WOLFVILLE – Jade Johnson is a songwriter who is working to get her fellow lyricists and musicians out of the woodwork and in front of a mic.
She’s started the Song Writer’s Circle event held at Paddy’s Brewbup in Wolfville, where she works as a bartender, and has watched as more and more musicians come out to share their songs and themselves in front of others.
It’s something she loves seeing, having spent some time on the sidelines herself. But now, she’s back in the spotlight, and won’t be leaving any time soon.
“Music feels like coming home for me. I was away for a while, but now I’m back,” she says.
Starting out with an old sound
Johnson started singing as a kid, when she was often picked for solos in school.
She participated in several choirs and musical productions and was always involved in something with music or acting.
“You name it, I was in it,” she says.
She quickly grew to love what she calls that “big band” sound, listening with her mother to crooners like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and singing along to their classic lyrics.
While in love with singing, that big sound soon made her want to pursue music of another kind: instrumental.
Johnson decided she wanted to be in a band in high school that played those same standards. Starting out with the saxophone, she went on to play the flute, clarinet, trombone, trumpet and percussion.
“Once I started, it was so addictive I couldn’t stop. I had to try this music, and that music, and it really kept me going,” she says.
The end of a relationship and beginning of a new one
It wasn’t until she was well into her musical theatre degree at Acadia that she learned the guitar and fell into songwriting.
Guitar was the last instrument she learned. Feeling pushed to learn something she could accompany herself with while singing, she gravitated to the stringed instrument.
Johnson, who pursued Musical Theatre at Acadia from 1999-2003, started playing classical guitar with her then-boyfriend, who also happened to dabble in songwriting.
Taking a cue from him, she grew to love both playing and composing, since it gave her another way to express herself musically.
When the relationship ended, Johnson pressed on with her newfound love – writing music.
“I had such a love for creating. I couldn’t stop myself – the lyrics just kept coming,” she says.
After falling head over heels for it, Johnson went on an almost immediate hiatus when she found she had nothing left to write about.
Over the next ten years, she traveled across Canada with her new life partner and now-husband with nothing but a backpack and returned with an endless supply of inspiration for her music.
But getting back into the swing of things proved more difficult than she’d anticipated.
“I remember the first time I performed at Night Kitchen in Wolfville. My fingers shook so bad I could barely pluck the strings – it was truly terrifying, but that feeling I got as soon as I finished made it so worth it,” she says.
“That euphoric feeling you get – that adrenaline rush – is what keeps you going.”
Bringing other songwriters out from the mold
Songwriting has become a cornerstone of Johnson’s life, and has seen her through a turbulent year, with the passing of her father just one year ago, and her grandmother just three days later.
It offered her an avenue to get her emotions out on paper, often revealing things she never knew until she read them back to herself.
This is why she started Wolfville’s Song Writers’ Circle open mic at Paddy’s, which will celebrate its one-year anniversary April 4.
It’s an event where anyone is welcome to perform their original songs, whether they have lyrics or are instrumental, in front of fellow songwriters, who are likely as nervous as they are, says Johnson.
The event has grown gradually over its first year, with a steady stream of regulars and two to three newcomers each month.
“We’re kind of a quiet, secretive kind of people. It’s terrifying putting so much of yourself on the line like that, and I definitely get that, so this is a loving, safe space where people can get out and be heard,” she said.
“Once you get up there and play, you’ll find you won’t regret that.”
Finding the groove and exploring her sound
Johnson, whose sound is perhaps best described as folk with an edge, now counts nearly 20 original songs she feels comfortable playing in front of people.
She’s jumped back into performing, with a performance at the last Night Kitchen and at the recent Wolfville 125 celebrations held at the Wolfville Farmers’ Market.
She credits her open mic for helping her, along with the other performers, since it forces her to lead by example and sing her heart out in front of others.
Her move back to Wolfville after her ten-year hiatus was also instrumental in bringing her back to her composing passion, with its strong community of musicians and creatives.
With her eyes and ears tuned to a new sound, combining her new Gaelic skills and love for celtic and punk music, her next project will revolve around those unique sounds together in a new fusion style.
Johnson says she owes it to Wolfville, the community that’s so inspired her since she started out here nearly two decades ago.
“Once I came back to this town, it was like all this love and music started to ebb up in me, and I was a little overwhelmed I wasn’t doing anything anymore. It gave me the kick in the butt I really needed,” she says.
Jade Johnson’s Song Writer’s Circle happens the first Wednesday of every month at Paddy’s Brewpub from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.