In the wake of the economic crisis of 2008, aspiring musician Steph Johnson made a brave choice: The singer/guitarist chose to abandon her 12-year career in banking and pursue her dreams of making music full-time. It wasn't the only time the intrepid Johnson would eschew the safe decision.
In 2011, Johnson had already released two albums and was clearly on the way up in the soul/R&B musical genre with jazzy undertones. In fact, her second CD won an SDMA for "Best Jazz Record" without actually being a jazz document.
Later that year, Johnson didn't just switch horses in mid-stream, she switched streams. A chance encounter with double-bassist Rob Thorsen in the green-room at the Ocean Beach Music & Arts Festival led to a drastic change in direction that soon found her leaving behind a fine-tuned band -- with pianist Leo Dombecki and drummer Jesse Charnow -- and a devoted following for the relative insecurities of a life in jazz. She formed the Steph Johnson Trio with Thorsen and young drum master Fernando Gomez.
Music. Community. Culture.
"I didn't really realize at the time what a risk I was taking," says Johnson. "I just knew that [jazz] sounded more interesting to me. Some of my audience has gone with me, and some haven't, but I had to go with my heart."
Starting out in a career as competitive as jazz in your early 30's is a dangerous proposition, but what sets Johnson apart are her prodigious, innate abilities, which have drawn some of San Diego's best jazz musicians to her -- rather than the other way around.
Her musical journey however, hasn't all been easy.
Johnson learned to sing as a child, accompanying the powerful sounds of her mother's soul music collection. "I thought everybody sang like Aretha Franklin," Johnson said. "But because I had that big voice, even as a little girl, whenever I tried out for the choir, in elementary or middle school, I was made an example of how not to sing -- because I had this big voice that wouldn't blend."
Johnson never saw singing as a viable opportunity until she answered an ad for a voice lesson in the local paper at the age of 21.
"I went and met the teacher, a black lady named Shyla Nibbe, and she said to bring in a song, so she could hear where I was at," Johnson said. "I brought in this Jill Scott song, started to sing, and the whole time she's got her head down, and I'm thinking the worst. But when I was done, she said, 'I have one question for you: why aren't you singing professionally right now?' And then, a couple months later, I got hired to do some background vocals for Glen Fisher, and I just kept pursuing it. Then somebody said I should get a guitar. So I did, and learned some chords and started making up my own little songs."
She kept hearing jazzy little things in her head, so upon that chance meeting with Thorsen, Johnson went for it, despite the fact that, as she says, "I'm really not trained. Until I met Rob, I didn't know what an 'A' section was. This is all so much a gift -- that's why I have to work so hard at it. I mean, how could I not?"
Right away, Thorsen recognized something special about Johnson. The bassist, who works with almost all of the heaviest jazz musicians in San Diego, had an earlier premonition about working with a really different kind of vocalist.
"Right off the bat, I was so impressed by her musicality and dedication," Thorsen said. "I was blown away by her rhythm, her time and her phrasing, so there was an instant connection. You can really feel that she loves what she's doing -- you can see it in her face, but even if you close your eyes, you still feel that same warmth and vibrancy in her music. She just has that thing that I look for in a musician."
Aside from Johnson's amazing voice, there is an ability to connect with the audience -- in a very organic way -- that makes her performances all the more enjoyable. Johnson reaches out, and engages the people in the crowd: something that can unnerve the typically stoic jazz patron like myself. She will spontaneously improvise new lyrics to showcase her band members, or folks in the crowd. She'll step away from the microphone and encourage sing-a-longs -- tactics that, in the hands of a lesser performer, would fail miserably.
"I don't know what you call it: magnetism, or stage presence," says Thorsen. "But Steph does all of that stuff in a real, genuine way."
Johnson has been working hard all year, developing her repertoire with the trio and making a new recording, which the band has just finished.
"This new record is the closest to sounding like me that I've ever captured. This is me playing the guitar. I didn't play the guitar at all on my last record. I'm singing what I feel -- no one is telling me what I should be singing. It's recorded live -- I've never made a record like that -- I feel like this is what I do live," Johnson says.
The new album is titled Nature Girl. "It's a play on 'Nature Boy,' and me, who I am, and how this is all coming together organically," she said. "And, I'm kind of a hippie! So it all fits."
Johnson's new record has five standards, including "Summertime," and "The Man I Love," and six originals, like fan-favorites "Chocolate" (a steamy meditation on desire) and "Compromise" ( an intervention for girls who choose the wrong man.)
Meanwhile, the singer's talents have been noticed by the San Diego jazz elite.
"Steph is an amazing musician," says iconic jazz guitarist Peter Sprague. "What a voice: super soulful and the color of her sound is rich and engaging. I love that she's going full-out playing jazz and playing great guitar, too. Her spirit as a person -- super fun and spontaneous -- brings her whole gift to the planet together. She's a hero!"
"She works really, really hard at it," says Thorsen. "Also, she's fearless. When she gets up there, she just goes for it."
Indeed, Johnson takes her guitar everywhere. She disappeared recently from a party -- sneaking away to get some practice in -- where she ran into the host, internationally acclaimed bassist Mark Dresser. Soon, the two of them were jamming on the warhorse "Caravan."
"I think Steph has the potential to go really far," Dresser said in a recent email. "It will be fun to watch, root and cheer her on."
Lately, Johnson's live performances have ascended to a higher, more spiritual plane with the addition of long-time music wizard and multi-instrumentalist Dave Millard sitting in with the band. Millard's free-wheeling input on flutes and soprano saxophone have had the same galvanizing effect that Branford Marsalis did with the music of Sting in the '80s and '90s.
So, how is she navigating the transition from the girl nobody thought could do it to the open arms of the San Diego jazz community?
"I do think about it," Johnson says, her voice quavering. "I'm so grateful to be here, and alive, and I so appreciate the support of Rob, Fernando and people like Peter and Mark. I feel like I'm on a mission from God -- and I'm not talking about a God in a church -- but like a God-of-the-universe-type thing."
You can help facilitate the release of Nature Girl, by pre-ordering a copy here.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.