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Johanna Graham: Don't Let Me Be Lonely

Fiona Ord-Shrimpton By

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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.


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