As a songwriter and producer, Johanne Swanson — who performs as Yohuna — maintains a masterful ability to distill chaos into calm; to contemplate the more challenging and messy matters of heart and mind with a self-assured deadpan stare and pointed stillness. Whereas her previous work centered layers of synthesizer, Mirroring was written entirely on guitar, giving her new songs a sense of catharsis and physicality. And while her debut, 2016’s Patientness, was a culmination of several formative years spent in flux, a document of coming and going, Mirroring is different: it has a set place and a time. Swanson wrote these intimate songs quickly in one purge in her bedroom in Brooklyn. When her roommate, Eric Littmann (Julie Byrne, Vagabon, Phantom Posse) heard her writing and recording them from the other side of his bedroom wall, he approached her to collaborate. Littmann ultimately co-produced, engineered, and mixed the record, alongside contributions from Adelyn Strei (guitar, flute), Warren Hildebrand (guitar) and many more friends. The results are some of Swanson’s most sweeping arrangements to date, with cello riffs that sing like a grounding human voice, harp and trombone, drums that push her loudest hooks yet forward.
(Photo Credit: Brian Vu)
My oldest friend and collaborator wrote a lyric many years ago: “Everything’s made of mirrors and I can’t look one in the eye.” I would sing a harmony on that line when we performed the song together. It stuck with me, these mirrors and the eyes looking back. Whose eyes?
“I see you/Is that just me?/Mirroring” is the chorus of the title song from my new album. Mirroring, here, is the confusion of what you’re projecting onto someone else. Have you ever lost your own sense, dissolving into someone else and their needs? It is a good strategy if you’re trying to put aside your own.
On other parts of this album, I sing about the loops we fall into, the mirror maze my friend references. I tried to literally move away from mistakes I’ve made, betrayal I’ve felt, to a whole different continent in 2014. The feelings caught up. I found myself repeating the same mistakes. A short-term setback became symbolically weighty. That’s the nature of long-term suffering.
My maze, like that of so many others, is a frustratingly nonlinear process of healing from trauma. I was raped during my freshman year of college. It still bleeds into everything. I had minor surgery last year, a simple biopsy, and I was struck by how disempowering it feels to be a patient. I remember lying on a table, triggered and unable to move. The nurse asked me if I was OK. She asked if I was scared that I might get a bad result.
There’s not a time when I’ve thought, “I’m free from this, I made it through the maze,” but I’ve rounded the corner on some progress. I close the album with the line “I wasn’t always so free.”
I’m trying to have authentic relationships. I am done seeking relationships that just offer what I want to see reflected back. I want to see the people in my life. I want to be seen.
I’m trying to sit with difficult feelings. The most difficult one for me is anger. Everything feels OK until it’s not; I don’t feel anger until I feel rage. There is a block.
Today, I share with you “See Me.” It’s the house I built for my anger. I’m trying to make friends with anger, to understand it as an alarm going off when something is unjust, a reaction to something that is not as it should be. My anger is there to protect me.
“See Me” describes another mirror maze, a cycle I get into when I can’t catch my anger. Because anger is a fight-or-flight response. Everything except the thought of survival disappears, and with it, a sense of empathy for those around me. I call names. I make accusations.
You’re so cowardly
And that’s why you always leave
With another broken piece
Does it feel like security?
You suck the light from me
And that’s why I’m always mean
A vessel without needs
It’s not too much to ask
That’s when something else happens: The person I’m angry at can’t see why I’m angry to begin with, because they’re so threatened. The focus becomes my angry reaction and not what the other person did to trigger it. They can’t see me.
Feel you hanging over me
Like a bunch of prayer beads
And late night pleas
Crying at the beach
I just called to see if I could hear you through the trees
Writing songs helps me untangle what goes wrong and make peace with it. The album revealed what I am holding on to and letting go of. It is disappointments and failures, growth and healing.
On the latter half of the album, there is a companion song to “See Me,” called “Stranger.” It’s the calmer, more knowing side of seeking emotional availability, the feeling of hurt and confusion when you’ve come up short. The lead synth melody is a mirror pattern of the other; on “Stranger” it ascends, and on “See Me” it descends. The chords are almost the same.
I made the video for “See Me” with friends in my hometown in West central Wisconsin last Christmas. It was ten degrees below zero. I lay on the sandy bank of a creek that runs through the woods behind my dad’s house, and sang along to the song as it played from the phone in my pocket. I let the sand run through my fingers and looked into the camera’s lens.
Mirroring is out now. Catch Yohuna on tour this summer:
6/13 — Brooklyn, NY – Baby’s All Right (Record Release Show)
8/1 — Catskill, NY – Avalon Lounge
8/2 — Burlington, VT – The Karma Birdhouse
8/3 — Montreal, QC – Casa Del Popolo
(Photo Credit: Brian Vu)