Sister Grotto is the project of Madeline Johnston, a musician from Denver, Colorado who previously recorded under the moniker Mariposa. As opposed to the dark and strange folk of her previous project, Sister Grotto takes things longform, gathering elements of ambient and drone to create something Johnston has dubbed “heaven metal” or “soft-gaze”. The past few months has seen not one but two new Sister Grotto releases, both of which are worthy of your time and attention.
You Don’t Have To Be A House To Be Haunted, is a three track EP based on a poem by Emily Dickinson, and can be summed up with the poem’s opening stanza.
“One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain has Corridors—surpassing
Opening track ‘Videotape’ is built on a sparse droning piano line, with an occasional jag of percussion that sounds like a burst of static energy and a morose cello (courtesy of Wendy Warshawsky) that adds to the thick and heavy atmosphere. If it sounds unplaceably familiar, it’s because it’s an adaptation of the Radiohead song by the same name, possessing the same pulsing piano line. Johnston is joined on vocals by a choir, who together deliver just two repeated lines:
“Burn it to the ground
what was it you thought you saw down there?”
‘Uncanny’ is a similarly haunted track, Warshawsky’s cello again weaving around the base of a piano/synth line. The vocals here are delivered by Johnston alone, distorted to the point that it feels like several people singing at once, her voice pulling others from the ether, pained ghosts from the distant past. The lyrics make this at once a love song and a dirge, hugely affecting in their simple poetry and strangely emotional delivery.
“There is no second I have lived
that you can’t call your own.
But when we go we go alone”
Closer, ‘Witness’, is the second track to break the ten minute barrier, Johnston’s vocals barely more than a whisper throughout. It sounds like something conjured in a dark and dusty attic at midnight, not a malevolent force straight out of Hollywood but something slippery with sadness.
You can buy You Don’t Have To Be A House To Be Haunted on cassette or digital download via the Sister Grotto Bandcamp page.
If you like what you hear, Sister Grotto also recently released a cassette on Salt Lake City tape label Heavy Mess. Blindside is almost forty minutes of superior ambient/drone, the A-side similar to what you can hear on You Don’t Have To Be A House To Be Haunted, what Johnston describes as “a love song for an absent lover”, saying it’s about “internalizing new feelings of loss”. It’s as patient and eerie as I’ve come to expect from Sister Grotto, part meditation, part elegy, Johnston’s vocals coming in gusts like fingers of mist on the breeze.
“Are you blind?
You already know
Are you blind?
I’m not at home”
The B-side acts as the A-side’s shadow, altogether more nebulous and indistinct. It comprises of beautiful wordless drone, the sound in your ears in a silent room, the hum of oncoming sleep or the swirling currents of your roommate’s dreams, like thunderheads passing above your roof in the dead of night.
You can order Blindside on tape now via the Heavy Mess Bandcamp page.