It sounds like a Downstate-driven cliché but it's undeniably true. The Hudson Valley is, let's just come right out and say it, the mealy-mouthed mecca for an awful lot of cloying, sappy, and overly earnest graduates from the James Taylor School of Musical Macramé. Thus, the CD review inbox here sometimes looks more like an oven for the aural brown bread served up by these well-meaning but uninspiring types, and as a music editor you learn to approach the releases whose accompanying bios say "acoustic-based singer-songwriter" with trepidation. Every once in a while, though, you do actually come across an artist working in said medium who's intriguing. Unique. Even great. And Johanna Warren and Sasha Pearl, both still in their 20s, are two such finds.
In terms of style, as singer-songwriters the two couldn't be more different. Warren is soaring, metaphorical, melodic; Pearl is rustic, plainspoken, captivatingly endearing. But, besides their shared underground/outsider stance, the two women are united by their common links to Hudson's lively music scene; until very recently, both lived in the area. "The general lifestyle [of Hudson] is really conducive to having a creative life," says Warren, who's lately been staying between tours with her father in Westchester County. "There's a really good community of artists and a social support network in town, and the surrounding natural beauty is very inspiring. Also, the rent is pretty affordable, so I didn't have to work that much and had more free time to concentrate on my music—not like when I lived in Brooklyn." Pearl's reasons for gravitating toward the Columbia County capital are perhaps more directly related to her art. "I was psyched when I started playing in Hudson, because I discovered there were a lot of people in town that liked my music," she says. "Before that, it was just me playing to whoever else happened to be in the bar. And my mom." (Pearl's mother is a musician herself, an accordionist in Balkan folk ensemble Caprice Rouge.)
The daughter of an academic, Warren, 24, was born in Decatur, Georgia, and also lived in Massachusetts before coming to the area to double major in Spanish and visual arts at Bard College from 2007 to 2011. "Moving around definitely shaped the way I think about myself and my relationship to the rest of the world," the waifish singer and guitarist maintains. "I'm glad I got to see different places, and I learned early on about self-reinvention. When you move to a new place and don't know anybody, you can be who you want to be, lie about who you were. You learn you don't have to stay any particular way, your choices are endless." Indeed, even as a young performer Warren has already made a few identity changes, going from being the vocalist and bassist in high school cover bands to leading Sticklips ("a name I came up with when I was 16 for my MySpace page"), a Bard-born collective that released one CD, 2012's Zemi (Independent). She took piano and flute lessons before picking up the guitar in her early teens, and names the Beatles as her earliest inspiration. "That's how I learned about vocal harmony, chord structure, [compositional] changes," she explains. "I internalized the Beatles' music and I could reference it to understand any other music. But I didn't really start writing complete songs until the summer after high school graduation. Before that, I would tell people I wrote songs but it was really more like song fragments." Other, arguably more apparent, influences—Elliot Smith, Joni Mitchell, Joanna Newsome, Modest Mouse—came later.
Around the time of the recording of Zemi, the full-band incarnation of Sticklips managed only a few local and campus gigs before it became to clear the singer—and her audiences—that she really didn't need a band. (For a time she continued to use the moniker for her solo guise, but has since been retired it.) And, admittedly, when witnessing one of Warren's powerful and starkly transcendent performances it's hard to fathom why she ever felt the need to buttress herself with other players. All part of a rising artist's quest, obviously. But that isn't to say that the handful of musicians on Zemi don't do the songs justice—the disc's eight tracks are delivered with a sublime sympatico that's gripping nevertheless, and perhaps it's the gorgeously lulling "Lyrebird," with its sparse drums and soft electronic drones, that gives the closest snapshot of Warren's solo craft. "Johanna is one of a rare breed of gifted people where you could tell how great of a singer she is just by hearing the sound of her speaking voice," says producer Kenny Siegal, who recently recorded Warren's version of Harry Nilsson's "Without Her" for The Town: A Tribute to Nilsson, Volume 1 (Royal Potato Family Records), which is set for release in November. "Her music is awesome, very psychedelic and melodic. I think she's an amazing artist, over all."