[Joie De Vivre]

Molly Johnson and All That Jazz

Molly Johnson

Mixing newfound Northumberland warmth with her innately cool career, Molly Johnson is savouring the sweet side of life

It’s a grey, rainy day in Port Hope when one of Canada’s greatest jazz and pop vocalists strolls into Gusto’s for our meeting, cosy in an oversized beige sweater and zippered black raincoat. She’s got a vinyl Kensington Market Jazz Fest umbrella under her arm, and she immediately gifts me with it. That wonderful little Toronto-based festival she founded is something she’s extremely proud of. I’m instantly bowled over by Molly’s innate, casual cool and charming warmth. But then, I always have been.

I’ve had the privilege of watching Molly’s steady ascent to stardom since I started co-hosting The New Music in 1979, the same year she formed a funk rock band called “Alta Moda,” illuminating the Queen Street West scene with her gorgeous sense of style and sexy, smooth delivery. By the early ’90s, Molly had graduated to an edgier kind of collab, fronting “The Infidels,” a band she describes as “Black Crowes meet Aerosmith,” that won a JUNO for most promising group in 1992. “Those were the happiest, most glorious days. Just fantastic,” she reflects, reminiscing about the decade when she lived at Queen Street’s Cameron House, a small art hotel, bar and performance space. “It allowed me to be safe and really explore. That was very exciting and part of a really great thing. I can look at all that stuff and ‘The Infidels’ and be very proud, though I looked a bit like a drag queen at the time, with a lot of makeup!” she laughs.

One of the brilliant things about Molly Johnson is that she has the ability to take herself lightly, despite the inherent dramas of life and showbiz. But she did shift her focus to more serious tasks as the ’90s rolled out, establishing an annual concert series, “The Kumbaya Festival,” that raised over $1 million for the AIDS cause. She also settled down to have a couple of kids – Otis, now 24, and Henry, 21. She didn’t put her artistry on hold for long though, and by the year 2000, she’d released a debut jazz album. Her second jazz album, three years later, made her a bona fide star. And she’s been on a roll ever since.

Now, with a new holiday album out, “It’s a Snow Globe World,” and a burgeoning romance with Northumberland County, where she took up residence last year, Molly’s savouring the sweet side of life these days, riding high on newfound inspiration that’s a world away from her downtown Toronto roots.

Molly’s parents, a mixed-race couple who immigrated to Canada from the US in 1960, didn’t necessarily steer their kids into artistic careers, though Molly’s brother Clark is an actor/director and her sister Tabby is an actress/singer. But their parents were adamant about turning their brood on to a lot of art in general. “Theatre was just a piece of all the wonderful things that they exposed us to,” explains Molly, who started her career as a kid, performing in musicals for the legendary Ed Mirvish. “My mother was always a member of the Art Gallery of Ontario. And we didn’t have a lot of money, but she always managed to rent really fine pieces of contemporary art which she hung throughout our house, and she changed it up all the time. And one of the women that looked after me when my mother went back to school was a portrait painter, so I, as a small child, smelled the paint and saw the artist’s life.”

One of the brilliant things about Molly Johnson is that she has the ability to take herself lightly, despite the inherent dramas of life and showbiz.

But it was the performing arts that hooked Molly, though her evolution as a performer seemed organic as opposed to something she set her sights on. “I just kept performing from about the age of four. It was great fun when all I had to be was a cute kid. Anybody can do ‘Mr. Dressup’ or ‘Sesame Street’… There was no skill set involved,” recounts Molly. “It was just about being adorable, and I was. It was easy. But there was a moment, when I was around 11 or 12, where I clearly stated that acting was not my thing and that being ‘Molly Johnson’ was going to be a full-time job. When other people’s words started coming out of my mouth, I just thought ‘I kind of like me. I kind of like where I’m going and I just don’t want to be other people.’”

So while her siblings pursued acting, Molly started studying dance with the National Ballet. “What an insane privilege to spend years with them giving me such discipline and a backbone and the ability to work through pain,” she says. “The little secret sauce in there for ‘Molly Johnson’ is the National Ballet. They gave me such a core understanding of what it takes to be a performing artist.”

The discipline Molly acquired early on served her well, as she managed not only to ride the ups and downs of the tumultuous music world, but also to achieve icon status in the process. How did she find the strength to survive so many storms? “It’s all I know how to do,” she states matter-of-factly. “I was clearly a really good mom and I loved that job, but I’m very lazy around allowing myself to go with flows and grow with them. Like, I didn’t lock in anywhere. I used to sing jazz at the Cameron in the ’80s and people used to say, ‘Why don’t you make this your career?’ But I knew that in order to give those songs real gravitas, I had to live a life. And at that point, I hadn’t lived a life yet… And I wanted to learn how to write a better pop melody. So I used to sit in the back room at the Cameron and literally just flip through the Great American Songbook and choose songs. And everybody said, ‘You should do this now!’ and I said, ‘No, I’ve got all this other stuff I need to do. I’ll circle back to this later when I have the gravitas to do that.’”

The gravitas for Molly certainly grew, and now as a single, loving mother of two grown sons, a revered philanthropist, and a globally celebrated talent, she is concentrating on a new kind of balance living in the glorious countryside, in a county she fell in love with long ago. “I had very good friends that had a cottage just north of Roseneath, and we used to ride up by motorcycle, taking all the small highways,” she reminisces. “So since the ’80s, I had a love of the rolling hills and the landscape of Northumberland County.”

If you only know the glam Molly from her soulful music and memorable performances on grand stages or in intimate clubs, you might be surprised to know that she’s a nature enthusiast at heart. “People who know me know that I’m very much a canoeing, camping, lover of dirt and mud,” she reveals. “My dad, who was a gym teacher/kinesiology guy, used to go up to Indigenous reserves and help folks build sports teams. So I spent a lot of my summers as a kid running barefoot and wild on reserves throughout Northern Ontario, and I really did grow up loving the wildness of Canada, and always feeling so incredibly fortunate that I could live this almost double life. I had the reputation of being a totally downtown Toronto girl till I was 62 years old,” she shares. “So moving out to the countryside has been an absolute dream for years and years. And now I’ve just been able to own a teeny tiny patch of this beautiful part of Ontario.”

Living in Northumberland County has proved to be inspiring for Molly, and her latest holiday album is proof of that. Although it was recorded in Toronto, most of the songs were written here, as she soaked up the beauty of her surroundings. “You’re sitting watching snow, on those days when it’s so crisp and blue and the flakes literally look like diamonds, like you’re in a snow globe! And you write the lyrics: ‘It’s a snow globe world.’ And before you know it, eight months later, that’s the line in a song that becomes the title of an album that becomes the album jacket that I had shot last winter,” Molly marvels.

Teamwork is of paramount importance to Molly. “You don’t do any of this by yourself. My father was a gym teacher, so I learned how to put a team together.” She can’t sing enough praises for her longtime collaborators, from the musicians she writes and performs with, to the beauty experts and stylist who put her glamorous looks together, to the designers responsible for her wardrobe, to the photographer who captures it all. After all, it’s people who make Molly’s world go round, even though the privacy she finds out in the country is an admitted luxury. “I love the obscurity of it all. I love not being expected to know everybody. I love the privacy and I love the solitude. Not always, but I do love it.”

Perhaps Molly’s toughest nut to crack these days is coming to terms with her new lifestyle, now that her boys are off living in Toronto (though they do come to visit their mom often). I asked Molly how life in Northumberland County thus far has changed her. “I’m an empty nester, which is a whole new level of solitude,” she notes. “It’s changed me in that I’ve had to live with me. And I really like me – don’t get me wrong. She’s pretty good. It’s not about career, because clearly I’m just plugging away and I love being out here, and going back and forth to Toronto. But it’s that thing that we all have when the kids move. What part of them do you get to hold on to, and what part of them do you have to let go? And I’ve been making chili and lentil soup for three days and have it in the freezer ready to take downtown to the boys. Of course I do,” she laughs. “My challenging thing is really figuring out how to mother my children in this next phase of their lives, because you’re a parent to them forever. It just changes. I thought we’d all get a big break when they went to university, but hell no! Stuff just gets worse, like it’s a constantly moving target. I don’t think raising kids ends until you’re dead. My mother’s been gone for five years and I still hear her almost every day. So, for me, it’s challenging … or not challenging … but hard.”

Molly’s new album is a gift to us all – one she hopes will speak to people of all faiths who are looking for a little comfort, joy and beauty this season. But while she describes most of her offering as fabulous, energetic and fun, it’s not all about frivolity. “There’s sad stuff on the album for sure, because not everybody’s happy at Christmas and I am writing for everybody. But, of course, it’s my job to touch as many as I can with something positive or uplifting or simpatico,” she says. With a tour that includes dates at impressive venues like Toronto’s Massey Hall, Quebec City’s Palais Montcalm and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, Molly’s looking forward to the impending excitement. Still, life on the road, though exhilarating, can’t compare with the peace and tranquility Molly’s found at her new country digs where she’s doing an exceptional amount of reading and taking piano lessons – her first musical lessons ever. “I’m feeling so blessed to wake up and smell cedar trees in the morning,” she says.

There’s no question that new worlds are opening up to her. “In a very nice, easy way,” says Molly, “because it’s a nice, easy place.”

Story by:
Jeanne Beker

Photography by:
Chris Nicholls

[Winter 2021/2022 departments]