Johanna Warren sometimes seems like a psychic medium moonlighting as a songwriter. The Portland native makes dreamy folk music that sparkles and sprawls with new age flourishes and crystal shop percussion, inspired by tarot cards, metaphysics, and the monastic teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. Even beyond her recorded work, Warren comes off like a person radiating with cosmic wisdom to the point that it starts leaking outward, seemingly unprompted. In an interview
at SXSW last year, she offered this advice: “If you just make yourself really bright and shiny, everything around you becomes a reflective surface that shines back at you.” (The question she’s responding to—“How’s your South By experience so far?”).
is the second album Johanna Warren has composed about a relationship (with a Gemini), and it mirrors its predecessor. Both feature nine interlinked songs, with Warren playing a wide variety of instruments including guitar, flute, mellotron, and synths. While the concept views love through an astrological lens, her lyrics expose life’s crushing banality—the things that make us look to the stars for answers in the first place. In “Cause or Effect,” she sings to a protagonist left bored and self-conscious when everyone at the party steps out for a smoke. “You got nothing else to do/Your phone is broken,” she sings as a rush of harmony enters, as if to mock the weight of such unglamorous ennui.
While recording prolifically as a solo artist, Warren has also developed a career accompanying folks like Julie Byrne
and Iron & Wine
, acts who’ve gained notoriety for just how unaccompanied
their music sounds. You get the sense that Warren’s become a sought-after collaborator not for her ability to blend into the background but for her knowledge of exactly how to complement a song while maintaining its sense of solitude, tapping into an inherent aura. This skill makes the relatively brief Gemini II
feel dynamic and sweeping and its songs consistently surprising.
In the moody opener, “Hopelessness Has Done Nothing For Me,” Warren textures a date night pep talk with gothic cobwebs of piano and guitar. When the drums kick in, they conjure the rush of road-trip indie rock, a subtle gust of familiarity and momentum. More straightforward songs like the strum-along ballad “Boundaries” also move in strange ways. With a melody that finds the middle ground between Red House Painters
’ Songs for a Blue Guitar
and Taylor Swift
’s Speak Now
, Warren breaks in and out of character, injecting its sense of calm with conversational asides. You are unlikely to hear a more beautiful song that also includes the phrase, “so fucking stoked
Both as a guitarist and a vocalist, Warren has a knack for complex, unwinding melodies. The subtle “Mine to Take,” with its weary double-tracked vocals, taps into the mystical Laurel Canyon sound of Judee Sill
. British folk serves as an inspiration for the more ambitious compositions: the hypnotic “inreverse
” and the closing “Was It Heaven.” Wise and stately, these songs provide the album’s major moments of resolution. “I hope you’ll fly again,” Warren sings in the closing lines of “Was It Heaven.” “With you, I was infinitely lost.” As the departing sentiment of her Gemini
saga, it offers a sense of peace, but Warren knows most journeys don’t end so clean. We never stop searching for answers: It’s what keeps all our most trusted songwriters—and psychics—in business.
-- Sam Sodomsky, Pitchfork