One doesn’t listen to the music of Madeline Johnston so much as fall into it. It’s not a quick drop either; her music keeps you gently aloft, drifting down into the depths of the darkest chasms.
Adding to the chiarascuro is that Johnston doesn’t record under her own name but as various project monikers. The most recent is Midwife, while Sister Grotto was her “past, ambient-based project that lived from around 2013-2016.” As with many artists, various external labels apply, yet fall short. Minimalism, shoegaze, even the dreaded singer-songwriter are there, but Johnston prefers her own term: heaven metal. “I think my project lives in a lot of different genre-spaces and can exist alongside almost any kind of music,” she says. “I describe Midwife as heaven metal because it seemed fitting when other genre descriptions couldn’t contain it...it’s ethereal and emotional yet it’s often about dark subject matter. I made up the genre to try to describe this cathartic interplay between worlds, angelic and devastating.”
As Midwife, Johnston has released quite a bit of music since 2017: full-length albums; EPs; live recordings; and even single songs, some on labels like Whited Sepulchre and the Flenser and others by herself. All are available at heavenmetal.bandcamp.com. The most recent is the Flenser LP/cassette Orbweaving, a collaboration with Vyva Melinkolya, the musical persona of Angel Diaz, and recorded in Johnston’s home base of New Mexico. The title refers to a species a spider the pair would come across in their nightly explorations of the local terrain.
While the first track, “Miss America,” is almost a country dirge, with its verse of “I’m the dog that has to eat / I’m the hand that feeds / Am I only the things I’ve seen?”, “Hounds of Heavens” that follows has a pulsing electronic drumbeat, distorted guitar chords, and heavily processed vocals. The layering and depth recall one of Johnston’s formative influences, the Smashing Pumpkins. As Johnston explains, “You can create a mass that sounds larger than life. I always loved how this sounded. I used to do it live with my looper before I even started recording my own music—so that translation felt very natural. It also took me a long time to appreciate my voice and unlock the true nature of its timbre. With a layered approach I was able to mask my insecurities about it and then that just ended up being a part of ‘my sound.’ I also sing through a handmade telephone mic that has a mask-like quality. Again, this started as a way to feel more confident in my singing but has since become a big part of me and my art.”
She also name-checks Grouper as a major wellspring and says that she also owes much to “Marty Anderson of Okay and Dilute, whose mantra-like and minimalist approach to lyrics has forever been a comfort and jumping off point.”
The lyrics are simple and shadowy, not least because one needs to listen carefully to parse each word. Sometimes they come first and the music later, other times the reverse. They are not foregrounded, as is typically found in most vocal-based music. but hang like acrid smoke over a spent battlefield, as on the disturbingly and topically titled “Plague X.” The way Johnston approaches vocals also demonstrates her affinity for layers, stemming from her childhood and singing in a choir: “I always loved creating massive harmonies with other singers.”
Johnston’s main instrument is guitar, and she is self-taught, while also playing piano, on which she received lessons in her youth, and “a little bass and a little drums, but mostly for recording projects. I would love to learn more instruments and keep learning the guitar.” But through various collaborations she has learned to use her limitations as an instrumentalist to her aesthetic. She recalls that “in one of the last projects I did, I was just hearing all of the flaws in my guitar performance—like my little finger noises and slides on the strings—but the artist told me they actually loved that aspect of it the most—the humanizing quality. Since then, I have left in all of the sounds I would have previously thought of as mistakes. It opened up a whole new way of hearing!”
The term “outsider” has typically been applied only to the visual arts, a backhanded acknowledgement of the work of someone coming up outside of established structures. In music, such an idea doesn’t really exist; after all, Paul McCartney cannot read music and with computers and an internet connection, everyone is the next Ahmet Ertegun. Johnston speaking about her “flaws” and how they have become part of her style is a crucial part of understanding her music. While some may be hyper-concerned with technique and clarity, virtuosity and branding, Johnston presents something more shimmering, more elusive. Even the longer pieces are still built up from small layers, brief ideas, focused words, phase-shifted with effects and production. They grow bigger organically, and listeners become the outsiders looking in.
The final track on Orbweaving is the title track and longest piece by far at almost thirteen minutes. Yet there is no singing, just a methodical slow swelling of sound. It is purposeful and deliberate and patient, like the titular spider spinning its web strand by strand. It’s a fascinating closure to a fascinating album and connects to a larger web Johnston has been constructing: “I think it’s amazing to look back on past records and hear that connective thread. I really see a strong progression within my work that I’m very proud of.”