In an interview with the Mercury about her 2016 album Gemini I, Portland singer/songwriter Johanna Warren explained her love of tarot: “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. It raises so many interesting questions, like: Do you believe in predestination? Do you believe in prophecy?”
While Gemini I was inspired by the tarot card “The Lovers,” its sequel, Gemini II, was inspired by “The Devil,” which depicts a couple chained loosely to the throne of the horned demon. Released via Warren’s own label, Spirit House Records, the two albums were recorded simultaneously at an old church in Woodstock, New York, though she decided to wait nine months—the length of gestation for a human fetus—before releasing the second.
Warren’s thoughtful, painstaking attentionto detail is obvious in her symmetrical construction of Gemini I and Gemini II. The twin records each contain nine folksongs that grapple with the double-edged nature of love: Where Gemini I focused on the fulfillment, growth, and joy that can come from romantic partnership, Gemini II illustrates how easily the border between heaven and hell can blur.
Although both albums were recorded at the same time, using the same instruments—fingerpicked acoustic guitar, droning mellotron and synth, twinkling piano, cello—the songs on Gemini II warp lush, intricate melodies with bottom-of-the-well pain as Warren retraces the steps that led to heartbreak. Her lyrics find inspiration in the natural world—cleansing fires, winter rains—and one-sided dialogue with the specter of somebody who’s already gone. This is most striking on the ghostly “Say You Do,” when her voice drops as she snaps, “Some things just don’t work out/So go ahead, get the fuck out.”
Even when she’s narrating the collapse of her relationship, Warren is fiercely optimistic, a beacon of blinding light fighting off the darkness. “I believe nothing is beyond repair,” she insists on the breathtaking “Inreverse” (which landed on a New York Times playlist last month). But throughout Gemini II, she finds unexpected hope and freedom in putting down her tools.
Taken alone, Gemini II is a harrowing, gorgeous experimental folk album with meditative lyrics about the complexities of love. But considered alongside its predecessor, it’s irrefutable proof that Johanna Warren is a master storyteller armed with a heavenly voice and boundless vision.