An Interview with Angela Johnson

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    A Woman's Grind In A Man's World
    By L. Michael Gipson

    I can stretch a greenback dollar bill from here to kingdom come!
    I can play the numbers pay the bills and still end up with some!
    I got a twenty-dollar gold piece says there ain't nothing I can't do
    I can make a dress out of a feed bag and I can make a man out of you
    'Cause I'm a woman! W-O-M-A-N!

    A Woman's Grind In A Man's World
    By L. Michael Gipson

    I can stretch a greenback dollar bill from here to kingdom come!
    I can play the numbers pay the bills and still end up with some!
    I got a twenty-dollar gold piece says there ain't nothing I can't do
    I can make a dress out of a feed bag and I can make a man out of you
    'Cause I'm a woman! W-O-M-A-N!

    angelaPeggy Lee's retro-feminist lyrics are a metaphor for the hectic life and awe inspiring output of an artist who's successfully managed being a devoted wife and committed mother, while being a staple of the international music scene for more than a decade. With a critically acclaimed career spanning six albums, countless songwriting and production credits, and a huge overseas following, Angela Johnson has proven that an indie soul sister can have it all. But as you'll soon hear, juggling the demands of the road and her young family hasn't been easy for Angela. An artist still hungry to be heard, still striving to create that perfect project, Angela's continuing to make enormous sacrifices to be true to herself, her art and her obligations.

    In fulfilling her many musical ambitions while maintaining a strong role in family, Angela's carving out a path for other questioning female indie artists trying to balance music and family to follow. No longer satisfied with just being a touring singer/songwriter, the recent release of her producer album, A Woman's Touch (click on title to listen or purchase), marks Angela's public declaration as an artists' producer. With SoulTracks Award-winning artists like Maysa, Rahsaan Patterson, and Eric Roberson on the project, Angela's declaration is more than mere ego. It is a demonstrative expansion of the industry's short list of respected and successful women producers in a male-dominated scene.

    The February 2008 release of A Woman's Touch has got Angela back on her grind, out on the road performing and promoting the project around the world -- far away from her Newark, New Jersey home. Graciously, Angela took an early morning studio break from recording her next project to give SoulTracks readers an intimate, in-depth view into her incredible journey as both artist and woman.  

    How has your Utica, New York upbringing contributed to your music?

    It contributed a lot. I grew up in a Baptist church, listening to The Hawkins Family, James Cleveland, Aretha Franklin, and Al Green-a house full of gospel. My Dad brought into our house James Brown and Bob Marley from my parents' many trips to Jamaica. There were so many Saturday nights listening to Suga Bear Williams on the radio playing the more popular stuff on the weekends. I listen to a lot of rap back in the day. Classic rock-my Utica upbringing was a music melting pot.

    Do you still listen to a lot of other people's music?

    I love to listen to music. I'm still a fan and will always be. I still listen to a lot of the old material from back in the 70's and 80's and of course the 60s Motown, one of my favorite styles of music, and then I listen to the radio and stay current with what's going on today. I listen to the new productions that's out today, but I still have to go back to the music that brought me to this place right now, my elders and those who came before me.

    What is it about Motown production that speaks to you?

    Wow. The simplicity of it, I love the simplicity of Motown music. The music is straight forward. There's no in-between stuff you're trying to get. I love it when music and even lyrics are just simple. It's something I gravitate to emotionally as an artist and a musician. I guess I'm biased on Motown, because this was the music my parents played in the house.

    No one is around but you and your violin and your keyboard, what do you play to bring you comfort?

    It has to be the keys because that's my first love. Playing the strings? I've definitely been out of practice for a while. I have been keeping it in the closet for quite some time until I need it to put some strings on the album. The violin brings me back to moments when I was in school. Back then, I wasn't able to create; I always had to play and interpret other people's music. But with the piano, I'm creating my music from scratch. I love that about being able to play by myself on the piano.

    Do you play your own material for comfort as well?

    I do play my own material. I love playing songs for my daughter. She likes to sing the songs from A Woman's Touch. I like to sing and play with her children's tunes. Sometimes, I just like to play and not even sing, just play. I'll try to learn some new chords and chord progressions; that kind of eases my mind. 

    You have modeled at least part of your career (and perhaps a little of your sound) after artist/producer/songwriter and university professor, Patrice Rushen.  What does she mean to you?

    She's one of the few female artists who laid down a path for me. Patrice Rushen, Angela Winbush, Aretha Franklin.  Women who sat behind a keyboard, had their own sound rather than being in a controlled situation and made their own music. These are the people I look up to. I would hope that in the near future I would be able to work with them; that would be the ultimate for me. Just to be able to connect with them as a female artist as well as a producer.

    While you do all three adeptly, which brings you the most joy performing, producing, or arranging?

    I don't prefer one over the other. It's really a balance for me. Being able to expose myself and finding that balance. Performing live is instant gratification. You're constantly in touch with the audience and get to see their reaction immediately. You know how to work off of that right away. Recording? I didn't like it at first. Having people tell me how to sing and create. I loved being in a room by myself, being able to create, and coming up with ideas on my own. There, I can still perfect my craft. If I don't get it right once or twice, I can still try to perfect as much as I can. I love that I get to do that in the recording studio.

    Is that the reason why you broke off from Cooly's Hot Box?

    We all really decided to just do our own thing. I know I kind of felt that way. I felt like I needed to step up my game as a producer. I wanted people to know me other than the lead singer for Cooly's Hot Box. I did get to produce a couple of cuts off the first album and then off the second album I was able to produce like maybe half of the record. I needed to showcase my talents as a producer and this was the only way it was going to get done. I put out They Don't Know and was able to have a lot of control. I was able to take my time with it and really produce myself and be on top of that. I didn't have that much [production] experience with Cooly's Hot Box. So, I had to really learn and do what I needed to do to put out a record on my own. I had to prove to everyone I was able to do it.

    How was it being the only woman in an otherwise all-boy band?

    I just felt like I was one of the guys. I didn't really see any differences between myself and the rest of the guys. We were just all trying to make great music and were all on the same page as far as what kind of music we all wanted to make. There did come a time when we were on the road. Thank God I was married and had my husband along to keep some of the grimy stuff that comes from being on the road with a bunch of guys and only one or two other women. There was the sharing of hotel rooms and trying to figure out sleeping arrangements - that kind of thing - kind of set us far apart. It's good that I got to have the experience. I got to become really close with the guys. But, it still really was tough.

    Do you feel like you were respected as an equal and as a musician with the guys?

    Oh, definitely. They had a lot of respect for me. We all came up in the same school. So, we kind of knew about each other and saw each other's capabilities in school. We had some of the same classes and same choirs. You know, we were friends. We really felt like we could make beautiful music. We had such a tight friendship that it was inevitable that we were going to come together as a band. I didn't mind the idea of someone else being in control. It was the idea of Christian from Tortured Soul for us to be a writing team. We really hooked up and worked really well together. It was his idea to put the band together and the group put him in the lead. I didn't mind that at all. During that time, I was able to come up with my own ideas and roll them along in the band.

    You turn on the TV and hear your music being played on shows like Roswell, Kevin Hill, and The Shield. Describe that experience.

    It's crazy. My parents give more of a reaction than I do. When I get phone calls from people uptown, my relatives, I'm able to bug out just because they were able to hear it for themselves and it was unannounced, you know. That kind of feeling is irreplaceable. I love it when that happens.

    You once talked about having rushed the album Got To Let It Go before it was ready and  later going back to include those missing elements on subsequent versions, how important is quality control to you and how do you know when the baking is done?

    (She laughs). As an artist and as a - I don't really want to call myself a perfectionist but I'm close to it - you feel like your work still isn't done. That's even long after you put it out there. You're surprised at the things you're able to come up with. I'm satisfied with what I've put out there, but I always feel like I could have done something else. That's those personal ties to the work. Sometimes I have to step out of that studio box or room and really listen to the music for what it is and really appreciate the effort that I have put into these records. I feel especially with Got To Let It Go that I really stepped up from the first production of They Don't Know. The first album was really about me taking chances and having people get to see me as a songwriter and more as a producer. The second album was about more producing and arrangement. Got To Let It Go was less risky in terms of the type of material; it's more R&B than jazz or soul. This record, A Woman's Touch, really exposes everything that I've done in the past and what I want to achieve later on as a producer and a musician. I'm really proud that I got to achieve that on this new album. I just hope people see between and within my records that I've definitely been stepping up my game.

    Okay, give us the scoop, what did you "Got To Let Go" on that second project?

    Stress! I had to go through a lot personally. My mother had passed away in 2004, the same year my daughter was born. I was trying to finish Got To Let It Go and I was also working on a Cooly's record at the same time. On top of that, I was dabbling into recording songs for A Woman's Touch at the same time. So, I was juggling a lot of projects at the same time. My personal life was non-existent. I had to deal with my mother's death and a new baby, but for me personally as a human being, there was no time for that. It was very frustrating for me that I didn't have time to digest what was going on; I just had to deal with it. And that song came about for me out of frustration, just having to let go of things that I cannot control. Listen to those lyrics and it's definitely me expressing myself. I had never been able to express myself in that way before. It was me talking to myself, it was medicine. I'm still learning how to let go of some of those things. It was a perfect name for the album, because it was expressing a time in my life that I was trying to get through. But it was definitely about the stress and I'm sure many people can identify with that.

    There is an earnestness I hear on A Woman's Touch that I've not necessarily heard from you before. You bring out some of the best performances of Maysa and Eric Roberson's career. Did you have a point to prove because you are a female producer or because people already have a narrow idea of who they think you are?

    Thank you for saying that. I really wanted these people to be seen in a different light. I pretty much put them in my realm and produced them the way I produce myself. I guess that was a way for me to get them to be seen in a different light. I hope that I achieved that, that people will be able to recognize that as well. In my mind I wanted to collaborate with many of these artists that are out there in the soul scene. A lot of these artists didn't know about me as a producer. They only knew about me from Cooly's Hot Box and my first two records. My management team, Russell Johnson and George Littlejohn, came up with this idea to search for artists we hadn't heard from in awhile. We started to come up with some artists that are a little closer to me and in the same scene. The first artist we came to was Rahsaan Patterson, and he was gracious enough to say yes - because he didn't know anything about me. I was just amazed that he gave me a call back and said he was definitely interested. I think what got his interest was that it was a female producer. So, I guess I did use that to my advantage. This is really something special for me to be a part of, because you don't really see too many female producers out there. What female producers do you see out there putting together a Quincy Jones like project? Overall, this was something that was probably going to make a big move in the industry. I'm just glad to get good people on this record who were able to receive my ideas, be on the same path, and wanted to be a part of this experience.

    Monet, Lisala, Tricia Angus, Ernesto Abreu, most of the musicians on your second project Got To Let It Go receive the solo treatment on A Woman's Touch. Why was it important for you that it be these artists?

    I couldn't see doing this project without them. They have definitely brought a lot to my latest projects. And they are artists in their own right. This was also another way for me to get artists that you haven't seen or aren't as popular to get their names out there. Monet, Lisala, and Tricia, these girls have supported me from day one and I just wanted them to get their voices heard. Lisala has put out a record before, it's called Get It. And Tricia Angus we are getting ready to produce her album for possible release later on this year. Monet, my label mate, we've been working together for quite some time. And it was wonderful to work with her, she was just so open to me producing her vocals and getting her to come out of her shell a little more. To be seen in a different light than I've ever her before. We were definitely able to do that with her song.

    If I add up the 10 years with Cooly's Hot Box with your five or so years as a solo artist, you've been at this a long time, eh? Now that you have a family and are successfully moving into more production work, how tempting has it been to hang up your hat as a performer?

    You must be reading my mind! I've had a few conversations with my managers and my husband. But I've put so much into this that I can't embrace that idea at this point. We've been really working so hard just to get me out there as an artist. I have to say that it has been difficult with my family life. It's definitely something I have to be careful of because family is more important to me than being a recording artist. I have to constantly take our daughter on the road with us. It's kind of difficult to be in the right mind before I go on stage, because I would have just changed some Pampers minutes before I go onstage. It's crazy, but it's a part of my life and I accept that. But it is tempting at times, because you get very frustrated if you have to pull everything together, especially if you're also the Musical Director for your own band. You have to pull rehearsal together, get the people together who can play that night. You're juggling a whole heck of a lot of things and the going gets tough. At the same time it's rewarding because the ultimate reason that you're doing this is because you want your voice to be heard and you want to be seen. Touring is the only way I can reach this many people outside of internet and satellite radio.  

    Have you made an album yet that you've felt like was your What's Going On or your Songs in the Key Of Life?

    Wow. I feel like I'm getting close. I'm still learning in the studio. I'm still learning myself as a musician. I feel it's coming soon because I still have a lot to say. Musically and lyrically, I'm getting there but I don't feel that that has come yet.

    There have been reports of fan crying and carrying-on at your London and Japan shows, how does the overseas love and notoriety affect you? Is it the same as getting hometown love in the US?  

    It's definitely different in Japan and the UK, especially in Japan. In Japan, it is just a whole ‘nother level. They don't care what they look like or sound like. When they are expressing themselves to you, expressing how much they like you or love you. They put all of there feelings right out there, wearing it on their sleeve. I really do appreciate that. The people in Japan know you from way back when you first started, when you were a baby in this business and the things I may have forgotten, they'll bring up. I can't figure out how they know this stuff. They're so appreciative of R&B music and a lot of music outside of Japan. I respect that they have an appreciation for music all over the world. I do feel, especially when I'm performing there live, that they're open to different styles of music. I don't necessarily get that here. Maybe it's because we're so spread out here, I can't always connect all the time. Trying to break into new markets it is just a lot easier in the UK because it's geographically closer together. I see that from my point of view. I can connect a little bit more there than I can with people here in the US.

    How would you feel if the pinnacle of your success was achieved overseas?

    I would probably be okay with that, but I would always want just a little bit more. It would be nice to be appreciated where you live. I can travel to certain places, certain markets and people do recognize me and do know my background. I'm very happy with the success I've had already, especially in Japan, and I still see it growing. It's cool, but it's definitely growing a lot more rapidly over there than it is here.

    What do you think it'll take to get us to return to loving R&B and soul in the US?

    Hmm. If we get our music more on the radio, that would be a step. I don't know what it will take to get our music heard on popular radio stations, but I feel our music is just as good if not better than what you hear on commercial radio stations. It's just unfortunate that we have to wait on satellite radio or internet radio to play our music and get our voices heard. It's great that those avenues are there because a lot more people have access to internet and satellite radio than before. It still would just be nice to be driving and hear your song getting played on the radio. It has happened for me, especially in DC, where they give me so much love and I appreciate it. And a few places here and there, though not so much in NYC, but we're working on it. It's going to be a slow pace, but there's just a huge amount of people searching for something different. How long can it be where they're going to continue playing songs over and over again the same ten popular songs? People are gonna get real tired of that, if they haven't already. It's going to happen soon. People want to hear the truth. They want to hear something heartfelt, soulful. Record sales are proving that. People are really tried of hearing the same thing. They're tired of having a couple of singles out there and not the whole album. Hot singles that you already heard, but you don't want to buy the album because nothing else is as good as the single. People want to hear from top to bottom an album, and that's what I try to give. I hope that's what I was able to do with A Woman's Touch. It's definitely something people have to listen to from top to bottom. There are very different voices on this album and very different styles of music. People really just need to get back to that. It's going to take getting people to request some different artists and music we can get into.