Molly Johnson says she’s always been “doing the jazz thing.” Even when she was singing in rock bands in the ‘80s and ‘90s — winning a Juno with her former band, The Infidels — this Toronto native has always known she would make a jazz record.
Last year she finally made the career move and came out with a self-titled jazz album.
She’s often compared to the legendary Billie Holiday, but Johnson doesn’t agree because of their contrasting pasts.
“I came from a privileged family with a lot of advantages,” said Johnson, unlike Holiday who came from a broken home with poor role models, resulting in self-destructive behaviour, including a heroin addiction.
Yet Johnson is still motivated by Holiday’s story.
“What inspires me is that she was able to accomplish so much, despite her negative background. She was also a songwriter, a woman, and a success, which was rare in that era… I find it insulting to say that I’m like Billie Holiday,” said Johnson. “I feel I’m because of her.”
Writing songs is what Johnson enjoys most since she shifted her career focus.
“I love writing,” she said. “With jazz I can spend more time on lyrics. When you’re singing in a rock band, the lyrics are all about attitude. I can be more poignant with jazz.”
Johnson said she never writes about personal experiences in her songs.
“That’s a rule,” she declared. Instead, she writes about people she knows.
“I surround myself with a diverse group of fucked up people,” she said.
Being a good listener, Johnson hears many of their problems. Johnson’s friends often come to the conclusion that she is writing about them, but she claimed this has caused a lot of them to straighten out their lives.
All of the songs Johnson writes are about real life and real people. Nothing fictional.
“There is too much in life that is real and interesting to me,” she said.
Aside from bringing her messed up friends back to reality through her music, Johnson has been making the world a better place in another way. In 1992, Johnson founded the Kumbaya Foundation to raise money for people living with AIDS and HIV.
“I was stuck in a bad record deal and didn’t feel like making records. I also didn’t want to sit in my room getting bitter,” said Johnson, so she decided to found Kumbaya.
Johnson had lost many friends to AIDS and wanted to do something to help. She saw that the gay community had rallied at getting awareness and support, but only within the confines of their own community. After touring with her bands, Johnson felt more needed to be done.
“I saw the drunken mayhem in the universities and I saw the devastation in the world,” she said, “and so I wanted to do something instead of just sitting back and watching people die.”
Since then, the Kumbaya Foundation has raised nearly a million dollars for the care of people living with AIDS and HIV. The Kumbaya Foundation soon evolved into putting on the Kumbaya Festival to help raise both awareness and money, while bringing together the Canadian music industry.
Right now, Johnson said she is taming down a bit after finishing up with the jazz festival season. She’s looking forward to spending time with her quartet and is planning on putting out a new record this spring.
Molly Johnson is performing with the Grey Quartet at Brock’s Centre for the Arts on Thursday, Nov. 9.