Tuesday, May 23, 2017
   
Text Size

Sonia Johnson: not playing it safe with jazz

Sonia Johnson's Juno-award-winning album, Le Carre de nos Amours, came out of her pushing herself to improve her songwriting.Juno award-winning jazz vocalist Sonia Johnson took a risk when she proposed her new project to Effendi Records this year – a risk typical of her career, and which you can evaluate at her concert this Sunday in Gatineau.

She wanted to add words to instrumental compositions by prominent Quebec jazz musicians who record on Effendi, and then produce an album with her singing them. Called “vocalese”, this process requires a very careful matching of words and music.

Effendi could have turned her down. Each of the musicians could have turned her down.

But, as it turned out, no one refused, and everyone was enthusiastic. “When we reached each composer, to ask them their permission, there was no 'no way'. It was all 'Yes, Sonia, that's so great. We're really happy you're going to sing our stuff.' ”

The result is a new CD, Triades, released on October 23. It's a collaboration among three vocalists – Johnson, Charles Biddle Jr, and Annie Poulain – and three instrumentalists – pianist Marianne Trudel, bassist Morgan Moore, and drummer Jim Doxas. The lyrics are in both English and French.

In her show this Sunday at Les Brasseurs du Temps in Gatineau, Johnson will be singing two songs from Triades, along with originals from her Juno-winning album, Le carré de nos amours, and jazz standards in English, Portuguese, and French.

Johnson said she was inspired to create Triades by listening to CDs by fellow musicians. “There's so many beautiful composers that play jazz and compose jazz in Canada. There were some melodies that I was hearing in listening to their CDs and I said 'I want to sing those melodies'.”

The composers include pianists Steve Amirault, John Roney, and Yves Léveillé, bassists Dave Watts and Norman Lachapelle, guitarist Sylvain Provost, and saxophonists Rémi Bolduc, Joel Miller, Jean-Pierre Zanella, and Alexandre Côté – all stalwarts of the Montreal jazz scene.

Johnson sold Alain Bédard of Effendi Records on the idea: “I said [to him] this could be a great project.” He agreed to produce it and release it, but wanted more than one singer involved. It ended up that both Poulain and Biddle also contributed lyrics, and Johnson collaborated with two other lyricists on two songs.

Triades features three wonen & three men, and three vocalists & three instrumentalists.Johnson said she started with a few definite picks, and then suggested a selection of other songs to Poulain and Biddle that might be possible put lyrics to. “I found a few choices for Charles, and I said 'What melodies would you like to sing?' And then he said, 'OK, I love that one, that one, that one.' And we chose the lyrics in consideration that he is a male singer, finding ideas that would fit his personality also in some cases. And he also chose some music on his side, so it was a travail d'equipe, teamwork.”

But even after eliminating those songs which were “too fast or too complicated” for lyrics, she was left with a huge choice. It was difficult to choose.

“In Effendi's catalogue, I think Triades is number 121. So there's hundreds of CDs that I could choose from, and let's say about 10 songs a CD … I bought 50 CDs from Effendi to start the project, and I listened to almost everything.”

She ended up going with her heart. “There was always something that would pop up, and say, 'Oh, yes. That.' “

Marianne Trudel arranged the songs, and also composed an original piece for the project, with her own set of lyrics for it. She had originally given Johnson three possible tunes to write lyrics for, but two days later she told Johnson she needn't bother: Trudel had finished a new tune, which ended up being a duet between Johnson and Biddle.

Johnson said her happy experience with Triades showed her the “openness” of the Quebec jazz scene.

“There's a lot of collaboration between the musicians.” She said she joined the conseil d'administration of the OFF Festival (Montreal's alternative jazz festival), “because I think it's important to find more and more options for the local musicians to be seen, heard, and supported.”

Michel Donato "injected me with this poison that is called jazz"

In fact, Johnson owes her start in jazz to a prominent Quebec jazz musician: bassist Michel Donato. After a musical upbringing which included singing in the church choir, violin lessons, and pop and classical singing lessons, she came to Montreal at age 17 to study opera at Vincent-d'Indy School of Music.

“Unfortunately for me, I met Michel Donato (laughs). We always have a good laugh about that. He injected me with this poison that is called jazz, and that was too bad for me. It started there, and from that point in jazz I've been mostly a self-taught learner, an autodidact.”

Donato taught double bass in Vincent-d'Indy, and one night a week he would present a jazz combo session in which any of the students could participate. “But I was the only 'black sheep' in the the singers. In all the classical singers I was the only one who had the guts to go and try it, to the big disappointment of my teachers.”

What attracted her most to jazz, she said, was “going from the rigidity of classical music and going to that liberty of 'Oh, I hear that and I can play that'. I love that feeling of being in the moment, of listening to what the guys or girls are going to play, and [then] playing with that. That's the most thrilling part of what I enjoy in jazz.”

After many years of study on her own, however, Johnson is now back in school, studying for her bachelor's in music at l'Universite de Montreal. “Because if I want to share that knowledge and that passion for jazz with some kids in CEGEPs here in Quebec, I need to have my degree so I'm doing it right now. At 38 years old, I'm on the benches.”

Johnson's first album, Don't Explain [2005], was a straight jazz album, where eight of the eleven songs were jazz standards in English, and another was in Portuguese. After months of playing together, her pianist and bassist encouraged her to record a CD, and “we did a real jazz recording, I mean playing the songs two or three times, choosing the best version of it. Like a one-shot deal, no overdubs, just the real essence of what it is.”

A year of collaborations

Le carré de nos amours, which won the 2012 Juno Best Vocal Jazz album this spring against four anglophone jazz albums, was completely different.

It's an album of original songs, all but one of which has lyrics in French. It showcases Johnson's warm, flexible, emotive voice, as well as the strong playing of her band: pianist Luc Beaugrand (formerly of UZEB), and bassist Frédéric Alarie and drummer Camile Belisle, both of whom have played for decades with pianist Lorraine Desmarais, as well as guest appearances by prominent Quebec jazz musicians like guitarist Pierre Côté and saxophonist André Leroux.

Johnson said the compositions on the album were inspired by her winning a contest in 2008, which gave her the chance to attend a workshop, along with seven other singers, at Le Festival en chanson de Petite-Vallée in the Gaspésie area of Quebec.

“I was writing songs for a while, but I was never sure of the quality of what I was doing. [At the festival], we would exchange our visions of music and have some renowned pop singers from Quebec like Marie-Claire Séguin and Daniel Lanois give us advice, and we would perform there. So it gave me the confidence of saying 'OK, yes, I can be a composer, a writer, a lyricist.' ”

Several of the singers she met at the festival ended up contributing background vocals or lyrics to her album. “I had these people that were giving me lyrics and some others that were giving me some musical ideas, and I married them up. I had this melody from Luc Beaugrand that was marvelous and somebody sent me these sets of lyrics, and I said 'Oh my God! It works almost perfectly, but we need to do a few changes.' So I sat down with the lyricist and we made it work with the melody that was present in Luc's idea – things like that. I sent Luc some lyrics; he would make the music, or I had already some musical ideas together and we worked together to finish something.”

The songs took about a year to write, she said, with the process of composition being different for each song, although she was involved in some way in the process for all but one. The CD was recorded in 2010.

Instead of creating a conventional promotional video for the album, Johnson worked with a Quebec production house to create an short animated film based on her song “Coeurs Solitaires” – a first in Quebec for jazz music.

“I said to them, 'I don't want to be doing some lip-synch to a song'”, and so she asked Productions La Guérilla for other options. They came up with idea of matching drawings to her music, and the film was hand-illustrated by Mathieu Bureau. The film has been viewed more than 2400 times on YouTube .

"It's always evolving"

The songs on the album are shorter than many jazz pieces: mostly about 3 ½ to 4 minutes long, which Johnson said was a deliberate choice to make them easier to get played on radio. But that's not necessarily how they're played live, she said, and they now sound quite different two years later.

“There's always something you can add to an interpretation, to composition, and I think it's always evolving. That's what I love about improv.”

Singing to an audience isn't the same as in the studio, she said: “there's energy that comes back to you from a reaction of somebody to something, and that's what I love the most in my work – when we perform, there's an interaction; there's something more that you can add to the song.”

At BDT on Sunday, she said, she'll be accompanied by Beaugrand (on sax as well as piano), Alarie, and Belisle. They will play a mix of songs from all three albums, in English, French and Portuguese. Her original songs in French will be interspersed with a selection of English jazz standards, because “it's good to bring [the audience] back with something they know.”

Johnson said she didn't so much take a different approach to English and French songs, as simply personalize each song. In each language, the strong parts of the words will be in different places, she said, which has to be taken into consideration. “But I think it's all a question of emotion: what the song will carry you with?”

This will only be her second appearance in this area, the first being the Juno Awards Showcase last March. The showcase, where she played with Ottawa pianist Mark Ferguson and Toronto bassist George Koller, “was really cool. It was a really fun experience, because it was original material, and we practiced in the afternoon and it went really well.”

"Maybe some surprises"

Johnson said she had already started composing songs for her next solo project. She's also working on arranging tours in 2013 in the Maritimes and other parts of Canada.

She said she thought that winning the Juno had given her “a lot of new opportunities, and also new projects. Also, maybe people take you more seriously when you have this. … Instead of [it] being me who's starting all [the] new projects, people are calling me, 'Would you want to participate on this or that?' So it's really encouraging.”

It also will allow her to sing more in her “langue maternelle”, she said.

“Because I love singing in English, but it's not my first language, so I have this little accent. What I've found funny is that when French-speaking persons are singing in English, and they have a bit of an accent, it's not as well-received as when an English-speaker sings in French. It's always that impression I have sometimes, maybe because of the first album. I was not speaking English as well in 2005, and I had a few comments on Don't Explain because somebody said it's really great the way she sings, but 'elle a un accent'. She has that accent. It's probably what encouraged me to write in French. But I write in English, too, so maybe we'll have some surprises.”

    – Alayne McGregor

Congratulations to Cheryl Boon, who won a pair of tickets to hear Sonia Johnson's concert, generously donated by BDT. Want to win free concert tickets too? Just send a blank email to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it to start receiving our free weekly jazz events newsletter and notifications of ticket giveaways. We respect your privacy and won't share your email address with others.