Johanna Graham: Don't Let Me Be Lonely


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We walked out to do it and Chrissie Hynde and Annie Lennox were sitting on the front row.
—Johanna Graham
Say their names: Kate Bush, Lordes, Johanna Graham. There's a common thread between these women—a need for drama, designed lyrics and a refreshingly diminished thirst for quick-fix mass appeal, which makes them seem lacking in the lust-for-fame department. What do they have to prove to anyone? The lyrics they write and sing have lived-in depth, their tune arrangements are effortlessly catchy and they are artists whose musical voices are, and will probably remain, timeless; regardless the generation to which they feel they belong.

Of course Kate Bush and Lordes aren't jazz singers, charting the rise to success of any 21st Century jazz singer, especially from the UK, is a slow plot. The Brits like the 'new classic' of sassy spec'ed Cecile McLorin Salvant, with the weight of the JALC brand behind her, as evidenced by her sell-out shows at Ronnie Scott's in London. Unfortunately, while the UK does possess an amazing array of music departments in the nation's conservatoires and universities, there is no Jazz at the London Centre, or any city in the UK for that matter. The UK doesn't brag about this lack of response to cultural championing; even Melvin Bragg can't make the UK big wigs hear sense.

For those who still like a challenge, Johanna Graham is a new voice set on the rare course of walking a fine jazz line between jazz pop and cherished jazz standard. Originally from Leeds, Johanna moved to Penzance when she was 13. After having a bad relationship with school she went away to London to become an actress, decided against it, set up a juice bar in Penzance, decided against it and then decided she was made for jazz singing—9 years later she's still singing.

All About Jazz: It's always nice to find out what's behind a debut album. What led up to the making of Don't Let Me Be Lonely?

Johanna Graham: I moved to Cornwall from Leeds with my mum when I was 13 to live nearer my dad. I hated school, I used to skive off to walk along the beach and sing old songs to myself, basically I loved old movies, all the Fred Astaire's and Judy Garland stuff. Dad introduced me to Ella Fitzgerald—who was my first love.

I wanted to be an actress, I trained at Theatre school, after that I went to the Method Studio in London. But, I was missing Cornwall, I'd been in London from when I was 21 to 28 years old and although I had a talent for it—my teachers had high expectations, I didn't have a huge ambition. My show reel took ages to produce and I didn't get work in as a result. I just went about it wrong. I decided to give up performing and came back to Cornwall to be a business owner. I set up a juice bar company with drop-in holistic massage, and sushi—all the things I missed about London. I tried to like being a shop owner but I really didn't like it. I loved setting it up and creating my vision but once we'd opened I'd get annoyed when people came into the shop, "Ugh, a- n-o-t-h-e-r customer." It didn't really work, I tried to hide it but energetically I couldn't hide it very well. I thought "I'm not a juice bar owner," and I missed performing, and thought, "Well I'm going to do something I've always wanted to do and I'm just going to be a jazz singer. I'm just going to do it!"

I'd done a bit of singing and had a few lessons and stuff because of theatre school, you know. I'd done a few musicals, so I knew I had a voice. I just got out there and did it. I found Martin Bowie, my guitarist...

AAJ : How do you find the right guitarist?

JG: I asked my mentor Kris Gayle, she's a jazz singer who lives down here in Cornwall.

AAJ: How do you go from being in a juice bar with a dream, to getting a jazz mentor?

JG: I had some jazz singing lessons with Kris Gayle. Kris had an album 8:00am that was in the Jazzwise Top 10 albums of 2008. She gave me encouragement and helped me vocally and just told me to get out there and just do it. She suggested I approach the local jazz degree down here in Truro.

AAJ: The South West has a lot of new jazz...

JG: Yeah, there's lots of talent coming out of Truro's jazz degree. Through her teaching at Truro Kris had heard about a really good guitarist, Martin Bowie. I had thought about working with a pianist—Kris said it was a bit harder working with a guitarist, but that's all I know now. Obviously, I do work with pianists as deps and stuff, but I mostly just work with Martin. We work together so well. I remember going to my first gig, we rehearsed old standards, songs that I loved, got a set together, got a gig; went out there and did it —and I was Terrrrrified!

AAJ: It's a departure from acting isn't it, singing in an intimate gig setting?

JG: Yeah, it's completely different. It's also you as well. It's raw and you—your creativity and who you are. You're revealing yourself. Whereas, as an actress you don't reveal yourself so much really.

AAJ: There's a veil.

JG: Yeah, absolutely, so it was a huge big deal to me. I had kind of sore throats and a bad time with my throat to begin with. Then I found a homeopathic remedy, it just sorted my throat out. I felt I had something really stuck in there. The remedy cleared my throat.

AAJ: What was it?

JG: It was a snake venom one—good for throats, the pill only contains a memory of the venom. That definitely helped me start singing, I would say. So then, Martin and I started gigging around Cornwall. I started getting weddings, jazz clubs and bars. I'd just been doing that for about 3-4 years. Then we wanted to make the band bigger so we found a bassist, Tim Greenhalgh, who I've known since my youth. We all work really well together. In the last three years we've been working with Damian Rodd, a drummer who's very dynamic, it's exciting with all four of us.

AAJ: So you've been developing the band?

JG: Yes, and I've just been honing my craft, getting freer with my vocals.

AAJ: Do you find it as daunting working with a new artist in the band as you did when you first performed as a singer?

JG: It's all learning, I expect that will continue. You are very vulnerable and open.

AAJ: You have a top level band behind you....

JG: Yeah and heartfelt, which is really important to me, because I just love singing. It puts me in a nice place. I feel connected up, in the zone, I can just flow. It's such a feeling of freedom, I love it.

AAJ: It's good that you found that.

JG: It's a very spiritual practice for me. I contact that creative part of myself that connects with a greater creative energy. It's really hard to describe.

AAJ: Having multiple careers, it seems you've found your place after a long journey.

JG: Yeah, it's definitely a life journey and I wouldn't have been ready for it when I was younger. Certainly I don't think I would have had the depth of emotions and all the heartbreak and knocks....

AAJ: The album does come over as a 'heal the heartache' set of tunes, especially in the delivery of the old standards.

JG: Absolutely, I love the old standards. I just love them and that's why I sing jazz. I do like writing my own, but it's hard to find time to get them polished. I have suffered depression quite a lot in my life. If I'm not being creative I do sink into a depression. I love the creative process, the ups and the downs as well. And then I decided a year ago I was going to make a debut album so I could do a gig at Pizza Express. And everyone was like, "Yeah, yeah."

AAJ: You just decided that's what you wanted to do?

JG: Yeah, that was my aim, my vision.

AAJ: Do you find it an ordeal doing crowdfunding?

JG: Yeah, it was a real ordeal, and I hadn't prepared myself for it. It was really uncomfortable asking for money. Even though I was pre-selling something it still felt very hassle-y and it was really uncomfortable but it was a means to an end and I had to achieve it and lots of people were very supportive and they understood that I was trying to achieve a goal.

AAJ What was your approach?

JG: You have to have a big mailing list. I'm good at admin, which is why I get so many gigs, although it's hard to flip, I'm looking for a really good manager to help with this side, someone to reflect with. It's hard to flip from the creative side to the other side of the brain so quickly.

I was doing all the Pledgemusic.com thing, I raised around £2000 and then put some money in myself and we got the record made and had fun making it.

AAJ: You're on 33 Records now aren't you, it's a great label? How did you go about that?

JG: Yeah, Paul Jolly is really down to earth and nice, I'm so grateful for his support. I was introduced to him by a friend, and he loved the album and wanted to help me out. And he has been encouraging and helpful.

AAJ: That's a nice quote from Chrissie Hynde, how did that come about?

JG: Years ago I worked at the Groucho Club in London, when I was a trainee actress. And once a year we'd do a gig where we entertained the members. I sang with a friend of mine, "When love goes wrong, nothing goes right" from the film "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." We walked out to do it and Chrissie Hynde and Annie Lennox were sitting on the front row. It WAS scary. We just looked at each other and went "Oh Mmmmy God."

And we sang and then afterwards I think I remember coming off stage and having a big drink.

I was sitting with the pianist afterwards and he seemed a bit low. And I asked him if he was OK, and he said, "Oh yeah, I'm alright, I'd be better if Chrissie Hynde was sitting here singing with me." I knew where she was so I said, "Wait there" and I went and got her. And I took her by the hand and I went "Come with me." (I was drunk)

She was like, "You have got beautiful vocals, you need to pursue this. " and I was like, "Shh, come with me, come with me." And she said, "I want to make sure you've heard this."

It's a quote to me! And then she came with me and I sat her next to the pianist and she carried on singing with him happily for the rest of the evening.

AAJ: Brilliant. That's a good story.

JG: It's a sweet story. I suppose I didn't take much heed of it then because it was a few years later that I decided that singing was what I wanted to do. It's taken me a while to find my passion in life, but now I've found where I need to be, in the right place at the right time.

AAJ: You mention that you had no clue then that's what you wanted to do. But you were singing to yourself at home...

JG: I didn't feel like I had the guts to do it really. I always sang around the house, but I didn't think I was good enough. I just had low self-esteem.

AAJ: The album Don't Let Me Be Lonely does have a unique 'Johanna Graham' sound. How long did it take to develop your sound?

JG: When I started out I suppose was mimicking my influences, and you do, you kind of take on all the voices you've listened to, so it's taken me a while to find my own voice. It's a nice journey, it's been a wonderful thing just in itself for me really.

AAJ: If you had to market yourself—who would you say you sound like?

JG: People who I've listened to the most are Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day, Anita O'Day and Judy Garland. People hear different people in my voice. Of course, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor I Just Love James Taylor's voice it just puts me somewhere else.

AAJ: It's a nice selection of songs on the album, a Kate Bush tune is nice to see on there.

JG: Kate Bush is making a comeback hay, love her! I just remember seeing her on Top of the Pops on TV when I was a kid, doing "Wuthering Heights" and thinking that's what I want to do. And it was obviously the performance side of it that I hooked into. It was always going to be performance for me, but the avenue I found most comfortable was obviously jazz singing.

AAJ Did that song take a long time to arrange?

JG: No, I just could hear how I wanted to do it, and Martin followed me and put some nice chords and changes behind it.

AAJ: And "People Are Strange," that's a crazy one...

JG: Yeah, I thought that's so obviously a swing number to me.

AAJ: There are plenty of swing numbers, is that something you will continue from album to album?

JG: I do love swing so it will always be in there. We're doing some new tunes for the Pizza Express gig in London, we're doing a really nicely arranged swing version of Guns N' Roses, "Sweet Child of Mine," it's beautiful. I don't think many people recognize it at first but it works beautifully. I love all the old ones, so I try to do them in new ways, so I can get away with doing them, like the ones that are really overdone, like Summertime and Autumn Leaves, I really love them and I want to do them so I've been trying to do them in more creative ways. The band really help with the creative input, Tim, Damian, Martin really help, very much we work as a team. And also I'm doing a jazzed up "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll.

AAJ: Really?

JG: Yeah, it's great! It's like a story and then my performance storytelling side comes out then.

AAJ: Do you hold the stage like an actor rather than a singer, do you work the stage or are you stationary?

JG: I'm quite stationary...mmmmmm I don't know!It's hard to say from my side.

Photo Credit: Gemma Burleigh

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