An Exclusive Interview With Tera Johnson
Known for her soul-sounds, phrasing and scatting in the jazz and blues world, Tera Johnson has evolved into a genre of music all her own: Folky Soul. With reflective lyrics, her voice brings out a deep, moving spirit – nearly unbelievable coming from a woman of her small but mighty stature. With support from her already established and loving fan base as well as some new ears hot on her trail, Tera is excited about the release of her second full length album HOME. HOME will most certainly become an album set to replay over and over in order to fully capture and appreciate the artistic fluidity behind the arrangements and production.
We got an opportunity to interview her about her professional life, inspirations and her latest Album Home.
Twist Online : Our readers would like to know about the start of your professional career.
Tera Johnson : When I was in high school we had a band teacher that relocated from a hippy-surf town in California to our small school in central Illinois and started a music program where one before never existed. He represented an example of true perseverance and dedication in a field that was often overlooked by booster clubs and budgets specifically tailored for athletic departments. Before my exposure to his rather unconventional methods in leading a group of hormonally raged teenagers, I couldn’t imagine pursuing a life in music. It was a risk to wind up being starved and poor and nothing really to show for it other than a worn-down ego, pipe dreams and a significant amount of debt. Just before I graduated from high school however, I recall a conversation with him where I said I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I didn’t see myself as brave or special or even worth the risk in following a professional career in music. His response was simple and changed my entire path from that moment on. He said, “Says who?” and further supported that statement with a number of examples of musicians and artists who defied the odds by not allowing anyone to determine the fate of their passions. While sometimes I still Twist Online “why” and whether I really am cut out to continue following this sometimes emotionally, physically and spiritually draining dream, I remember those two words and it often silences my self-critic dead in her tracks.
Twist Online : Who or what inspired you to get into the music industry?
Tera Johnson : As I reflect back on what initially motivated me to work in the music industry after I graduated from college, I honestly can’t think of any one person or experience that I could award full credit. However, I can say that coming from a small town, I had a lot of friends and family members that never dared to move outside of their hometown or challenge their comfort zone or willing to take a risk for their own dreams. My parents were young when they had me, probably too young to even consider the possibility of chasing rainbows in their or my lifetime, so I think when I looked at how much they sacrificed for me and just to survive, I decided at a young age, I wanted to be different. I wanted to make sure that each experience – no matter how hard or challenging, would be my very own, for better or worse. Not allowing myself time to wonder “what if” or “I wish”, I think gave me a sense of purpose to live my life according to my own rules and with a fervor to do so as if it could all disappear or die at any given moment. In other words, I think it was my fear of never trying that inspired me to take the chance and get into the music industry.
Twist Online : Tell us about your recently released full length Album HOME?
Tera Johnson : The development of this album started about a year ago when I had a surge of writing. There I was with about 10-15 songs written in less than a three-week time period that kept pouring out of me. Having been on sabbatical in the studio for over a decade, I knew this creative outpour was subconsciously telling me my break was over and I needed to get back. This time however, I decided to reconnect with one of my college buddies, engineer and producer John Bamber (JBRecordings). Something told me while I was writing these songs in order to make them really shine, I needed someone who completely understood my musical taste, language and visions inside and out. John and I clicked perfectly in college in that regard, so I knew if anyone would be able to make this album vision a reality, it would be him. Sure enough, a year later and with much labor and love from both of us, we’ve released something we are both proud of producing and collaborating together. HOME is a collection of songs displaying a lyrical journey of love, loss and empowerment. We hope all who listen are not only moved enough to put it on replay, but so much so, they deem it necessary to share it with someone else who would benefit from the positive messages behind these songs.
Twist Online : Any particular track in the Album that’s your favorite?
Tera Johnson : In all honesty, each song symbolizes a different part of my life and was written with
a specific person or inspiration in mind. I don’t think I could pick a song I would call my favorite, however I can say that the song ‘LONG RIDE’ has the longest history and therefore has a special place in my heart. ‘LONG RIDE’ was written on the spur of the moment at a jam session with a group of musicians that were called to help a certain engineer test his access to new equipment. What became of that initial order for all of us to ‘just play something’, transformed into this piece where each of us left an imprint of some kind representing our historic bond working together. Lyrically, I recall looking at everyone around me realizing I would soon be packing my bags to make my first big move to the city [Los Angeles] knowing then, the older, more seasoned me, would one day look back on this very memory and say “there she goes…”
Twist Online : What kind of response have you received from the release so far?
Tera Johnson : True fans – old and new – really can make or break your spirit when you put on display a new collection of music or piece of art. While often we are our own worst critics, all it takes is one or two little jabs from an objective viewpoint before we completely crumble, wondering whether we should just scrap the project we’d worked so hard on entirely. Fortunately, during the creation of this album I made a commitment to myself that I would write, record and release what meant something to ME. In other words, my motive was if I sell only one album after it’s released, I am going to be okay, because I know in my heart I wrote and delivered what I felt – not what I thought would get me a great response. That said, it’s been remarkably comforting to hear so many positive words of encouragement and support both along the development of this project as well as its final delivery and release. Emails, texts, posts and shares on social media outlets from listeners and reviewers have been so heartfelt as well as humbling and gratifying.
Twist Online : What attracts you more, performing on stage or working in studios?
Tera Johnson : Performing on stage or in the studio have different advantages as well as challenges for me. I think 10 years ago the 20-something-Tera would have quickly jumped to say “the studio, definitely the studio!” However, now, being a little less self-critical, and freer in my form of playing and writing (not to mention being far more selective as to who I’ll invite to back me up), I’d say stage AND studio are equally attractive and gratifying, but for completely different reasons.
The stage creates a beacon to showcase creativity and energy both for the performer to feed the audience and vice versa. While challenged by maintaining that heightened awareness and sensitivity for only a select period of time, that same controlled environment forces the performer, to be in the moment, to play as if it is one’s last opportunity; and that can often bring out the most unique and awe-inspiring sounds that cannot be replicated in a studio. Still, the studio, grants you the opposite but equally necessary freedom in order to create and be the true artist and musician you set out to become. What feels like a never-ending amount of time to work through varying ideas and changes in a piece, gives you a liberating break to make mistake after mistake, take after take for hours over just one song or even simply one section of a song until it has the exact sound you envisioned.
I feel fortunate that at this stage in my life I am able to easily vacillate back and forth between Tera-the-performer on stage to Tera-the-creator in the studio, neither serving as the intimidator but more the facilitators in my goal to exhibit my art in the best way possible.
Twist Online : What’s your favorite music genre?
Tera Johnson : That is probably the hardest question! I have so many inspirational artists ranging in varying genres, to choose just one is like asking one’s favorite food. Still, I can at least give a few of my favorites. Soul music is something I find most connected to – it raises my spirit and feels like the performers are lighting my own soul on fire. Now, soul music to some are related to R&B, however I specifically categorize ‘soul music’ to artists that best exhibit a sound in their vocal timbre that songs like they truly are baring their vocal souls for their audience and listener., Jill Scott, Allen Stone, Ray Lamontagne, Lake Street Dive, and Michael Kiwanuka, are just a few of those gut-busting vocalists that I love to hear in just about any mood I’m in because I find them comforting, inspiring and healing all at once.
Next, I would definitely say folk or indie folk fall closely behind, where the artistry usually is not in the vocal or instrumental quality alone, but more importantly the story or lyrical journey the songwriter has created. So again, specific artists like Ani Difranco, Tracy Chapman, Sarah McLaughlin, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King are examples of songwriters I find most thought provoking for me – I think of them as musical poets. Lastly, I must confess I do love fun, hook-catching pop-rock tunes by artists that may not be the wave of the radio market but certainly frequent my ear buds. Michael Franti, Ben Folds, Bird & The Bee, and another dozen or so artists are my go-to favorites. What I like about artists and others like them, are their ability to make a catchy groove seem like something you’d hear on the radio, yet due to their political or simply independent marketing ideals, allow them to remain just below the radar – just how I like them! ☺
Twist Online : Have you set some goals to achieve as a music artist?
Tera Johnson : When I started the recording process of HOME my initial goal was to follow through with completing it – often times artists have so many ideas and projects they start a dozen of them and have a hard time choosing which select one to finish in its entirety. Now that the original goal has been achieved, my next set revolve around the recognition and awareness of this album. For example, I’d like to increase my exposure in the music industry via social media, critical reviews and broaden my fan base during the course of the next year. In addition, sales goals help to fund future projects I most certainly want to explore, so I’ve set realistic goals in the sales of digital MP3s as well as hard copies (CDs) each month.
Twist Online : Are you working on any new projects?
Tera Johnson : After over a year working on this album [HOME] so many new songs and project ideas were presented we knew we couldn’t possibly fit them all onto this album alone. We’re in the discussion phase of another album or series of EP releases and hope to have more info about their status of release in the near future. To keep in the know, subscribe to my newsletter (on my website) and you’ll get all the latest and greatest updates.
Twist Online : Are you active on social media? What’s the best way to follow you online?
Tera Johnson : Yes! My social media networks are located through my website
(www.terajohnson.com); Facebook page , Twitter and YouTube.