Molly Johnson – Photo by Chris Nicholls Photography
It seems fitting that our chat with Molly Johnson takes place the day after the legendary Canadian songstress’s annual Christmas cookie baking session. Her new EP “This Holiday Season” evokes festive images that are as pleasant as the smell of gingerbread and macaroon treats wafting from the oven.
“The cookies turned out fantastic,” enthuses Molly, who’s calling from her Toronto home the day after the bake-a-thon. “We baked dozens of ridiculous cookies and then we iced some of them, and it was really a lot of fun. Now I’m packaging them up into boxes to deliver to my neighbours.”
“As far as the Holiday EP goes, the idea came about last year when the president of Universal Music and I had a conversation about all of the crappy Christmas music that floats around, and why haven’t I made a Christmas record. This is sort of the COVID Christmas record in that there are four songs, and between this holiday season and our next holiday season, I’ll work on some more of this stuff so that in 2021 I’ll have a physical record. We wrote the songs and that always takes a little more time than just finding a cool arrangement for “Jingle Bells”.
A holiday offering is something new from a singer that has graced us with decades of wonderful jazz/pop recordings. Her musical journey began when she formed the funky art-rock group Alta Moda, which later morphed into the harder rocking Infidels. While Molly was trying to make headway in the rock world with both of these bands she began a parallel career as a jazz singer. This turned out to be a wise decision as Molly won a Juno Award for Best Vocal Jazz Album for her career milestone album “Lucky” and also received a National Jazz Award for Best Female Vocalist. She was also honoured with becoming an Officer of The Order Of Canada, a rare distinction that was given to Molly to recognize her philanthropic work for a variety of causes and for her international contributions to the arts. The holiday record was a while in coming and, fittingly, the final ingredient in the mix came to Molly on a midnight clear, or at least shortly thereafter.
“Davide DiRenzo, my drummer extraordinaire completely surprised me with the title track,” she says. “I woke up one morning thinking that I was really under the gun with this EP and I was still short one song. I clicked on my phone at around three in the morning and Davide had sent me essentially a fully formatted lyric and melody track. He has four kids under the age of eight so it’s marvellous mayhem, and I was surprised that through all of that he was able to deliver such a hilariously great song. It was a little gift.”
That song, “This Holiday Season”, starts off with a funky bass line that recalls the Drifters and then builds slowly as the singer, who’s ‘tired of feeling blue’, pines for her lover. When the horn section hits to kick off the second verse it’s goosebump time, and when Molly closes things out with spontaneous count-off things become absolutely joyous.
“Here’s the best part about the horns,” she says. “It was the first horn chart that Davide ever wrote. The night before we recorded it I’m sure he was in the studio until the wee small hours writing it. The next day my bass player, Mike Downes, gently and beautifully supported Davide’s work with the horn players. Pianist Robi Botos is the third member of my band and I don’t do anything without these guys, to be honest. I’ve been playing with them for over 20 years. The alchemy of those three guys is really unique because my canon runs from serious hard jazz to funky R & B, with a major rock edge to it all. Finding a band that can manoeuvre through all of those genres is magic.”
“When I count off on the EP’s title track it’s off the floor. That’s the way I make records. I record with the band and, literally, we do it two or three times. In jazz, rehearsal is basically for amateurs. It’s really about improvisation and all that it means and creating space for that to happen. We don’t do a lot of over-dubbing and I don’t do a lot of singing. I try and deliver it on the first take. But let’s be realistic. I’ve been doing this for 40 years in all kinds of genres and none of them involved schooling. I learned how to sing by learning not to sing because that rips your voice.”
The EP’s first single is “Painted Blue”, which Molly co-wrote with Mike Downes. The singer laments that while some will ‘Paint another year with a season full of cheer’, for her the holiday will be a melancholy affair. Still, the singer manages to add a little mirth to the mix, and she also brings some serious coolness to a track that was recorded during the heat of the summer.
“It wasn’t as hard to record in the summer as I thought it would be,” she confides. “I have model girlfriends who tell me they’re shooting winter in August. My biggest challenge was that this stuff couldn’t be too blue because back in August we all knew that Christmas was going to look different. I tried to lift up the lyrics of “Painted Blue” a bit, and then there’s the little joke line I threw in, ‘But it’s not your season dear Miss Molly’ (done to the tune of “Deck the Halls”). I have a history of doing a song called “Miss Celie’s Blues” from the film “The Color Purple” where I have this funny tag line where I say ‘And Miss Molly is feeling…’, and if I get it right the audience pulls in with ‘Fine!’ It was a bit of a band joke that we felt was a particular homage to that thing we do all of the time.”
Another standout track on the EP is the low-key “Christmas In Hopetown” which Molly wrote with long-time songwriting partner Steve MacKinnon. While the song is rife with seasonal images, the singer uses a moment of solitude to reflect on life and deliver an inspirational message.
“When I was coming up with songs I was cognizant of not only what the holiday season was going to look like for us as a society, but I was also aware that not everybody celebrates Christmas. I was also really conscious of how lonely Christmas can be for people, regardless of COVID. Christmas means different things to different people and I’m always trying to figure out who I’m talking to.”
While thinking about the songs for this EP, Molly was also busy putting together the annual Kensington Market Jazz Festival which she co-founded in 2016. Born and raised in Kensington Market, she speaks proudly about the festival which showcases hundreds of Toronto jazz artists in one of the city’s most vibrant neighbourhoods. Of course, this year’s festival went virtual which presented a whole new series of challenges for her.
“It was way more difficult to do virtually especially with promoters and bookers seeming to think that it’s easier because you don’t actually have to go anywhere,” she explains. “They try to pay you less but in fact, you’re now a television studio recording television shows. It’s bananas. We pivoted on Kensington Jazz pretty early to go online because our big deal was to keep the audience that we had fought so hard to get for our community. It took us four years to get 2,500 people at our festival daily and we couldn’t lose that.”
As mentioned, philanthropy has always been a big part of the singer’s life. Christmas is a time of giving and no-one has done more of it throughout her career than Molly Johnson.
“I was raised in the Sixties by American parents who had fled to Canada to escape the attitude that America displayed toward Black folks and mixed couples in particular,” she says. “My father would have been lynched in certain states when he married my mother. That’s not history, that’s like yesterday. So I come by it naturally. The ability to take whatever spotlight that I have and shine it on those other than me will probably always be in my wheelhouse. I’m uncomfortable in that light as are many other Canadian artists. It’s kind of a Canadian thing. We quietly go about doing good. It’s in our DNA.”
A welcome year-end offering comes our way from Dean Brody who released his eighth album “Boys”, an emotion-filled, eight-song collection that takes fans on a journey with both upbeat party tracks and heartfelt love songs. Dean’s new single is the title track, which features a lovely duet with Mickey Guyton. “My fans and I have created so many happy memories together with music as the soundtrack and I wanted to be able to keep that going, particularly during these unprecedented times,” says Dean of the new release.
Toronto’s Owen Barney is back with the second half of a double shot. Just a month ago he released his sophomore EP “No Road Too Long”, which included his latest single “Pour Me,” a track that sees Barney reflect on tough times while finding comfort in a glass of liquid courage. The collection also included his Top 20 hit from this past summer “Thank Her For That” and a new classic-country track “Make Your Night.” And, just in time for the holidays, he’s followed up that EP with a countrified version of Wham’s “Last Christmas”.
Album of the Year
It’s that time of year where everyone puts together their ‘best of’ list, but we’re going to forego our country favourite because Open Spaces talked to so many Canadian country artists with great releases that it’s just not possible to choose. When it comes to roots records, however, our runaway favourite was ‘Just Breathe’ by Toronto-based reggae singer Steele. The album features mostly original tunes like the uplifting lead-off track ‘Sweet Reggae Music’, but there are also a couple of tasty covers like his take on Johnny Nash’s ‘Hold Me Tight’. “Every album we do we try to give people familiarity, so we’ll do one or two cover versions,” he told G98.7’s Delroy G., who tends to spin a few Steele tunes on his Saturday afternoon Showcase program. “But 90% of the songs are written by Steele including the title track. Through all the turmoil we have to find time to take it easy, inhale and exhale, and just breathe”.
Open Spaces briefly relived its rock and roll glory days on the 40th anniversary of The Kings “This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ To Glide”, when the song was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. The virtual induction that aired on Breakfast Television Canada also included an amazing live-streamed performance by the band inside the newly renovated El Mocambo in Toronto. Hearty congrats.
Have a safe holiday, and Happy New Year, y’all.