Name: Whitney Johnson

Nationality: American

Occupation: Musician/Professor

Current Release: Sonescent on Drag City

Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?

Like vapor condensing on the surface of glass, a window into the home of art (Huizkol), love (The Rafter), dreams (Somnaphoria), and power (Fundamental 256 Hz).

For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?

Have you ever met someone with a strange and singular way of speaking, almost like another language? Like, you can still basically understand what they’re getting at, but it’s as if they made up their own a personal dialect? I think of improvisation that way, my own dialect—sometimes a tonality or articulation on the viola, a series of frequencies, a pattern that feels comfortable for my fingers on the Ace Tone—and then music is a practice of becoming fluent in my own dialect. Planning and chance converge—I want to say something, but I surprise myself with how I say it.

Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?

A lot of time is spent in my studio plugging and unplugging things, affordances and limitations. I practice free writing. Rain on a mountain. Compositions happen in those texts, most of which don’t manifest, but The Tuning of the Elements happened on the page before it ever made a sound. It was an installation/performance scheduled for March 2020, so the sounds still haven’t happened!

Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?

Beyond all the Delphic candles flickering, dried plants burning, objects spinning in my hands, the only doorway I’ve found is playing music. It takes me a while to wash off the world. But then, sometimes the first thing that happens I’m like, “Damn!”

What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?

That note, that line is already in situ, the next step. Right now I’m thinking of the rain that comes before the river, and the clouds before that. It takes time, and I’m very impatient.

Once you’ve started, how does the work gradually emerge?

Sometimes it feels like infinite repetition. Particularly with longer pieces like the two sides of Sonescent, context is hard to find, it requires so much listening. I can’t remember how many times I said they were finished. And then “Through the Wall” was actually finished, and “Almost Gone” kept going. Others, like a new piece I’m working on, tentatively called “Third Coin,” began as a composition—frequency ratios and a progression of melodies and texts—then it’s more about laying down the good takes. Gotta keep it fresh.

Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?

Words feel like an ocean, seeming to go wherever they want, but there are powerful jet streams and rip tides. Let’s say music follows the path of a river. That’s the metaphor I’ve been pummeling here. There’s only one place the water can flow in any given moment. It doesn’t make choices—can’t pass through a stone until suddenly the moment when BAM it does. Sometimes it takes me a long time to find the right sound, though. My process is basically passing by the wrong sounds and finding pleasure in the right ones.

Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?

Do you think the next record is being written in my unconscious mind while I’m working on the present one? I wonder about that, very libidinal. But I try to keep the integrity of the practice.

There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?

My spirit is the creative state. Some people might call it their inner child or psyche in flow, but I call it my spirit. This is a Jungian thing. How often am I lying to myself, denying the truth of what my spirit knows? I’ve written entire records in states of self-rejection, but somehow my spirit does it. Life finds a way! Ha ha.

Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?

It feels like wringing out a wet cloth. Just when you think it’s bone dry, another drop comes out. I can’t stop until the cloth is utterly desiccated. It’s slow.

Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practice?

If time goes by, that desiccated cloth gets damp in the atmosphere of experience. I’ve changed by the time I listen again, and there’s something else I need to wring out. That’s why I wish I could move directly from the final chef’s kiss on one day to the release date on the next. Alas, years go by.

What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?

In the past, I’ve had trusted people help me with mixing, but lately I’ve done more myself. I’m no engineering whiz, but I know what I want to hear. Perhaps my challenge is to keep my sonic imagination open to what I don’t realize is possible. Technology is amazing. Mastering is a recherché art and science, and I let the masters work their alchemy.

After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?

Already holding onto my chair until February 25th when Sonescent is born into the world! May I be dramatic and say it feels like an appointment for an amputation? I don’t have human children. I need to be dramatic right now and say that this music is my very being.

Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?

I don’t have the experience of art in any other medium—except writing. I love making videos with my VHS camcorder and taking 35mm photos, but I don’t experience those practices as art, not exactly. I make sculptures out of sticks and stones, but that feels like some kind of arcane craft. Anything else—performing mundane tasks—I feel like a dilettante. I don’t have a portal.