A Q&A with White Prism’s Johanna Cranitch

The Australian born, and now Brooklyn-based Johanna Cranitch has one of the most unique biographies i’ve come across. Growing up in a musical family, Cranitch has been immersed in music for most, if not all of her life. As a small child, her Hungarian grandfather, a jazz pianist, gave her his blessing by openly declaring that “this one will be musical.”

Both of Cranitch’s parents were music loving, her father was a priest-in-training who used to sing Gregorian chants around the house, and they encouraged her to go to the Kodaly School of Music, where she was classically trained as a vocalist and as a musician. And at the tender and very young age of 9, Cranitch had performed at the world renowned Sydney Opera House as part of the Opera Australia Children’s Chorus. But like most young people, she had a love of pop music – especially Kate Bush, Fleetwood Mac, New Order, and others (All of these acts Cranitch has publicly claimed as her influences – and she does so in the Q&A which you’ll see below.)

After high school graduation, Cranitch attended the Australian Institute of Music where she studied jazz vocals, and graduated with honors. After a stint performing music in her native Australia, she wound up in New York, where while working as a studio engineer at Nola Studios, she wound up writing and recording over 300 demos – many of those demos wound up becoming the material which appeared on the debut effort of her first New York solo project, Johanna and the Dusty Floor. 

Certainly, across the blogosphere Cranitch’s Johanna and the Dusty Floor had gotten quite a bit of attention – I never had the opportunity to catch them for whatever strange reason fate had deigned but I had heard of them through various circles. As luck would have it, touring as a backing vocalist for the Cranberries, and spending a great deal of her off time from touring in Iceland, influenced Cranitch’s next musical steps. With her backing band (who also happen to be her dear friends), the new project was christened White Prism. In many ways, the new project is a welcome and much-needed reboot. Backed by icy synths, and danceable New Wave-era influenced beats, Cranitch’s voice, which bobs, darts and floats above the icy surface of White Prism’s music has an ethereal but gently seductive quality. Sounding as though she were singing directly towards you, the very lovely Cranitch seems much more like a siren whose call will have your poor wooden ship smashed against a rocky shore …

When Cranitch coos “When it’s dark/I’ll take you anywhere,” followed by the hook “Play me, I’m Yours” on one my favorite songs on the self-titled EP released back in April, “Play Me, I’m Yours,” there’s a subtle yet very powerful carnality underneath the surface. “Song 52” has Cranitch cooing the sort of sweet nothings and plaintive cries of devotion that would make you fall desperately, madly in love. It’s very clearly inspired by Kate Bush (but hazier and somehow more haunted). 

Although Johanna Cranitch is quite accomplished (and quite stunning, I have to add), I’ve had the opportunity to chat with her briefly before a set at Glasslands during an early week show back in April, and she’s probably one of the sweetest and humblest musicians I’ve yet to meet, and I think you’ll get a sense of that throughout this Q&A.

In any case, I recently got a chance to speak to Cranitch via email about how her classical training has influenced her work; the differences between White Prism and her previous project; and the new EP. And perhaps just as important, she offers some great advice for artists trying to make it that is frankly elegantly simple. Check it out below. 

Photo Credit: Jessie Sara English

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WRH: You have a background in classic music, but your work is particularly modern. Does your training influence your work at all? When did you know that you had to create your own sound? 

Johanna Cranitch: I would say that every musical experience I have had has contributed to my overall sound. I am an artist, and as an artist I am constantly evolving and my sound evolves with how I evolve. I don’t think there was a conscious thought about needing to ‘create’ a certain sound. It was just intrinsic.  

WRH: Who are your influences?

JC: Kate Bush, New Order, Cocteau Twins, Fleetwood Mac, Tears for Fears

[Henryk] Gorecki, [Rainer Maria] Rilke, Mary Oliver, Helmet Newton 

So many!!! These are just on my mind right now but there are so many I could list. 

WRH: Who are you listening to right now?

JC: I’m currently super into Empress of.. She’s a new Brooklyn artist 

Also, Chad Valley has my heartstrings officially pulled. 

As a blogger, I had heard of your previous project, Johanna and the Dusty Floor – but somehow, I never got to see them live. Shame on me, huh? Anyway, White Prism is your newest project and it includes members of your backing band, the Dusty Floor. What’s the difference between these two projects? Was it a conscious decision to change things up? 

JC: I think it just all came about because the writing was so different. Iceland was a huge influence for me. I was listening to a lot of electronic music and visiting Iceland on my tour breaks when I was singing backup for the Cranberries last year. The country itself is super ethereal and the music came very naturally to me because of it. The players in my band are all my friends and the name just didn’t fit properly so we changed it to match the new sound.  

WRH: How would you describe White Prism’s sound?

JC: Icy… Electro… Ethereal pop 

WRH: How did you meet the members of your backing band?

Aaron Nevezie (my guitarist and music director) and I have been friends since I moved here in 2004. We have been on quite a journey together and it’s been so great to see him grow from being a live sound engineer for the Jazz Standard to owning one of the most premiere recording studios in NY (The Bunker Studio). I worked as an engineer when I met him and we geeked out a lot. My backup singer Anthea and I had the same singing teacher back in Sydney when I was in college. She has her own band called the Hipstones. The drummer Chris and bass player David and I have known one another through the scene for a while.

WRH: The songs on the EP deal with love in some fashion and they feel as though you’re singing directly at the listener – “Dance On” feels a like sweet but plaintive yet seductive sort of come on to a potential love interest; “Play Me, I Am Yours,” is darker and at points, the narrator speaks of desperate longing mixed with accusation; “Song 52” has the narrator of the song, wondering what went so quickly wrong and trying either to get that person back/get that person to stay. How much of the material is based on actual experience? Was that a conscious decision? 

JC: It’s all actual stories. Sometimes I wonder if I put too much of myself into my songs but you know, that’s my form of therapy so… Hopefully the listener can draw from it and apply it to their own experiences. I won’t divulge too much about the actual stories behind the songs so you’ll have to imagine it for yourself.

WRH: The material on the new EP is densely layered and efficiently crafted. There isn’t a note wasted or a sequence that feels out of place. When did you know that you had a finished song?

JC: When I felt the same things that you say you feel. Which by the way, is one of the biggest compliments I have received so thank you. That is such an intelligent and lovely observation.  

I have my producers Aaron Nevezie and Rob Gentry to thank for that.

WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves? 

JC: Be honest to others and yourself. No one is too big to take on a small job. You never know where an opportunity may lead, so always keep the door open and be true to yourself about what you are trying to achieve. The sky is the limit if you believe that it is. Kindness to others in this industry goes a long way.