Four years ago Steph Johnson left a 12-year career in banking and reinvented herself as a musician. It was a life change, but it wasn’t as if music was new territory. She’d been playing guitar and singing for years on the side. She’d even self-released an album of R&B and funk tunes while still a banker.
Not long after launching her music career, Johnson left the R&B and funk that had gained her a following and switched to playing straight-ahead jazz. “Some of my old audience has followed me, but some have not,” she says. Recently she recorded a new album with bassist Rob Thorsen and Fernando Gomez on drums.
Johnson, 31, drives a cornflower blue Volkswagen from generations past. Recently, she left North County and moved into a shared house in South Park. She has a pair of deep red scratches on an arm: “Gardening,” she says.
Where are you from?
“When my parents split up, I grew up in two different parts of the country. I spent part of the time in Poway and part of the time in Arkansas.
When did you discover guitar?
“It was when I was in my 20s. I learned jazz voicings because I wanted to sing over that sound.”
You won a San Diego Music award in 2010 for Best Jazz Album.
“And it was an R&B album.” She laughs.
Recently, you were nominated for Best Jazz Artist by the sDMA. Do you feel any pressure to win?
“My roommate asked me if anybody was sweating me — you know, giving me any trouble because of the award and the nomination and being so new to jazz. If they are, I don’t know about it. I’m just trying to learn this music.”
I heard you on New Jazz Thing (a radio program on Jazz 88.3) and your sound was borderline vintage, like you were using some kind of an ancient microphone. That sound, in fact, is what moved me to call you.
“It came out that way because the engineer put the one microphone in the middle of the room."
That’s not your actual sound?
“No. But a lot of my fans told me that my last record doesn’t sound like me, the way I sound live. So we recorded the new record with everybody in the same room playing together, and we tracked it live in two days.”
I’m noticing while we talk that your singing voice is different from your speaking voice.
“People have told me that when they close their eyes while I’m singing, that sometimes they see someone else.”
How about you — do you see someone else when you’re singing?
She laughs. “I think I’ve had so many lifetimes. Yes. I think sometimes I can feel that.”
Is there a song in your repertoire that reminds you instantly of why you made the switch to jazz?
She thinks for a minute and then comes up with this: “When Sonny Gets Blue.”
Something convinced you to leave a steady gig with a paycheck and benefits.
“In 2008 the banks collapsed. The people I worked with started tripping, and they became afraid of losing jobs they hated. That’s when I realized that everything was all false.”
You started working in a bank at the age of 16.
“In time, I became the person in the office they would call on to chill out angry customers. Now, sometimes people from the banking days will be at my gig and they’ll say, ‘Hey, aren’t you...?’”
You just finished a gig at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. What’s next?
“I got an email invitation from a booking agency to play a gig in Istanbul. And I’m starting to play in Mexico, through the cultural center there.” ■