Tag Archives: San Diego

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

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“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.

Hen’s Crowing Over His Keb’Mo Coup (or is it Coop?)

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So. . . Hen got to go to a Keb’Mo concert. Because he lives in San Di-frickin’-Paradisi-AY-go. He got some great pictures, because he’s good like that.

I got to see Keb’Mo once, too, long ago. It was in Austin, which should have made it wonderful. But it was so long ago he was opening for Lyle Lovett. In an outdoor venue. And my cheap seats were by concessions. Now I think Lyle Lovett is one of music’s true gentlemen, and will challenge you to a duel if you think differently. But his fans. . .well, the ones at the concession stand evidently did not realize Keb’Mo was the same caliber of genius as Lyle, and made a ton of noise. So I didn’t get as much enjoyment out of my Keb’Mo concert as Mr. Third-Row-in-the-Intimate-Venue-of-Belly Up. Not that I’m bitter. . .or anything.

 

Here’s a tiny snippet of the concert, compliments of Lucky Hen:

Since I want to have some part in the Kevin Moore adventure, I’m writing a review of his latest album, BluesAmericana. It has everything I love about Keb’Mo. It’s equal parts touching and humorous, upbeat and heartbreaking. It has a beat. Perhaps, most importantly, it meets my requirement for blues–you may be talking about how life is low-down and dirty, but you can’t help smiling, because you’re having so much fun making music about it. Here’s a quick run-down of the songs, and more of Hen’s great pics. Because, you know, none of us got to go.

 

“The Worst is Yet to Come” I nominate this song as the official song for Mondays. It has everything–starting off wrong with a hangover, broke down car, lost job, lost woman who was no good to begin with. Everyone has days like this–and if you haven’t, just put this album back. You ain’t ready to listen to the blues yet. But here’s the thing about blues in general, and especially Keb’Mo’s blues, and even more especially his particular mix of blues/folk/funk/americana–he doesn’t dwell in the dumps. “I take a look around me. . .guess I”m doing pretty good.”

 

11758979_10207475112698836_374331550_n“Somebody Hurt You” I loved Keb’Mo from the first time my husband introduced me to his music because he writes songs that are good to women. He has a sweet tenderness, and many of his songs, just like this one, promise to make the past sweeter with his devotion in the present. The song has a gospel quality that raises the comfort quotient on it. This is a song to sing to the person you love when they’ve had the day in “The Worst is Yet to Come”.

 

“Do It Right” The perfect song for new love. Or an anniversary. Or a wedding. It’s goes beyond “I got the hots for you” to a mature look at the gentle hope, tenderness, and willingness to grow that love needs. My husband and I have a wedding songlist that we have grown over each anniversary. This song is going on the list.

 

“I’m Gonna Be Your Man” A true devotion song in the blues tradition. John Lee Hooker wanders through when Keb’Mo says “I’m a man, I’m a full grown man.” I love the confident certainty in this song–he’s gonna get his girl in the end. And that’s that. Shooby-doo-whap-whappa. . . .

 

“Move” Some great vocal wails start this one out. A good song for transitions, especially the ones you have to make because your world has broken beneath you. This song gives you the courage to face unpleasant facts and MOVE. It also has plenty of the wry humor that brings me back to Keb’Mo for feel good music.

 

11751362_10207475111898816_1610527406_n“For Better or Worse” Most of this album is upbeat. This song has Keb’Mo’s quiet tenderness. If he wasn’t such an amazing musician, he could have been a great marriage counselor. Play this song when you know you’re with the right person but you’re having a hard time. It reminds you that good things take work, and that’s ok.

 

 

“That’s Alright” The best blues song on this album. It’s got the beat, it’s got the hard times, it’s got the raw loneliness of wondering what your once-love is doing with that other person. And like all blues songs, it’s got the stand up and be counted, take no prisoners, make justice happen ending.

 

“Old Me Better” This song got a lot of attention when the album first came out. It has a great sense of humor and triumph. Sometimes the changes you have to make to be with another person are just too much. This song reminds you that you don’t need to be with anyone that won’t let you be yourself.

 

“More for Your Money” Nostalgia songs are great, and this one brings the Americana-folk feel squarely into the album. It’s got the plucky acoustic strumming, an aw-shucks tone, and the sense that yesterday was better.

 

“So Long Goodbye” Keb’Mo can break a heart more gently than any singer I’ve ever heard. This song about a love that just won’t work is shattering, but brushes your tears with a feather-softness. I hope this song doesn’t resonate with you. But if it does, the kind resignation of the song will help you begin the process of moving on.

 

Keb’Mo is an American treasure. If you haven’t heard him, this album is a great place to start. If you have, this album will remind you why you love him so much. He’s still on tour. You can see if you can still catch him near you here.

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Learning The Musician Code

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Image credit: A. Rothman

That Green Hen is a two-person project. The “Hen” half is a music pro, with decades of experience in the world of chords and cords, gigs and rhythm, and the secret language and feelings of those who love music so much they are compelled to make it with their own hands, breath, and voice.

I’m the other half. I like music–a lot! And I’ve played musical instruments. I sing in the car, and have even sung a few times on stage–but rarely on my own, and always in settings that can politely be called “amateur.”  I don’t like crowds, don’t like to stay up at night, and don’t like loud noises. In spite of these handicaps, I’ve decided to broaden my world to include the local music scene (I think that’s the jargon of the music world).

Why? I’m also a small businessperson. I prefer to buy from family-run businesses, from small companies where the business represents the integrity of an individual, or a family. So when I looked at the music I enjoy, I realized too much of it was pre-packaged. Perhaps very well done, but not made by people I could ever know in person.

Then I started stumbling over musicians everywhere. In my business, in my friendships, in conversations–the guy serving my coffee has a band, the girl at work grew up in a musical family, a client is a saxophone player–I have been wandering around in a world full of music I know nothing about. So Green joined Hen, and now we’re adding our words to promoting local music. First in our respective towns (San Diego, CA, and Richmond VA, with Austin thrown in because we both want to visit), and later spreading across the country and hopefully beyond.

I’m learning I’ve slipped down quite the rabbit hole. To learn about music groups quickly, I’m researching online. I start with one group, then search everyone associated with that band. Musicians are an incestuous lot. After a few clicks, I find one name connects to another, and to another, in an ever-widening circle of associates. With Hen right in the thick of things most of the time. I almost think I could pick one local musician and follow the degrees of separation until I find every musician around the world!

I’m also learning some of the trials of the local musician. The money is rarely good, and the wonders of the internet hurt as much as help the local guy playing his heart out. Yes, internet exposure means you can take your music directly to anyone without needing a record deal from some big recording company, but it also means you are probably selling 99 cent downloads of your songs and trying to compete with sites like Pandora and Spotify offering nearly unlimited music for free. You are looking for places to play that too often don’t want to pay you for your time and effort. And you are encountering people like me–who don’t know you and are as likely to think of you as the background music to my dinner as to recognize you pouring your heart into something you love, that I will only miss when it’s gone.

So one of the things I will write about on That Green Hen is how to appreciate local music, for those who do not go out every night to a new place. We’ll also cover information aimed at the local musicians, to help them best share their talents in a world that needs them more than we sometimes realize.