Feeling down? Feeling exhausted? Molly Johnson wants to get you back up on your feet and energized and working to make this world better. It's a theme that permeates her latest album, Meaning to Tell Ya.
“You know that you're strong enough / you don't have to wait out in the cold”, the JUNO-winning jazz vocalist sings in one of the album's tunes. In another, “Together we can turn our world around, turn it upside down.”
It's a message she'll be delivering – with a strong groove and infectiously happy melodies – in Ottawa on March 1, her first concert here in three years.
Johnson says that the “main job of an artist is to inspire, provoke, all kinds of stuff”, and it's an approach she says she's been taking since her punk days in the 1980s.
“Writers tend to to do that, I think. I think writers tend to write in themes. My lyrics have always been about hope and change.”
She doesn't pretend that changing things is an easy job – “We've got to talk about love, we've got to talk about age. That's just not easy. Have you ever talked about love with a man who really doesn't want to talk about it? Have you ever talked to a politician?”
And, although she herself has stepped up many times to make a difference, she's not writing about herself on this album. The message in her songs that people can step up and do things is “coming from the people themselves. I'm just reflecting it back at you.”
“I write about you. I don't write about me, I never write about me, nobody cares about me. What people care about is themselves, and they want to hear, I think, about themselves and they want to hear their stories. So I write about you.”
She gets these stories from everywhere: “I'm a news junkie. I'm an eavesdropper. I'm a girl with many friends in many walks of life, many ages, all different kinds of people in my life. I do like eavesdropping, to be honest. So be careful. If you meet me on the subway – shush!”
She doesn't drive, so she has even more opportunities to listen to people while walking or on transit. “And you're all safer when I'm not behind the wheel of a car. Absolutely.”
The songs don't generally refer to current politics – although one song does say that “Building walls and warrior calls will never make us free” – but are more universal and uplifting. One song, “Protest Song” could be the soundtrack for a demonstration: “You're gonna march all through the night / Nothing but a candle light and the fire in your soul / Burning so bright”.
Johnson said that song came from talking with her drummer and co-writer, Davide DiRenzo: “He and I were sitting around thinking about making a record where people could maybe get up and dance a little bit, or move a little better, you know, not sit meek in their seats listening to me do Billie Holiday.”
DiRenzo created the groove for the song, and then Johnson wrote the lyrics for it while she was in Cuba. She said she had friends in Paris in mind when she wrote it. “We all lost friends in the Bataclan, in what happened in that nightclub [the terrorist attack in 2015]. I had friends who were there, I had friends who died, that lived nearby. I thought we might all be in need of a bit of a lullaby for our protest march. Not so much up in your face, more gentle sing-songing.”
She said she played the tune when she was in Paris last fall, “during their Yellow-Jacket protests against the politicians over there. You know the French love to sing along, they just love it, they love to clap along, they're very engaged as an audience, so it was inspiring for sure.”
DiRenzo was one of several musicians she wrote with: “I've written the same way for many, many years. I like to collaborate. I usually pick people I want to collaborate with, and then we have conversations around instrumentation, and the way things would get recorded, and what they would look like live.”
Johnson's previous album was a tribute to jazz pioneer Billie Holiday. One of the three non-original songs on this album refers both to Holiday and finding your way when you're lost: “Lady Day and John Coltrane” by the late Gil Scott-Heron. She said that tune was picked by the record's producer, Larry Klein. “To my mind, [it] bridges the two records.”
Johnson has frequently combined philanthropy with her musical career. In 2008 she was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in recognition of both her music and her work with the Kumbaya Foundation, the AIDS charity she co-founded in 1992. With her Billie Holiday album, she donated a portion of the proceeds to the Boys and Girls Club. And at the March 1 show, the audience has been invited to bring a donation in support of the Orléans-Cumberland Community Resource Centre Food Bank.
In 2016, she launched the Kensington Market Jazz Festival, a stripped-down festival which provides a showcase and gigs for primarily Toronto-area musicians. It's an area she knows well: “I've lived around the Market and in the Market for most of my life. I have a lot of history [there].”
It started because “I had a long stretch of summer ahead of me that summer because well, frankly, my shows in France were cancelled that summer due to terrorism and jazz festivals were shrinking because they couldn't afford the insurance. Like a lot of things I do, I see a need for something, maybe, and I have opportunity and connection and can make stuff happen. So I did.”
“I have a very intense Rolodex after 40 years in the music business. I've definitely earned a lot of goodwill and trust from my fellow musicians and my colleagues in the work I do. I don't want to say that it was an easy thing to do – it certainly wasn't – but it certainly wasn't impossible. And we're heading into our fourth year, September 13,14,15 this year in the Market, and we've already started booking the artists."
“I have a great little team. Nobody gets paid, nobody makes any money, but boy do we have a lot of fun. And then the festival is just a gas! It's an absolute super-fun time for everybody.”
It's an example of how she could make a difference by stepping up and taking the initiative, she says.
The cover of Meaning to Tell Ya is also political, in a different way. It shows Johnson in a glamorous pose – but which doesn't hide the white streaks in her hair. That's absolutely deliberate, she says.
“It's a very strong message right there, isn't it? Hey look, girl, you can be fabulous and are fabulous, quite frankly, and actually more fabulous after 50 than before 50.”
“It's a deep dark secret that needs to be told. We've been kept in the dark about this and that's not enough. Women do their best work after 50 because we've raised our kids, we've done our thing. And then we hit menopause, which means by the way pausing on men, and you can actually have sex without getting pregnant, just like a man. So it's a fabulous time. Girls need to get ready.”
At her show at Shenkman Arts Centre in Orleans on March 1, Johnson will be playing with pianist Robi Botos, bassist Mike Downes, and drummer Davide DiRenzo. Botos and Downes are JUNO winners with their own bands; Botos played on both of Downes' JUNO-winning albums, and Downes plays on Botos' latest album, which is nominated for a JUNO this year.
All three played on Meaning to Tell Ya – which itself has been nominated for a JUNO this year – and DiRenzo and Downes both co-wrote songs with Johnson on the album. She's been performing with them for many years, and they're her go-to band.
“I'm a reluctant singer. I never had that burning desire. If I can't get those guys, I don't do the gig,” Johnson says. “My goal every night is to make the band laugh!”
Molly Johnson will perform with Robi Botos, Mike Downes, and Davide DiRenzo in Harold Shenkman Hall at the Shenkman Arts Centre on Friday, March 1, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $50, and $20 for students, and are available at the centre's box office, by calling 613-580-2700, or on-line. The centre is located at 245 Centrum Boulevard, just east of Place d'Orleans. OC Transpo route 135 stops in front of the centre; routes 91, 94, and 95 (and others) stop at the Place d'Orleans Transitway Station, a 13-minute walk from the centre. Try the OC Transpo Trip Planner to find your trip to the show!
Read our review of Molly Johnson's concert in 2015 at the NAC, and our video interview with her: