Returning to live shows is “another level of love” for a stage performer, says singer Jenn Johns.
The Oakland native recently tore through three sold-out shows at the New Parish—a tribute to Joni Mitchell’s Blue on its 50th anniversary, and two sets of her own material the following night. Returning to the stage after so much time away brought her the realization, “you take for granted the opportunity to be able to get onstage. You take for granted that you’ll be able to hug people, that you’ll be able to be in the presence of people and share that in energy. No matter how much we appreciate it at the moment, until you’re without it for a year and a half, you don’t understand the necessity of being connected in that way.”
“I think that people deserve that live energy,” she says, adding that she flexes different muscles onstage than she does in a studio session. “Something else happens when you’re sharing the energy with the crowd. I tend to feel like there are many musicians on the stage, but the performance is really about every person that’s in the room. It’s a co-creation.”
Johns opened the Mitchell tribute with a rendition of “All I Want.” The song epitomizes the type of emotional resonance and vulnerability singer-songwriters have hoped to attain ever since the album’s release in 1971. “Joni, to me, is a true embodiment of revolutionary femininity, honest femininity and tenderness,” she says, adding that “All I want” appealed to her because of its simple arrangement and smart, funny, heartfelt lyrics. “When [Mitchell] says, ‘I want to shampoo you’—I giggle every time I got to that [lyric].” Mitchell’s approach may be simple, but doing her music justice is a challenge for any singer—one that Johns was up for.
Those who have witnessed her shows over the years can speak to her transcendent, dynamic stage persona: a dreadlocked siren balancing graceful serenity with vibrant chaos and a high level of spiritual vibration.
That persona was very much in the building at the New Parish, a well-worn stomping ground for Johns and her band, one she calls her “second home.” She performed a mix of songs old and new, including several she developed for a project commissioned by Temple tree sanctuaries. “The new music is about a balance of awareness that I live in this Black body that I experienced, this Black thing that I experienced, this woman thing that I experienced, this life thing,” she says. “But my responsibility is to share joy and fun and levity with the world in bright colors, unapologetically.”
One of her new songs, “Lose Your Mind” showcases a character Johns says she’s developing, XJAN JXAN—pronounced “Jon Jon”—while also revealing a lyrical maturity: “Chances is changes are coming and movement is promise to hold on to nothing at all / Lights out for nothing, nobody can’t be wasting no time bracing for storms / When I and I are the light, the night, the space, the dark, the death and some more, hallelujah.”
The song, she says, is a “thesis statement,” an affirmation of being in the moment and her journey as an artist—a road that took her from hip-hop/electronica hybrid diva to deep-rooted artivist and social justice organizer, back to a place of acceptance of her own evolution as a singer-songwriter and live performer.
“I’m at a space now where I feel like I’m more fully integrated, where I understand that the liberation of people is about my investment in the liberation of my audience,” she says. “It’s about sharing my liberation in public. It’s about showing my freedom and my joy, and public space. If I really believe that all things are working together for my good, then I have to move with that awareness and move boldly in the world, knowing that there’s truth in the idea that regardless of what physical harm is possible to come or what trauma there may be, the real truth is that if I should choose to count it all joy, no weapon formed against me can prosper.”
Another new song, “Wild in Your Pursuit,” a collaboration with up-and-coming Richmond emcee Mani Draper, tackles the topic of liberated love. On the hook, Johns sings, “I will not tame you, I want you wild in your pursuit.” She says the song revolves around “this idea that love is supposed to give you wings; and I think too frequently in our world, we’re looking at a desire to control, and we call that love.”
Johns also debuted “Love Conquers All,” co-written with Lonnie Morris, who was recently released from San Quentin after 44 years of incarceration. Morris is also the subject of a 2010 SF Weekly feature which described him as a “role model, anti violence program leader and darling of the media.” Due to the limitation on prison phone calls, Johns and Morris worked on the song “in 15-minute increments.” Making it “really healed my heart,” she says, adding that the song’s message is, “regardless of what’s going on in the world, if you choose love, eventually it will heal it all.”
She also played a new arrangement of an older song, “Go Live,” whose studio recording she was never quite happy with, along with “Ghetto International,” a reggae-tinged call for unity which has become one of her live anthems. The live recording will be released later this summer, and will be available on Johns’ website.
The thing that defines Johns most as a performer, recording artist and person is her hometown. “What Oakland makes in humans is some real special shit,” she says. “The many circumstances that make [us] who we are is unique. Like, we’re not even half a million people, and we’re on par with what people think of when they think of like Brooklyn, right? Atlanta, you know? We’re standing on the shoulders of not just the Black Panthers and the [Brown] Berets and bad-ass women who in, like, 1850-some decided that they were going to run for president.”
Such bad-assery is in the soil, indeed. But it’s also in Johns’ DNA.
“I come from a place where we fight for one another’s rights to be who we are,” she says. “Living in other places has given me such a deep appreciation for what we feel is just basic. I am just proud of who we come from. And so the music and the depth of the things that we’re pulling from, I think it’s different from other places.”