Molly Johnson Delivers Her First Holiday Album
If you look closely at the resume of iconic Canadian singer/songwriter/performer MOLLY JOHNSON, you’ll understand why she’s such a chameleon. Beginning as a child actor as a young grade schooler, Molly’s list of career roles have seen her fronting disco (A Chocolate Affaire), alternative (Alta Moda), rock (The Infidels), and jazz bands, appearing on Mr. Dressup, working as a CBC radio host, winning the Order of Canada, performing for the likes of Lady Diana and Nelson Mandela, serving as an HIV/AIDS advocate and Kumbaya Festival organizer, and gradually becoming one of the most recognized singers in Canada.
The latest project from this multiple Juno-Award winning singer/songwriter is a new album, It’s A Snow Globe World, a holiday-themed collection of original songs and carefully chosen standards. Produced and engineered by John ‘Beetle’ Bailey, the album features Davide DiRenzo (Drums), Mike Downes (Bass) and Robi Botos (Piano) with special guests Donna Grantis and Billy Newton-Davis. It’s her first foray into the holiday genre, but make no mistake – it’s not a Christmas album, it’s a holiday album. Molly took time to chat with GoBeWeekly in anticipation of her upcoming December 20th performance at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.
GoBe: I realized today when prepping for this interview that it’s been 30 years since the release of “100 Watt Bulb” and the debut album from your rock band, The Infidels. When you look back, does it seem like 30 years ago or more like yesterday? What stands out most when you think of that period in your career?
MOLLY: I felt every one of those years. I think what stands out most is that I survived it, and I came out the other end by working to raise a lot of money for AIDS/HIV with a little thing called Kumbaya Festival. We raised quite a few million. That’s what I did coming out of The Infidels.
GoBe: Were the lessons you learned from that experience more about the industry or more about your tenacity as an artist?
MOLLY: I think it was more about me and my tenacity. I think what I did is I outlived all the assholes.
GoBe: The industry was full of them in the 80s and 90s.
MOLLY: I ignored most of them. I had a little bubble. I just bounced merrily along with my band. I never went too much further than the guys in the band. I’m still like that.
GoBe: I was surprised to learn The Infidels recorded a second album that never was released. Have you ever revisited that material or considered a release?
MOLLY: No, I never have. I’m sure that’s a question you could pose to my musical partner Norman Orenstein. He’s kind of the keeper of all that stuff. I barely remember that we made a second album. I was too immersed in unbelievable amounts of legal headache, hence why it didn’t come out.
GoBe: You have achieved some incredible milestones over the course of your career, including being awarded the Order of Canada, performing for the likes of Lady Diana, Prince Charles, Nelson Mandela, and Quincy Jones, and winning multiple awards for your jazz career. Has the reality of your experiences eclipsed whatever dream you may have had as an aspiring young artist?
MOLLY: Funny, I was never one of those young artists, I was more ‘born in a trunk on stage’ kind of girl. I got my ACTRA card I think when I was four years old. I have always done this. Maybe that’s why I didn’t have the big ridiculous dreams that some people have. What I’ve always wanted to do is make stuff happen, to make good stuff. When I was a ballerina I wanted to be a choreographer. I wanted to make ballets. I’m a singer, but what I really like doing is writing those songs and collaborating and building music. The singing part is sort of the end game. All the footsteps along the way, the magical moments, Nelson Mandela, Lady Di a couple times, were all impactful, resonating stuff for me, but I was certainly not dreaming about it. I’ve always just wanted to write a really good song. It’s that simple.
GoBe: As you have continued your evolution as a songwriter, has the challenge of writing a good song gotten any easier?
MOLLY: It’s still hard, and I still get really nervous when I have to perform. People say ‘you’ve been doing this for 58 years!’ I say if you’re not nervous you might be in the wrong business. If you find song writing a breeze, you’re probably not writing very good songs. It’s a real craft, and it’s not easy to do. Weirdly, it can come in seconds, but like anybody who rights, you start to overthink it. That’s why I like collaboration. I like working with others around music.
GoBE: That brings me to the new record. I would think writing a Christmas album would be a big challenge. You don’t want to just go record a bunch of standards. That’s too easy. So how do you set out to make your own mark on the tradition?
MOLLY: I had a conversation with Jeff Remedios, President of Universal Music (Canada). He’s a very smart, honest, incredibly capable, respectful guy. And we talked about crappy Christmas records, and why I haven’t made a Christmas record. It’s because they’re all crappy . I took a couple of years to make this record. I didn’t just run into the studio during COVID to record. The real takeaway here is that it’s not a Christmas record. Not everyone loves the baby Jesus, you know? Canada is an incredibly multicultural country which is why I love it so much. But what I did discover and think about in my research was that every faith has a moment of light and sharing and joy and love and family. Every faith connects to that. Muslims, Jews, and Christians all connect to a light and love and joy, so I wrote songs about that. It wasn’t so much about Jingle Bells.
GoBe: There are a couple covers, including Winter Wonderland. Why that song?
MOLLY: I chose that song because there are no religious connotations to it. It’s a seasonal situation, except maybe the little bit of the snowman wanting to marry you. It’s a fun song. The trio nailed it. It’s sounds like a 70s game show, it’s just stupidly hilarious. I giggle every time I hear it and I hope everyone else does. I want them to get a laugh because it’s a very dark holiday for some. I was very mindful of that.
GoBe: If you had to pick one song from the album that would become an annual tradition in the way Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas” has, what would it be?
MOLLY: I did actually try to write such a song with my good friend Steve McKinnon. We’ve be writing songs for 30 years, and we took many runs at this one. It had its own budget, it was treated specially. It’s called “Don’t You Know It’s Christmas?” That’s the song that I hope people say, ‘oh no, not that song again. I just heard it at Shoppers, and now I’m hearing it at the gas station.’ I wrote it like that, but it’s also a really great lyric, a really fun lyric. It has the line ‘it’s a snow globe world.’
GoBe: You’ll be performing the album live December 20th at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre as part of the Bravo Niagara festival. How excited are you to be back on stage after 2 year’s of COVID restrictions?
MOLLY: I’m one of those people who did kind of well during COVID. I like being by myself, I like quiet, I like writing, reading. I’m not a ‘gotta sing, gotta dance’ kind of girl. To be honest, if it wasn’t for the trio, I’d probably never play live again. The magic for me is getting back with those guys, recording with those guys, and collaborating with those guys. We did have to do a couple shows without audience. What was hard was managing the sound playing to 850 empty seats. But I do like to know who my audience is. I do talk to my audience, I respect and appreciate them.
GoBe: What would you like to say to fans to inspire them to come out and share that holiday spirit at the concert December 20th?
MOLLY: They can expect the unexpected. I won’t be singing “Jingle Bells,” but I will be spreading I hope a lot of joy and love and laughter and giggles. And I hope they then take that out the door and spread it around. That’s my job.