“I just felt so strange reading about myself in the third-person,” said Johanne Swanson, 25, when we met for coffee in Brooklyn, referring to old press. I imagine the experience could be somewhat surreal, like seeing an old photo of yourself for the first time in a long time, thinking, is that really me? As Yohuna, Swanson makes beautiful, layered music that mostly resists classification: too pop to be electronic, too soft to be rock, too X to be Y, too A to be B — she’s heard it all before. No wonder she felt strange: her music is one of in-betweens.
Take “Lake,” the opening song off Yohuna’s long-time-coming debut LP, Patientness, which is out now on Orchid Tapes (and includes a re-recorded version of beloved, Hunger Games-referencing "Badges"). With a bittersweet cloud of synth and guitar, "Lake" sounds like a summer spent in the shade of a tree, a meditation on a passing moment. The light on the lake/ How it gives and it takes/ Like a summer/ Far away, she sings. It sounds a little electronic, a little rock, and a little pop. But it’s not quite any of those things.
Swanson grew up in the Wisconsin countryside, going to church three times a week. Her town was quiet but her family was musical: her mother, at one point, provided musical therapy as a hospice chaplain, and her father played classical piano. Swanson grew up singing in choirs and acting in musicals (once starring as Christopher Robin in Winnie The Pooh), honing an interest in songwriting that would follow her through college at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and through her later stints in New Mexico, Berlin, and finally, Brooklyn.
Swanson first came to New York as part of the live-in residency program at Brooklyn DIY arts space the Silent Barn, but was quickly displaced by a fire last September. “I really don’t know if [Patientness] would have happened if [the fire] hadn’t,” she said. “Things like that just force you to prioritize.” She was the one who discovered the fire, so moving back in was no longer an option – the memory of that day made her physically sick. It was around this time that she began working with Canadian composer Owen Pallett, and recording Patientness — the title a suitable mantra for such personally turbulent times.
The album’s title is reminder of things just over the horizon, and the fleeting nature of what’s happening now. I would like to be hung over/ With the sun streaming over us/ That’s when things are normal, Swanson sings on “World Series.” Hangovers may be unpleasant, but they are also proof that we’re real. That’s where you find Yohuna — not hungover necessarily, but somewhere in the middle — of then and now, of happy and sad….just trying to feel real.
You created your own program of study while at UW Eau Claire, writing a thesis on “art as social practice.” What does that mean?
I wish that people would politicize what they do more often, especially art, because I feel like there are too many people that really make art for art’s sake. I think everything’s political, especially an act of omission. Just making something because it sounds nice – everything has meaning. Even though what I’m doing now is this very personal songwriting project that has helped me work through a lot of things, and is sort of this coping project, it also exists in a greater space. I hope that people look at that critically when they use words like ‘feminine’ or ‘ethereal,’ or even ‘rock” to describe it.
I mean, to me, the music I make sounds not synth enough to be in an electronic sphere, and not rock enough to be in an indie sphere. What I’d like people to achieve and reject, in general, is dismissing binaries at all, and thinking about things nuanced and contextually.
I’m wary of attaching genre titles to things, because I feel like it excludes a lot of possibility. Have people really described your music as ‘feminine’ before?
Interesting. I wouldn’t call it ‘feminine-sounding;’ I don’t even know what that sounds like.
Exactly! I’m so glad to hear you say that.
I do want to challenge you on one point though. Your lyrics don’t seem, at least to me, explicitly political.
No. But the personal is political. I think it’s hard to be a woman and be really vulnerable, you know? I had this long talk with Owen [Pallett] about it, when we were working on the record, and he made this incredible point that, oftentimes, women and queer musicians make these records that are so musical, and so precise, because they feel like they have to perform tenfold to be taken seriously as a musician.
Do you do the opposite to try to resist that perceived expectation of precision?
Not the opposite. But I would say that my performances tend to be a lot more spontaneous. I do feel, when I’m playing and writing, that I try to allow myself to get lost in that musical moment.
What does that spontaneity look like when you’re performing?
My band doesn’t play perfectly every time. Sonically, we’re playing together, and I can feel it – that we’re creating a moment of suspended adventure, you know? That’s why I do this. That feeling is what carries you from one place to another when you thought you could never get there. You know what I mean? I think that’s what people do to survive.
“I don’t like playing big shows, because it feels like a weird fucking ritual — to have this giant group of people facing one way, and somebody else facing the other.”
What about you? Do you have to play music and search out that feeling to get to the next thing?
I think I have to do it to get through the day! At this point – to be completely frank with you – I don’t want to be a career musician. It’s an ugly world. I’d love to tour extensively, and sell this record, and have it be a great thing for Orchid Tapes. That’s the dream, right? To live a little bit off the art you’re making. That’d be rad.
I’m just not really, like, a ‘climber,’ you know what I mean? I feel too sensitive for the industry. I like to play shows to small groups, so that it feels like an intimate experience — one that we’re all in together. I don’t like playing big shows, because it feels alienating, and like a weird fucking ritual — to have this giant group of people facing one way, and somebody else facing the other.
Tell me a little about your writing process.
For me, it starts with an idea, or a phrase that I can't get out of my head, or shake. Like "patientness" was this idea I had for a really long time. I would get anxious and just be like "patientness." You know?
So “patientness” is something you would tell yourself.
Totally. I feel like I keep on having more and more journeys with these songs, even still. A lot of times in the song, there's a direct 'you' being referenced, and I try to say things really straightforward in my lyrics: things that would be said out loud, simply put. But... More and more, I'm realizing in songs that the direct 'you' was never anyone. It was about being far away.
So your songs are not inspired by real-life events?
Sometimes it is a real-life event, and then sometimes I realize that that real-life event perfectly materializes this other turmoil that I have going on. Songwriting is, like writing or any sort of creative thing, a really healthy way for people to process.
It seems like there’s a lot of heartbreak in your lyrics.
I had this thought once, that I should just call the record Loss. Just be really dramatic about it. I guess it's about heartbreak, but then, you know you look back on those heartbreaks and you realize it was never about … Many times, when I feel wounded by something, it's something else that I'm feeling wounded about.
So there are some specific memories in play, but mostly large-scale feelings.
I'd say so. And that pain and loss of heartbreak is usually about other things that I'm even not willing to admit out loud. I don't mind that those songs are perceived as just being about that, because they are, and that's a starting point for a lot of people to express sorrow, or loneliness.
9/14 - Boston, MA @ Middle East (Upstairs)
9/15 - Purchase, NY @ SUNY-Purchase
9/16 - Brooklyn, NY @ The Silent Barn ^
9/17 - Sweetwater, NJ @ Sweetwater Dad Motel
9/18 - Washington, D.C. @ Hole In The Sky (afternoon)
9/18 - Baltimore, MD @ The Crown (evening)
9/21 - New Haven, CT @ BAR
9/22 - Northhampton, MA @ 13 Queen
9/23 - Montreal, QC @ Cagibi (Pop Montreal)
9/25 - Providence, RI @ Aurora
10/1 - Philadelphia, PA @ All Night Diner
10/3 - Chicago, IL @ Subterranean Downstairs
10/4 - Milwaukee, WI @ High Dive
10/5 - Minneapolis, MN @ 7th St. Entry