Steph Johnson’s Art Don’t Belong in a Box


“You want to be free, you must let go of everything.”
–Steph Johnson, “Be Light,” from Music is Art

Steph Johnson can sing that line with complete integrity. She has made her name in San Diego’s music scene by jumping feet-first into new ventures without fearing change, or letting possible risk stand in the way of expressing herself.

She began her musical journey by leaving a career in banking to play music full-time. After success in soul and R&B with a band she loved, she stumbled into a collaboration with Rob Thorsen that led her to switch music genres and now is a beloved voice in San Diego jazz.

She has had great success. She won the San Diego Museum of Art’s award for Best Jazz Album before she considered herself a jazz musician. Music is Art is her fourth album, and The Steph Johnson Trio is an in-demand act in San Diego.

She is used to making her own way, and learned early that her path would be unique. As she says in her bio, “I thought everybody sang like Aretha Franklin,” Johnson said. “But because I had a big voice, even as a little girl, whenever I tried out for the choir, in elementary or middle school, I was made an example of how not to sing — because I had this big voice that wouldn’t blend.” Thankfully, she believed in herself–advice she wrote into the lyrics of her latest album, Music is Art.

The album represents her perfectly. The R&B is there, flavoring her jazzy original songs. The vocals are throaty and soulful, and the lyrics reflect her blend of optimism, willingness to have an open heart, and celebration of what makes each person unique.

My favorite track on the album by far is the title song, “Music is Art.” She laments a world where music is not respected unless “you can vote for it on TV,” and celebrates music as a creative expression that should defy labels. “Music is art, it don’t belong in a box” is the refrain, and she delivers the words with intensity.

Steph Johnson is well-known in the San Diego music scene for her great instrumentation and on-point vocals. She is also an activist who is open about giving her heart to all that she does. She started Voices of Our City choir with fellow musician and activist Nina Leilani, which is a group formed from those experiencing homelessness and professional musicians. The group does public performances as a way to share beauty with people who rarely have their voice heard while also bringing attention to a topic too many people ignore.

Visit her website for more information on shows, to purchase her album, or learn more about this great performer.

The Urge To Create

The urge to create is always there, and can come from the great joys and pains of life. Creation gives life transcendence, and can make the unbearably painful or simply the mundane more tolerable. Creation is a gift to the world.

That Green Hen is about giving people a way to share their gifts with others. We do that in a myriad of ways that are ever-expanding. So far, we’ve done a Facebook page that highlights public art, music, and cultural events, and a blog that shines light on musicians, writers, and artists. More cool things are in the works.

Both Hen and I have a deep need to create. In meetings, we have ten ideas for every one we pursue. Hen goes about his business, trusting the good ideas will appear over and over until he can use one. I frantically write things in the latest app I’ve adopted for productivity, often never to be seen again. But we create. And create some more.

Our site is dedicated to helping you–whether you’re a professional creator or a hobbyist or someone wanting to try something new. Let us know what you like, and how we can help you with your creations. And support your local artists of all types. If you like what they do, giving them your time, purchasing their creations, and sharing the word helps keep our world unique and soft. We all know there is far too many hard edges out there. We hope our small attempt at support makes the creative fire burn just a little brighter in the world.


Practice Makes Permanent

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on Teresa Y Green’s blog:

So Hen got to play the other day. One of those sudden chances that falls out of the sky for a lucky musician at the right place at the right time. A public performance with musicians he likes and respects.

He sounded great, of course, but he was self-conscious because he was not at his usual level of practice. I told him, “Your body knows what it’s doing. Let it do its thing.” And I was right (of course!). He had a great time, and we’re all hoping he will let me post the video soon.

Another friend, who is also a musician, reminded me that in the music world, the adage “practice makes perfect” is actually worded “practice makes PERMANENT.” One of the explanations for the way Hen can play wonderfully, even if out of practice, is because of the wonders of “muscle memory.”

Muscle memory is the information storage system between your muscles and brain. When you do a motion over and over, your brain sets it into a “frequent use” hopper of sorts. You don’t have to consciously think each time you pick up a fork to eat–but if you’ve never used chopsticks, and suddenly take them up, you have to concentrate on every bite. Music (and dance and sports and peeling an orange and riding a bike) are the same. Do a motion repeatedly, and your brain stores it for quick retrieval.

Of course, if you store that information improperly, you remember the bad version. My orchestra teacher kept after me to keep my wrist down when I was playing viola. I haven’t played viola in 30 years, but I know exactly how to keep my wrist down so my fingers have the greatest reach on the strings. Sadly, my muscles weren’t as interested in pulling a bow across the strings. The last time I tried to do that, I couldn’t get the pressure right, and succeeded in just making a screech.

One last thing. Today’s topic is called “muscle memory,” but since it’s also brain function, there is also another brain/memory phenomenon called neuroplasticity. When you think a thought or idea over and over, your brain rewires itself to access that thought more easily. So in addition to using your brain’s penchant for efficiency to master music in case you’re invited to perform, you can also repeat great thoughts like “I’m healthy,” “things are going well,” and “helping people helps me.” Healthy thoughts have been shown in research to create more healthy interactions in your  immune and endocrine systems.

So practice, and think the way you want to stay. Practice makes permanent.

Articles Used for This Post:

Happy Independence Day!

We’re celebrating Independence Day here at TGH. We’ve got some artists’ work and upcoming events to share.

First, an event going on right now in Nashville:
Dawn Beyer and Kyle Mercer at Tequila Cowboy in Nashville

Here’s some fine strummin’ from Active Melody that’s oh so apropos:

Here’s a cool national anthem rendition from Anthem Lights

Check back on this post–we will update it with new items as we get them.

Hen Needs to Up His Game

You may not know that Hen is a guitarist and drummer (and a few other things with instruments–he’s kind of a genius that way). After seeing these videos, I think it’s time he take up tap dancing, right?

Here’s an homage to that classic by Brit actor Tom Chambers:

Now I’ve got to search out someone playing guitar while doing a tango. . .

Will Overman Band: All I Say

When I reviewed Die Where I Began, one of the things I loved about Will Overman Band was the way the band’s songs capture a feeling in words and music. Their new single, “All I Say” shares that strength.

The single is released fresh off their appearance at MerleFest, the great music festival in Wilkesboro, NC, created to honor Doc Watson’s son, Eddy Merle Watson. They joined other groups I will need to check out, such as Scythian, The Waybacks, Shinyribs, and Fireside Collective, as well as the great John Prine. Our Charlottesville boys certainly held their own with their honest lyrics, gorgeous vocals, and layered instrumentation.

“Every closing door becomes a slam when silence fills the air;
You know that you’re wrong, but your ego says hold strong;
So you can be like me.”

The song describes the moments we all regret–slamming a door too often in a loved one’s face, literally or figuratively, walking away from someone who needs us to hear and acknowledge a hurt, the moment you say something you can’t take back, and the moment you decide to stop saying anything at all.

As often happens when the angry words flow, then stop, you “realize too late” that there is love between you, when you see your loved one “walking away.”

Will Overman Band hits these painful emotions with a poignancy that resonates after the song is finished. I plan on weighing my words more carefully after listening.

You can hear the band at their CD release show at The Southern Cafe and Music Hall in Charlottesville, VA, on June 4. You can grab “All I Say” and Die Where I Began on their band page at SoundCloud.

That Green Hen Fights Mouse Music

“I always give Chris Strachwitz credit for creating, for me, the opportunity to hear accordion so I could love it.” –Taj Mahal

I watched a great documentary today. That Ain’t No Mouse Music, the story of Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie Records.

First, go to Netflix and watch this movie. Or buy it on Amazon. It is a gem, if you like music, like quirky stories, or just have eclectic taste.

Chris Strachwitz would have been a German aristocrat, managing a Polish castle, but his family had to flee his native Germany to escape the Russians at the end of World War 2. Chris ended up in the US, and soaked up parts of American culture others ignored. He began recording blues straight off the cotton fields and factories of Texas and Lousiana.

He founded the company Arhoolie Records. Arhoolie is a term for a “field holler,” the songs used by slaves and laborers in the South to coordinate the rhythm of their work and express themselves as they worked. Mack McCormick, a blues researcher who helped Chris find many of the artists he recorded in the South, suggested the name.

The film covers nearly every kind of music that does not get big play in “mainstream” music circles, starting with blues, then moving to zydeco, Mexican folk music, and Appalachian roots and bluegrass. Along the way, Chris shares stories of recording names like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Mama Thornton, and introduces you to enough new names in music to keep you in new music for a year.

Here is one of the bands I discovered from the video. Pine Leaf Boys are well known in Zydeco and Cajun music circles.

Pine Leaf Boys

“I Got a Camel / Lulu Don’t Go to Bingo”

This Ain’t No Mouse Music was thoroughly enjoyable, and I plan on watching it a few more times.  You can get the Soundtrack CD at Arhoolie Records. Take a look and let us know what you think!





Morning Crow: Can You Hear The Ocarina?

Hi, there, little chickens! This is Green, bringing you the Morning Crow, a quick burst of whatever is on my mind that relates to music. Today’s entry starts at under ‘music facts.”

The Ocarina, a musical wind instrument, is also known as the Sweet Potato. The music in the background is David Erick Ramos, playing an Ocarina. David has graciously allowed me to share his music with you today.  Here’s his YouTube Video:

If you’re like me, you wondered what on earth is an ocarina? Or maybe not. Evidently, there is a Nintendo game from 1998 called “The Legend of Zelda—the Ocarina of Time” that has the player make music using a digital ocarina. The game increased interest in the instrument itself. Not being a gamer (well, I play Bejeweled Blitz occasionally), I had no idea. So for all of you who have not played a gamer’s ocarina, and don’t have a repository of odd instruments in your head just in case you need a good conversation opener, here’s what I found:

According to that source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, an ocarina is an ancient wind instrument similar to a flute. It is usually made of clay or ceramic, but can be made of glass or even animal horn. It has history going back thousands of years, with early references in Asia and Mesoamerica (that’s Central America to you and me). The ocarina came to Europe, possibly by Cortes, and was used as a simple toy there. The modern version used today was developed by Guiseppe Donati in Italy. Ocarina is a Bolognese word that means “little goose.”

If Hen, our resident musician and music nerd, were here, he’s make me go over how it works, but that makes my eyes cross. Maybe he will share with the class on a later date.

Only one version is known as “the sweet potato,” presumably because the instrument looks vaguely like on of the tubers, being thicker in the middle with nearly pointed ends. Other versions look more like tiny ray guns, with one that looks like an egg.

That’s it for the Morning Crow today. Like our Facebook page to be the first to hear our next edition!


Green’s Done Found Something New

While watching A Craftsman’s Legacy I got to hear the story of Akira Satake, a potter in Asheville, NC. Satake comes from a talented family of artisans. While his father was a potter, Akira originally loved music and had no interest in learning pottery. He studied photography for a while, then decided to pursue the music he loved and started a band, then a record label. His business pursuits stressed him out, so he decided to take up a new hobby–and returned to his roots with pottery.

Pottery relaxed him and he decided to pursue it as his full time career. But he never abandoned his music. He primarily plays banjo, often with an Asian or jazz feel. If you’re in Asheville, check out his pottery. But wherever you are, check out his music. A refreshing sound.