The Juno-winning musician dishes about the music business, motherhood, and letting the air out of Aretha's tires.
Juno-winning jazz singer (and Torontonian) Molly Johnson hits the stage at Massey Hall November 30 to launch the venue’s 2013 jazz season. Audiences can expect a healthy dose of her trademark wit—also on display every weekend on CBC Radio 2—and the luxurious song-stylings that have made her an international sensation. Just like Jerry Lewis, Johnson is an honest to goodness big deal in France, and she is set to debut at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center in January. Her Massey Hall show will feature the Regent Park School of Music, which is as good a reminder as any of just how civic-minded she can be. Our interview is below.
Torontoist: We’re here today to talk about your upcoming concert at Massey Hall. A daunting venue to be sure, but you’re no stranger to iconic Toronto venues. I remember hearing a story about your first experiences on stage working at the Royal Alexandra as a little girl…
Johnson: I was not much more than a prop on stage. I was very young and they would shoo me out and then someone would take my hand and walk me off. I remember missing a lot of school and loving it. Ed Mirvish used to come watch us rehearse, standing at the back row of the Royal Alex, and would ask me to talk to him from the stage. He’d say “Don’t yell, this is the most beautiful theatre in the world!” I didn’t have any singing lessons, but back then, Ed Mirvish was my vocal coach.
He gave you good advice, too!
Yeah, we don’t need to yell. I can hear you perfectly when you speak to me with confidence and clarity, and so that was a big lesson from Ed. I guess other lessons were things like, always leave them wanting a little more and always take that beat before you walk on.
You always do that in concert settings!
I always do that, I do. I take that moment thinking about a lot of things. History and stuff, before I walk out there for sure. The other thing that was great about those days is that it was just a phone call to the house and down we would come. It was like going to camp! It was like a hobby that the family did, it wasn’t a career or anything other than a fun thing that we did as a family.
You try to keep that spirit in your work even today, don’t you?
I totally do. I feel like I was born in a trunk. I have always been doing some sort of monkey business!
There’s a kind of family atmosphere on the stage with your band. Is that the group that you’ve got on the 30th?
Yeah, the usual suspects! Robi Botos and Mike Downes and Larnell Lewis. My dad was a gym teacher, he was all about the importance of teams, and every position was important to the overall game. I have always come to the stage with a great team, and understanding that playing to their strengths and allowing my musicians the space to be fantastic works. And I am a bit lazy! I love to sit and listen to them play! I am a big believer in the team and that you don’t do anything alone.
That’s certainly the game plan for your Massey Hall show on November 30. You’ll be featuring kids involved with the Regent Park School of Music.
I love the idea of opening up stuff that I fought so hard for to others. I’m also really interested in children’s music programs and that really scary corridor for all parents that work. That time period between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. when they get home. We’ve lost a lot of kids in that time zone, and it doesn’t matter how affluent you are or not. This is a very dangerous time. I am a big believer in after-school programs, and Regent Park School of Music has been doing this particular bit of business for years where they’ve been teaching young children.
This is not just music. They have homework club. They have a lot of different places, ways for kids to plug in, but music is their over-arching business. It’s been proven over and over again how important music is for kids. It’s one of the things that gets cut first in our school programs and it worries me greatly. You talk to a great scientist or a great doctor or an interesting lawyer, and I guarantee you, they will have played an instrument as a child. It’s just a thing. It doesn’t mean that you go on to becoming a professional musician, but it definitely makes your brain work a particular way.
I also think in learning to play an instrument, you become a more informed audience in later life. There’s nothing a performer loves better than an informed audience, an audience that truly appreciates and understands the skill and dedication and focus and discipline to get to this point. It’s just a way better show if you’ve got an educated audience, and why not start young? I guess in answer to your question, I’ve brought along the Regent Park School of Music choir to do a few songs with me right off the top… I think we all love the sound of kids’ voices. It’s so pure, and I love that. Also, in the lobby, during our intermission, we’ll have another group of kids from the Jane and Finch area playing pan drum. The idea is that all my CD sales will go to this music program.
That’s really cool. Can you tell us about some of the special guests that are going to be joining you on stage that night?
Yes. Elizabeth Shepherd is a beautiful voice on the jazz scene. What I love about her is that she writes her own material as well as just beautiful interpretations of standards. She’s a great musician. She plays the piano, something I’m very envious of. I’m very envious of that skill. She’s a new mom, and that’s always interesting to see, how any working mom is going to sort that out. It’s a challenge to any working moms. Whether you’re a musician or a bank-teller, it’s a thing to work out. It’s always interesting to me to see others struggle with their balance. I know a lot about that. I’ve got other sort of surprises through the evening: a young, young guitar player, a Canadian kid name Lucian Gray. Lucian Gray was the first Canadian to get a full music scholarship to Berkeley. He’s going to rip the roof off Massey Hall. He’s just going to! To me, he is the future of jazz. He is very exciting.
I’m wondering what the first concert you ever saw Massey Hall was.
The first thing I probably saw at Massey Hall was one of those massive choirs, and I—probably in a public school situation—sang in one of those massive choirs at Massey Hall.
So many of us did, right?
So many of us did. I’ll say though that, a couple of weeks ago, I went to Massey Hall just to have a walk around to remind myself of what the heck I have gotten myself into. It’s one thing to stand on an empty stage and look out and see all those empty seats and really just hope and pray that they get filled. That’s a bit daunting because there’s a lot of red empty seats when you look that way. Then you turn around and look at the stage and realize just how huge that stage is. It was built to accommodate symphonies and choral music and choirs and big stuff. When you see it naked and you can see that back wall, you realize, I have to not only just fill these seats, but I have to put something on the stage and it better be good, or I’m in big trouble. That was something, to have a deep look at that stage empty like that, for sure.
Is it different performing at home than it is internationally? I mean, you’re such a big deal in France, how does that compare to home?
It’s crazy, but France’s landmass, you can put two and half Frances into Ontario. There are over 48 million people living in France. I don’t think we have 48 million people in Canada. When the artists lament about Canadians not loving culture, I say, “No, no, Canadians love their culture.” We love it, but we’re a very large country, very low population, and very diverse. Extremely diverse. We have a huge country music scene. We have a huge Asian music scene. We have a huge French-Canadian music scene. We have huge pockets, but there’s not a lot of us. So, my advice to Canadian artists is find other markets to supplement your Canadian market. Don’t try and put it off to, “Canadians don’t like culture.” Are you kidding me? They love it. We love it. We especially love our own.
I think so.
I feel very loved and very cherished here.
Anytime I see you perform, I feel that coming from the audience. It’s always a bit of a love fest.
Yeah, it should be a bit of a love fest, especially since Aretha Franklin’s cancelled!
Aretha was booked for the same night at Roy Thomson Hall! It was a bit of a nightmare for me. Of all the voices in the world, Aretha. I was threatening to go down to New Jersey and let the air out her tour bus tires. [She laughs.] You can print that. I gotta do what I gotta do. Everybody’s paying for this Massey Hall show. My mother bought a ticket. Everybody’s paying. I’ve got to fill seats. If you really love me, you’ll cough up the 35 bucks and come see my ass. My mother’s giving me the gears. I just say, “I have to use you as an example, Mama. I know you’re 80, (laughs) I don’t care.” [Ed. note: The Aretha Franklin show was not, in fact, cancelled. It has been moved to April 12, 2013.]
Photo by Tracey Nolan.