Cover Story: Molly Johnson
Self-identification for women seems to be somewhat more complicated than it is for men. And for Molly Johnson, her list of accomplishments can’t be distilled into one word. Johnson is an artist, a singer, a songwriter, a mother and a philanthropist – to name a few.
By Cece M. Scott www.cecescott.com
Molly Johnson is also a five-time Juno nominee, and in 2009 she received a Juno award for vocal jazz album of the year (Lucky). In 2007, Johnson was named as an Officer of the Order of Canada in recognition of her contributions to Canadian music, as well as for her work with the Kumbaya Foundation – an AIDS charity that she co-founded in 1992. She is also a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal recipient (2012). Johnson has performed for the likes of Nelson Mandela and Princess Diana, and alongside many notable artists, such as Tom Cochrane, Anne Murray and Peter Appleyard.
At the age of 59, Johnson’s career has spanned more than five decades. By the age of four she was appearing in musicals, including Porky and Bess at the the Royal Alexander Theatre in Toronto. Performing was a family affair, and her brother, Clark (age seven), and her sister, Tabby (nine), were in a number of productions alongside her. When Johnson and actress, Cynthia Dale, were both seven years of age, they appeared in South Pacific and Finian’s Rainbow, and a lifelong friendship ensued. “I remember the props, especially in Candy Man, the orchestra pit, the music, and my beloved Ed [Mirvish] and his beautiful theatre,” says Johnson.
In addition to acting, Johnson aspired to be a choreographer, and attended the National Ballet School of Canada until the age of 15. While at the school, Johnson learned more about how to use, and enrich, her diaphragm as it related to modulating her singing. “I would creep into the back door of the Colonial where the brother and sister team of Shawne, and Jay Jackson of The Majestics were singing. I would watch Shawne sing her own songs, and she made her own clothes. And, I realized that I could make other things, too. I could make songs,” says Johnson.
Johnson became a guest singer of the disco group, Chocolate Affair, then went on to perform gigs with Billy Reed and The Street People. By the late 1970s Johnson was writing her own material and had formed the eclectic funk-rock group, Alta Moda. Her interpretive, smoky voice earned her the nickname – Diva of Queen Street.
Johnson doesn’t drive, and walks everywhere. She considers herself extremely fit for someone who doesn’t go to the gym, and says that her life is her gym. She does admit that she’s had to make some accommodations as she’s aged. “I drop my songs a semi-tone to accommodate my vocal range. I call it my old lady key,” says Johnson. “And while I miss a lot about my youth, I am really tired of the attitude that women are past their prime at 26. How can I talk truth and be authentic if I colour my hair? When I turned 50, I felt like I had arrived.”
While fiercely private about her family, Johnson is extremely proud of her sons. Henry recently graduated from grade 12, and Otis is in his third year at the University of Ottawa. “They are both beautiful, kind, empathetic gentleman – that was my goal.”
Released this past spring, her new album, Meaning To Tell Ya, reflects Johnson’s attitude towards life, as well as her musical explorations. The title references the positivity that Johnson emanates in terms of her intention of wanting to ‘tell ya’ how brave you are, or how fabulous you are, or that when you walk into the room, you own it. The album is a mix of funk, soul, groove and jazz, and includes a Marvin Gaye song, Inner City Blues. The album was produced by Larry Klein (once married to Joni Mitchell). “I couldn’t believe that I had the opportunity to work with Larry,” says Johnson. “Marvin was the master of telling stories that are both relevant, and still very meaningful, in today’s world. That, in itself, is a strong message, not just about how far we’ve come, but also for how far we still have to go.”
Johnson is also a consultant and story teller for the TD Bank’s Black History Project (an initiative she co-founded with TD). She uncovers interesting, and impactful, stories that relate to Canada. “This country is rich with black history,” Johnson says. “In fact, Canada abolished slavery 76 years before the States.”
She recounts the story of Viola Desmond (featured on the Canadian 10-dollar bill). Desmond was a successful black Nova Scotian businesswoman who challenged racial discrimination by sitting in the main level of New Glasgow’s Roseland Theatre, an area supposedly reserved for white people. “Desmond was dragged out of the theatre and put on trial,” says Johnson. “Her stand against racial discrimination actually happened ten years before Rosa Parks took her stand.”
Johnson is advocating to have The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill, included in the grade 11 curriculum.
In 2016, Johnson started the Kensington Market Jazz Festival – an extensive undertaking that involves programming 400 Canadian musicians in more than 12 venues. The 2018 festival runs from September 14th to the 16th. “It’s a community vibe with curated busking,” says Johnson. “Tom Mihalik, of Tom’s Place, is the patron saint of my festival. He also pays for piano lessons for kids in the neighbourhood.”
A huge supporter of both established, and aspiring, musicians, Johnson does not perform at the festival. “This is about others – my community and my talented friends.”
“A good song can change your mood, and in fact, your whole day.”
– Molly Johnson
Johnson has upcoming concert dates scheduled in Canada, the United States and Europe. When not touring, recording or working on her many philanthropic initiatives, Johnson loves to hang out with her kids. Gardening is a favourite past time – both vegetables and flowers – especially the Oscar Peterson rose with its creamy white blooms.
The creative and inspiring people of Toronto, along with its diverse cultural, food and musical events, keeps Johnson centred. “Toronto is like a charm bracelet around the lake,” says Johnson. “And every charm is a neighbourhood with its own flavour.”
Feisty, self-deprecating, witty and always the optimist, friends tease her of being a Mollyanna. “I’m definitely a yes person. I like a challenge.”