Q&A: Johanna Warren On The Spiritual Awakening That Wrought Her New Album + Stream nūmūn (Stereogum Premiere)

Johanna Warren is frequently depicted as an all-seeing celestial body. Even without knowing Warren’s unique spiritual leanings, it’s near-impossible to listen to her sophomore album and not consider the Portland-based singer to be some kind of unassuming sage. nūmūn overflows with lofty observations, rambling bits of advice ensnared by Warren’s inimitable voice. These are the kinds of songs that could bridge the space between dimensions; allegorical philosophical musings made comprehensive, digestible. But Warren wouldn’t label herself as the Great Communicator — she’s just a self-aware 26-year-old trying to figure her shit out in unconventional ways.

nūmūn is a testament of Warren’s attempt at transformation, a chronology of all of the cycles of self-doubt and healing that one must encounter in order to achieve optimum spiritual and emotional balance. Warren wrote the record in 2013, while she spent most of the year touring as a backing vocalist for Iron & Wine. Warren funded nūmūn via Kickstarter, and later recorded the work alongside her best friend and engineer Bella Blasko. The duo tracked the record over the course of nine days, sandwiched between a lunar and solar eclipse. These 11 songs are the result; a collection as stirring and multifaceted as the spiritual awakening that wrought them. Warren and I spoke about the philosophy behind nūmūn, and the frustration that comes with being misperceived as a New Age-y know-it-all. Though nūmūn isn’t due out until later this month, we’re streaming the record in conjunction with last night’s full moon. Listen, and read our Q&A below. As we were speaking, Warren was also “throwing things together for a journey into the woods” …

STEREOGUM: What woods are you venturing into, and for what purpose?

WARREN: Mt. Hood National Forest. I’m going over the mountain to see what I can see, fasting for three days, I guess you could call it a vision quest? But I’m looking at it as more of a first step, trying to heal a couple tricky physical conditions. I’ve been slowly unravelling this big knotted ball of yarn, and this feels like the next logical step in my process connecting with the land and my own body and mind and soul. This is going to be my summer, for the most part.

STEREOGUM: It’s interesting that you see the trip as a sort of “unraveling,” because so many writers paint you as a very spiritual, emotionally in-tune individual, someone who’s got it figured out, an advice giver, like on “Less Traveled.” Do you identify with those portrayals as they relate to your music? Was nūmūn a part of this unraveling process?

WARREN: Those portrayals actually make me really uncomfortable. Just because I talk about spirituality and magic doesn’t mean I’m a master of anything. I see myself as a dedicated and enthusiastic student. Really, I’m a total noob. I don’t like the power structures that we tend to put in place around this stuff. I see that as a huge problem with organized religions, and one of the reasons I’ve avoided affiliation with any of them. It has never been my intention to make anyone think I’m some kind of guru or prophet just because I perceive existence itself as a spiritual experience. I’m simply putting myself out there as an example of someone who isn’t afraid of talking about this stuff and taking it very seriously. But I do recognize that I’m putting myself in a position as a mediator or bridge of sorts, because I’ve been entrenched in the music world for way longer than I have been actively on a spiritual path. I was a very angry, skeptical, cynical self-identified atheist for the first 23 years of my life, and then crazy shit started happening to me. Before a few years ago, I wouldn’t touch anything that vaguely reeked of “God” with a 10-foot pole. So now I see that as a significant part of my path — instigating conversation across the divide, finding ways to talk about matters of the spirit in ways that would not make my 21-year-old self want to slap me… and ultimately, finding ways to make her intrigued, because I really wish I knew then just a little bit of what I know now. I could have spared myself and everyone who loved me a lot of suffering. 

STEREOGUM: So this kind of spiritual awakening has taken place over a short period of time. How has it affected the way you write and record music, and your artistic process overall?

WARREN: Well, one of the first things I learned about spiritual healing is that the forces you’re working with do not originate within you: You are a channel facilitating a connection between whomever you’re healing and the Light, Nature, God, Spirit. That role feels very relevant to my position as an artist, and I’ve heard a lot of other creative people talk about their experiences in similar terms: You are a vessel. Inspiration floats across your psychic peripheries, and your job is to grab hold of that little wisp and crystallize it into a form that can be held and shared. When developing psychic ability, you train your mind to enter open and receptive states on command, which is an extremely useful skill to cultivate as an artist. For me, learning how to consciously open my psychic channels has greatly clarified my creative process. I have a better understanding of the whole picture. On another level, coming to understand what I do as a healing art has been so essential to me feeling good about devoting at least this part of my life to it. I used to grapple a lot more with questions around worth and narcissism, the guilt that our culture programs artists to feel. The world needs so much healing right now, and I believe we all have the power to make it better in our own way, no matter how small that may seem. The key is working with what you’ve got and using it for the highest good. 

STEREOGUM: How do you let go of some of that tendency toward narcissism?

WARREN: Clarifying for myself that what I’m doing with music is healing people has helped me out so much in the live-performance department. I used to suffer from crippling stage fright, but now, if I feel at all uneasy before I get on stage, I find a quiet corner and take myself through essentially the same steps I would before healing a person: grounding, clearing, asking to be emptied so that I may be as pure a vessel as possible, and then asking to be filled with light, so that everyone in the room can be healed. It takes the pressure off in a wonderful way. It reminds me that it’s not about ME at all. It is about facilitating an experience for everyone who came to this show looking for something. Art provides such a key service in human society. It is the point of focus around which we gather in large groups to be transported, to be moved, to allow ourselves to feel things we don’t usually let ourselves feel or express in public. 

STEREOGUM: One time I saw you perform live, you opened for Mitski, and I definitely cried. I have witnesses.

WARREN: Thank you. We have this destructive misconception that being an artist is all about either afternoon porch-drinking navel-gazing or social-climbing narcissistic fame-seeking. It fucks with everybody’s heads. Finding, and consciously working to align with, my spiritual path has given me a lot of strength and clarity in that ocean of noise.

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Johanna Warren tour dates:

05/08 Olympia, WA @ Rhythm & Rye
05/16 Portland, OR @ Sun Gate Studio at 8 PM (Album Release Celebration!)
05/20 Ashland, OR @ Jackson Wellsprings
05/22 Santa Rosa, CA @ Atlas Coffee
05/23 San Francisco, CA @ Live on KALW: Folk Music & Beyond at 3 PM PST
05/23 San Francisco, CA @ Secret Show hosted by the Sylvan Annex
05/25 Oakland, CA @ The Literary Octopus Salon
05/26 – Eugene, OR @ House Show (1641 W Broadway)
05/30 Tacoma, WA @ Spring Fairy Festival
05/31 Portland, OR @ The Waypost
06/02 Detroit, OR @ Breitenbush Hot Springs
06/17 Portland, OR @ Caravan
06/19 Portland, OR @ Doug Fir
06/28 Portland, OR @ Jade Lounge
07/10 – 11 Veneta, OR @ Oregon Country Fair

nūmūn is out 5/19 via Team Love.