Whitney Johnson believes music is best appreciated by leaving its inherent mystery undisturbed. Credit: Maria Tzeka

Whitney Johnson has been ubiquitous on Chicago’s underground music scene for more than a decade. The violist, singer, and keyboardist thrives on collaboration, and she’s worked in a long list of rock bands and experimental projects—though in those roles, rather than emphasize her own talents as a musician and arranger, she focuses on filling out the sound of a group. She played in the 1900s, Via Tania, and the Notes & Scratches before starting the atmospheric, psychedelic band Verma in 2009. She’s worked with Ryley Walker, Bitchin Bajas, Flux Bikes, and Oozing Wound, among others. Since 2013 Johnson has been an instrumental part of Haley Fohr’s Circuit des Yeux. She’s half of Simulation with former Chicagoan Laura Callier (who also performs as Gel Set), she’s developing a duo with Natalie Chami of TALsounds, and she already has one with cellist Lia Kohl of Mocrep.

Johnson does have one project of her own, though—the beguiling Matchess, whose beautifully aqueous, ambient, and elusive sound world she’s been developing for almost ten years. Under that name, she performs frequently in Chicago but rarely tours—Matchess’s west-coast trip with TALsounds last month was a notable exception. Though affable and confident, Johnson doesn’t tend to clamor for center stage or draw attention to her own accomplishments—she seems to have little taste for self-promotion. She conducts her career as though, for her, hard work and beautiful music are their own rewards.

Matchess, Ulla Straus

Fri 7/27, 7 PM, International Museum of Surgical Science, 1524 N. Lake Shore Dr., sold out, all-ages

After this Friday, however, when Chicago label Trouble in Mind releases the new Matchess album, Sacracorpa, it will get a lot harder for Johnson’s solo work to go unnoticed. This gorgeously meditative collection represents a quantum leap in her musical development. She celebrates its release with a concert the same night at the International Museum of Surgical Science.

Sacracorpa is the final installment of what Johnson calls the Matchess Trilogy, which Trouble in Mind also drops on Friday as a small-edition three-cassette set. The previous two parts are Seraphastra (released on tape by Digitalis in 2013, then reissued on vinyl in 2014 by TiM) and Somnaphoria (released in 2015, also by TiM). All three feature a murky but lovely blend of viola, voice, Ace Tone organ, primitive drum machine, and tape loops, with everything subjected to copious amounts of delay, reverb, and other processing.

“The Matchess Trilogy moves from outer space to inner space, passing through the corridor of dreams,” Johnson recently wrote of the project. “Each record considers the sound of what can be seen from a different point of view. Seraphastra imagines what we might find beyond the limit of the visible. Somnaphoria filters that imagination through dream vision. Sacracorpa grapples with hidden inner realities that can only be seen during a crisis.” Influenced by her interest in the occult, Johnson strongly believes that music is best appreciated by leaving its inherent mystery undisturbed—she doesn’t think it’s either possible or desirable to completely codify the process and substance of her work.

Johnson, 36, was born in central Pennsylvania, near Penn State University, and moved to Valparaiso, Indiana, when she was six—her father relocated the family after losing his job in the Pittsburgh steel industry. She began studying viola in fourth grade and pursued it with increasing discipline and devotion as she grew older, but by the time she finished college, her appetite for a career as a classical musician had waned.

“I was gradually breaking out of listening to classical music and that world,” Johnson says. “Classical players, especially if you’re on the symphonic track, should be listening to different recordings of different classical pieces all the time, as study. Part of the process of breaking out of it for me was learning about other things, like listening to punk music.”

After graduating in 2003, she moved to Chicago. Through AmeriCorps, she taught second-grade literacy for Spanish-speaking kids at an after-school program in the arts at Richard J. Daley Academy. The following year the program took her to Boston, where she ran a citizenship-literacy program—she taught English to a small group of Afghani refugee women, translated, and handled intake at a walk-in legal clinic. In 2005 she settled back in Chicago for good and began working with asylum seekers and refugees at the International Refugee Center through the Heartland Alliance. She felt burnout coming on and decided to switch to a more administrative track, which led her to graduate school at the University of Chicago in 2007. By then she’d already begun playing in indie-rock band the 1900s, and in 2009 she earned a master’s degree from the U. of C.’s Harris School of Public Policy, concentrating in cultural policy, international policy, immigration, and quantitative methods.

Johnson also developed an interest in experimental music, including early minimalists such as La Monte Young and Terry Riley. She immersed herself in the city’s DIY scene, which collides and hybridizes genres with playful abandon. “Mortville and the Mopery were really formative for a certain generation of musicians,” she says. “I was hanging out there a ton.” She and her friends listened to punk and to psychedelic music, particularly what she describes as “trippier, dronier” stuff. Those sounds conditioned the births of Verma and Matchess, both of which replaced traditional pop-song forms with amorphous dirges, drones, and blobs of sonic color and texture. She says buying an old Farfisa organ on eBay in 2010 was a big turning point—its sound helped give shape to her compositions as Matchess, which she’d launched the year before (though she didn’t perform publicly till 2011).

The three albums in the Matchess Trilogy, from left: Seraphastra, Somnaphoria, and Sacracorpa

The development of Matchess since then has been more in degree than in kind. Johnson’s aesthetic has remained consistent while her melodic sensibility has grown stronger and her arrangements have become clearer and more detailed. Her musical network has also expanded steadily—she collaborated with touring experimentalists Lea Bertucci and Sarah Davachi on their recent Chicago visits—and she’s now working in a greater range of styles than ever, as different as her classical-flavored improvisations with Kohl and the synth experiments of Simulation.

“I feel like each collaboration is a different expression of a different aspect of what I want to be doing,” Johnson says. “The duo I have with Gel Set, Simulation, is bizarre and we wear costumes and it’s more performative. With Natalie it’s very ambient, soothing, and pretty music, which I do really like. I had a thing with Whitney Allen [of Toupee] called Surfactant, which was noise. And so that was fun, to have an outlet for heavier stuff.”

In Matchess, Johnson heightens the tactile, spooky feel of her drifting, droning, richly hued music with lo-fi recording and production techniques. Haunting bits of tunefulness, some of them legitimately catchy, emerge from the hydroplaning din on Sacracorpa. When she performs this material, Johnson takes an exploratory approach. “There are elements that are always there—usually some lyrical content and some harmonic stuff—but I think the pieces change quite a lot from one show to the next. They’re also very unlike the recordings sometimes when I do them live.”

After Johnson made two of the albums in the Matchess Trilogy, life got in the way of the third. A six-year relationship ended in early 2015, and she immediately wrote and recorded the heavier, darker music that became the gorgeous 2016 Matchess album The Rafter (Monofonus Press). “When I was releasing the first one, I imagined how it could fit as three records together. At the time I was to have started recording the third, I needed to do something else, something totally separate,” she says. “It’s super sad. It was just a really bad breakup.” The music doesn’t much hint at that backstory, though it does clearly shift toward a more brooding, viola-driven sound.

As Johnson finished The Rafter and began work on Sacracorpa, a friend told her about a four-part Japanese narrative form called kishōtenketsu. “It’s not the classic Western trilogy, which is building up to conflict and then having resolution—it’s more about development,” Johnson says. “I thought it was cool that in the midst of this trilogy is this other record that’s separate. That’s also true about that form—there’s a lot of non sequitur themes. Kishōtenketsu is often used in manga, as I understand, and I was told that in some instances the first two sections are in color but the third non sequitur is in black and white. But it mostly happened because that’s where I was in my life right then.”

When Johnson set about making Sacracorpa in early 2016, she was also recovering from a serious health crisis. “A medical condition from birth came back as an emergency, inverting my perspective from a lifetime low to a wave of overwhelming gratitude to be alive,” she wrote about the album in her recent statement about the trilogy. She calls Sacracorpa a healing record, and the music feels brighter and lighter than Matchess’s earlier material.

In this project Johnson’s singing has usually been submerged in the mix, so that’s essentially an additional layer of sound. On the new record her vocals are more prominent, but the syllables she sings carry meaning only below their surface. Inspired by 19th-century British occultist Austin Osman Spare, she adapted a process he called sigilization: to create her lyrics, she reduced each word in a spontaneously imagined phrase to a single syllable, then strung together those syllables into a mantra. Johnson chants those mantras with a beautiful, meditative clarity that reflects her convalescence, and the sigilization process also seems to have opened up new frontiers for Matchess—by unshackling her imagination from the literal content of her lyrics, it’s enriched her already substantial gifts for melody and arranging.

The back of the record’s sleeve includes the line “Dedicated to the healing power of women,” and it’s not just lip service to solidarity. “Women made all of the visual aspects of all of my practice,” Johnson explains. “I feel like there’s a really special bond between femme people. It’s a different social position, and we can relate on another level. A big part of what draws my closest friends together is experiencing the femme side of life together.”

Many of Johnson’s collaborators feel the same way about her. Chami bonded with her immediately when TALsounds and Matchess first toured together in 2016. “We spent two weeks straight with each other after only having spent a few tour-planning days with each other before that,” she says. “It truly was a magical tour. We get along so well and are super supportive of each other, and I think our music really complements each other.

“It wasn’t until our friend Mike Sugarman asked us to play a duo set for a show when we got back that we were like, ‘Ooh . . . we should do that!’ Whitney came over and we improvised together, and just like touring, playing together felt so easy. Our personalities are actually pretty different, but we mesh really well. I think our musical aesthetic, our love for academics and music and arts and improvising, are all really similar. But like our friendship, when we play together I think we take on specific roles and lean on each other in interesting ways. We support each other as totally different structures, making us super tight and comfortable when we’re together.”

Fohr is just as effusive about Johnson as a collaborator in Circuit des Yeux, as a sounding board, and as a friend. “When we’re playing music together and coming offstage, to see how we felt about what just transpired, we’re always looking for same answer,” she says. “‘Feeling free’ is the number one goal in our trajectory, both near- and farsighted. In a more practical sense, I’ve come to know the Whitney ‘sound.’ I’m always taken back by her ability to stack and create her own tiny symphony. Even if we’re exploring a small idea, she always puts her whole heart into the endeavor.

“She’s often the final missing ingredient. What’s the difference between a bowl of things and a salad? What’s the difference between ‘just fine’ music and great music? I think Whitney is often the determining factor in these equations. She is the detail and carefulness that all things require to become wonderful. Whitney is also my neighbor and close friend, and a great listener. She has helped me level through the ups and downs, all of which become artistic material sooner or later, and to me, that is the most valuable kind of collaborator.”

Whitney Johnson (right) with Haley Fohr of Circuit des Yeux onstage at the Nrmal festival in Mexico City in March 2017Credit: Courtesy of Whitney Johnson

Earlier this spring, after eight years of work, Johnson completed a PhD in sociology at the University of Chicago, for which she examined the disjunctions between music and sound art. One of her main areas of inquiry was language—including the fact that it’s much more likely to be used to explain the workings of sound art than of music. This has made her much more aware of the role the occult plays in Matchess.

“The tradition in music has been not to use language, usually, to describe sound, but to let people make their own internal network of references of other things,” Johnson says. “You understand it as ‘This kind of sounds like this’ or ‘This might be speaking to this and modifying it,’ or it’s a hybrid of these things, but it usually happens in people’s minds. It’s also written out, like in liner notes, but people don’t tend to stand up and say, ‘This piece is about this thing.’

“It’s always described that way in sound art—this is this piece, this is the conceptual orientation, and it could be personal, like, ‘I made this based on a memory of a lake in Minnesota, and these are the sounds of the loons on that lake.’ That stuff is usually pretty clearly spelled out in the art world and less so in the music world, so that was the question: Why is that? I was kind of reporting back what people said, and I got a lot of different answers. Now that there’s a new medium of sound rather than vision, it requires some extra support by people who are primarily visually oriented artists. They’re used to looking at a work and understanding it, sometimes with that internal system of references but also with some sort of conceptual framework—and that’s carried over into sound art. But that hasn’t been the history of music. Talking about music hasn’t been the way it becomes valuable.”

Johnson’s research has helped her understand why she relishes the lack of codification and analysis in music—especially in the underground scene. She embraces what’s undefined and undefinable about it. “It often comes up in interviews about this metaphysical or occult or ritualistic quality in my music, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I’m drawn to this stuff,” she says.

“Social science is very much about the Enlightenment mind, and this is the opposite thing,” Johnson continues. “In sociology, people talk a lot about the demystification of life under modernity, making things more rationalized, more bureaucratic, or more scientific. I think I’m trying to remystify life any way it can happen. I feel like so many people deal with anxiety and depression and problems from this strict demystification of life, because you know too much. I think focusing on the unknown is a good mental process—it’s good for your spirit. There’s something relieving about it, that you don’t have to have it all figured out. And there’s something fun too—it’s enchanting, and I like to let my mind wander away from the knowable.”

This fall Johnson will keep a relatively low profile—she won’t be performing much, because she’ll be teaching multiple classes at the School of the Art Institute and the University of Chicago. During the spring semester, though, she’ll get onstage more. That’s when she finally plans to tour in support of Sacracorpa. “I’ve been pursuing these two lives, neither one of which has many possibilities for a career,” she says. “It’s like I want to be a professor and a musician, and those are two of the hardest jobs to get. And I’m at this point where they’re both building up and competing for time with one another, and I’m just going to see how it goes. I would love to have some kind of job and tour a lot more and play a lot more. I would also love to have a normal professor job—that would be great.”  v