When I first met jazz vocalist
Johanna Sillanpaa we were seated in the Good Earth Café near downtown
Calgary. In between sips of her coffee and nibbling on her light breakfast,
the Swedish singer with the porcelain skin and delicate features talked
about her 2006 release of the CD Good Life.
"When I wrote Good Life
(the CD), it took a long time for me to finish that CD. Some of it was
my own neurotic and some of it my own perfectionist (tendencies). I wasn’t
ready to let it go yet and finally said, ‘That’s enough release it now
and move on.’ That’s the thing as a writer you are only going to get better
as you grow. The worst thing you can do is to stay on something for so
long that by the time you release it, it becomes dated. My goal is to write
as much music as I can and to keep recording."
The CD Good Life
is at times introspective with the artist’s moodier darker side surfacing
in “One More Day.” “It is sometimes easier to think about hard stuff and
get inspiration from that. I find that sometimes it is easier to tap into
whether it is love relationships or friendships,” she said.
It is a bit ironic that
the title track “Good Life,” a song that was the last one to be added to
the CD, is at the other end of the emotional scale from “One More Day.”
“I always have a tendency to lean towards the darker brooding stuff so
I said to Sheldon Zandboer one day that I just needed a lighter song. I
needed a song that makes you feel good and is more upbeat. We were playing
and that one was born out of improvisation,” she said.
“When these songs were born
it was definitely the mood of the music that brought on the lyric and the
melody. Some of the songs started with, ‘Let’s just get together and jam.
Let’s start with a blank page, no words, no chords, nothing.’ You just
start playing something and then an idea is born. You find a verse then
you move on to a chorus and you build it like that. That is a very loose
form of writing. I really like that because you are able to be as creative
as you want to be and you can go anywhere,” said Sillanpaa.
Improvisation plays a big
role in the music of Johanna Sillanpaa. “Ideas are born out of improvisation
all of the time and we do not remember them,” she laments. As a reminder
she said, “I don’t know how many times I phone home to my answering machine
and find twenty messages that are just me (and she breaks into some vocalese).
I do a lot of corporate events and that are intended to be straight up
jazz but the musicians always take it a little bit, outside what is written.
We always come up with these crazy arrangements on the spot. I would like
at some point to do a record of not so standard standards.”
The flip side of Sillanpaa’s
writing personality delves into deeper themes and involves a much more
structured approach to writing. Songs such as “On The Other Side” surfaced
when a friend was grieving over the loss of her father. The songwriter
pondered what is on the other side of death and do we get an opportunity
to be reunited with out loved ones.
“I want to thank you, my
baby/For your constant faith in me/Through all of life’s journeys/ You
were always inspiring me/ You hold the key to this heart of mine,” Sillanpaa
gently coos the words to “Thank You” a spectacular song. Sheldon Sandboer’s
whispering piano chops accompany her, while Rob Vulic’s drums can be heard
quietly in the background.
For as much as __Good Life__
produced tracks are R&B shaded jazz tunes, the Sillan & Young quartet
that she co-founded with guitar virtuoso Aaron Young is more organic and
stripped down. She said, “The __Good Life__ music is very mellow and I
feel that I have room as a singer to be flexible.” The quartet on the other
hand has more of an alternative jazz sound that leans toward folk. The
ensemble also features extraordinary pianist Sheldon Zandboer whose every
chop you want to drool over. Bassist Kodi Hutchinson and drummer Tyler
Hornby complete the quartet. The group is in the midst of its second major
Sillanpaa said, “I have
really found a home with this particular quartet. We try to work together
as much as we can. They are there for the music and you can feel it. What
brings the best out of me is I know that the musicians onstage with me
love the music as much as me.” The singer feels she has found that with
As jazz takes, root in this
western Canadian city, Sillan & Young have become buzzwords in the
music community. When an artist’s career is still in its infancy, the musician/singer
usually invites all their friends and distant cousins to their concerts
to keep from performing before empty chairs. Sillanpaa has now reached
the point where her concerts are regularly sold out. Laughing she said,
“Usually you know at least half of the (people in the) room and they are
your friends. You see them (the people she does not know) singing along
to your lyrics and that’s kind of tripping.”
In some ways it seems very
distant from the time she was competing in talent competitions and star
searches in Sweden as a ten year old or later as a professional performer
aboard European cruise ships between the ages of fourteen and seventeen.
“I did everything from Janis Joplin to Aretha Franklin. I was very fortunate
to start at such a young age,” she said.
By the age of 16, Johanna
had been presented with two different recording deals in Sweden as well
as in France.
When Sillanpaa was eighteen
her family moved to Edmonton, a city located in northern Canada. Eventually
she enrolled in the music program at Grant MacEwan College. Much to her
chagrin at that time, it appeared her only opportunities to sing were going
to come through country music, as the jazz scene in the city of Edmonton
was non-existent. She is also quick to point out that the musical landscape
in Alberta has changed significantly over the past decade. The red-hot
Alberta economy has led to a simultaneous population explosion and the
arts community has been one of the beneficiaries.
Sillanpaa’s first big break
came with the jazz and funk octet Yomozo. “We started off doing covers
and eventually did a CD. We wanted to have high energy and something very
different. It was an amazing project that opened up a lot of doors for
(jazz) in Calgary. There was a point where we were working five house gigs
per week,” said the singer.
After three years, the members
of Yomozo went their separate ways and the singer/songwriter considered
moving to eastern Canada known for its big jazz venues and festivals in
Montreal and Toronto. She decided to stay in Calgary however and
it was there that she hooked up with Aaron Young who had just returned
from an almost continuous five years stint touring Europe.
As Sillanpaa and the quartet
Sillan & Young continue to color outside the lines, the young artist
is currying favor with critics in France, Germany and the UK. She has also
performed with jazz and R&B acts throughout the United States.
Among her, many aspirations
she said, “At some point I would like to go back to Scandinavia with my
music because I also know I have a very non Swedish influence in my style
now. I would really like to take my music back and to see if it goes over
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.