Visions of Love: An Interview with Damiana

Photos by Doug Caplan

Natalie Chami (TALsounds) and Whitney Johnson (Matchess) have incredible solo discographies, but their collaborative project, Damiana, cuts its own diamond path. On their debut, Vines, the duo creates gentle soundscapes that carry serious emotional heft woven through the detailed, ephemeral sonic glass. Each careful listen reveals something new. It’s work that feels timeless and important. 

Chami and Johnson answered some questions through July and August. Vines is available now from Hausu Mountain.

Okay, so let’s go way back to when you were kids. What are some of your earliest memories with music and sound? Whether it’s a song or record that made a lasting impression when you were younger or certain environmental sounds that have stuck with you, how did things get started?

W: One of my first musical memories is making up songs on the swingset in front of my house in Pennsylvania, but I don’t think there was a swingset in front of that house.

N: My parents got my sister a piano for her 10th birthday. I was only 3 years old and I remember hopping on the shiny black bench and making up little songs. I absolutely loved it. I also would go outside in our yard and quietly sing songs to the plants and trees and hug them and get very very embarrassed when someone would walk by on the sidewalk or if a car would drive by. Those songs were only for the plants! 

You both have been heavily involved in the ‘experimental music’ (for lack of a better term) community in Chicago for quite a while now, how long have y’all actually been playing music together? There’s such incredible chemistry throughout Vines that it seems like you all have been working up to this for ages…

W: We started playing together after a tour in 2016. I don’t think we improvised together at any shows on that tour, but we started to when we got back. Neither of us has a background in jazz, so we have a uniquely shared language for improvisation.

N: The first time I saw Whitney play was in 2009, when I first started playing music in Chicago venues. We had a show together at MultiKulti. I was playing with my ambient duo l’éternèbre, and Whitney was in her psych rock band Verma. I thought she was so cool, and I noticed that we both used the line-6 delay pedal. Years later, I saw Whitney solo. I had started playing solo as TALsounds. I thought her set-up and solo sound was so similar to mine, except she was playing an organ and had a deeper singing voice and used more delay than I did. I was quite intrigued! Then Whitney reached out to me to go on tour with her. We both played our solo sets and fell in love with each other 🙂 It wasn’t until after the tour that our friend Sugarman asked us to play a set together, so we improvised a set together and it all just clicked, as I think we knew it would. 

What did finally prompt you all to make a record?

W: Our live shows were feeling great, and we started by trying to capture a long, live improvisation. That attempt didn’t translate to a recording as well as we had hoped, so we worked with shorter improvised sessions and then did some studio work to produce them.

N: I think it felt funny playing so many shows together and not having any recorded material. People would always ask us about our band name, and if we had anything online or to buy. We would always list our bill as TALsounds & Matchess… it took us a while to finally get a name and sit down and record. I think we generally had different recording/studio processes, too, so it was tricky to figure out how we’d do it. In the end, we combined our recording practices pretty nicely by using our improvised sessions, and then overdubbing and editing. I definitely learned a lot from Whitney throughout the editing process. 

So one thing that really got me thinking  and stuck with me is where you talk Damiana being a ‘distinctly femme endeavor.’ Can you talk a bit more about the femme qualities in the music and with the project? 

W: How do we deal with the widespread abjection of soft femininity in art, particularly when it’s made by femme-identified people? Those judgments can be insidious, creeping through noise and experimental music communities. Sometimes this music is a florid, satiny, pleasurable femme, but more often we cross into disquieting, direct expressions of grief.

N: I will admit that Whitney is definitely the more academic one on this topic. I think that we’re embracing all aspects of what can be emotional, layered, and nuanced in music. It’s important to me to not misconstrue this as just “soft” music, though: our music is flowing, with long lines, airy and smooth, but there are always layers of crunch, harshness, and grit, too. All of these aspects of vulnerability through sound and emotion exist in our playing, whether it’s improvised live or in our recording sessions. I would hope that it all actually showcases strength in the human condition—Whitney and I are both very strong, independent women, and maybe that gives us the courage to be okay with outwardly labeling our vulnerability as “femme.” I definitely didn’t go into creating this music with any sort of mindset in that regard, but it is interesting to analyze it in that way. I generally just go into all of our projects thinking about the theory and the auditory experience of what makes something feel balanced and complete to me. Whitney is much more deeply connected with social studies than I am. I’m just emo and a mega music degree nerd.

Is there anything else that your music is an outlet for or an expression of?

W: The repetition in this music works for me as a gateway to deep feeling. I can sense a place in my body where each feeling is located, and I allow that embodied sensation to fuse with an emotion. As the music repeats and time unfolds, it’s like the deep feeling is washing over me as a river. Images and memories come to mind and then float away, downstream.

N: I am very into using music as a means for meditation. Getting lost in sound vibrations through repetition and breath is the easiest way for me to free myself. Syncing and locking in with Whitney while we both are doing this is really something I cherish so much. Aligning our energies and knowing we both love it so much is really something special. I recommend everyone try to just hum with another human being. Let yourself do that and let go, don’t take it so seriously, and enjoy that feeling! It’s the best! 

Is there any particular story behind choosing the name Damiana?

W: Damiana is the herb of visions of love! Also known as Old Woman’s Broom. You can smoke it, drink it as a tea, or concentrate it into a tincture. 

N: We really love plants, flowers, and the mystical. I know it took us a while to decide on a name. For a while we were performing under TALsounds + Matchess. But after making many lists and making sure what we wanted to call ourselves wasn’t already taken, we arrived at Damiana. 

What’s next for you all – as a duo and with your solo work?

W: I have a Matchess record coming out this fall, quite unlike the Trilogy. Keep your ear to the ground for where and how to find it! We also have a trio record with Brett Naucke coming out on October 1st on American Dreams Records.

N: As Whitney mentioned, we have a record coming out with Brett Naucke. I’m also going on tour with Mdou Moctar on the west coast September 24-October 4. I have some other performances lined up if the live performance scene doesn’t take another hit. Other than that, I just moved to the DC area, so I’m just now getting settled on the east coas. Going to pick up recording again, and I’m looking forward to exploring some new digital synths in my practice since I now work for Korg. Curious where these new sounds will take my music! 

If you like what Foxy Digitalis does, please consider supporting us on Patreon.