Reasons to be cheerful were in short supply in 2020 but Angela Johnson’s music was definitely one of them. It’s become a custom of mine to have a retrospective of the year as my final broadcast and when I surveyed my final playlist of the year, no fewer than three of the twenty tracks selected were hers. Indeed her cover of The Brand New Heavies’ Stay This Way with Opolopo, Micky More and Andy Tee now ranks amongst my favourites across the last few years.
Looking to start 2021 off on the best foot possible therefore, where better to start for my first interview of the year?
One of the first things I noticed as we got chatting was her happy disposition which told me our time together wasn’t going to disappoint. My first question was the obvious one…
So many good tunes in 2020, how on Earth did you manage that?!
Wow! I feel that I’ve put in enough work to be acknowledged, or at least remembered, to be asked to be part of a project. I’ve put out quite a bit of work and worked with a lot of producers and DJs over the years and I think this [last] year people came, circled back around and reached out; every year I’ll put out at least three to five tunes in the house music genre. I’ve just been blessed that I have a few people, a handful of producers, that definitely come back to me over and over again over the years and we’ve developed a great relationship; they know how I work, I know how they work so it really is quite easy for them to just call on me and for me to just step up to the plate and do some work.
Many may not realise your beginnings were as a classical violinist, can you give us a flavour of your musical upbringing?
Yes, well I have to say that I was brought up in the baptist church [and] my upbringing was very, very close to gospel music. My foundation came from my parents being involved in music. I have musicians as well as singers on both sides of my family; I think they all sing [laughs], so it was kind of inevitable for me to get it from both of my parents. I started playing by ear at the age of four on the piano, listening to my mother and watching her play a little bit as well and then I graduated to violin. I actually studied firsthand in elementary school and that’s where I developed this love for classical music and I wanted to continue on into secondary school and college [which is] where I studied classical violin for the first two years. I graduated from there to studio production which I really fell in love with; when I was supposed to be practising violin, learning scales and pieces writing music I was writing songs and working out how to create my own music. That’s when I started collaborating with John-Christian Urich of Tortured Soul. We developed this band together, Cooly’s Hot Box, and so I left the classical world to go into the R&B/gospel background and develop my skills as a singer/songwriter and a producer there at the school. In my last year at State University of New York at Purchase with Christian we left with Cooly’s Hot Box to get a record deal. I don’t know if anyone remembers Payday Records but we signed there for a little while and we put out our first single Don’t Throw My Love Around. We actually gained some popularity when the remix was done and we were able to make our name pretty big. We were kind of known as the American version of The Brand New Heavies. It was a wonderful ride to work with Christian and after that I decided to put out my very first soul project and that was They Don’t Know back in 2004. I’ve just been having a wonderful time being a singer/songwriter/producer and to produce music myself and not necessarily lean on other folks. I’ve pretty much established myself as an independent soul artist as well as a house music artist.
Who did you look up to and aspire to emulate at that time?
Wow, wow! A lot of folks. I would definitely have to go back to my gospel roots and that’s Aretha Franklin, The Reverend Al Green, Mighty Clouds of Joy, James Cleveland but then from soul and funk, that’s Rufus and Chaka Khan, Earth Wind and Fire, James Brown, just so many folks that went in stages. Michael Jackson, The Jackson Five, Motown, they were huge influences on me growing up and becoming an artist myself. I still lean on those artists to this very day. Later on of course I fell in love with The Brand New Heavies but I just fell in love with the acid jazz scene. When we were coming up with Cooly’s Hot Box I developed such a love and affinity for British soul – when I first heard The Brand New Heavies they just blew my mind and I thought to myself, this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. This was me really becoming more fearless of becoming a stage front-person. I was cool working with Cooly’s Hot Box but definitely afraid of being in the centre and full attention of the audience. I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable with that but I felt I was coming into my own during that period and that was definitely the foundation for me becoming the artist that I am today.
And so to house music then….
So through Cooly’s, Christian ushered me into doing songs that had a funk/soul feel but they got remixed. I think the most popular one was What A Surprise on Sole Records, the label out of Glasgow, Scotland. They did remixes on What A Surprise and that was the first remixes on Cooly’s Hot Box records. Frankie Feliciano did this amazing remix which just blew up and took us to a whole other level in the house world. I guess that was our very beginnings of being recognised as house artists.
You’ve clearly had blast doing collaborations, what makes you say yes?
Being the musician that I am and the producer that I am I’m going to key in on particular elements of a track. I would ask people to send me a few open tracks that aren’t so produced, just ideas, and if I hear something that I feel I can write to right away, that’s a good sign. I also feel that [it’s important] if this person has a great record of a lot of tracks that are very tasteful, and also thinking of the people they have worked with in the past. But I’m very open, I’m an artist, I’m a songwriter and I like the creative process. Nothing has to be spectacular when it’s presented me [laughs], it doesn’t have to sound a certain way. I’m in the developing stage with you and we’re working together, it’s a true collaborative effort.
And once they’ve got you in the booth, how do they get the most out of you?
Well, first and foremost let me be my creative self [laughs]. That’s really important because I’m very critical of what I do in the studio especially vocally. I will do parts over and over again until I hear that it sounds right for my voice so I’m asking for that producer to let me be and integral part of the process of producing vocals. But I like the idea of recording in my own studio so I request that I record my own vocals so if they send the track, what I would normally tell them is that I’ll record a demo of the first verse and the first chorus and I’ll send it back over to them. It’s a scratch, rough, so don’t expect anything spectacular but if they like the idea and the direction of where I’m taking the song they’ll give me the OK and I’ll just go and produce the rest of it on my own. But sometimes every now and again I’ll get in the studio with some producers and record a song with them right then and there. But I definitely have to have a hand in what vocals stay and what needs to be drowned out [laughs], because sometimes as a vocalist you get something done in the same day; I like to break things up if I can but if it has be done in the same day my voice gets tired. The ad libs are usually the last thing that gets put on and I’m like, dude, let’s rest before I put something down! But normally I like to split things up, at least give me two days to get something out of me.
Stay This Way was one of my tunes of 2020, I’ve got to know more about it!
Well full circle! The Brand New Heavies were a major influence on the later stages of my becoming an artist. Reel People came back to me because I’d worked with them in the past and said, “Look we’ve got an idea, Peter of Opolopo is going to be doing this song Stay This Way,” and I said “Are you kidding me? I would be more than happy to sing this!” I have a lot of respect for N’Dea Davenport and The Brand New Heavies and this was me coming back to the very beginnings of my presence as an artist. They sent me the track, I fell in love with it; I was a huge Opolopo fan in the beginning and I just thought this was a great match for me to work with him on this. They sent the track, I laid down the vocals, sent them what I had at first and then they wanted to add more embellishments to make it different from the original but also remain true to the original because we didn’t want to take away from it. I added some ahhs and some oohs and some bells and whistles and gave it a bit of an Angela Johnson flavour and they were pretty happy with it. It was a really easy and quick process. I just have to shout out to Micky More and Andy Tee [as] their background is very musical and their tracks are very musical and that’s why it’s very easy to work with them. The first time I worked with Micky More was when he did a remix of one of my songs called Better and that was our very first time working together. It was just magical; I thought that he did so great with the remix of that song and we just started having a collaborative working relationship. It’s becoming like a tight-knit family for me, the group of people that I keep coming back to.
Anything you can tell us about 2021?
I’m definitely stepping up my game as a producer in the house world so definitely expect more from me not just as a vocalist but as an arranger and producer. I’m looking forward to giving the house music world and the dance world what I have. I definitely want to kick the door open a little bit more with more of a female perspective, I think it definitely needs that right now.
Well I just appreciate you making the time, it’s been so great to chat!
Thank you so much, I appreciate the opportunity!