Josephine Johnson is an artist unafraid to live out her dreams. Her brand of soulful, earthy, and transcendent folk feels tender, hitting close-to-the-skin, while at the same time clearly dredged from somewhere very deep. Her voice is both vulnerable and powerful, reminiscent of the gritty sincerity of Karen Dalton and the loose, all-in heart of Janis Joplin, but with a refinement and ease of delivery that sets Johnson’s voice apart from other celebrated female folk artists. Johnson knows who she is, and in her music presents herself and her ideas with a calm strength – like someone who has spent long hours on the road alone, working problems and dreams into convictions as time passes. You can hear it in her voice: You can call me vinegar/ but I know I’m wine/ I’m dark, sophisticated,/ warm, deeply sublime.
Johnson’s breakthrough album, The Spark, features eight tracks that blend soul, country, and folk into a cohesive, earnest, and elaborately beautiful album. Arranged by famed producer John Vanderslice and keys player Rob Shelton, The Spark showcases Johnson’s characteristically smoky vocals along with her Mainland tenor ukulele backed by warm horns, real keys, lap-steel guitar, and classic folk and country instrumentation. It’s a spectacular album, one that feels both dreamy and ideal as well as real, visceral, and secret. In “Long Way Home,” Johnson sings a personal address (I know you’re brave like me, oh/ I know you’re brave like me) over gentle percussion and blooming guitar chords. “Tuesday Evening” opens with the eerie, dissonant crashing of chords that collapse into a compelling, even bouncy alternative folk rock anthem about the effects of time on individuality: This is how we survive/ when the middle won’t break/ but slowly takes your time…
Johnson was born in rural Greentown, Indiana and raised singing in church and school musicals. The first of her entire family to go to college, she studied film at the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design for her bachelor’s, then went on to earn a master’s degree in English on scholarship from Humboldt State University in Northern California. Johnson learned to play ukulele and guitar while at SCAD, where she also began writing her own music, but it wasn’t until after her masters and a career in teaching English that she returned to her true calling. “I realized I couldn’t do both – that there was no way to pursue music as a career while at the same time working on film production or teaching English. It became clear to me a bit later in life that I had to choose what I wanted.” Now fully in control of her own developing musical career, Johnson says she wouldn’t change it for the world – not her past education, nor her choices leading up to now, nor her present life as a singer-songwriter constantly on the road. “I’m single, I do this all by myself. I’m the booker, I’m the roadie, I’m the writer, I’m the singer… and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
What’s remarkable about Johnson, in addition to her pure vocal talent and ability to write stirring, relatable songs, is her independence as an artist and an outspoken believer in the strength of women, evidenced by her tendency to take charge of a song or idea and carry it through to its fullest potential without appeal for outside help. In the video for her hit song “Reclaiming my Time,” a rousing and encouraging feminist anthem inspired by Maxine Waters' iconic response to Steve Mnuchin at a 2017 House Financial Services Committee hearing, Johnson poses in her own Savannah backyard with various hand-painted signs that repeat the lyrics as she sings them. The video works like a symbol of private protest, serving in specific support of Waters as well as nodding to other women’s movements in recent history. This video was recorded with little budget, based on a suggestion from Johnson’s neighbors to “paint those words.” Painting with words, projecting her soul and inspiring meaning in her audience, is something Johnson’s music, and life, continue to do. “It takes a certain amount of time to figure out your craft and develop your stories, and this work isn’t easy. But it’s worth it. At my best, I want to be an example to other women in that I do what I want to do. I’m an example that you can find what you really want, and do it. I am doing it.”