Into the Haunted Labyrinths of Sister Grotto

Posted by on April 1, 2016

sister grotto

I met Madeline Johnston in the summer of 2012 when she performed at my house at the time in West Nashville, Tennessee — which was dubbed Richland Ballroom — under the name Mariposa, while on tour from Denver, Colorado. We had a mutual friend in Albuquerque, New Mexico-based artist and musician Bryce Hample, who put us in touch. Since then Johnston has adopted the moniker Sister Grotto and considerably evolved her art, while I have since moved to Denver, following her haunting music through the process. On the eve of self-releasing her new album on March 18th, a tape three years in the making titled You Don’t Have to Be A House to Be Haunted, I asked Madeline about recording and the changes that have taken hold in her work.

Stephen: Can you talk about your background and how your project Sister Grotto came to be?
Madeline: I began playing music in a serious way around 2007 while living in New Mexico. I was writing songs on the guitar and slowly introducing other elements, like the delay pedal and loop station which have since become an integral part of my process. Of course, it did take a long time for my sound to reveal itself.

I never thought I was talented enough to make something different, but mostly, I didn’t have the context to know that I could. When I moved to Denver in 2009, I began going to shows at Rhinoceropolis. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Married in Berdichev. I had never seen a performance like that before, a solo female experimental-ambient set. Brittany Gould was a huge inspiration for me. Just to understand that music like that was being made was a huge game changer for me. I believe that was the first time I understood that my music could find a home in a larger body.

Sister Grotto was born in early 2013. I had been experimenting with long-form pieces in my live setup as a way to [approach] something similar to a noise set; where the music ends and the listener is left with a feeling of not being entirely sure what they have just experienced. I love the sense of confusion that seeing an ambient set can have on you; it holds onto you. I had been wanting to stray away from some old work and structures that I was using in my previous project, and I knew I wanted to have a new name to better accompany the new music I was now exploring. I thought Grotto was an interesting concept because it is generally somewhere like a cave (naturally occurring or man-made) that is also a place of worship or a spiritual site. I liked this play between forces of darkness and light. This concept often comes across in the music I make. Something beautiful that is born from a darkness.

Can you describe some of your process making the new album? You’ve mentioned that you found inspiration in the unconventional novel House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.
I began writing the album when a piano found it’s way into my life. A friend of mine from Santa Fe was visiting Denver and had brought up his electric piano, a Hohner Pianet, to try to sell here. The piano ended up staying at our house and became my own. This was during the same time I was reading my favorite novel, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. It’s a book about a house that is larger on the inside than it is on the outside… a book about a movie, about a book, about a house. Every time I read it, I get heavily involved in the structure and concepts that are presented through the character’s interaction with the unconventional landscape. I was obsessed. In a way, writing these songs has allowed me to insert myself into the vast maze that Danielewski has created. I began asking myself: “Am I not in this body? Am I not in this house? Am I not in my body? Am I not myself?”

My friend and frequent collaborator Hunter Dragon had then presented an idea of putting out a split concept record about a maze. This was when I knew I’d create this body of work that would be a concept piece about a haunted house. This was where it began. The prologue to You Don’t Have to Be A House to Be Haunted is The Minotaur, a split by Sister Grotto & OHDO, released in 2014.

Who were your collaborators on the album? How does collaboration play into Sister Grotto?
I had a few collaborators for this album. For “Videotape”, the first track, I put together a choir. I also have a cello player on “Videotape” and “Uncanny”. I found these elements to make the record more cinematic. I like to think of You Don’t Have To Be A House To Be Haunted as the imaginary soundtrack to The Navidson Record, the dissected film in House of Leaves that does not actually exist.

Sister Grotto is primarily a solo effort, but I love collaborating with other artists. I’ve had a few collaborative projects; a tape released last fall titled BORN TO LEAVE / BORN TO LOSE was a collaboration between Salt Lake City’s ambient-noise-droner Braeyden Jae. I’m also working on a split cassette with C.J. Boyd, who I describe to people as Sister Grotto’s fraternal twin. He plays incredibly beautiful ambient music with a bass guitar and voice. We’re also doing a national tour together this May.

I find myself collaborating with other artists mostly in larger recording projects, like REIGHNBEAU, Albuquerque’s Bryce Hample and friends. We’ve worked together for the past 5 years or so. We do a lot of song trading and are both fairly involved in each other’s work. I highly admire the creative choices Bryce Hample makes and it is an honor to be involved in REIGHNBEAU. Most recently, Bryce added a lot of the textural and background elements of “The Twin Record” from The Minotaur split cassette. He also sings in the “Videotape” choir. His new album, Blood, includes a few songs I wrote. I also sing on many of the tracks. Last November, we did a tour together as REIGHNBEAU, and got to play the songs together live for the first time. It’s funny being in a band with someone that doesn’t live in your city. It’s refreshing sometimes.

Can you also talk about how and where the recording for the album was done?
The album was both written and recorded in my house in Denver, CO. It was engineered by Ben Clary, who has been my main audio engineer for years. He does great work and I don’t think I’d trust anyone else to do it. I enjoy recording in places where the context makes sense in relation to the work. It was fitting to record in my home.

You perform regularly in Denver and tour. Can you talk about how your live performances relate to this album and your other released work?
I am constantly changing my live setup between instruments. I often will write songs on guitar and perform them on piano, or vice versa. My live sets generally are long-form pieces, sometimes even just one 20 minute song… a few years ago, my set was playing the album in full, and waiting to finish the recordings.

I’ve since began playing new sets, but am about to bring back playing all three songs from the record. I’ll be performing them this Friday at the release show at Syntax Physic Opera in Denver, CO, and onwards for the tour this May.

You also make, use, and sell microphones from old telephones and have taught DIY skills at Girls Rock Denver, can you talk about that? 
Yes! I became interested in electronics through a workshop held at Titwrench, an annual all-inclusive experimental music and art festival in Denver, focusing on women and female-identified musicians.

I took a workshop with Marisa Demarco from Albuquerque, who taught us how to build your own contact microphone. The workshop sparked my interest in building homemade sound objects and electronics for experimental soundscapes. I later taught myself how to build a microphone out of an old rotary telephone. It was surprisingly simple and for the most part, the supplies are cheap enough to buy in bulk for the workshops I teach around town. The telephone microphones are truly incredible; they have a gentle lo-fi sound with just a little natural distortion.

I also love the idea that when I perform with the microphone, in a way I’m just in my bedroom talking on the phone with my old ghosts, or it’s like telling your secrets to your best friend late at night. It makes the vocals more intimate in a way. I especially love teaching homemade sound object workshops to other women in my community. To have the knowledge that as a woman, you can be a builder + maker is very important. For me and many others, it was the first step in opening my eyes to so many other things I wanted to make, and with having that basic knowledge of some simple processes, I knew I could do it.

[Stephen Molyneux is an artist and musician based in Denver, CO and co-runs the No Kings Record Cadre imprint.]