Name: Johanna Burnheart
Occupation: Violinist, composer
Current release: For Burnheart Remixed, Johanna Burnheart has asked some of her favourite electronic artists to rework select pieces off her self-titled 2020 full-length. The EP includes contributions by Acid Pauli, Beth Lydi, Nesa Azadikhah and Pilo Adami and is out November 19th 2021.
[Read our Acid Pauli interview]
Recommendations: One of my favourite books is The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. I don’t actually read very often but James Baldwin is someone I cannot get out of head as I am in awe of his expression.
The person I’m musically most in awe with still is Art Tatum. There is not that much you can listen to by him so I wouldn’t want to point at a specific song but all of his solo piano recordings are breathtaking and he is definitely not discussed enough in my opinion. Possibly because his genius is just unfathomable and what else could someone say about that.
If you enjoyed this interview with Johanna Burnheart and would like to stay up to date with her work, visit her official homepage. Or check out her profiles on Instagram, Soundcloud, and Facebook for recent updates.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I had short bursts of writing and producing as a teenager but I really didn’t properly start developing my own things after I finished music college in 2017.
I grew up with a lot of classic rock and pop from my father’s side and acoustic folk and church music on my mother’s. My uncle was a jazz vibraphonist so I would hear jazz live frequently but I didn’t purposefully start to listen to jazz until I was around 16. The first two artists I listened to extensively were Art Tatum and Billie Holiday. From there on it took me to a lot of solo jazz piano which I love to this day and certain classic jazz singers. The solo jazz piano is a sound I admire and also envy as they need no one else to make a jazz composition sound complete in my opinion.
Alongside this influence I spent a lot of time in the clubs of Berlin starting in my late teens/early 20s which really formed an entire obsession with techno and electronic music.
These two influences combined have become my two strongest pillars, resting on a foundation of classical music training. I find myself feeling extremely free in my explorations of the jazz genre, supported by strong technical and aural training, and learning ever more about electronic instruments and producing as I go along.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
During my classical training I did not feel I was striving to sound like anyone in particular because I always had fairly strong ideas of how I wanted to play which didn’t go down so well in competitions a lot of the time funnily enough.
As soon as I changed genres and started learning jazz violin, I was listening to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Billie Holiday mostly artists who did not actually play my instrument. I think I most enjoyed my playing when I tried to play much more minimally like Miles Davis on the violin but there was no player on my instrument out there that I wanted to sound like particularly. Of course there are great jazz violinists who I like but I never felt compelled to practise their style or copy their sound.
This lack of an “idol” was hard in a way but essentially made me search harder for what it was I was actually striving for. I don’t think this process is ever finished as I hope to continuously grow and change throughout my life.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I feel the two are very intertwined although once in a while identity becomes too heavy and crushes my creativity whereas my creativity only enhances my sense of identity when it is stronger.
Creativity to me is always present but sometimes so layered with cultural, societal and/or identity conflicts and structures that it seems like it’s gone. I have however worked hard on (or in fact stopped working against) allowing the spaces of time that are low in creativity and overshadowed by identity crises to be what they are and have faith that they lead me to another more evolved point in my self.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Depression was a big creative challenge as it lulled me into a headspace where I had no original output and couldn’t fathom a life where I express my creativity and be able to live while doing so.
A lot of personal practise, therapy, discipline and simply put pragmatism have allowed me to move past that initial block and the more I have trusted myself the more I have been able to share which really puts any doubts into perspective.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
My first violins were rented as I started aged 7 so you have to start with a smaller instrument. I had inherited a full sized violin from my grandfather but it wasn’t going to suffice for the path I was on so my family bought a very dark-sounding violin from a local violin dealer when I was young. I played on that instrument until I was 18 and was then lucky enough to have a violin built for me specifically by Jamie Lazzara who is an incredible luthier in Florence.
Jamie happened to be my roommate’s aunt in boarding school which was how I got her contact. It took two years for the violin to be made and it was worth the wait. Jamie is known for making very high quality copies of famous violins, particularly those of Stradivari and Guarneri. I chose to get a copy of Paganini’s violin which was Guarneri’s “Canone” violin. This is the violin I play to this day - the neck was shaped to fit my hand specifically and the sound is just beautiful. When I picked it up in Florence, I couldn’t stop playing for 4 hours straight as it kept changing and developing while I played.
I'm only sad that I won’t be around in 100 years when it will sound even better.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
My TR-8 Roland drum machine has definitely shaped the way I make music very much. I had initially just composed with the TR-8 with the intention of having my drummer play the grooves that I had programmed but it then developed into me incorporating the electronic drums into the live drums during the editing of my album which led me to the sound you can hear on the album now. The album sound in turn then influenced my live performance as I worked to emulate the electronic sounds for my live sets as well.
Prior to that I practised with a lot of loop pedals especially when first starting out with jazz as I wanted to be able to accompany myself. This phase definitely influenced some of the repetitive patterns in my music. I am also able to do solo shows because of my loop and effects pedals which would otherwise not really be something I’d be comfortable doing live as I enjoy larger sound scapes.
I don’t like being completely at the mercy of electronic devices when I play live as anything could happen and you could suddenly stand there without any sound so I like to always have a back up of what I might do in such a case. That’s kind of a necessity for me to keep any anxiety more manageable.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Since the pandemic I’ve had a few people hit me up for online collaborations through file sharing or online jamming etc. I have to say I struggle to really work with that and develop something with substance as I need something tangible to work towards and people in person to bounce ideas off of. I don’t think it’s impossible for me to achieve something in this way but I definitely am not naturally drawn to it.
I also tend to work best by myself first and then open up something I have pretty much fully developed to be taken apart by others. My most preferred way of working is coming into a rehearsal for someone else’s music to play or working on my own compositions by myself and then exploring the compositions with a band.
I do however have a good friend who is an actress / writer / visual artist and we found ourselves to be an extremely good match when it came to producing music and videos for that music together. This was during lockdown and in person though so I don’t think I would have enjoyed the process as much if it had been a remote collaboration.