Shenkman Arts Centre: Molly Johnson still kicking it with JUNO-nominated album

Molly Johnson will be at the Shenkman Centre this week.

The singer Molly Johnson has been in the music business since she was four. As she enters her 60th year, she’s still singing for her supper, but there’s little doubt that her career is still cooking.

Proof: She’s nominated for a JUNO Award for her latest record Meaning to Tell Ya which is a mix of standards and originals. That it’s nominated in the Best Adult Contemporary category, doesn’t faze her.

Is she’s aging well? Her trademark humour kicks in. “That’s what I’m doing. I was called a legacy artist over at Universal. When I asked what that meant I was told ‘We call you that because you have outlived all the a**holes’. I can live with that,” she said over a cellphone while walking her enthusiastic  Cockapoo Pepper on a sunny February day in the Big Smoke. That’s The Six for another generation.

“I’m enjoying it. I’m 60 this year and I’m having a gas. I made great record. I don’t categorize records, I leave that to the label to decide where things go or don’t go. It is up to other people including fans and friends. I just go into a room with some great musicians and try to make some great music.”

This latest record is different in that it was stickhandled by a legendary producer. Larry Klein even scooped a Grammy nomination for the Canadian CD.

“He lost to Pharrel (Williams), kind of like I am going to lose to Jann Arden. That’s OK. Jann has sold a ton of records, she has a book, she’s got a TV show. I’m way lazier than Jann. She works very very hard.

“I don’t really work. I just goof around. I have been lucky enough when I go to work that I am working with friends and we call it playing. So that’s amazing.”

When she met Klein, she said he asked her, “‘I have been hearing about you for 10 years, where have you been?’ I said, ‘I have been at home raising my kids’.” She has one son in high school and the other at uOttawa.

“It has been really fun to grow them which I have been doing for the past 25 years.”

For Johnson, working with a producer like Klein was a master class.

“This is the guy who recorded Tracy Chapman, Norah Jones and was married to Joni Mitchell for 17 years. He still is the only person she talks to any more. He was Leonard Cohen’s friend. When Cohen came off the mountain, it was Larry Klein who took him back to his roots. That’s a cool connection.

“He came up to Toronto for five magical days and we got to make that record. It’s the first one I have made with him. I plan to make it a bit of a habit.

“There is a reason why he wins Grammys for the records he produces. He goes deep.

“I was given an awesome opportunity by Universal to go to Los Angeles and meet him and talk to him. I walked into his garage and up these stairs in L.A. past a Tracy Chapman gold record and a Bryan Adams gold record. And then there is Larry at the top of the stairs with every record I have ever made right back to the punk stuff.”

Klein had prepared a list of some 60 songs that he thought would work for Johnson including the iconic Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues.

She told him she wasn’t sure she should cover that. He said: “‘This from a girl who just recorded a Billie Holiday record … I think you’ll be just fine covering Marvin Gaye’.”

It was also refreshing, she said, to have fresh ears and eyes listening and watching. It was also good for her band which is a real all star lineup featuring  Mike Downes, bassist; Robi Botos, piano; Justin Abedin (guitars) and Davide Direnzo drums.

“These are the jazz lions. With the exception of Justin, we have been playing together for 20 years. I can’t tell you how deep the jokes are.”

She said it was more than the music that convinced Klein however.

“A lot of thing with Klein was not so much the records made but the things I did between records such as social justice, civil rights and AIDS stuff.”

Over the past 10 years most of her records have been jazz records and standards. They were produced by the band or by the songwriter Steve MacKinnon.

“We would go into the studio and record the stuff. Often I’ll do two takes and go home to walk the dog. If it wasn’t right one of them would say ‘Molly, you have to sing this again’.”

The band are consummate musicians, she said.

But even with Klein it was two takes a song.

“What I can say? I don’t take voice lessons. I’m not that kind of singer. I don’t warm up. My voice is older, scratchier with way more cigarettes. I don’t think about it too much. I am very authentic too. I’m not hiding anything. I never did try to be anything other than what is happening today.”

The band will put together a set list on the drive to Ottawa for the March 1 show at the Shenkman centre. They do songs off the new lbum and more.

“We can’t stand flying so we like having an opportunity to drive” to a gig.

She isn’t touring. It’s hard when the band is as busy as it is.

“When the band is available, we do gigs when they aren’t available we don’t.”

They are just back from some shows in Paris, France, however.

“France is good to Molly Johnson. Touring in Canada is difficult. We are very spread out. I fly out to Vancouver I have one show. I fly to France and there are 10 shows nearby.”

Going to Europe is easier than crossing the US. border, she added.

“You pay enormous visa fees (going to the U.S.) and they just went up. The Americans come here and they don’t pay anything but culture minister after culture minister absolutely refuse to have a look at that.”

Still Canada manages to make an impact.

“I go to L.A. and the big question there is ‘What’s Brampton?’ The top acts on Billboard are Canadian and they all get their beats from Brampton.”

She said she tells the record people in L.A. that Brampton is a suburb of Toronto a place where you can actually see immigration working.

“West Indian, East Indian and everybody else mingles together and that’s where those beats are. West African and East African, those kids don’t care who is Muslim or Jewish.” And that produces someone like Shawn Mendes.

“Ontario is a phenomenon. We owe it to Drake. Before Drake, Canadians went south and became Americans. Drake pays taxes here. He takes care of his mother here. He’s leading by example.”

Molly Johnson
Where: Shenkman Arts Centre
When: March 1 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.