BRITISH OCCULTIST, magician, and mountaineer Aleister Crowley was infamous in the 1940s for myriad reasons, among them his creation of the Thoth Tarot deck. Two of these cards—the Lovers and the Devil—serve as the symbolic foundation of Portland musician Johanna Warren’s twin albums, the newly released Gemini I and the forthcoming Gemini II.
Gemini I isn’t Warren’s first concept album—last year’s nūmūn centers on the restorative energy of the moon. Her latest weaves references to the Thoth tradition into her own personal narratives amidst the mystical folk of tenderly picked guitar, haunting piano melodies, flute, mellotron, and synths. While the centuries-old practice of reading tarot requires deep, esoteric knowledge of its many complexities, Warren uses it simply as a means to connect with her intuition. “For me it’s just a really beautiful and effective tool, like a library of visual, symbolic archetypes, breaking down the human experience into these building blocks that everyone can understand,” she tells me over tea. “It raises so many interesting questions, like do you believe in predestination, do you believe in prophecy?”
Both Gemini I and Gemini II contain nine songs with a corresponding twin that shares “thematic or lyrical content, or musical motifs, or production choices, or some combination of all of those things,” says Warren. Although they were recorded simultaneously at an old church in Woodstock, New York, she’ll wait nine months to release Gemini II. “It’s the length of the gestation of a human fetus, which just feels appropriate for some reason,” she says. “And it’s nine songs, which is three to the third, and Gemini is the third sign in the zodiac.”
In his deck, Crowley ascribed astrological significance to each card—for instance, the Lovers corresponds to the Gemini sign and the Devil to Capricorn. This was an odd but revelatory coincidence for Warren, herself a Capricorn, who in turn wrote both records about her current relationship with a Gemini. “It’s been a beautifully productive relationship for me, just bringing up a lot and eliciting a lot of intense personal growth,” she says. “So it’s kind of about the blessing and the curse that is a romantic partnership, and this process of intimately mirroring back another human being and having yourself mirrored back to you through another, and the specific kind of work that can only be done in that context.”
Gemini I centers on the Lovers card, which features an image of a man and a woman beneath an angel. “That’s kind of a beautiful way to see the twin dynamic, the duality, the polarity, but then the mediator in between them harmonizing and facilitating conversation between the two points,” she says. But neither album exists in a vacuum, isolated from the other—the Devil’s influence on this first record is intensely palpable. “In the [Devil] card the lovers are chained to his throne, but they’ve got the chains loosely draped around their necks,” she says. “You think you’re stuck, but you’re really kind of standing there complacently. It’s your choice, and that’s a big word I associate with the devil, choice, and choosing to create hell for yourself.”
Standout “Hungry Ghost” speaks to this hell with unexpectedly upbeat Americana twang as Warren sings, “They say that what you give is what you get/I gave you everything, and all I got is a lot of regret.” On “Let Me Stay” her voice shimmers and dances over the promise, “Call me the rain–I am here to clean the slate,” while “The Blessing/The Curse” expands on the double-edged nature of loving someone.
“Circlenot Astraight” is the record’s center, a listless purgatory that owes co-authorship credit to an invisible hand—Warren recently told Consequence of Sound it was the product of her first encounter with a ghost. Although she didn’t know how to play, she sat down at a piano and wrote, feeling this presence was using her as a vehicle for creative expression. Over stark, brooding piano Warren’s voice sounds tormented as she sings, “My afflictions make me hate, but my addictions make me kind/I’m a circle, not a straight line.”
“In some ways that was anomalous and a unique experience, but to some degree I feel like that’s always part of my experience of the writing process,” she says. “I don’t know where this comes from; I feel like I’m just an antenna.”
“There Is the Light” smoothes out the tension of Gemini I’s first half, surrendering to the light as warm harmonium tones extend slowly like a sunrise illuminating the darkest corners and Warren sings, “You know it’s now or never, but it’s never too late.” Closing track “White Owl” concludes the first iteration of Gemini with the blissful coda, “You show me the beauty that I never could see/So, so happy you found me.”
We return to the topic of predestination as Warren reflects on the creation of her new record label, Spirit House, which focuses on “elevating femme and nonbinary voices.”
“My friend JP had left me a record label in his will four or five years ago,” she says. “He and I were really close collaborators and he had started a record label called Proliferate Music. He was super visionary and inspired and all about making a life path out of starting this alternative record label.”
Warren muses over the oddity that she’d long searched for a label to release her music, when in reality she’d inherited her own. Little coincidences like these color her work, making sense of life’s turmoil by always searching for the light, driving the demons away, and cleaning the slate.