Spirituality is as subjective as music taste. It can be accessed and expressed in countless ways. For songwriter Johanna Warren, orchestrator of brainy, atmospheric folk, it's about submitting to something much bigger than herself. Like, say, the moon.
It's a mindset borne of an incredibly difficult year. In 2012, Warren lost a friend and former bandmate to cancer. Shortly thereafter, she nearly lost her own life in a car accident. "On paper it was probably the worst thing that ever happened to me," she says, "but in actuality it saved my life." Citing the crash as a source for a psychic transformation, Warren says it was "an initiation to a world in which I was kind of in contact with the other side."
The proceeding year was "all about trying to integrate a lot of new info that was coming my way," Warren says. The universe had shaken up her course, but it wasn't just unseen forces at play, she says: "Part of that realization was that, up to that point, I was kind of an asshole."
Later in 2013, through a musician pal, she landed a gig singing in Iron and Wine's 13-piece touring band. Apart from falling in love with Portland during a weeklong rehearsal there, Warren wrote her own material between stops, the bulk of which would become her forthcoming sophomore record, Numun ("new moon").
Numun touts a Darwinian sense of wonder. Warren's poetic lyrics tread elegantly through matters of the natural world, human nature, death and letting go. There is a sense of awakening throughout, as one might expect after surviving a run-in with mortality. Warren captures the serenity of feeling relatively insignificant with a wide, awestruck lens. She refers to the record as "the constant return from dark to light and back again."
Musically, Warren touches on two very different brands of folk: the fantastical early Midlake realm and the poetic, beatnik side embodied by Joni Mitchell. Utilizing a small grab bag of instruments—acoustic guitar, flute, light percussion, found sounds—Warren takes a rustic approach, but with her obscure song structures and offbeat, otherworldly lyrics, the result feels supernatural. Perhaps it's no wonder that Warren's live shows can seem like seances.
"Art-making has always been a spiritual practice for me, even when I wasn't acknowledging it as such," she says. "It's connecting to something much greater than you—the collective unconsciousness or whatever you want to call it."
Walking that tightrope between the spiritual and natural worlds takes balance, agility and, in some cases, an interpreter. Musician and engineer Bella Blasko offered Warren all three. The duo, who met while living in Hudson, N.Y., several years ago, have worked together on both of Warren's records. Warren, accustomed to being a passenger during previous recording scenarios, found herself in true collaboration with Blasko. Like an audiophile's spirit guide, Blasko is able to put into speakers what Warren seems, at times, to be pulling from a different universe altogether.
"Working with her has been all about cultivating this space, a lot like planning a birth," Warren says of her creative partner. "We're making this very sacred, comfortable space in which to deliver a song.â
SEE IT: Johanna Warren plays Sun Gate Studio, 2215 NE Alberta St., on Saturday, May 16. 8:30 pm. $10-$25 sliding scale. All ages.