Johanna Glaza, the Lithuanian born London-based artist who’s put her unique spin on folk music, has just released her debut solo LP, ‘Wild Sculptures’.
She tells us about walking the edge between raw and beautiful, the continued influence of Bach’s organ music, unlocking emotions through symbols, learning to play the piano, and finding her own voice.
While recording the new album you walked “the edge between raw and beautiful”. Could you explain what you mean by that?
With this record I certainly wanted to keep it free from any superfluous elements. If it started to feel too comfortable, or sparkly, I took a step back and stripped it off because I know it wasn’t good enough for me. It was a constant self-questioning how far I can go without sounding too raw, how thin can the skin be before we start seeing flesh.
With Ed Deegan, who produced the album, we were juggling such tiny differences which suddenly felt enormous in the context of stripped-down songs.
What made you decide to “expose” your voice more on ‘Wind Sculptures’?
I wanted to create quite an austere atmosphere on the album, a feeling of solitude. As if you are locked in some claustrophobic room, maybe some space station, far away from your safe environment, one to one with a song and nothing in between.
At times it felt like standing in front of the camera with no makeup, in the room full of people perfectly groomed and made up. It’s so unusual to listen to the voice that is not covered up with glossy reverb these days.
There were moments when I felt quite insecure and asked Ed to put a bit more makeup on my voice, more effects. But then I would realise that those additions created a distance, made it less convincing and I went back to a stripped-down feel.
Your lyrics also seem a lot more personal than before. Was it difficult to open yourself up like this as well?
Quite often we talk about events in our lives, but not how we feel about it. It’s not enough for me to say what happened – as an artist I’m more interested in what’s still happening beneath layers of our minds.
I can only be true and believable staying close to my own experience. With this album it was mainly my mother’s loss that I was unravelling in my songs.
Speaking about things that are so difficult to express I had to create my own language and symbols to unlock things. It’s more symbolic and poetic and in some way less direct, but sometimes metaphors can cut through much deeper. Most evocative adjectives can be too vague and inaccurate comparing to poetical comparisons that reach the core of things. Also it makes songs multilayered, when personal becomes universal so other people with completely different experiences can relate to the same stories and images.
Instead of synths you relied on sounds from household appliances for this album. What was the thinking behind this?
From the very beginning Ed was very keen on trying found sounds and tape loops instead of synths and I thought it was a brilliant idea since it was something I always wanted to try. It felt more natural to create everything anew for these songs without using pre-made samples. But just like when I’m writing I need my space which no-one can enter, Ed had plenty of his space where I didn’t go. Sadly I wasn’t there when the most exciting and otherworldly sound on ‘Space Mermaid’ was born by using a barbecue oil drum.
Most often songs come to me not through specific sounds but through certain states of mind when I’m completely by myself. And I still find piano the most reliable partner in songwriting crime. I don’t know why.
What is it about being completely by yourself that helps you write?
Maybe because I feel silence more intensely in the less familiar surroundings, so it provokes the sound. I find it easier to create my own world in empty unfamiliar spaces.
How do you feel you’ve grown as a person and as a musician in the years since releasing the single ‘Paper Widow’ in December 2014?
I don’t know if I changed much but I certainly learnt about myself through the process of making this album how self-disciplined and focused I can be and how much joy it brings to me to be in that state.
Is there one song on ‘Wind Sculptures’ that best sums up what you’re about as a person or a musician?
I don’t think one song could do that for me. That’s why I needed the album to put the picture together.
What was the first music you fell in love with?
I remember when I was a kid my dad bought us a record player. And the first record I played was the organ music by Johann Sebastian Bach. I played it a lot then. I’d carefully place a needle and run to the other room to listen to it so the music would flood the entire flat. What I really loved about that record was how powerfully it gripped my emotions and took a complete hold of me. It certainly wasn’t background music.
When someone in New York called my music baroque folk it dawned on me that possibly the roots of my songs go directly there. And I still think songs should disturb you, take a hold of you, take you somewhere just like that music did.
When did you go from just listening to music to playing it yourself on piano?
Even though a piano was my roommate for a long time – ever since I was a child – I never had any piano lessons. I heard my brother play it often and he sounded too perfect to compete with. So I never even tried.
Years and years later when I moved to London I got myself a piano and squeezed it into the bedsit. Even then I didn’t take any piano classes because I was afraid a teacher would kill my newborn enthusiasm by telling me off or giving me impossible tasks.
I always thought I had some sort of musical dyslexia. So I was slowly discovering it all by myself. Only recording this album made me believe I’m actually OK with it.
And what about your singing? Has that been a similar journey?
Sometimes even now I take my voice for granted. At least I can’t look at it objectively as an outsider. It’s such a part of me and my physicality now that it’s not something I could detach myself from. All I know is it gives me a lot of freedom to express myself and I’d be dead if I couldn’t do that.