Molly Johnson set for Massey Show
Molly Johnson (Handout)
When Molly Johnson’s not hosting CBC Radio 2 Morning Weekends, trying to re-enact the Kumbaya Festival, helping cultivate The Black History Project or working to get music back into schools, she’s busy with her day job of being one of Canada’s premier jazz performers. The jazz performer is the Molly Johnson we’ll be seeing Friday night [November 30] as she headlines Massey Hall in Toronto, but I’m sure the activist and especially the storyteller won’t be too far behind when she gets on stage. MSN caught up with Molly while she was preparing for second Massey Hall headlining gig to chat about the show, after school music programs, Kumbaya and The Black History Project.
You’re headlining Massey Hall for the second time! Does anything in particular stand out from the first time?
It is amazing, it’s always amazing, because a place like Massey is so iconic… the ghosts that float around back there. You know, you’re standing on the same boards that Gordie Lightfoot stood on nights prior to that, right? It’s a very special place. [The last time] was such a blur of “put your head down and get right through that”. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, but I still get incredible nerves, and I guess that’s gotta be a good thing? I think I still frankly give a s***, which I think is a good thing, right? And I’m working through that – working through my nerves. I worked through my nerves the last time. It’s great to play at home. You get so much love out of the audience; it just comes in waves that you just don’t get anywhere else. You get all kinds of other things from the audience, but you don’t get that historical kind of love that you get from a hometown crowd. It’s just great.
There will be some special guests showing up as well?
Some great guests! Elizabeth Sheppard who’s in Japan right now and really gets back just the day before the show so there won’t be big rehearsals with her - she’s going to play with my trio. What I love about Elizabeth is she’s a super fantastic musician, for one. She’s a very good piano player and great singer, but I love that she writes her own stuff. She doesn’t just hang about in the land of the American Songbook, though she definitely digs in there, but she actually writes her own original material which I think is fantastic. To get fresh voices into the jazz scene is always great, really great. [Then we have] Denzel Sinclair, who [is currently] on tour opening for Diana Krall. He’s a great Canadian Jazz singer that you just don’t hear enough of. He has really interesting music selections. So I think between Elizabeth’s great song writing and piano skills, and she’s beautiful to look at, and Denzel will be coming with his very unique few song-selections, so that’s going to be a lot of fun with those two. Then of course, I’ve got Regent Park Music School. You know, there is a real importance around music education and kids that’s been proven over and over again. Kids who have a musical background, piano lessons and the like; they’re brains just work better. You talk to scientists, doctors, and all kinds of people and, you know, they usually had a piano lesson when they were a kid! There’s something to be said for that. And what Regent Park is offering is an after-school music program to kids in the GTA who are at risk. My second biggest drive these days is that very dangerous corridor that any working parent faces: your kids are out of school at 3:00 p.m., and you don’t get home till 6:30 p.m. from work, and that’s a key corridor. If we don’t engage our kids and find lots of things for them to do in that time, we lose them. We lose them to gangs, and we lose them to not-good activities. We know that our public school board is crushed in terms of resources for after-school care, and yet, that’s probably one of the more important moments in a kid’s day, after school – waiting for mom and dad to get home from work. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. Sure, you might have a nanny or a babysitter, but the reality is, if you don’t have that, which most parents don’t, you’re in trouble. We’ll lose our kids in that corridor. So for me, after-school programs, especially those that have a music-base to them, are just really important, and should be important to all of us.
Those Regent Park kids are coming on stage with you and playing songs?
They are! I have 14 of them coming [on stage] to sing with me, and then I’ve got a group from the Jane and Finch area, they do steel pan, and they’re going to be playing during the lobby intermission to drum up CD sales, because my beloved Randy Lennox at Universal, cut me a fantastic deal on my [Songbook] CD so that the proceeds can go to these music groups.
You’ve really touched on most genres of music throughout your career and it seems this all-encompassing show at Massey will be no different.
Absolutely, you know, it’s not that you’re re-inventing yourself, you’re just following a path, and where that musical path goes, and you’re age and what you’re prepared to put into it, and what you want to do with it. I love my jazz world of soft-seaters and well-informed, well-educated audiences. It doesn’t get any better than that really, for where I am right now.
How do you craft a setlist? Are you taking songs from your whole career?
Yes I am. I’m taking stuff from all four albums, and I certainly won’t be doing everybody’s favourites but I’m doing my best with just little pockets of time. I’m even bringing back Andrew Craig, one of my piano players from the first album. It’ll be a fun night. That piano is still gonna be hot! People will be up and down from it all night long, and thank god we don’t move it because it costs about $3000 every time you move that thing an inch on that stage.
You’ve said your teen boys love Rihanna and Beyoncé. Do you ever think about doing covers of their tunes?
No, absolutely not! [Laughs] I love living with these teenagers in my house, because they do keep me right in the moment of what’s hip and what’s happening, that and my job at CBC Radio 2 playing Canadian songwriters every weekend, and that’s exciting too, but my kids are very savvy. For instance, did you know that Taylor Swift’s new album Red stands for “Read every day”?
Yes, and she’s promoting and talking about the importance of reading books.
Good for her.
See! I didn’t know that. One of my kids told me that.
I’ve noticed that you won’t be in the CBC Radio 2 Weekend Mornings chair this weekend and Hawksley [Workman] will be taking over.
Hawksley’s doing this weekend for sure for me, and it’s great when Hawksley steps in and deals with that chair, that pile of songs, that pile of stories – he’s a great artist.
Is he your go-to guy to take over when you can’t do the show?
Absolutely. He’s been trained up a little bit so he can speak that “CBC speak”…You can be funny, you just can’t be goofy!
Is that the CBC mandate? I like that. (Laughs)
Kind of! That’s what I got out of it! After a few years of sitting there!
The Kumbaya Foundation was such a huge step forward in HIV/AIDS awareness years ago. I hear that you’re trying to re-enact the festival.
I would love to bring that back. I’m in talks on how to do that. Of course there are four years of incredible television footage available to us, but it’s really old formatted footage, so we’re looking at ways to make it digital. Some of that stuff was shot on handheld video cameras, MuchMusic “back in the day” video cameras. The beauty of it is that we, as a country, own that footage because everybody who was involved with Kumbaya – from the drivers, to the caterers, to the venue, the insurance, the musicians, the instruments, the food backstage – the whole thing, was donated. Every inch of it, so what that means, as Moses Znaimer says, is we have a Gandhi moment. Nobody owns that tape, everybody owns that tape! So that’s an exciting position for Kumbaya to be in right now, and when you hear an artist like K’naan say, “When I was a kid sitting at home, I watched it on TV, and it changed the way I looked at a whole bunch of things”. You think you have something to do with a kid changing his mind about what he wants to write about, that’s a heady, heavy, beautiful thing!
Talk about changing minds. Over the last 20 years, the fight for HIV/AIDS has really progressed. I’m not on the inside, mind you, but I feel it has progressed quite substantially in the right direction.
Yeah, I mean people don’t die of it, but there is a massive lifestyle change that has to happen for people with the disease, and unfortunately, in doing my research to figure out where I wanted to go with this, of course one of the first people I talked to is the big expert on HIV/AIDS. None other than our own Stephen Lewis, who runs incredible programs in Africa, was HIV/AIDS spokesman for the U.N., for the world, he just knows his business. He, of course, had to deliver the bad news to me that the largest pocket of HIV/AIDS where it’s growing the fastest globally is – get ready – in our very own backyard: our Canadian North. Our First Nations kids with their intravenous drug-use, and their unprotected sex in those incredibly isolated and small communities, it’s a hot-bed out there. So that was a bit shocking to me, and it’s shocking to everybody I say that to. I’ve been up into the North, and I’ve been to some of those communities and it is incredibly isolated, and those teenagers are troubled and bored and depressed, and frankly freaked-out, and I don’t blame them. This is a country that has nothing but water. We have nothing but water, and yet there are people in our population that cannot get clean drinking water. Like, what is going on? So that’s a massive problem. Canadians have such mixed emotions and views about what to do with our First Nation’s people. We know that buckets of money get thrown up there, but nothing changes. It’s a troubling, complicated problem that I don’t think I can personally solve, but I can do one little thing and I can take Canadian teens and young people down here in the South, and get their eyeballs up on the kids in the North, and the way I can do that is by getting cameras up there, getting those kids to shoot their own stories, tell us their stories, and we’ll put them on TV. That’s what I’m trying to do.
Are you working on a TV special?
I’m working on it. I’m thinking about it, I’m talking to lots of people who are experts as to what they do about it. Like the guy that edited it and put it together live every year is a guy named John Marshall, who produced The New Music on MuchMusic, and now he produces Rick Mercer. He’s got one of the best jobs in the country! He just runs around making sure Rick’s funny! It’s ridiculous, it’s a f****** great job, and the only person with a better job than that is Rick! I mean our government pays him to make fun of the government! I remember being able to deliver that bit of news to my kids. I remember, my son who’s now 15, asking “If this comedy show on CBC is being paid for by tax dollars, does that mean the government is paying these people to make fun of them?” And I go, “In a roundabout way, yeah. It’s called democracy”. I mean really! You try doing that in certain parts of the world…you’d get blown to bits!
What’s The Black History Project?
Well, years ago TD Bank came to me to talk about Black History Month, which I’ve always sort of felt a little annoyed with, because it’s a short month, and well, it just didn’t make sense to me. I get, as my mother who’s a Civil Rights activist pointed out, that you can’t discount what it took to get us there – to even have a Black History Month, to have a Martin Luther King Day. “You can’t throw the baby out with the bath water”, she told me. And she, like most mothers, was right. So I said to TD Bank, “Well, why don’t we do a real history project…and here’s the book, and it’s called “The Book of Negroes”, and it’s written by Lawrence Hill, and it’s a great history of Black struggle. And there’s an incredible couple of chapters in there where it really touches down on Africville and what happened on the East Coast of Canada, and what those slave owners did in Nova Scotia in bringing up slaves and offering them land and freedom if they’d help push back the Americans, which they did. And by the way, we won that war. A lot of Black people and some Indians had a lot to do with that, and I wanted that in the curriculum. I went and met with Chris Spence, who’s head of the TDFB here in Toronto, Ontario. He’s a crazy, amazing man with an impossible job. He’s like Obama. This is an impossible job. I appreciate you taking it on, but it’s impossible! [Laughs] So what Chris Spence did, was hire Lawrence Hill to write the teacher’s aide to teach “The Book of Negroes”, which is by the way, what they should have done with the Huck Finn book. You don’t change the book, you figure out how to teach the book! You don’t change the freakin’ book! It’s a masterpiece!
Five quick questions, one word answers.
Okay. You got it.
Road or studio?
Lennon or McCartney?
Lennon. Though I would say George is actually my favourite.
When you hear a song, what usually hits you first: Lyrics, melody, or rhythm?
Song you’ve written you’re most proud of?
And in one word: Molly Johnson?