‘Sing your song’

Johanna Warren makes music for body and spirit

Johanna Warren

Johanna Warren

Photo by Marlee Meghan Banta

Johanna Warren performs Thursday, Feb. 22, 7:15 p.m., at Argus. Maitland and The Rugs open.
Cost: $3
Argus Bar + Patio212 W. Second St.

We don’t always listen to ourselves. Maybe it’s fear, or indifference, being torn between doubt and intuition; whatever the case, we ignore the voice inside. Thank goodness for artists like singer/songwriter Johanna Warren, who remind us of what we might be missing. There’s a deliberate mysticism in the Portland, Ore.-based folk musician’s lyrics and overall demeanor, the kind that often gets lost under the vague umbrella of “spirituality.”

“More than spirituality, I guess authenticity is kind of what I feel I’m advocating for,” Warren said in a recent interview. “Being yourself and making this life what you want it to be; you don’t have to subscribe to any stories that don’t make sense to you, don’t feel good to you. More than anything with the music that I make, that’s kind of what I hope to transmit and inspire other people to do. You don’t have to try to sound like anybody you’re not; you can just sing your song.”

This wasn’t always Warren’s stance. For a majority of her life she didn’t identify as a spiritual sort of person. Then, at the end of 2012, she was in a major car accident.

“That radically redirected the course of my life and left me feeling I’m here for a reason, as we all are,” Warren said.

Part of that redirection was a turn toward healing through herbal medicine, and a cross-country move from Hudson, N.Y., to Portland. Since then, Warren’s been honing her plant knowledge while sharpening her songwriting craft. She writes songs that release a kaleidoscope of emotion via arpeggiated acoustic guitar chords—in both simple and complex patterns—and a pristine, classic voice.

Her new album, Gemini II (released this week on Warren’s own label, Spirit House), has already received praise from Pitchfork, The New York Times and NPR. The album is a twin to its 2016 predecessor, Gemini I (both recorded simultaneously), built around interpreting two tarot cards (Lovers and The Devil), and a former relationship.

“They’re partners; they contain bits of each other and they’re their own distinct thing,” Warren said. “The concept of each track [having] a twin on the other album, that doesn’t mean that they’re identical—just like twins aren’t the same person—but they’re deeply connected.”

This week, Warren embarked on the Plant Medicine Tour 2018 with Philly duo Maitland, which will keep her on the road until May 6 and combines her two passions: music and herbal medicine. She has invited local farmers, herbalists and healers to each show to hand out information, sell products and speak to crowds.

“I’ve just been seeking ways to integrate my many interests and to feel like what I’m doing with sharing music is about more of something than just me,” Warren said. “When people get together at a show, there’s just so much energy in the room—so many minds, so many hearts.”

Creating these expanded experiences doesn’t just benefit the communities, but also Warren herself.

“Part of why I’m doing this is a self-care mechanism,” Warren said. “I feel really calm about going into this experience because I know that I’m gonna be close to the ground the whole way through.”

The idea for the tour came to Warren in mid-December. Booking a three-month DIY, cross-country tour on a tight deadline is a daunting proposition, but Warren was undeterred.

“This is by far the most ambitious booking endeavor I’ve undertaken, and it feels like it’s happened so fast, just really magically,” she said. “I’ve done a ton of work, but it also feels like I didn’t have to do anything except say, ‘Yes.’”