At home on the stage, here with Robi Botos on keys and Mike Downes on bass.
At home on the stage, here with Robi Botos on keys and Mike Downes on bass.

The Unsinkable Molly Johnson

The energetic Molly Johnson has plenty to be enthusiastic about at the moment.

The Juno-winning Toronto-based singer/songwriter is finishing her next album, organizing the second annual Kensington Market Jazz Festival and somehow found time for a trip to New York City to perform as part of Soulpepper's month-long theatrical production True North on 42nd Street.

Interviewed a few days after that event, Johnson is full of praise for Soulpepper's ambitious initiative that has earned enthused reviews.

"Albert Schultz [Soulpepper's founding artistic director] and [executive director] Leslie Lester have created a Silk Road for culture for New York, for theatre for sure," she waxes. "He has opened that road for all the other Toronto companies, like Tarragon, Theatre Passe-Muraille, and Crows Nest. It is fuckin' awesome what they have done and we'll feel this for years and years to come, no doubt.

"If they had brought two shows in and stayed for two weeks, forget it. It was clearly a go big or go home moment, and they went big. They have three major shows and a handful of smaller shows, plus the cabarets after every show that featured not only cast members but then he brought me and Sophie Milman down. It was insane what he did."

Johnson stresses that "this was done with very little government money. You'd think this would be the perfect Canada 150 moment, but nope! Shockingly, to me, not. This was private donors, committed Canadians, and I met some of them. They show up and bring their friends, they don't just throw money at it like a bank would."

She adds that "New York has a culture for theatre, a built-in audience, plus being private donor-fuelled gave the project a whole different energy anyhow. You're not lying back on a government subsidy, and that did push them harder stronger and faster."

"What that creates is ingenuity, and that is what had the New York Times critics falling over themselves for. Things like the way a plain old wooden ladder was used in four different ways in the staging of Spoon River. The staging, the choreography, the writing, all have to be so above the bar as we don't have those Broadway budgets and that makes us smarter."

Johnson has been a longtime supporter of Soulpepper, and she took a hands-on approach to helping out in NYC. "At the Broadway in Bryant Park show, Leslie Lester and I ran through the crowd giving out flyers to see the shows at Soulpepper. I must have given out 500 flyers that afternoon!"

She has a long personal connection to Albert Schultz too, as he earlier acted alongside Molly's brother Clark Johnson in '80s hit TV series Street Legal. Clark is now an in-demand director for US TV (The Wire, Homeland, Homicide: Life on the Street ) and film, and he also came down to NYC from Toronto to support his comrade.

"Clark and Albert are both at the top of their game, and it was neat to see them together," says Molly. "Watching them giggling at the bar was a real Canadian moment."

A fervent Canadian cultural nationalist, Johnson has noticed a significant shift in attitude here over the last few decades. It is not about depending on outside recognition to feel valid, but, she says, "about showing ourselves off. It has become more about us, and we can be proud."

"I was in Los Angeles recently, and you realize that Ontario owns the Billboard charts. Artists from Stratford, Brantford, and Toronto. Drake is bringing everyone's game up. That is awesome to see!"

While in NYC for the Soulpepper shows, Johnson was also able to have her own industry showcase, playing for Verve and some US agents. There, she premiered some of the new material that will be on an upcoming album, coming out on Universal Canada.

"We haven't set a release date yet, but I know there'll be a taste of something over the summer," Johnson explains. "I'm trying to get Universal to pick a single. Stay tuned."

She is effusive in her praise of Universal's support of her new record. "I'm just thrilled with the way they trusted me to go make this record. Whenever I needed to fly to Brooklyn to work with [producer] Larry Klein I just did it."

"Jeffrey Remedios at Universal basically said 'here's a chunk of money, go make a record,' and that is what I did. He actually called me a legacy artist. I said 'why the hell would you call me that, my white hair?' Being a thoughtful guy he took a pause then said 'I think what I mean Molly is you have outlived all the assholes.' This is 100 percent correct. I have and I've made a monster record."

Johnson's previous album, 2014's Because Of Billie, was an acclaimed homage to a key musical inspiration, Billie Holiday, but she stresses the next one is far from a jazz record.

"This one will have the jazz lovers shaking in their boots," she laughs. "Anyone remember the Infidels?," she adds, referencing the soulful rock band she led in the early '90s.

Her new record is produced by Grammy-winner Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, Tracy Chapman), and Johnson calls their collaboration "an incredible experience. Larry said to me,  'I've been hearing about you for years, where have you been?' I said 'right here, raising kids.' As a new older dad, he got that totally."

Klein came to Toronto for an intense four days of recording with Johnson and her A-list band, comprising drummer Davide DiRenzo (Jacksoul), her longtime bassist Mike Downes, guitarist Justin Abedin (Jacksoul), and keyboardist Robi Botos.

The album will feature a mix of original and outside material, Johnson says. "I have some co-writes with Davide on there and one with Larry that he calls the sorbet of the record."

Since debuting as a solo artist with her self-titled 2000 album, Johnson has concentrated on jazz and jazz-pop stylings, with plenty of success. She won a Juno for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year in 2009 for Lucky, with three earlier albums being nominated in that category. A popular draw in concert and at festivals, she has also gained a sizable following in France.

She stresses now that "I'm really not a jazz artist. I lived in that world as they were kind and generous to me while I raised my children. I wrote as much as I could during that, and George Gershwin and Duke Ellington were very kind. They left a treasure trove of songs for me."

Her love of jazz and the musicians who make it remains strong, however, as reflected by her founding of The Kensington Market Jazz Festival last year. "That's my gift to the jazz community," says Johnson.

Set in the bohemian Toronto 'hood, the not-for-profit KMJF impressively premiered last summer. In all, 200 musicians performed 100 shows across nine venues in three days. Among them: Sophie Milman, Jane Bunnett, Richard Underhill, Jackie Richardson, Joe Sealy, Marc Jordan, Jim Cuddy, Robi Botos, and Kevin Breit.

Joining Johnson in organizing and booking the artists-run fest are jazz singers, Ori Dagan and Genevieve Marentette.

"The beauty of this fest for the three of us is that it is invitation only," says Johnson.

"We sit around and talk about who we love and who is working, then we send out a massive invite as a google doc and say fill this out. We get this huge amount of info then we curate the shit out of this jazz festival."

"We open up the curation to some of the artists too. George Koller had four spots to fill last year, and we'll use Eric St. Laurent this year. We are adding curated indoors busking this year, where top-drawer musicians play small acoustic sets, no production, in businesses up and down Augusta Avenue."

The 2017 KMJF will take place Sept. 15-17, with a lineup announcement coming soon.

To date, the fest has relied on donations, and none of the three principals pay themselves. "There is no corporate funding," Johnson explains. "We have applied for a couple of grants this year, but that is slow in coming."

She stresses that "we spend a lot of time with the businesses in the Market. We don't just plunk the fest down in their neighbourhood then pack up our tents and go home. We run programs and shows all year, including a music school we run all year with the gracious support of Yamaha. They left a piano in the Market for us last year for us to give music lessons in the Youth Arcade."

The KMJF has also benefited such local charities as the Archie Alleyne Scholarship Fund, The Boys & Girls Clubs of Canada, The Stephen Lewis Foundation, and  St. Stephen’s Community House.

Molly Johnson is no stranger to either philanthropy or music festival organization. She was the driving force behind the legendary Kumbaya AIDS fundraising concerts in the '90s, work that helped earn her the Order of Canada in 2008.

"Compared to my experience with Kumbaya, this festival is a walk in the park," she reflects. "That was live national television, unscripted. Insane, and we did it four times!"

Reflecting on four decades in Canadian music, Johnson is typically candid in her comments on how the music industry has treated black Canadian artists.

"I don't think it has got any better. The industry is still not including this music in a meaningful way, and it is a mistake."

She laments the fact that such artists as Jacksoul, Truth and Rights, Jackie Richardson, Joe Sealy, and The Nathaniel Dett Chorale have not been better-appreciated. "I could go on and on about beautiful Canadian black-made music, like Measha Brueggergosman. Nobody paid mind to the fact she finally made the kind of Jessye Norman record we were craving."

"There are also not enough women and black folks on the Juno board," she adds.

For more information on The Kensington Market Jazz Festival (including signing up to volunteer or donate) go here

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