Molly Johnson flies solo

JANE STEVENSON

, Last Updated: 9:39 PM ET

Good golly Miss Molly!

Yes, Molly Johnson, the local legend in her own time, will admit it has been way, WAY, too long since her last recording.

Would you believe not since 1991, when the Toronto singer, who is now in her late thirties, fronted the Juno-Award-winning "black rock" band Infidels, who were signed to I.R.S. Records in the U.S. up until just two years ago?

"Pretty much anything I wrote or sang, if I wrote it, they owned it," says the outspoken, animated and funny Johnson over lunch at an outdoor restaurant near her Annex home.

"And that really pissed me off. 'Cause I knew that I'd written things in the past and they hadn't done anything with them. So it bugged me that they were going to own these tunes and then they were just going to sit on them and do nothing with them. It blocked me. I couldn't write."

There was also a second Infidels album that never got released, due to squabbles with label founder Miles Copeland, not to mention other business woes.

The bottom line is that when Johnson finally became a free agent, she hooked up with Toronto producer Steven MacKinnon (Natalie Cole, Marc Jordan) after meeting him through some jingle work. They wound up collaborating on what has become Johnson's jazzy, funky, soulful self-titled solo debut.

"We made this. Maybe I'm biased, but I think it's a beautiful record," says Johnson. "We made it without a label, which was magical for me."

Featuring possibly the last performance by legendary jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, the album has been getting great reviews.

Unfortunately, it was released with little fanfare just over one week ago -- and badly timed, given it was right in the midst of the Toronto International Festival -- although Johnson delivered a reportedly awe-inspiring show for about 500 people at the Trinity Centre as part of the album launch.

Still to come, hopefully, is a proper spring-summer tour across Canada.

"I'm totally freaked out about how this record's going to be perceived, are you kidding? Absolutely!" says Johnson, with her trademark bluntness. "It doesn't keep me up nights ... My sons do!"

Leave it to Johnson, now the married mom of Otis, 3, and Henry, six months, to crack wise over her byzantine music career.

"I think for a Canadian, I'm very ambitious," she says. "I think for an American, I'm lazy. Although, a couple of people have called me the reluctant singer. I like singing, but I'm really a homebody and I love to be at home. I love it."

True to form, instead of moping about the I.R.S. debacle, Johnson turned her energy to philanthropy. She spent four years organizing the Kumbaya Festival, a musical fundraiser for AIDS research.

"I turned on Kumbaya because I didn't want to get bitter and frustrated and I wanted to so something without being in a basement, getting pissed off. So I ended up doing Kumbaya in my basement and being a little pissed off."

And while you could always catch Johnson singing in recital halls or jazz bars from coast to coast over the years, there was no new music on record.

"For 15 years, I'd been singing jazz," she relates. "I started singing jazz with Aaron Davis and David Piltch, called Blue Monday, at the back room of the Cameron. I started doing that because the owner, at the time, bought a jukebox, he put a whole bunch of old songs in there and handed me a bag of quarters one day. At the time, I was cleaning toilets at the Cameron. I was sort of a cleaning lady-slash-waitress. He said to me, 'If you learn 12 of these songs, you'll always work.' "

Turns out, he was right.

Still, Johnson, who includes one Billie Holliday song, Don't Explain, on her new album, had other motivations as well.

"When you look at Gershwin and Cole Porter and Duke Ellington, these were like the first pop writers," she says. "And I was still writing pop music and I learned so much about the strong structure and melodic structure from these guys and it was like me going to school.

"I treated it -- and still, in fact, do -- extremely casually. Because for me it's a learning experience. And I think what you see in this record here is trying to write like that in a modern way."


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