During the time that Madeline Johnston lived at DIY music venue Rhinoceropolis, she and fifteen others inhabited tiny, windowless rooms patched together behind a performance area. Johnston would attempt to mute her roommates’ endless noise by plugging her ears, putting on headphones and blasting music so she could sleep. It never worked.
In the fall of 2016, she moved out, just weeks before the famed River North space was shuttered for fire-code violations after Oakland’s Ghost Ship warehouse burned down. But while Rhinoceropolis was still open, the place had one rule: Be as loud as you want, whenever you want. People were encouraged to push boundaries, no matter how creative or troubling. And they did both — in excess.
Johnston loved all the opportunities Rhinoceropolis afforded her, so dealing with the noise was worth it.
“It was really loud,” she concedes. But “it was a place that [gave] us so much freedom. It let you not be accountable to yourself and your roommates.”
The soft-spoken experimental musician walks through the world like an exposed nerve. “I’m a really high-strung person,” she says, pointing to her head. “I can’t shut it off.” At Rhinoceropolis, she felt like she had found the home she never had.
Alone in the venue’s front room, where residents threw legendary DIY shows, Johnston regularly tapped into her pain and wrote music at full volume at 4 a.m. “That’s something you just couldn’t do at a rented house or an apartment,” she says.
She wrote her most recent album during those late-night sessions. Cincinnati-based ambient label Whited Sepulchre Records will release Like Author, Like Daughter, a shoegaze-pop exploration of pain and self-love, on June 18; Johnston will perform the album at the Westword Music Showcase on June 24.
Johnston and a handful of roommates now live close to the building that once housed Rhinoceropolis. She ruminates and writes new songs about her former home, which she believes was “the center of the universe.” These days, it’s boarded up. “It’s a ghost town,” she laments.
Six months after Rhinoceropolis shut down, former residents say that Denver is dragging its feet in working with the leaseholder to bring the venue up to code; rumors are flying about whether it will reopen at all.
Rhinoceropolis launched in 2005, around the same time the River North Art District was forming. The warehouse space grew into a nationally renowned hot spot for DIY and underground culture; the RiNo Art District collaborated with the city and developers to boost the neighborhood’s economy.
Over the years, more and more arts lovers learned about the neighborhood, thanks to Rhinoceropolis. Developers saw the community’s creative energy and started building more residential property in the once-warehouse-heavy neighborhood. Gentrification quickly moved in and hasn’t left.
Johnston had frequented experimental-music shows at Rhinoceropolis since 2009, when she moved from Santa Fe to the Mile High City. She initially lived with her boyfriend in his home, but after they broke up, she moved into Rhinoceropolis and stayed for nearly two years.
Despite thriving in its swirl of creative energy, she says she struggled with the space’s dark sides. It was both a challenging and artistically fruitful environment for her.
Heartache from her breakup and tumultuous relationships with fellow Rhinoceropolis residents fed her songwriting for Like Author, Like Daughter. She describes the album as “a portrait of that time living in Rhino in a tiny room and getting hurt by other people.”
The record isn’t just about pain and isolation, though; it’s also about Johnston learning how to love herself. Like Author, Like Daughter, which she’s releasing under the name Midwife, comprises mostly lo-fi guitar songs that each come in at five minutes or under — a rarity for the musician, whose solo work as Mariposa and Sister Grotto can loop relentlessly.
Like Author took two years to write, record, mix and release. Johnston is now working on another album, about the end of Rhinoceropolis and the dissolution of the community that lived there.
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For songs about pain, hers are surprisingly comforting. She says some people tell her that her music helps them sleep. She likes that. Others meditate to it. Years ago, I listened to Johnston’s songs on my way to the veterinarian to put down my cat. They felt appropriate.
Johnston probably won’t be calling Denver home for much longer. She’s planning to leave the city when the lease on her current house ends. “I can’t afford it,” she says. “It’s really unreasonable.”
She knows DIY venues come and go, as do artists. Relationships fracture, leases end, buildings are torn down. “There are new spaces opening up, which is good for Denver,” she says. But if Rhinoceropolis cannot reopen, “it’s going to leave a black hole.”
Midwife, Westword Music Showcase, Saturday, June 24, Golden Triangle, westwordshowcase.com.