“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.