singer-songwriter guitarist/bassist Nedra Johnson
Interview by Robert Urban for GAY GUITARISTS WORLDWIDE
includes photos by Jed Ryan and J.D. Doyle
Nedra Johnson is a singer/songwriter multi-instrumentalist born & living in New York City. Her unique style of guitar playing is unmistakably informed by her many years as a professional bassist and keeps her live solo acoustic performances more on an R&B tip than what one might expect of a "girl with a guitar."
Nedra's self-titled sophomore release is a 2006 OUTMUSIC Award (OUTSTANDING NEW RECORDING - FEMALE) winning, joyful mix of R&B, funk, rock and gospel. Honest in integrity to the music as well as the lyrical content, each song is a testimony of her experience as a black openly lesbian woman in love, spirituality, community and or politics. From the first song "Ahha (It's A Good Thing)" on through to the Maxine Feldman tribute version of "Amazon," this is proudly womyn's music and a great example of how Nedra has grown as a writer, arranger, producer and musician. Featuring lush background vocals and danceable grooves, Nedra makes the personal political and the erotic downright spiritual.
Nedra has performed internationally at jazz, blues, pride & women's music festivals as a solo artist and a tuba player/vocalist with her father Howard Johnson & his group, Gravity. She surprised and impressed jazz audiences in Paris, Nime, Berlin, Vienna, Kassel, Macedonia, Muchen, Leverkusen, Los Angeles, New York & New Orleans when she put down her tuba and sang original songs with Gravity garnering such praises as from The Orange County Register, "A little thing [an original from the CD Testify ] called Working Hard for the Joneses had the crowd on its feet and whooping." As a soloist, she has performed in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Oakland, Cleveland, Madison, Chicago, New Caledonia and more!
Whether in front of an intimate audience such as at New York City's Rockwood Music Hall or a large festival audience of 7000 like Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, Nedra has the ability to perform with both a strength and a vulnerability that makes each listener feel like they are getting to know her on a personal level. Her thoughtful choice of words reflect not only who she is, but speak to the heart in a way that mirrors emotions many find difficult to express, allowing her a fan base diverse in ethnic, cultural and spiritual background.
NEDRA will be in Hawaii from Nov 8-18 performing on the OLIVIA CRUISE
- What brand/model/year instrument(s) do you record and play out with?
I played an Ibanez electric/acoustic on my last album. It came off the strap at a gig a few months back and the neck got shattered. Now I have a Washburn electric acoustic. I have a Fender Precision bass with a Bartolini jazz pick up which I used on “Testify”, but I played a Fender Jazz on “Nedra”. I can’t say I’m committed to the guitar I have right now… but it serves it’s purpose.
- What brand/model/year amps & effects (if any) do you use?
I’m just starting to play with effects. I only have a Boss octave pedal and a Digitech JamMan. I love the octave pedal… I tend to think of myself as a bass player more than a guitar player, so I love getting the bass sound out of the guitar, I’m not quite sure how to make the best of the JamMan… it’s similar to a Boss Loop Station. I like the sound of a chorus. The Ibanez had a built in chorus. I didn’t use it in recording but I did find that it added a little something on certain songs live.
- Who are your main influences as an instrumentalist? Which artists? Which bands? Instrumentalist? Which artists/bands were your favorites in your youth?
Larry Graham. I loved Sly & the Family Stone. Culture Club was a favorite so Mickey Craig. Mostly it was bass players. I developed my playing listening to bass players. I had a lot of players around because my father is a musician so any band he played with… I’d spend time talking to the bass players. That was Steve Logan, who is not really famous, but he should be and I’d say he is my favorite bassist. Then there was Myra Singleton. She played bass with a band called the Family Stand so people might know her from that, but she is just a great bass player and musician all around. We’d hang out and she just gave me one little tip that really helped to hook up my time. Mark Egan… he played with the Gil Evans Orchestra. Hiram Bullock… he also played with that band… amazing guitarist. Marcus Miller… Rufus Reid. I had his Evolving Bassist book and it had some great exercises.
As far as bands, I listened to a variety of stuff. In high school, it was mostly LA punk bands like Channel Three, Social Distortion, Youth Brigade and other BYO bands like 7 Seconds, SNFU. Oingo Boingo. Culture Club… But then there was also people Howard played with… Taj Mahal, Paul Simon, The Band, Phoebe Snow… And stuff my mom had in the house, Sly, Jimi Hendrix, Buffy St Marie… My mom is a songwriter so I got music coming at me from all directions. And I played bass, alto & baritone sax and tuba in high school so there was also the classical stuff…
- Tell fans about your luv for your particular style of music, as opposed to other styles - how it became your favorite style of rock, etc
I think of my music as blues or R&B. But I think it really is a mix that starts from a place of honest expression. So it would be hard for me to say “as opposed to…,” because I don’t think of any style as off limits… The songs, as they come, dictate genre…
- Do you play/compose/record only your own original music? Do you do any other work in music - e.g. teaching, recording session work, hired gun, producing, etc? Does your playing appear on recordings of any other artists?
So far I’ve only recorded two covers. On “Testify” I recorded Nirvana’s “About A Girl” and on “Nedra” I covered Maxine Feldman’s “Amazon”. I’m playing with some covers for future performances and perhaps recording. I have a list of songs I really love. A lot of the songs I love enough to cover, I feel like the original artist worked them to the point of putting them to rest. So I haven’t done much for covers.
I’ve only done a little session work. I played bass on Grant King’s last CD. And tuba on two of my father’s CDs. I’d absolutely love to do more studio work, either playing or production.
I sit with players every once in awhile and show them what I do… or check out what they do, but I haven’t done any formal teaching. Since I don’t really do much of the regular guitar player kind of stuff I don’t quite feel qualified to give lessons.
- Is there a particular favorite solo or part you played on a recording, or a certain piece of composed music you wrote, that you feel represents your finest work?
I like “So Good So Far” on Nedra and the acoustic version of Testify from Testify. They both sort of showcase my guitar playing.
Any special thoughts on your instrument, and what it's meant to you in your life?
Playing music… it’s like being that kid that say “Yop” in Dr. Suess’ “Horton Hears A Who”… It’s getting that voice out there… And I think that’s true on a community level, but it’s also true on a personal level… it’s the way I get to say how I feel and release. And so playing bass and guitar have been like the road to finding that voice…
Can you relate any special feelings or experiences about being a glbt player in the mostly straight music world... especially regarding your formative/learning years on your instrument?
Well, I guess I feel blessed that there was a lesbian music community. So although as a musician I think it’s the music that comes first, having the foundation of womyn’s music already established when I came to it, made me feel like no matter what was going on in the mainstream, the was a place for me.
I’ve found though, that str8 people can process lyrics and intentions just as we do. So when I play in an environment that is mostly straight, I do my same thing and I get good response. Sometimes I shock people a little, but honestly I think people have a harder time dealing with a fat artist than then do a queer one…
- For a glbt player - how does the overall music scene differ today
from years ago?
I never thought I’d be a mainstream artist. Not that I thought or think my sound couldn’t work there, but I never thought there would come a time when they could deal with an out lesbian artist… But I look at someone like God-des and she has a totally different vision for herself and I think that’s awesome. And more and more we seem to be making room for ourselves in the mainstream… with Logo and Showtime… On one hand I think that’s a loss for womyn’s music… but I hope that as it all happens we bring something to the mainstream that changes it as opposed to falling in line with the standards they’ve set. I think it’s a big mistake to write womyn’s music off as some soft of old school thing. The mainstreaming of what we do has the potential to become a silencing where who we like and what we listen to is decided by some producer who just wants to sell CDs… that would take a deeper realness away from what I have come to love from lesbians in particular but all lgbt artists as well.
- How is the overall music scene in your locale?
I’m in NY so there are lots of musicians and a good outmusic community. I don’t think it’s the greatest place to play though. If not for the Rockwood, I probably wouldn’t even try to book in NY. I’m also just older now so I don’t have the energy I used to for going out and just listening to people… I might be overly cynical…
- Any advice for young glbt players?
Just be a real person. Get a tough skin for dealing with the business of music. Always continue to grow as a player. Diversify just to give yourself options. Try to keep some kind of health insurance happening… Try to stay healthy in general… and if you got mainstream dreams watch those shows where you see what that means… like Making The Band… and Idol… Driven… etc… I think they might be useful for perspective. As you think, so shall you manifest.
I never thought in terms of wanting to be rich or famous. I thought of that as a by-product of doing good work. But I now think it’s more about having a specific desire to be rich and famous. When I’ve watched Driven, I’ve thought that I was not driven in that way. And all of the artists on that show do have that drive. I just wanted to make music. Nothing wrong with that… it’s just a different vision with a different outcome. And, in most cases, I would guess, a different income…
- What are your current and future musical projects?
I am plotting an acoustic CD. Probably a mix of songs I have already recorded and a few new songs. I’ve had people tell me they’d like to have that sound and I think it will open me up to more folkie gigs. I’m also thinking about going with a straight ahead blues production on the next band record. I’m exploring that on a mainstream blues level. That would be the most satisfying of places to go from here. It’s what moves me the most and I can suit and tie it without really stressing out the audience… it’s almost a tradition. I love that.
More on NEDRA JOHNSON at: www.nedrajohnson.com and www.myspace.com/nedra
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