Ellen Johnson Interview
"I don't paint so I guess
in my music I try to paint (using) words and sounds. People have made mention
that with this CD (These Days) they hear all these subtleties and
nuances. I do that on purpose because I am not just trying to sing a song
I am trying to add colors to it with my voice," said Ellen Johnson from
her home on the West Coast.
The well spoken Johnson
continued to talk about her passion for music, "If you walk out in nature
and look at beautiful scenery, it's not always the same and there are different
emotions, pictures and colors that evoke in different moments. I think
that is what jazz does."
From her home near a marina
and wildlife sanctuary the photos of which can be found on her CD cover,
Johnson certainly has a daily inspiration that infuses her music.
"It (These Days)
starts out with very bright and deep colors, and then it goes into pastels.
All of these songs came out of my experiences. I hadn't put out a CD in
seven or eight years. I've had a lot of experiences since then and they
haven't all been good (she said laughing). I have also had a lot of wonderful
experiences. I think that is what the colors (represent) for me, from the
harshness of the colors to the softness of the colors," Johnson said.
One of those major losses
was Mac, her English Sheepdog/Setter cross who had been with her for seventeen
years. "He was my best friend and he died a couple of years ago. He went
through a lot of things with me in my life. I know some people don't understand
that animals sometimes get you through hard times. They love you unconditionally
and are there for you. They add something to you and give you a connection
to another part of life. I loved him so much and I still miss him terribly,"
Life experiences have added
to the depth and sometimes the shadows in Johnson's music. "In my life
the music has always been the one thing that has pulled me through situations.
(Sometimes it is) just singing and being able to release some of that (emotion).
It helps you to sing in a deeper way. There are songs that I sing (and
she laughs) that now I have a real understanding of what those words are
all about! I have a much closer relationship to the music," she said.
Johnson observed, "I think
there are things that we go through that we can in another medium. It can
be something that is very healing and also gives back. I think your writing
becomes deeper and richer. Your performance becomes deeper and richer."
Although Johnson's taste
for music is eclectic and she proclaims a fondness for classical, pop,
folk and musical theater, jazz seems to be where she has found her home
at the moment. The common thread for Johnson is the music must be well
written, have depth and come from the heart.
"I really like interesting
lyrics that say something thoughtful and have depth to them. (I like lyrics
that) make you think for a minute hmmm. That's what poetry is, images that
evoke emotions," she said. It was these elements that early in her career
drew her to Joni Mitchell's music and later in life has created an affinity
for the works of 20 th century poet Maya Angelou.
Whether it is in poetry
or in music Johnson is drawn to art that provokes an emotional response.
"I think there is music that comes from you being bare and exposing yourself,"
the singer said. She goes on to say that she suspects one of the reasons
she finds herself in jazz is it tends to be less commercial than some other
genres and more often comes from a deep seated emotional base.
"The reason I am attracted
to jazz at this point in my life is I like the idea of being in the moment
and communicating to people spontaneously. I love improvisation because
of that. It allows me to express something in the moment. I also love it
(jazz) because it has the perfect balance of discipline and freedom meaning
that you have to know what you are doing. Once you know what you are doing
you have the freedom to take it somewhere else or to see it from another
point of view and for some reason that really appeals to me," sais Johnson.
She continued, "There is
no hook (in jazz). You can go in different directions. The melodies are
sophisticated and when I say sophisticated I mean they can go in more places
than say pop music or folk music."
Johnson finds the attraction
to jazz "is never ending and I can always find a new way of looking at
Once again Johnson's desire
to discover music that touches her and that she can in turn use to touch
the lives of others contributed to the song selection for These Days.
"On my CD I don't do just standard and I don't want to only do standards
I love them but I want to find songs that can express more of who I am
and can bring these different colors and sounds," she said.
Johnson has combined the
old and the new to great effect with this most recent release. She provides
soulful Portuguese vocals on "Esperanca Perdida," adds satirical lyrics
to Charles Mingus' "Noddin' Ya Head Blues" (a look at white collar crime)
and takes a playful approach to "No Moon At All."
Darek Oles' bass work comps
the singer nicely and delivers the evocative quality to the music that
Johnson continually strives for. "I really like musicians who bring out
emotions because it is like they are speaking to me through their instrument,"
Although Larry Koonse appears
on guitar, Roy McCurdy on drums and Ana Gazzola provides percussion, it
is the chemistry of Oles and Johnson that makes These Days work
so well. "I like the intimacy and the interaction between just the two
instruments. I like the relationship between the voice and the bass because
in reality they are both single line instruments although we do know the
bass can play some chords," she said.
Johnson finds both the contrast
and dynamic between her high soprano voice and the bass to be exhilarating.
"It has been a challenge for me to work within my lower range. The higher
(range) is a piece of cake for me. In fact on my past CDs I have really
gone to the extremes of my high end. I just felt I wanted to explore the
other end (of my range) a little bit more. I wanted this (These Days) to
be beautiful and simple," she says.
"Darek is such a lyrical
bass player and as I said in my liner notes I felt as if he was singing
with me. He has this beautiful sense of a lyric line. He has gorgeous warmth
in his bass sound. Darek is very creative and spontaneous which is what
I needed," she said.
Johnson feels that Oles'
ability to think outside the box from what a bass player might traditionally
play contributed to the success of These Days . She said, "I didn't
want somebody who would just do walking bass lines behind me. I wanted
somebody who could add personality and who would express himself whether
it was a lyrical nature, rhythmic nature or whatever it was. He wasn't
somebody I had to encourage to do that, he just has it. It was a lot of
fun. We just kind of clicked together. It was a magical experience for
both of us."
The songs on These Days
have many textures and like a child blowing bubbles through a ring you
find each new one is unique, fascinating and beautiful.
Although Ellen Johnson is
renowned for her work as a teacher and composer she has a reminder for
us, "Everybody is so concerned about technique but let's not forget that
it is the heart and soul of the music that we want to get to. The people
who are really astounding sing from their souls."
By Joe Montague, exclusive
Joe Montague is an internationally
published journalist / photographer. His ministry is dedicated to the memory
of his late son Kent David Montague who went to heaven at the age of 18.
All copyright and distribution rights remain the property of Joe Montague.