Midwife's Madelin Johnston on
We’re gonna play fast and loose with the term “metal” here this month. Midwife, the solo project of Madeline Johnston — now based in New Mexico after relocating from Denver during the pandemic — plays what she calls “heaven metal,” a self-coined term that’s a hazy yet quite charged take on solo downer pop. It’s a term where the contrast between lightness and crushing weight, between the unreachable and the all too real, might seem cheeky at first.
How sonically metal it is? Up for debate. And frankly, the last thing we need is another debate on what is or isn’t metal. How heavy on the spirit it is? Zero question. Ungodly heavy. It’s an emotional apocalypse.
Last year, Johnston released Forever, a gripping look at how grief manifests, built on glimmering ambient and fuzzy guitar outbursts. Given the time of great social isolation and unmooring like 2020, it couldn’t have arrived at a better moment. “S.W.I.M.” was my favorite song of last year: Johnston was not just howling for losing a close friend, but also raging against acceptance of tragedy — becoming a being of light through total self-immolation. Last Friday, via The Flenser, Midwife followed up with Luminol, which touches on those same feelings of mourning yet expounds on pain and loss in many more ways. “Colorado” moves like doom metal with huge waves yet feels more intangible and weightless, fitting given its themes: loss of home, loss of place, loss of community; “2020,” one of the year’s unexpected gems, goes towards the same subjects with a blissed-out cover of The Offspring’s “Gone Away” within the song.
Johnston knows a hook when she hears one! Midwife’s heaviest song yet — yes, even heavier than “S.W.I.M.” — is “Promise Ring,” which takes post-metal’s sonic contrasts and boils them down to pure rage and heartbreak. When Johnston screams “LOVE WILL BREAK YOUR HEART FOREVER” throughout the end, elevating it from a whisper earlier in the song, it’s a rallying cry that’s made for the stage, yet delivered with the utmost intimacy.
It doesn’t get any heavier than Luminol.
Read our interview with Johnston for more on the new record.
SPIN: How do you define “heaven metal?”
Madeline Johnston: “Heaven Metal” is emotive music about devastation. “Heaven Metal” is ethereal music about dark subject matter. “Heaven Metal” is about catharsis.
Luminol sounds more produced, yet it still retains your lo-fi sensibilities. Midwife reminds me of bedroom pop and black metal in its production, yet it’s not either of those things — what attracts you to that sort of production?
I’m a self taught engineer, and I produce my own records at home. I’ve been developing this sound since I started the Midwife project. My progress in recording has followed alongside the trajectory of the Midwife discography, since I’ve done everything myself. I’d argue that the new record is very produced. Every sound you hear is incredibly intentional; my style is layered and modulated and, overall, inspired by pop music. Midwife was always meant to be an experimental pop project.
I’m definitely still learning, and my sound is very much defined by my limitations as an engineer, as well as the limitations of my equipment. For instance, the hi-end rolloff in my guitar tone is simply because that’s where the hum lives, which then becomes an integral part of “my sound.” I’m sure there are more examples, but what I’m trying to say is: The recording and the artistry define each other and evolve together in real time. That’s one of the joys of doing it myself and being my own engineer.
Is Luminol picking up the pieces from Forever’s emotional devastation and outpouring of grief, or is it something else all together?
I recently came to the conclusion that all of my records are about grief in some way. Midwife is grief-core. Luminol is about a different kind of grief, though — it’s taking a look at what used to be my life. The record explores inner space and examines my inner truth amid a placeless environment in whatever was 2020. Luminol is deeply personal, but my hope is that it is universally relatable as well — transcending boundaries of belonging to me alone.
Luminol picks up where Forever left off, sonically speaking, Forever was the jumping-off point to further reinforce my sound and choices as a producer. I also experimented with some new instrumentation elements while staying true to my style. It’s really about world-building. Each record is born in this world, but later becomes “something else all together” — the world is always developing, and it is building upon its own foundation.
“God is a Cop” retains most of the hazy ambient sound you’ve created. It speaks to wanting to kill the cop in your head — what’s the basis for this song?
“God Is A Cop” was written after the murder of George Floyd last year, around the height of the BLM protests. Politically charged language was running through my head. It was very clear to me that we were (we are) living in a police state. At the same time, I was at a very low point emotionally and couldn’t really see how to move forward. I was having thoughts about self-harm, which is what “The Evil Thought” in the song refers to. I was relating the unrest happening externally to the unrest happening internally.
“Promise Ring” has this huge surge towards the end, maybe the heaviest moment on the record. Even though it doesn’t close the record, does it signal an ending of some sort?
I think it signals a sort of resolve rather than an ending. There’s this big moment of release in that song that I love. I was incredibly lucky to work with Zachary Cole Smith, Ben Newman, and Colin Caulfield of DIIV, and I think they really helped bring the track to life.
Both “Promise Ring” and “Christina’s World” (the closer) portray images of confinement and breaking free. Resilience was the imagery I wanted to close out the record with.
Forever arrived a month after the pandemic, and it really spoke to isolation and confusion a lot of people were feeling. At the same time, the pandemic kinda fucked up a lot of your plans for the record. Was it a mixed blessing that Forever came out when it did?
Right, in a way the timing was just right. [Laughs.] I obviously wish I could have toured it, but I also know it helped a lot of people during that time. I wouldn’t have been able to make another record if it wasn’t for the pandemic, so it was a strange mixed blessing as well. To have that time (and space) to work without any real structure was great for me. Now, I’m getting ready to put a new live set together for some shows in the fall. I’m going to ease back into it, and my plan is to pick up where I left off in 2020 in 2022, with some big national tours.
Lastly, since I listened to “S.W.I.M.” about a million times last year. What is a song that totally destroys you, in the best way possible?
I haven’t been able to listen to Lingua Ignota’s “Pennsylvania Furnace” without crying my damn eyes out.
Heaven isn’t too far away, and you’ll get closer to it every time you listen to these records too:
Dungeon Serpent – World of Sorrows (Nameless Grave)
Vancouver’s Dungeon Serpent is a new one-man project that takes from the more brutal end of melodic death metal, and their debut, World of Sorrows, might be another new standard for the genre. “Decay” is stomping with frenzied melodies, but it’s not too tough for a synth-string outro — brains, brawn and heart work best together. And while Maiden is at the core of melodeath, not many songs go to “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”-esque greatness like the closing title track does.
At the Gates – The Nightmare of Being (Century Media)
Speaking of melodeath, pioneers At the Gates also dropped an album this month, and it’s the best of their post-reunion works. In embracing post-metal, saxophones (“Garden of Cyrus” is a banger, for real), and big-screen bombast, they’ve finally found another way of their own after aping themselves and being aped so hard. Eternally underrated King Diamond guitarist Andy LaRocque also makes an appearance once again!
Ceres – Tyrant’s Rise (Electric Assault)
Ceres is a newly formed US trad-metal duo, and yet they sound as though they’ve been sharpening their steel for millennia and been weathered by many a shitty door deal. Their debut cassette, Tyrant’s Rise, takes the best from Killers, Brocas Helm, early Fates Warning, and eternal American guiding light Manilla Road — it’s a testament to the gallop and the dreams of battle.