May 1st, 2020
“I’ve been thinking of life as a role-playing game,” Johanna Warren offers when asked why she chose a Dungeons & Dragons reference for the title of her new album. “There’s chance, there’s choice, and then there’s alignment: what forces in the universe am I working for?”
Chaotic Good is Warren’s fifth full-length album and first for Wax Nine/Carpark Records. It represents a moment of rupture in the singer-songwriter’s career as she transitions away from the quiet, folk-adjacent work that defined her early solo albums with a bold statement piece that demonstrates the breadth of her ambition. Here, Warren flits between crushing admissions set to spare piano solos and muscular declarations of independence that have more in common with grunge acts of bygone years than anything we’ve heard from Warren in the past. “The last few years I’ve had an urge to change my name, or create some alter-ego,” she says. “But I realized ‘Johanna’ is already a character. We think we know who we are based on what’s already happened, but we’re always allowed to make new choices.” The oceanic, soothing single “Bed of Nails” illustrates that realization perfectly when Warren sings: “I tried a little bit too hard to be myself/ It turned me into something else.”
Recording Chaotic Good was an exercise in self-reinvention. Warren decided to produce the album on her own, borrowing recording equipment from a friend to do much of the preliminary tracking alone in a garage. She enlisted a few key collaborators to fully enliven her vision, most notably former Stick lips bandmates Chris St. Hilaire and Jim Bertini. On the raucously resilient“Part of It,” Warren is joined by her musical brethren as she addresses a noncommittal narcissist and—a trademark of Warren’s work—the narrator’s complicity in her own suffering: “Don’t look at me like I’m the one holding you back/ and I won’t look at you like you have something I lack.” Adding to the album’s dynamism is the fact that it took shape over the course of four years in studios across the United States while Warren was touring her most recent albums Gemini I and II. Warren uses words like “patchwork” and “scrapbook” to describe Chaotic Good; it is a collection of sonic snapshots that transport her to specific places in time with each listen.
“This album is about learning how to be with myself after a lifetime of codependent relationships,” Warren says. You can hear that especially well on “Twisted,” which finds her confronting a former lover, and ultimately, letting them go. “I’m a warrior, but I give up,”Warren howls, the surrounding production warping and distorting as her raw vocal crests to an acidic scream. Though her lyrics are resigned, her delivery is anything but. It is a moment of total abandon, when the multitudinous aspects of a personality coalesce to form something at once dazzling and monstrous. “Chaotic Good is a phoenixing moment,” Warren says.”Everything I’ve done before was just building the funeral pyre.”
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Johanna Warren is a multi-instrumentalist and producer who began her career as a singer/songwriter in the Brooklyn-based psych folk band Sticklips. The group released two albums before disbanding in 2012, and after a stint performing backup vocals for Iron & Wine,Warren self-released her debut solo album, Fates, in 2013. The album prompted her to tour nationally under her own name, and since then, she’s led a nomadic existence, calling cities across the United States home for short periods of time.
Over the past few years, Warren has toured alongside Mitski, Julie Byrne, and Marissa Nadler, but a life on the road hasn’t slowed her output. In 2015, she released her sophomore album nūmūnto acclaim, propelling her to the forefront of artists to watch in the second half of the decade. Warren dedicated the spellbinding collection of acoustically-driven songs to the phases of the moon and to the divine feminine–forces of great power and consequence that are all-too often overlooked.
The following year, Warren announced a twin set of albums released on her own label Spirit House, which promoted a radically inclusive, artist-friendly ethos. Each of the songs on Gemini I corresponds with a song on Gemini II, which debuted later, in 2018. The two albums are in conversation with one another, offering up a character sketch of dueling personalities vying for acceptance. To contrast nūmūn, which was rendered using a simple palate of acoustic instruments, the arrangements on Gemini I and II integrated a wide array of instrumentation and more palpable percussion, furnished with help from a small cohort of Warren’s longtime collaborators.
Following the release of Gemini II, Warren embarked on her extensive Plant Medicine Tour, during which she invited local herbalists, farmers, and activists to come and share resources with attendees about alternative remedies. In the spare moments between tour stops, Warren recorded her latest album in studios across the United States. Entirely self-produced,Chaotic Good is Warren’s first album for Wax Nine/Carpark and it is her boldest to date, finding her in a state of transition as she introduces listeners to a new phase of her artistry.