A peak behind the experimental project Matchess.
When I first saw Whitney Johnson, she was on the bank of the Ohio River, sitting alone, setting up a small organ. It was at Louisville’s Cropped Out Festival, an event I had chosen to attend because of headlining titans of experimental music like The Dead C, Bonnie Prince Billy, Pissed Jeans, and Bill Callahan. But it was ultimately Johnson’s performance under the stage name of Matchess that impressed me the most. The songs of the water and the local fowl meshing perfectly with her tape loops and ethereal voice as the sun began to sink behind her. I was awed by the way she turned loops of sound into transcendental experiences. It wasn’t for more than a month until I met Johnson again in Chicago, the city that had been her home for 12 years and mine for just over two weeks. Nearly done with a PhD program in sociology, she said her academic work isn’t something she lets into her musical output. On a leaf-blanketed picnic table in the middle of Wicker Park, Johnson welcomed me to Chicago with a myriad of insider knowledge about the local scene and a peek behind the curtain of the indescribably beautiful project that is Matchess.
The Le Sigh: How long have you been making music?
Whitney Johnson: Since I was a kid. I started playing the viola when I was nine-years-old and started playing the piano after that. But we didn’t have a real piano, just a one-and-a-half octave little keyboard to play on. That was actually I guess my first instrument, that little Casio.
TLS: How did you get into making the music that you’re making now?
WJ: That’s kinda been a long road. I studied music in college, I mean I played music in high school but that was kind of a more legit, you know, classical music or whatever. I went to school for music and studied classical music for a bit. I started doing avant-garde compositional stuff at the end of college and that was more fun, but I kind of wanted to do my own thing. But I never thought of myself as a composer. If I had to go back, I think I would have studied composition because there’s some technical stuff that would be great to know, like orchestration and counterpoint and all that stuff. Anyways, I started playing rock music after college.
TLS: What projects predated the Matchess project?
WJ: I played in a band called Verma for a few years. It’s still probably technically together but we’re not that active right now.
TLS: And when did Matchess start?
WJ: It started in 2008/2009 I guess? It started when I got this Farfisa organ. I’d been recording my own stuff before that and doing, like, guitar songs and writing on top of that. I was doing some viola stuff. But this was like the start of the project, that organ I got. I don’t use it anymore, I use an Ace Tone organ. I love the sound of it. I started layering stuff on top of it.
TLS: I saw you play live so I already kind of know the answer to this, but for someone who listens to your studio music it can be kind of hard to parse out sounds and where they’re coming from. What are the main instruments and pieces of technology you use to make your music?
WJ: So, right now my process is the song goes into a mixer. I have a combo organ that goes through effects and straight in, vocals that also go through effects and then into the mixer, and viola. I don’t loop with the pedal but I have a nice delay pedal I use that I really like. But I have a 2-track reel-to-reel that I’m using. So first in the beginning of the set I’ll take a blank loop and record on both tracks. And if you have it at a kind of high level, high gain, it will feed down into the other. Then I turn off one track so it’s just tape delay on one and the other is playing back. I can send everything through an aux so that everything I mentioned can be sent in and then come back out with this tape delay. But also as you stop and re-record you can add layers to the first track because it bleeds onto it.
TLS: How does your classical background influence your songwriting as Matchess?
WJ: Well I still do listen to composed music of that kind a lot. I think it’s in my brain, influencing me that way. In terms of music theory it’s sort of a smattering like, oh here I’ll use this modal scale or here I’ll use this circle of fifths progression.
TLS: Do you think there’s a pretty high level of improvisation that happens when you’re playing live sets?
WJ: Well it’s some of both because there is some [improvisation] mixed in for sure. But there’s some drum machine songs and songs that go along with the drum machine recording or whatever goes along with the cassettes. I also have two cassette players. So that stuff is like, sampled with field recordings, drum machines, stuff like that. So there’s tons of improvisation. Some songs are more improvisatory than others I guess.
TLS: When someone asks you to describe the music you make, like a family member or a college classmate, what do you tell them?
WJ: I usually go straight for moods it might be able to set instead of genre stuff because I do get lumped in with a lot of genres. I mean people think that it’s synthesizer music even though it’s an organ so it’s not really, and I’m not a synthesizer person per se. Sometimes I play with folk artists because there is something, a song structure, that can kind of work like that. I’m opening for this metal band Baroness on Monday. It’s bizarre, I mean that couldn’t be more different than Bill Callahan right? But those are both people I’ve opened for in the past month. Genre-wise it’s sort of all over the place, so I usually describe it in terms of mood.
TLS: So playing in the Chicago scene, is there a strong scene here for the music that you make/ that influences you or has it been a sort of bounce-around, one week opening for a metal band one week opening for a folk artist sort of thing?
WJ: It all kind of comes and goes. There are times that the DIY scene is more thriving than others, or that might just be the people I know. Because I know there are lots of others I might not be on to right now. I’ve played a lot of DIY-type house shows over time and I just love that environment. Also I know several people that have played in groups, either rock bands or some sort of ensemble, before and are doing solo music now. So that’s kind of fun to see them branching out into their own endeavors.
TLS: What kinds of music are you usually consuming on a day-to-day basis?
WJ: It’s a blend for sure. There’s like a stack of cassettes and records that I go through that are from people that are friends or part of the community here. But also old stuff for sure.
Author's note: When I mention my love for Chicago’s independent radio, Johnson tells me there’s something I need to hear. She whips out an old iPhone and pulls up an audio recording titled “Aliens.” She was on her way back from a tour as part of a duo called Simulation, she said, when the group stopped to stay at an Earthship in New Mexico. On the way in, in the middle of nowhere, Johnson said she heard an alien trying to break through the waves. She plays the recording for me. Sure enough, strange unintelligible voices can be heard through the static.
TLS: A lot of music that’s in your vein, like with tape loops and field recordings, a lot of that is scooped in with this aesthetic of aliens and the strange. People like Grouper and a lot of new age artists, it all gets looped into that. Is that something that’s influenced the aesthetic of your songwriting?
WJ: Yeah, definitely. I mean Liz Harris is totally an icon for me. I had a chance to open for her in New York this summer and the stuff she did that night was all her music but coupled with this video in the back that had this, not exactly a narrative but a loose sort of structure to it. So in the end there was a sound of a freight train going through that was so loud. It was so cool because her whole set was mostly on her palate at a certain decibel level and then, decibels higher, there was the sound of a freight train going through the space, which was a nice space but that had been made for like classical music.
TLS: Where does most of the inspiration for your songwriting come from?
WJ: I think the most recent record I did, The Rafter, was a lot more improvisation and less song structure. Although there are a few tracks on there that are properly songs. But the one before that, I was inspired by French symbolist poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud. I like their approach and the idea of that whole genre of poetry which is to have something symbolic that’s not just like handing a direct, straightforward lyric. On the other side of that is stuff like Arthur Russell whose lyrics are so plain that they become something amazing, I think. They’re so straightforward that the simple phrase repeated becomes something else. So I like both approaches, lyrically.
TLS: Lyrics are not traditionally the heaviest element in a lot of noise and ambient music, but you have lyrics so what role do they play? Are you a very lyrics-oriented person?
WJ: I’m really careful about lyrics that I record for sure. Sometimes live I’ll have some of both where it’s just playing through vocalization and also using lyrics. But especially what I record, I really put work into making and doing what I want to do lyrically. But it’s kind of ironic and funny how the lyrics get so buried that nobody knows what they are, but to me they’re meaningful.
TLS: And do you think your personal identity has manifested in your music or do you keep them rather separate?
WJ: Hm, I think in terms of the music itself, it’s one and the same. Identity is in the thing that you’re making. It can’t be disentangled. But identities in terms of genders, sexualities, whatever, that goes into the world of music in countless ways. It’s more categorizable or separable. So you can think of what it means to be a “queer artist” versus a person who is a queer person making music, that comes from their identity and that particularity.
TLS: And what do you think of the scene here in terms of spaces for queer and women artists. Do you think Chicago has a healthy environment?
WJ: I do, I definitely do. And I think actually Chicago is good about not falling into that trap of saying here’s this separate section for women and queer artists and the rest is for male-dominated music. So shows will be very blended even with the genre of music being played. House shows are probably the best example where it’s a ton of people playing different kinds of music and all different identities up in the mix.
TLS: How do you think your experience as a woman in the music scene has shaped that experience?
WJ: It’s complicated. I mean there are a lot of different ways that it has I think. I could go in so many directions with that question. I think a tension I’ve been feeling for the past few years is that I really wanna support other women who are making music and I wanna be a part of the women’s music community and have solidarity in the experience of being a woman playing music, right? But on the flipside there’s a risk that you’re rather categorized as a woman musician. I was in a record store not long ago and saw a section for “women’s music” as if it’s a separate category or it’s own genre or something. That’s kind of troubling because if you’re doing a show and think, “Hey let’s put all the women on the show,” it’s kind of a sub-category that can be hierarchical. Like, this is the women’s music and then this is music in general. So I want to be a part of those kinds of events and that kind of approach but I’d love for it to be a category that’s not so hierarchical.
Listen to Matchess on soundcloud.
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Elijah Fosl is a freelance music and culture writer who's really bad at describing themselves. They hail from Louisville but live in Chicago where they work, ferociously devouring cassette tapes and local produce. Find them on Twitter at @elifosl or online at elifosl.com.