic life, selling that piano was my next great heartbreak.
I hadn’t previously spent any time trying to learn piano and had never written on one (except “circlenot astraight” from Gemini I but that was kind of a fluke that may or may not have been channelled in a state of mild possession while house-sitting a haunted bungalow). I like how writing on different instruments seems to open up totally different neural pathways as well as sonic possibilities or requirements. Like I feel like I have to use my voice differently to project over the volume and fuller range of the piano, as opposed to guitar which allows me to stay very quiet and meticulous which is my comfort zone. Piano has coerced me out of that comfy little cage I’d built for myself.
‘Chaotic Good’ is out now, you can buy it here