Glistening guitars and a trembling use of drone collide for an iteration of heaven metal.
Music serves as the ultimate consoler, providing guidance through the best and worst of times. When multi-instrumentalist Madeline Johnston (MIDWIFE) lived through the closure of Rhinoceroplis, a Denver venue/co-op she called home, tensions grew high as she became displaced alongside the other residents. Through it all, the friendships she made and the music she played kept her centered. However, the losses would continue as she then lost her dear friend Colin Ward in 2018. With today's arrival of Forever, music again acts as a muse for understanding as Johnston pays tribute to Ward with serene sonics.
Forever finds MIDWIFE tapping into a unique blend of elements that help pierce the soul as intended, making her the perfect fit for the eclectic lineup of The Flenser. The ambient, dream pop and drone hybrid, or heaven metal as Johnston has coined it, is drenched in reverb. Like the Mattie Gonzales cover photograph before it, it radiates bliss, providing comfort to one as they get lost in the nirvana that Johnston has created. It's a record to be experienced in solitude for the emotion transpiring here is heart-wrenching.
We talk to MIDWIFE mastermind Madeline Johnston about today's release of Forever:
When we first got a chance to dive into Forever, the circumstances were much different. You had a spring tour planned, Roadburn was on the horizon, and our current state of affairs wasn’t in as much turmoil as it is now. With the album's release now here, where do you see yourself now compared to when you first put the record together? Johnston: I’ve just been trying to take it one day at a time. That’s really all I can do. After tour and Roadburn were cancelled, I think I lost a lot of momentum. I’m trying to re-focus that energy into other projects and starting to work on new material, trying to stay inspired. I’m still looking forward to the album release on April 10th with great anticipation. I think people really need music right now. How much of the record is a source of self-reflection and catharsis for you personally as it is a composition that you’ve put together for audiences to enjoy? Jonhston: I think it can be both. Most of my work is meant to be as personal as it is universal. I hope it can reach audiences that are in the throws of grief, and be an aid in working through that for them. I hope it can make people feel less alone. Forever serves as a conduit for channeling the less fortunate moments of life, including the passing of your dear friend Colin Ward. Did writing and composing the material take an emotional toll on you at all? Johnston: Definitely. After he passed I don’t think I even thought about music for about a year. It was all too much. I could barely look at my guitar. Language was the first song I wrote for the record, I remember after singing it for the first time just completely breaking down, it ruined me. Having said that, writing this record was ultimately a very integral part of my healing process. I was trying to get a grip on understanding death - understanding life. I wanted to write a letter to Colin, and wasn’t able to do that with words alone. It took a long time.
It’s really an honest and densely textured record. Anyone Can Play Guitar showcases while Vow taps into puts one at ease with a beautiful soundscape. Musically, what did you aim to achieve with Forever? Johnston: I didn’t approach it with any solid ideas of what it was going to sound like. I had no idea what direction it would go in, as I was writing and recording it simultaneously. I did want to focus on different elements of grief and praise, and give them space to be celebrated. I guess it makes sense that it has no constructs, as memorializing someone, and loving someone has no bounds. Including Colin’s voice on C.R.F.W. would seemingly make it one of the more special tracks on the record. How did you approach the writing of this track, seeing as it’s the longest and more personal of the efforts? Johnston: I knew I had to incorporate this poem in the album somehow. I tried many different ways of placing it, on top of an ambient drone, or as a small sample for an intro - but I soon realized it was meant to be heard in its entirety, and needed space to stand alone in its power. I interpret it as Colin being at peace. The poem was commissioned by Sterling Crispin in 2011, and is part of a larger project called Pure Becoming (http://www.purebecoming.com/). The record itself, specifically with tracks like the heart-wrenching Language, stands out with an angelic sound, really striking a chord and defining what you’ve coined as ‘heaven metal’. The tag is quite fitting given the atmospheres you’ve composed here. How did that all come about? Johnston: Thank you. This is my own genre I made up a few years ago. I never know how to describe what I do, so I found a way to place it. It seemed fitting to me as I’m writing music that is heavy in it’s own way - more emotionally heavy - and something that can be angelic (as you described) at the same time. “Heaven Metal” is emotive music about devastation. It’s all about catharsis.
Though it’s not what one would consider sonically ‘heavy’ in terms of metal, the emotive musical elements and lyrical themes present would fit that criteria in other terms, making this record feel right at home with The Flenser. How did this newfound label relationship come about?
Johnston: It is a huge honor to be a part of The Flenser family, alongside such inspiring artists and great people. Jonathan reached out to me about a year and a half ago after hearing Like Author, Like Daughter (2017), that’s how the relationship came about. We kept in touch and I was invited. It is like living in a dream. I feel so lucky. The Flenser really values their artists above all.
I'd say you’re in good company alongside Elizabeth Colour Wheel, Street Sects, and Drowse to name a few. Are there any artists or records in particular that inspired certain areas of Forever? Johnston: Making Forever was definitely more about introspection rather than taking influence from others. I feel like after defining my sound in Like Author, Like Daughter, I was free to experiment and push those boundaries in Forever, my second full length. If anything, forming relationships with other bands on the label has pushed me to challenge myself and improve, to grow as an artist. Everyone is so good. When I started the project in 2015, one of my main influences was an artist named Chris Lopez, from TX. I played a show with him and I was completely blown away after seeing his set. I think seeing Chris perform was what drew me towards experimental pop music and pop music in general, that it could be weird, and heavy, too - That is could be life changing if are open to it. This defining moment changed the way I make music. Upon first gaze of Forever, we’re met with what appears to be cloud shaped wings under a somber color tone, embodying the melancholic and heartfelt nature of the record. It's definitely something to lose yourself to while closing your eyes and enjoying the lush guitar tones and reverb. Art is of course open to interpretation, but what do you take from the Mattie Gonzales-designed cover as you listen through Forever? Johnston: I actually saw this photo that my friend Mattie had taken one day, and just kind of stopped in my tracks. I couldn’t believe it was real and that Mattie was so lucky to have witnessed it. People see images in clouds all the time, but this felt really different. Angel wings gently surrounding the moon’s halo, radiating peace and protection. It has also been said that orbs represent the presence of angels - and green orbs specifically signify healing. I think it’s the perfect cover for Forever. I can’t imagine any other image. It’s absolutely perfect and very near and dear to my heart. My Guardian Angel. Album covers of course play a key part in the perception of a record first hand. Do you recall ever being captured by an album cover, whether at a record store or online, that maybe even made you engage with a record in a different way? Johnston: Definitely. I remember growing up and trying to find music (without the internet). I would listen to CD’s at Borders, based solely on the album covers and what looked interesting to me. The CDs I did have I would usually hang up the jewel case inserts on my wall. I loved looking through these and seeing photos of the band and pictures from behind the scenes. The situation is seemingly getting worse by the day, yet Forever will serve as emotional communion for many. What, if anything, do you intend audiences to take from the listening experience you’ve set forth? Johnston: My hope is that people have the capacity for music right now, that Forever can serve as a transporter to another world, if even for only half an hour - someplace better, without destruction - all love.
Forever is available now via The Flenser. Pickup your copy of the record HERE and be sure to tune into MIDWIFE's album release live stream HERE on April 17th (5PM MDT) for conversation and performances from the record.