Parlor Showcase

Steph Johnson: Soul-Jazz Diva on the Road Less Traveled

Steph Johnson PHoto: John Hancock

Steph with bandmates Leo Dombecki and Jesse Charnow

Steph at Oasis House Concert Photo: Dennis Andersen

Steph Johnson leads a songwriting workshop at Coronado Middle School

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”                         –attr. Hunter S. Thompson

Art and commerce have always made strange bedfellows; the above quote has been co-opted to describe several other “creative” industries as well, including TV, film, radio, and entertainment in general, with comical accuracy. But it seems even truer now than it did back in Thompson’s gonzo heyday, when vinyl and tape reigned and recording artists were given a chance to develop and grow exclusively within the musical realm over the course of multi-album deals.

The labels have since completely lost interest in old-fashioned development; even ten years ago, a new pop artist that didn’t achieve platinum sales was most likely dropped after one flop (some of these “flops” would be major coups by today’s standards, having sold in the tens of thousands of units!), stuck with the bill, and left without ownership of their own songs and master recordings as a typical matter of course. Now, if you’re not completely brand-able (as in drop-dead gorgeous, and able to supplement a dwindling market share by diversifying, i.e. crossing over into other media, especially acting and/or merchandising/endorsements, like Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Gwen Stefani, or Ashanti), and/or outrageous like Katy Perry, Lilly Allen, or Lady Gaga (or paparazzi fodder like Amy Winehouse), you don’t get the time of day (the Adeles and Susan Boyles of the world being rare exceptions). And the same exploitative rules apply; even the surviving Beatles don’t actually own much of their prodigious catalog.

The reality era has seen the big labels banking on the notion that music fans were becoming tired of ersatz, autotuned, manufactured studio artists and hungering for the “real deal,” the Cinderella story of someone from a normal walk of life, just like them – albeit in possession of world-class vocal abilities – realizing their dreams and beating the odds in an internationally televised milieu. Shows like American Idol, Britain’s Got Talent (which spawned the surreal career of the aforementioned Susan Boyle) and its stateside spin-off America’s Got Talent, and now The Voice, have delivered this in spades, cashing in on the fantastic illusion of average Joes winning the lottery, a quick-fix, short-cut success akin to a pill-based weight loss system. The irony is, these shows are delivering the exact opposite of their intended promise; prefabricated stars who often seem just as one-dimensional, autotuned, and artificial as any other celebrity trapped in the convoluted maelstrom of the starmaking machinery, are just as exploited by the major label pea-and-shells grift, and are having the same public meltdowns from the pressures of the media circus that their fame necessitates to ensure success. In the end, the main beneficiaries of these shows are the judges (who are in the midst of diversifying – or more likely resurrecting or revitalizing – their careers), the hosts (in similar context as the judges), the big labels, the winning contestant, and sometimes the runner-up, often in that order. And the winners of these shows never seem to walk away from the experience with enough credibility to build a truly meaningful artistic legacy; in fact, most of them end up singing other people’s songs, or are forced into co-writing situations by their labels, who reserve the right to block the release of albums they deem insufficiently “commercial.” Nevertheless, these reality shows have become a viable yardstick by which the public, awash in the pervading sensationalistic media climate, now measures success.

Meanwhile, a burgeoning cross-section of the industry has been thriving just south of the mainstream radar. Displaced heritage acts whose contracts have expired and have chosen not to re-sign, small imprint mainstays, and long-time independents have opted out of the slaughterhouse madness of the corporatized mindset in favor of sustainable touring and grassroots marketing, increased creative control and freedom from the toxic elements of fame (including the anonymity-robbing – and occasionally dignity-stripping – paparazzi), more time available for learning their craft (and to be with their families), the new facility granted by the internet to directly connect with fans and sell their product, and the appeal of increased revenue shares from cutting out the corporate middlemen. Musicians at every level are seizing new opportunities to free themselves of the degrading soft-shoe they once had to tap out in order to be successful on major label terms, and many artists are choosing a different paradigm altogether, reducing their bottom line and achieving non-indentured success through alternative lifestyles fostering unbridled excellence.

Enter San Diego native Steph Johnson, who despite having every justification to play – and perhaps win – the game by contemporary standards, has chosen the deeper path, embodying increasingly rare and all-but-forgotten ideals in the ongoing quest to share her many gifts with the world.

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Steph Johnson (she prefers the truncated Steph to the milquetoast Stephanie) grew up as part of a musically appreciative family that, despite constant singing and listening, had no clue in the beginning how to guide and support their emphatically independent daughter in making music her career. Concomitant with her desire to earn her own money and live alone as soon as possible, and spurred on by the encouragement of a good friend, Steph signed up for voice lessons.

“The first ad I answered for voice lessons was a woman based in San Diego who had more of a classical approach,” Johnson related recently via email. “She was not that encouraging, told me that I had a lot of work to do, etc. Then I had another opportunity with somebody else, Shyla Nibbe. She asked me to prepare a tune for her and then she would give me some lessons. I sang a Jill Scott song for her and she listened closely…I remember I was really nervous. She kept her head down the whole time and then after I finished she raised her head and asked me bluntly, ‘Why aren’t you singing professionally right now?’”

“That was a pivotal moment for me,” Johnson continues. “It was the first time that somebody told me I could sing. About a month later I joined a gospel jazz vocal ensemble directed by Jim Tompkins MacLaine. I met him through my day job (I did his banking). He was also very encouraging and actually got me my first paid gig. I thought ‘Wow, I just got paid $150 to sing some back-ups??! I could do this.’”
“Another pivotal moment during this time was a conversation I had with guitarist/vocalist, Matt Silvia [of Sweetooth],” Steph recalls. “He suggested that I learn an instrument and write songs because, as he put it so vividly, ‘It’s great that you sing and all, but what are YOU really about? What do you have to say??’ This hadn’t really been a thought for me up to this point. I was 21, a fan of blues, jazz, and soul singers, but I had never thought that I could really learn how to play an instrument and write my OWN songs and use them to express myself.”
Steph progressed quickly on guitar, mostly through a self-administered pedagogy, gravitating toward the complex upper harmony chords native to jazz and R&B, and it wasn’t long before her first songs began to take shape.

She began frequenting open mics in the early ’00s, discovering a vast network of support and abundant performance opportunities through Listen Local SD maven Cathryn Beeks (a dear friend and avid San Diego music supporter to this day) and branching out from there.

Johnson reached another crucial turning point a few years ago when, upon taking stock of her life and recognizing the pressure she felt to conduct her career in certain prescribed directions (à la Jason Mraz, Anya Marina, or Greg Laswell) and having had a small but potent taste of the dark side of fame (mainly a couple of obsessive fans), she made two virtually simultaneous life changes. First, she committed to her health, embracing sobriety and an active lifestyle, exercising regularly (via running, cycling, and swimming), and eating well (although she’s still a fan of morning pancakes, eggs, and bacon). She decided that the work she was more interested in doing had less to do with playing the game than with developing the creative aspects of what she does to the fullest limits of her ability.
Steph Johnson’s music is a seamless fusion of the vast pop potential of R&B and soul, and the experimentalism of both instrumental and vocal-based jazz forms, bestowing on her a sky’s-the-limit array of career possibilities. In addition to this, Johnson also embodies an astonishing amalgamation of seemingly paradoxical attributes that enable her to excel in every facet of being a full-time modern-day musical artist, independent or otherwise.

She looks amazing for starters, with her beautiful Latin American features (including that 1,000-watt Libran smile) framed by a wildly abundant mane of dark wavy hair, supported by a body well-toned through healthy living. One can easily imagine seeing her alongside the likes of Beyonce or J-Lo in the visual medium; she’s got the kind of visage that’s tailor-made for prominent product endorsement. She has “It,” that thing people call star quality, the larger-than-life aura of imminent international importance, and it’s been there from the onset, from the first notes at her first shows.

The musical virtues are present, of course, but more often than not the artistic proclivity in a creative soul is mutually exclusive to the disparate tasks of self-management, networking, promotion, putting on a show (as opposed to just playing and singing on a stage), and other aspects of the left-brained “business” side of the music industry; not so with Steph. Although she does prefer to stick to the creative side of things, especially the fervent learning of her craft, Johnson seems to have an equal facility for doing her own booking (she’s got a full docket through October, as of this writing, at upscale venues like Croce’s in the Gaslamp), her own promotion (with innumerable appearances on TV, radio, and printed media in San Diego and elsewhere), and her own tours (mainly to locales in which she already has a foothold via friends and family, and definitely not for months at a time).
She also has an unparalleled gift for networking and maintaining key relationships within the industry, allowing her to draw just the right people into her sphere, and to have them act in mutual accordance with her impetus. By the same token, Steph has also gained the sagacity of knowing with whom she does not want to work, and the kinds of professional scenarios she will now avoid (like performing at certain venues who want an unwarranted cut of her on-site CD sales).

And she is a phenomenal entertainer bar none, giving crowds the experience of a dynamic show when she could very well luxuriate on the laurels of her musicality like an Amy Winehouse. Steph exhibits an engaging, extroverted openness on stage, drawing in diverse audiences regardless of their personal aesthetic tastes, making everyone feel like they’ve found the Party.

The most overt thing about Steph Johnson in performance is her stunning voice and how well she implements it in service of her art. People sometimes fail to recognize the distinction between technique and timbre; the latter is the range and tone potential one is born with, the combination of inherent lung power, larynx shape, and facial bone structure that contributes to a clear, pleasing voice, and the former is represented by the years of work one must usually undertake to hone pitch correctness and effects control (i.e., vibrato, melisma, range, and sustain). Someone without the innate gift can be recognized as a great singer if their technique is proficient and they weave their tonal imperfections into their sound, and a vocalist born with phenomenal yet untrained timbre can sometimes be found wanting. Steph Johnson’s voice embodies both the ease of a natural gift and the hours of erudition required for solid technique. In other words, it’s all in there.
Johnson is similar to Ani DiFranco in her effortlessly emotive vocal delivery and the tenable elasticity of her histrionics, easily using her voice like another instrument, and often as a separate vehicle for improvisational expression (she scats like the great women of jazz before her and sometimes amuses and/or cracks herself up in the process, as evidenced by occasional laughs and smiles). She often interacts with the audience like a stand-up comedienne; for instance, sometimes she’ll generically address female strangers with the humorous sobriquet “Chaka Khan.”

A little less noticeable – as we usually react to voices first – is Johnson’s adroitness as a guitar player who is constantly striving to improve. Complex upper harmony chords that have been in her lexicon from the onset are now being employed in the interpretation of perennial jazz standards with stunning alacrity (she recently collaborated with North County guitar legend Peter Sprague in such a way). And she has become a devoted student of improvised soloing, ardent in her desire to be a “Cat” like Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Esperanza Spaulding, Ella Fitzgerald, Pat Metheny, or Miles Davis on her chosen instruments, jamming with and actively learning from as many gurus as she can.

Along these lines, and from the very beginning, Steph Johnson has had the privilege of sharing time and stages with well-respected, often internationally renowned artists. Among the standouts for her have been Maceo Parker (who worked extensively with James Brown in his heyday), bassist Stanley Clarke, and singer/multi-instrumentalist Poncho Sanchez.

Johnson’s recorded output consists of two full-length CDs (Genesee Avenue, 2006, and Mysterious Feminine, 2010), and a demo/EP (A Demonstration, 2005). The sounds contained therein boast a dangerous balance between radio readiness and intriguing aural experimentation, not to mention a heart-on-sleeve, beyond-their-years world-weariness to which most people with a pulse can relate.
Although Genesee Avenue bears Johnson’s self-proclaimed “official debut” designation, A Demonstration is the chronological introduction to her oeuvre and hardly anything to be ashamed of. The hallmarks of Johnson’s myriad talents are already present: three groove-heavy tracks (track 4 is a slightly embellished remix of track 1, “Hangin’ Wit You”) with sophisticated chord changes, clutch instrumental and executive support (including prominent San Diego producer Josquin des Pres man-handling bass duties), and Johnson’s monolithic voice rising to – and undoubtedly being heard in – heaven. The regret-laden chestnut “Wouldn’t It Be Fine” makes its first appearance here, followed by the melismatic, jilted-lover groove, “Baby.”

Genesee Avenue is Steph’s first proper studio album, but you wouldn’t glean this from hearing it. Recorded under the rubric of fellow artist Saba Berenji’s Spinster Recordings at co-producer Christopher Hoffee’s Studio Chaos, onto warmth-imbuing analog tape, with some of the finest musicians anywhere (let alone San Diego), Genesee Avenue portrays a full-blown artist sprung Venus-like from a heretofore closed shell in all her mature, mid-career glory, not the first independently released CD in a fledgling artist’s discography. The record as a whole sounds like something Blue Note might put out as a more daring alternative to its own Norah Jones; prevalent with the cozy jazz feel of musicians playing live together in one room, the cuts radiate a laid back emotional immediacy. Not to say that this is a mellow, easy listening jazz album, though; there is a generous helping of edgy R&B moxie emanating from these eight songs as well, much of it attributable to Johnson and her innately soulful, black-woman-at-church vocals.
“A Part of Me” starts the album off with head-bobbing, wah-wah, and Wurlitzer-inflected capriciousness (courtesy of local keyboard luminary Leo Dombecki), with Johnson’s hopeful scat-longing in full swing (“Well I’d like to get to know you/A little bit better/So I can knit you/A monogrammed sweater/Even though I don’t know how to knit/For you I’d be willing to learn it”). “Wouldn’t It Be Fine” makes its much improved reappearance here, easily earning the designation “classic” with its remorseful solemnity (“Wouldn’t it be fine/If we could go back in time/And make right what we couldn’t make right/The first time”) and superlative guitar work from both Johnson and Seth Blumberg. “True Love” is also an undeniable classic, with its secular twist on gospel blues (the dramatic upward key change right before the bridge is a nice surprise), its lyrical content (tough love to a friend lost in a bad relationship), and a backing vocal cameo by San Diego mainstay Lisa Sanders.

The rhythm section of Sean Rose and Mikey Cannon (on bass and drums respectively), rock-solid through all eight songs, are let off the leash on the loping kiss-off “Can’t Relate” (with Steph singing “I just can’t relate/To the complicated game you’re trying to play/You pull me in just to push me away/You say you want to be with me but not today/Well honey, what makes you think you’re worth the wait”), the bittersweet breakup strains of “Give Up” (yet another classic; “So I’ll pack up my movies and CDs/Return that promise we were always meant to be”), and the self-doubting, quasi-African shuffle groove of “The Words,” which also features the phenomenal embouchure of world-class trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos (who also waxes jazzily virtuosic over “Give Up” and the slinky morning-after album closer, “Toast and Eggs”). Backup vocalist Leonard Patton adds Bobby Byrd-like, oftentimes call-and-answer style support to Johnson’s James Brown-ian energy on “Give Up” and elsewhere, providing a grounding male counterpoint to Steph’s unbridled soul-bearing.

Mysterious Feminine finds Johnson and a revamped rhythm section (comprised of drummer Jesse Charnow and bassist Kevin Cooper, on this outing) conducting new production experiments on a transitional album. Every aspect was handled locally (Steph tries to support non-corporatized San Diego businesses as much as possible), with recording – and co-production – taking place at Raw Honey Studios in Cardiff, rhythm section recording and album mixing at Jeff Berkeley’s studio, and with Paul Abbott administering the final touches at his Poway-based Zen Mastering.

One can almost hear the aforementioned catharses Steph experienced between Genesee Avenue and this new release influencing these 11 tracks. Initial demos had the songs perhaps feeling some pressure to embrace current trends in their electronic-based dance club vibe, representing a marked departure from her soul-jazz roots. In their final incarnation, however, the arrangements that found their way onto Mysterious Feminine build off of the predominantly organic formula established by Genesee Avenue.

A sense of spiritual awakening – and some of the fruit-bearing sonic experimentation from the initial demos – abounds on cuts like “Serenity” (with its spacey, mellow textures, backwards guitar, and holistic lyrics intoning “Welcome to the galaxy/Intergalactic love and light for you and me”), the ambient house-music strains of “Believe,” and the dreamy “Thank You” and “You Are Love.”

Johnson’s preeminent focus on love relationships past and present is also well represented by the ultra-catchy first-cut shuffle “Hiya Hiya,” the slow-blues-to-disco-doo-wop acceleration of “Call Me,” the midtempo ache of “Can’t Stand the Pain,” and the languishing strains of “Perfect Woman.” “Pinceladas En Cancion” stands out with its all-Spanish lyric, a covertly amorous ode recognizing Johnson’s Hispanic roots. And her adoption of the woodshedding artist’s ethos, now fully coalesced, is summed up in “The Artist Supreme,” wherein she name-checks many of her inspirations (including John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, and Jimi Hendrix, to name a few).

Johnson has received several nominations in various categories over the past five some-odd years (including Best Jazz Artist in 2009, and has been graced with other honors as well, including a victory in the 2008 San Diego Magazine songwriting competition), but Mysterious Feminine won Steph her first San Diego Music Award in 2010 for Best Jazz Album. And from this point on, Steph Johnson’s albums will be released on her newly inaugurated label, Lotus Heart Records.

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Is there a way to shift the public’s opinion of what worldly success entails for its creative denizens? Can the fame game be changed? The odds are slim. But Steph Johnson is someone who could help alter our perception, at the very least. Either way, Johnson would have you know she intends to defy the current conditions, avoid the status quo, and to perhaps be the “unreasonable” person George Bernard Shaw spoke of when he said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Steph recently penned an impassioned open letter/blog that she has graciously allowed the San Diego Troubadour to publish for the first time. It represents as concise a summarization as can be written about the many pitfalls Johnson is trying to avoid in her ongoing career as a talented independent musician. It reads:

Almost every week I get asked a well-intended question that has become somewhat offensive to me: “Why don’t YOU try out for American Idol?!” I can tell that they are sincerely supportive and TRULY believe that a reality TV show is all that a person in my position could – or would – ever need. I’ve tried everything in my power to come up with a thoughtful, loving answer that will perhaps educate them as to WHY that is such an offensive question to ask of a working musician, vocalist, and writer.

I could justify my position by saying I wouldn’t really have any time to appear on a show like that because of how busy I am learning new material for all of my upcoming events, or I could explain how difficult it would be to break away from the joy of rehearsing and gigging and learning from all of the different musicians that I am so blessed to work with. Of course I’d have to find somebody else to play all of my dates that I have booked for the rest of the year. And I’d have to figure out how to take down all of my self-released albums from iTunes and elsewhere because the labels behind the show will want to own and control and exploit all of my music for their own monetary gain, leaving me with way less of a share than I get now. And how about my genre? Like I even know what that is but let’s face it, I am not Kelly Clarkson or Jordin Sparks or Carrie Underwood or Adam Lambert, but that is who they will try to make me sound like, with the whole annoying vocal effect thing and the painfully obvious chord changes and melodies and lyrics. And why? What would I get out of it? Fame? Money? TMZ covering me while I pump gas and pick my nose?

But I never say any of this. Instead I smile and thank the person for their interest in my career and leave it at that, since these things don’t really register with the general public because what I and many other musicians and full time artists do on a day-to-day basis is not filmed and edited down for mass programming consumption. Meanwhile, designers, songwriters, singers, interior decorators, models, chefs, and any other creativity-based industry you can think of has been crammed into this reality TV show format for entertainment purposes ONLY. Ladies and gentleman, reality shows do NOT represent reality. It seems redundant that I should even have to say that but I’m saying it anyway, because it feels good to be REAL.

I’ve begun to wonder, how far away are we from seeing a reality TV show that judges painters? Imagine; brush stroke by brush stroke, a panel of “professional” artists (who’ve maybe had some commercial success but mainly just look good on camera) will impose their own subjective, self-aggrandizing standards on the contestants’ color choices, brush strokes, and originality of themes. Every week somebody will go back to the house, pack their bags, and endure a series of teary goodbyes as they leave the show, feeling that the judges hadn’t really seen their talent, feeling used, as though the drama of their “failure” was exploited only for the purposes of mass entertainment.

Contrived, false, misleading, corrupt: these are words that I would use to describe ALL of these shows that claim to find and prime the next BIG star. Yuck. And what happens to the artist? You know, the artist who is busy working on expanding their knowledge and skills to honestly express their true selves? Add to that a person who books their own group, runs their own website and media promotion, schedules rehearsals, organizes events and practices all the live long day – THAT is what it means, in my book, and I have yet to see that on a TV show.

NOW, to all of my friends who are currently on a show, producing or have produced a show, or have otherwise been involved with some aspect of these programs – I have nothing but love and support for you. I do not judge your choice to audition or become a part of the reality TV subculture. I think that it can be useful for some and serve as a stepping stone to the next phase of a certain type of career, but how you get to that phase is a choice. While we are all sold on the huge potential that a TV show could bring to a lucky few, there is a REAL danger in placing the glamorous illusions of instant, easy success upon a development process that actually takes serious time and dedication. The end result is a puppet show in which the audience and contestants are completely unaware that their collective involvement in this kind of popularity contest is quickly reducing our beloved art form to a mediocre mess of cheap entertainment.

What I really want to say to those who encourage me to be on one of these reality talent shows is: true art is not a competition. For me, true art is as close to the divine as I can get, and I can’t betray that.

Steph Johnson has committed to the less-traveled path, prioritizing a commitment to craft over the toxicities of ambition that are endemic to success on obsolete major label terms. And although she’s open to whatever career-advancing opportunities come her way, she intends to stay the course and continue improving as an independent, world-class San Diego musician.

“I had attempted so many instruments in my youth (tenor sax, piano, guitar, drums, flute to name a few) but I had failed to get past all of the lessons of note reading,” Steph concludes. “I didn’t have the discipline. But today I comprehend so much more than I thought was possible; it just takes work and time. I feel so blessed now, on this journey that I have found the incredible musicians along my path who have helped me, encouraged me to get better and keep doing it: Sean Rose, Robin Henkel, Wayne Riker, Jesse Charnow, Leo Dombecki, Kevin Cooper, Gilbert Castellanos, Peter Sprague, and so many more.”

“I can’t believe that I have opened for the cats that I have…I can’t believe that I am playing jazz and blues guitar; I am so stoked that I spend my free time going to guitar workshops, learning new material, rehearsing for gigs, and writing music for myself or others. It is a wonderful, brand new landscape for me, this life as a working musician and artist, what a blessing…I know that there ain’t much that hasn’t already been done but that doesn’t stop me from learning as much as possible from them. It is an exciting time for me as a musician.”

www.stephjohnsonband.com

  • September 2016

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