Close up of Whitney Johnson of Matchess with her hair blown by the wind
Credit: Marzena Abrahamik

For roughly a decade, Chicago multi-instrumentalist Whitney Johnson maintained a fairly steady developmental arc with her solo project, Matchess. Her songs, which comprised layers of viola, organ, tape loops, drum machine, and voice, progressively materialized out of a murky, analog fog; the hooky, propulsive tracks on the 2018 release Sacracorpa glided like a lucid dream of flying. Sonescent, her debut recording for Drag City, departs from this approach by taking a deep dive into the recesses of Johnson’s mind. Its music came to her during a Vipassana meditation retreat in Joshua Tree, California. Required to maintain silence and abstain from writing or recording throughout her stay, she had no immediate way to document the melodies and arrangements that arose into her consciousness after a few days of contemplation. After completing the course, she did her best to remember the songs she had heard while meditating. In contrast with her usual process of performing and tracking her music entirely alone, she wrote it down on paper, taught it to a band, and took them into a studio to record it. But you’ll only hear brief snatches of those recordings on Sonescent. Most of the album consists of hypnotic electronic tones, which are periodically churned by the sounds of the band—snatches of barely audible folk-rock break the synthetic surface like koi briefly surfacing in a pond and then disappearing into the depths, an effect that’s by turns lulling and deeply disquieting. Only time will tell if Sonescent is a reversal of Matchess’s evolution toward lucidity or the first step on a new path altogether. Either way, it’s a remarkably concrete representation of an elusive intrapsychic experience.

Matchess, Ryan Packard & Jeff Kimmel, Wed 2/23, 8:30 PM, Constellation, 3111 N. Western, $15, 18+