For Johanna Warren, Music, like Reiki and Foraging, is a Form of Healing

The Los Angeles-based musician calls from from rural Wales to talk about her fifth record, "Chaotic Good."

by Sophie Kemp
May 3 2020, 9:30am

If this was a normal year, Johanna Warren would’ve been on tour indefinitely. She would’ve been driving across Europe, playing gigs night after night, working until she couldn’t work anymore. It’s not a normal year though, and Warren’s plans to tour forever have been put on a permanent hold. The Los Angeles-based musician and actress just released her fifth album, Chaotic Good, from rural Wales where she has relocated to be with her partner. Chaotic Good’s ten songs are some of the best Warren has written to date. Here, Warren explores the versatility of her instrument in ways that she hasn’t in the past, with moments of silence and purity, as well as sections that are loud, abrasive, and almost ugly. Her lyrics are as poetic and thoughtful as ever. Just spend an afternoon walking around wherever you are and pay close attention to the beauty of Warren's craftsmanship. It warrants repeated listening.

Against the backdrop of rolling hills and tall grass, Warren has been spending most of her days surrounded by nature. She is also a healer, and being in touch with the natural world is as important to her practice as watching old movies and carving out time to write songs. “I've just been foraging and fermenting a lot of things, and starting a garden. This is the first time that I've had the personal space in terms of land to really grow more than just a couple beds of vegetables and herbs,” she tells me over a Zoom call. She also tells me that this record also comes at a pivotal point in her personal growth; Warren is in her early thirties, and shares that she feels that now is the time for her to take stock of what is and is not working in her life. This record is the result of that careful processing. I talked to Warren about her career seven years in, her recent foray into the world of screenwriting, the beauty of the Welsh countryside, and more.

I know you’re in Wales right now. What's your process like there? Are you making art right now?
I've been definitely shifting gears, and kind of trying to hold a gentle space around that process. My plan was just to be on the road for pretty much this entire year. I was going to be doing a European run to kick off that infinitour. So I had been preparing for one thing, and what I'm doing now just could not be more opposite. It was just definitely a lot of recalibration that needed to happen, and it's been really good. Honestly, I'm so grateful for that course correction. In the space that's been created, my body has been talking so loud. I've been having just so much autoimmune symptom flare-up. And just deep, deep chronic fatigue that has been there for a long time, but I've just been overriding it, and saying like, "We don't have time for that. There's a mission. We must complete the mission." It’s been really necessary to just have this space to check in with my neglected body, and just work on releasing that grip on the attachment to productivity and the pushing-out all the time, and just realize, "You know, I don't feel like doing any of that." Now that I don't have to.

What kinds of things have you sort of learned about yourself through, as you were just saying, forcing yourself not to be productive all the time, and really listening to your body?
I'm realizing that so much of the drive, the ambition to do all these things in the world has been. It's been really hard for me to discern for such a long time where that's coming from, and if the impetus is one that I want to honor or work on disentangling from, because I think a certain level of ambition and creative drive is obviously really healthy and important, but I think it can also often come from a place of unhealed wounds, and insecurity, and wanting to be validated externally, and needing to feel a sense of power and status in the world because you don't feel empowered just on the daily, in life, in a body. I'm living in rural Wales right now, and just have the amazing privilege of being able to step outside and I'm in fucking paradise, just walking barefoot on these magnificent hills, and just no people around, just sheep and nettles. I'm learning about all the local plants, and foraging a bunch, and starting a garden, and just really living close to the ground and moving slowly. And I'm like, "Oh my God, I'm happy for the first time since I was maybe a little kid."

Right before all this hit, I was living in Los Angeles and determined to blow up. I had moved to L.A. earlier this year just to fucking do it. It had been like half in, half out for my whole life, just kind of like wanting it and not wanting it at the same time. So I was like, "Dude, if you don't fucking go for it at some point, you're going to get to the end of your life and wonder what would've happened if you had." So I was like, "I'm moving to Hollywood, and putting all my trepidation aside, and just admitting to myself that I want to be a superstar," you know? And then this happened. And then back to what feels like my truest self in so many ways. It's like I've just been in this constant internal conflict between this part of me that just wants to be anonymous, and working with plants more than people, and just chilling and healing, and then this part of me that wants to be a superstar, and a creative powerhouse, and creating art that changes the world. It's just been a really interesting time to let those two voices have their conversations.

I read that your work as a musician is very much related to your work as a healer. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?
I know I'm on the right track when it feels like [my art] is helping me process things in my life, helping me make sense of the chaos, and find beauty in all of it. Healing is kind of all about harmony, and that's very musical too. It's all about finding balance and harmony, and learning how to move through discord too, because that's all part of the process too. I think all of the experiences I've had with plant medicines, a big part of that journey is moving into the territories that we might not want to look at, and that we might put in a lot of energy towards repressing and holding in shadow, and then inviting it in, and holding it in the light, and looking at it, and being like, "Oh, you're not so scary. I don't need to spend all my time running from you. You're actually a teacher. You have so much important information in you."

I think that is what I see art doing, too, for society at its best, is providing a place for us to simultaneously work through our shit, find interesting, beautiful ways to present to the collective these areas of our psyche that we might not want to or be prepared to look at. I think great comedy does that a lot. It's like it finds ways to draw our attention to things that we might rather just pretend isn't there, but makes it funny so we can laugh. It's like sugaring a pill, you know?

Johanna Warren's "Chaotic Good," out now.

Your new record is called Chaotic Good, which I know is a Dungeons & Dragons reference. I wanted to ask you about this idea of cosmic role-play. There is this quote of yours about the album that I really like where you say, "There's chance, there's choice, and there's alignment. What forces in the universe do I choose to align myself with?" I was wondering if you could unpack that for me.
There's the roll of the dice in every moment, you know? Factors that, try as we might, we can never control or predict. I've found a great sense of just serenity in surrender when it is married to intention. Really just every day, just waking up and stating to myself and the universe my intention for the day. I use the bodhisattva prayer, which is, "May my actions serve to liberate myself and all beings from suffering." And that's my intention, and it's pure in my heart. I feel it. I know it to be true that that's what I yearn for is to just do something every day that can ultimately contribute to that collective global process of healing. I don't need to know what exactly that's going to look like in real time, because so often, things unfold so mysteriously. In the moment, it might look like something is completely falling apart, but from eagle's eye view, that might be what is absolutely necessary in the long term, or in the global picture. Even when it comes to death, I think bringing a death-positivity into that, and recognizing that, at some point, it's going to be my time to die. Even surrounding that with that intention, knowing that my death at some point will be the greatest thing I can do to contribute to the unfolding of this natural process. It just brings so much peace. In thinking of life as a real role-playing game, it's like that is just like every day and every moment. When the chaos of the universe starts to swirl, and the waves get big, and you feel like you could just get swallowed in this sort of nihilism, or when different opportunities present themselves, and you're like, "Ooh, who am I?" You know? Like, "I could do this. I could do that. I could do that." You know one of those string toys that they're old school, like plastic toys, with a string through them?

Yeah, like a yo-yo?
And then where they collapse, and then you push the button, and it snaps up straight again? I just got an image of that. That's how I feel when I come back to that alignment and intention. And it's so helpful, especially in a moment of such collective chaos and uncertainty as we're currently experiencing, is just like coming back to that center within yourself of what you know you're here to do and what forces in the universe you're working for.

How do you channel these kinds of huge questions about the way the world and the universe work actually into music?
There's a sort of abstract feeling that you just get when you know something is true. You feel it. It's like it sounds right, but you also just feel the resonance. I think, in general, in life, that also kind of ties in with the alignment thing too. It's like it's a tuning, and what frequencies are you tuning to, you know? And you just feel it, and hear it, and know it when it's pure and resonant.

I was wondering if you could walk me through a song on the record, “Twisted,” at the end of that song, you're just basically screaming, and I found it incredibly moving to listen to. Were you trying to release something, like psychically, on that track? And if so, what?
Every time that I play that song live, I always feel like I am 10 pounds lighter psycho-spiritually. Like, whoa! This is fun! That song was so fun to write, and record, and perform, because just screaming is so fun, and I had never really let myself do that before, because I think I've been really concerned in the past with maintaining a certain clarity, and purity, and prettiness in my voice. This record has been definitely a turning point in that of just getting more curious about the range of versatility in the human voice. I mean, I feel like I've just touched the tip of an iceberg that I want to continue to feel my way down in future efforts. It’s just really interesting how many kinds of sounds we can make with these instruments that we're born with, and how limited the range of what's generally considered acceptable is.

Yeah, in terms of intention of releasing anything in particular, it was definitely just kind of like a pure, cathartic moment of rage. Not even rage, just kind of like exhaustion, like just this deep, frustrated exhaustion after just wearing myself out for so many years with so many different people, just trying to save somebody that doesn't actually want to be saved, and really diverting my attention away from myself and the healing that I had to do by putting that on somebody else, like trying to make a project out of somebody, when really, at the end of the day, each of us is responsible for one person and one person only, and that is ourselves.

What were some of the other feelings that you were exploring and unpacking on this record?
I think one big theme that I see is sort of a composting action, a decomposing of recognizing. The songs were written at a period where, suddenly, all the main people who had been sort of pillars in my interpersonal life had just vanished for one reason or another. I had just entered my Saturn return, and suddenly everyone was gone. I just felt like I was standing alone in a field, and all the people that I had been relying on were not there. And that was ultimately a massive blessing, because looking back on it, those were not the relationships that I could have put any more energy into. It was all that kind of relationship that I was just talking about, trying to make something work that was never going to work. So being left alone in that moment led to a really fertile period of writing. I think a lot of the songs kind of are looking at that feeling of being alone, and kind of taking stock of what has died, and grieving.

I'm out in the Welsh hills right now [which feels very evocative]. There are bones everywhere. You'll take a walk and just see several skulls perfectly intact, sheep skulls. It's like metal as fuck. But the thing is, it feels perfect to talk about this in this landscape, because so many of those, the skulls and bones that you'll find, have new little ecosystems growing on them, like three different kinds of moss, and some different grasses, and bugs, and slugs, and spiders. So much new life that springs from what's died, and that, I feel like, is definitely a theme of this record, is like the churning over of the dead matter to foster a new growth and new life.

Is this record about your Saturn's return? Is that the overarching theme that you were thinking about when you were writing these songs?
I mean, it was definitely all written in that period, and there's definitely something to it about that age. The end of your twenties. Whether you believe in astrology or not, it's like that's a really interesting time where I felt like I needed to sort my shit out. It was like if I'm ever going to get where I'm trying to go, I need to just run a massive overhaul on everything about my life, and look really critically at who I'm surrounding myself with, what I'm spending my time doing, what my daily habits look like, what my relationship is to discipline and self care, just all this shit, you know? Just, yeah, a massive cleanup time. I wasn't consciously thinking that this is a record about my Saturn return, but it was definitely an end of a cycle and the beginning of a new one, for sure.

And where do you think you are right now? What does the beginning of this new cycle look like for you?
Everything is new. I'm living in a new country, in the beginning of, by far, the most amazing, beautiful relationship I've ever had, and about to put out this album. I just finished writing the screenplay right before I left L.A., and I'm just now in the beginning of sending it out to people in the industry. I'm realizing that I came into the world knowing that I wanted to be a writer, and songwriting has been sort of my chosen mode of writing for the last decade, but in some ways I feel like I'm sitting on some stories that are too complex and too sprawling to be fit into an album or a song. I'm like branching out to build a bigger boat.

Johanna Warren