By A. Stone
The first time I saw Midwife was on Instagram. It was a thin vertical video of a woman playing guitar and singing gently into a yellow telephone as she stood at the edge of what looked like an old town hall stage, one like you’d see in small communities across America. Despite my numbed brain on social media autopilot, I chose to drag myself out to her show, as one of the other bands on the bill, American Culture, had been recommended to me by several friends. And good fucking lord am I glad I did.
Midwife (human name Madeline Johnston) sat befittingly in a glorious line up with Denver-based American Culture along with locals Somniloquist & the Batrays. She commanded the little cube that is La Chancla in a powerful & magnetic way that couldn’t be left unacknowledged, let alone ignored.
What I witnessed was a cavalcade, an entire room arrested by the emotion Midwife pummeled the room with: lush, deeply evocative landscapes of sound and color. She held a gentle presence that gave space for people around me, my friends & strangers alike, to authentically connect with the very real pains that come with living on Earth.
After her set, I ran up to Madeline like a shy schoolkid, mumbled how much I enjoyed the show, could I buy a tape, oh and also, [lied that] I write for the ABQ Greenroom and would she be interested in doing an interview. She was very kind, sold me a tape and agreed to do an email interview is exactly as follows.
I highly suggest you listen to the new single “NMP” Midwife just released with Vyva Melinkolya off their upcoming album Orbweaving (out everywhere May 12th) as you read this interview. It made me cry and I hope it makes you cry too.
To start off, can you tell me your name, where you were born, where you live now & what you do for a living?
Madeline Johnston: My name is Madeline Johnston, I was born and grew up in Santa Fe, where I lived until moving to Denver for college in 2009. I stayed in Colorado until 2020, during the pandemic when I moved back to Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and finally settled in a small town near Las Cruces where I live now. Because of the pandemic, I had to leave my position bartending and waitressing, which was a blessing in disguise. I now pursue a full time music career with my solo project called Midwife. I also am a recording engineer and help other artists create albums.
Rhinoceropolis has a hallowed place in my heart as a sort of DIY mecca upon learning about it during a time in my life when I was really struggling to feel a sense of belonging anywhere, especially artistically. While I never got a chance to see it in its golden years as a live/work space, I’ve had the privilege of showing one of my films there since it reopened as Scorpio Palace & always been really curious about what energy has been able to remain in that space. In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned that the Midwife project truly got its start when you were living there. So in regards to that: Can you tell me what Rhinoceropolis was for you and how it propelled you forward as an artist?
MJ: I started going to shows at Rhinoceropolis when I first moved up to Denver. I was 18 years old. I felt immediately drawn to and obsessed with the space, the culture… at the same time I was completely intimidated by everything. I think this was still the first wave of residents, which included artists like Pictureplane, Married in Berdichev, MMCIII, Hideous Men…a group of people that I really looked up to, and inspired me to pursue a DIY centered trajectory for my own artistic path. I began slowly inserting myself into this new world.
I think doing things that you’re afraid of is really important, especially for creatives, to step outside of your comfort zone… to learn and grow as an artist and individual. I always wanted to live there, but it was never something I thought was possible for me.
Fast forward. In 2014, my friend Colin Ward invited me to move in. I was over the moon.
Engaging with Rhinoceropolis propelled me forward as an artist by exposing me to a massive assortment of experimental bands, styles, aesthetics, and art practices - providing an accepting and non-judgmental platform to perform, curate events, play, p l a y - forcing me to create the best possible work that I can, while constantly evolving, learning, and progressing - A safe space to fail. Rhinoceropolis mothered me, I grew up there. I started Midwife while I lived at Rhinoceropolis and it was a time when I started to see myself as a true artist.
Is there a cherished memory of a particular show you saw or played there that feels representative of that environment? What made that time so special?
MJ: I don’t really think I have one particular memory or a specific show that can encapsulate my 10+ year relationship with this space. I feel everything all at once, each memory stacked on top of each other. If I think about it too hard, it hurts.
I could try to explain it: this is a place where anything feels possible, a window into another world, a world where you create the reality and utopia you wish to see. A place where you belong, and all your friends are there too. A place where divine chaos reigns.
I can’t remember Rhinoceropolis without remembering my late friend Colin Ward, who passed away in 2018. Colin’s way of life was influential to the space and his legacy intertwined with the energy and punk spirit of Rhinoceropolis.
Were there any defining moments for you as a self-taught recording engineer and how did they affect your role as an artist?
MJ: When I moved into Rhino was really when I started recording my own music, and became completely enthralled by the process. I loved it. I love it :)
Making Like Author, Like Daughter was my main project there and for several years and that’s mostly what I worked on. I owe my progress to trial and error, getting feedback and help from my roommates, learning as I go, countless all nighters, and being inspired in that kinetic and magical environment.
What importance do limitations (equipment/engineering) play in your work?
MJ: I think setting limitations for yourself can dictate what kind of work you make. When you start a new project, you are free from limitations and rules - this is when some of the best work is made (because we are limitless and inspired by having so many options). I think Midwife has followed (and re-affirmed over and over again) a set of rules in my recording process and writing that has stylistically created the identity of the project. It’s important to have consistency in some regard, but often I can feel boxed in by myself and my self imposed limitations.
I am currently trying to break my own rules more, and return to the child-like creative state of openness and possibility I felt when the project was new.
So, what I mean is: rules are important, but you should also break your own rules.
What wisdom gained from your time at Rhinoceropolis do you feel like you’ve brought to where you are now physically/artistically?
MJ: I think it helped me see the possibility that being a working artist was possible. That there is a reality in which you don’t have to work for other people, you can be an artist and you can exist outside of the soul sucking capitalist model. You can make it work.
As long as you take yourself seriously, other people will too. That’s been a big realization for me.
What guidance or advice would you give members of the art community here in ABQ towards creating a stronger scene that supports artists in living & working based of yr time living at Rhinoceropolis?
MJ: Check in with each other, ask for help, offer help, intervene when you are worried about people’s mental health, and support each other as best you can. Be accountable, be open, challenge yourself, challenge your audience. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and don’t overwork yourself when there is a whole community here to assist you.
What was your early involvement in the scene here in ABQ; how have you seen it grow and change?
MJ: I kind of started playing shows in ABQ at Winning and Gold House pretty early on, like, maybe starting in 2008 or so. My best friends moved to Albuquerque to go to UNM and when I would visit them we would all go to shows. A small tape label based in Albuquerque released my very first album in 2010.
I can’t be sure, because I didn’t live there consistently over this past decade, but it seems like the scene has gotten less communal than it used to be. In the past I felt an overwhelming sense of community that I don’t feel as much now. Maybe it’s because so many people have moved away, or we’re not all in college anymore. I don’t know. But what I DO KNOW is that there’s a lot going on that I’m unaware of, I think there’s a brand new DIY scene that’s been strong for a while now, I’m just not tapped into it. I’m old now. But, the glimpses of it that I have seen (like shows at La Chancla) are reminiscent of an old Albuquerque that I know and love.
What drew you to where you live now?
MJ: My roommate and I found a massive warehouse live/work space for rent, and we just kind of decided to go for it! It’s been such a good home for us.
Do you feel you belong in the place you are in now? How does your current living environment integrate into being a professional touring musician & recording engineer?
MJ: I adore our house and my studio space here, but I don’t actually feel a sense of belonging in Las Cruces. I don’t have a community here, or really know anyone at all. In some ways it’s amazing, and in other ways it’s horrible. The isolation and anonymity. That being said, it’s been a perfect home base for Midwife, and has been a great spot to live during the pandemic era.
Our building used to be a community center for the local church. The landlord used to do Christmas plays here with the kids, so we have things like a stage, curtains, and some weird props (like a manger on wheels that our record player and stereo live on).
I feel lucky to have set up a great home studio here, and even a real stage to practice on.
One of the joys of our house has been hosting artists for mini residences. Because we have so much space it’s easy to have guests and not feel overwhelmed. It’s been great to get to spend time with visiting artists and record with people here in our beautiful home.
Describe something really special in your day to day life there.
MJ: I enjoy going on a long walk every day. Our town (called San Miguel) has a beautiful cemetery filled with colorful fake flowers and a church made of volcanic rock. The area is completely surrounded by Pecan orchards that bloom in the spring, creating a verdant tree tunnel on the road into town. Also, people are always burning Mesquite wood around here, and it smells amazing.
Do you feel you're entering a new phase artistically/ as a human? -If so, what do you see shifting internally and externally through your work? What projects/ventures are you most excited about working on going forward?
MJ: I’m getting ready for my next move, which will be back up to Southern Colorado later this year. I’m ready to be a part of a community again and settle down somewhere permanently. I’m very much looking forward to building a legit home studio and taking on more recording work in the future. I’m also slowly working on the next Midwife release which will probably be done sometime next year.
I made a collaborative album with Vyva Melinkolya called Orbweaving that comes out May 12th on The Flenser. The first single, "NMP" is streaming now.