An Interview with Rebecca Johnson
Even though she can cite all of her influences from the funk, soul, and R&B masters, Rebecca Johnson has a groove all of her own. The Australian bassist and vocalist manages to astound with both her stirring vocals and bubbling bass lines. She leads her own trio in which she sings and plays in a way that truly builds on those classic sounds instead of just mimicking them.
It sounds like a superhero origin story. Her father was a bassist, her mother was a singer, and they were constantly playing this music in the house. Johnson would tag along to their gigs and get an education on the music business and how to perform for people. Part of her story is also being self-taught on the bass, which helped to develop her unique style.
The Rebecca Johnson Band fluctuates between being a trio and a quartet, with the core members being guitarist James Vertley and drummer Con Settineri, who is also Johnson’s partner. The group has put out two albums – Handbrake Free Zone and A-chording To The Claw – plus a new single called “Glow In The Dark.” You can catch lots of their performances on the band’s Facebook page and YouTube channel, as they record all of their gigs.
We caught up with Johnson to talk about her playing, recording gigs, and finding the people you want to play with.
How have you been holding up during the pandemic?
We had a gig set up, but we chose to cancel it because the cases of COVID are popping up all over the place. We’re hanging to do a gig and everything like that, but what are you going to do? You just can’t risk it.
There are a few venues operating with solo or duo acts, and there are some that are set up just to do live streaming. We’re not about that. We’re all about live gigs with people. We could do [a stream], but you just wouldn’t put the vibe in that you would from a gig. I could sit here and do it now but I wouldn’t do it with any gig feel.
How have you been keeping busy otherwise? Are you teaching?
I don’t give lessons [partly because] I’ve never had a lesson. I’m self-taught, so how could I tell anybody how to do anything? I’ve never done that. We’re keeping busy with our cats and the veggie garden. We’ve got two CDs, so we’ve always got original stuff happening. You just have to keep your vibe going.
I love watching everybody’s way of coping with it. Some people do a live stream every Tuesday. Leland Sklar is doing a daily video clip. We don’t have a specific thing, but I guess ours is posting videos of our gigs that we’ve done.
How often do you record your gigs?
We record every gig ever since 2009 when we first got a video camera. There must be 1,000 videos on our YouTube channel and we’ll post them every second day on Facebook. A year and a half ago, we were approached by QSC and now we have a QSC endorsement. They’ve given us the 16-track TouchMix, which is a recording mixer. All of our recent videos have been properly recorded with that and any of our previous eight years are just the audio from the video camera. A lot of the conversation on our videos is about, “You get the best sound on your videos.” Whether it’s the TouchMix or the camera audio, it’s all about stage balance. There are three of us. No one is going to overplay each other or be too loud. It’s just about stage level to get a good sound. And obviously your own gear to sound good.
It starts with listening.
That’s right, and that’s what we do. There’s only three of us there!
Most of your gigs are with your band?
For the last eighteen years, every gig is with my band. When you’ve got your own band, I just don’t see any point… Don’t get me wrong, we all get offers to do other gigs, but we don’t accept them because there’s no need, really. We’ve chosen to play with each other and we dig playing with each other. My drummer is my partner of 18 years.
We’ve all done the thing where you’re a band hack and played in everyone’s band and been a repertoire head and all that stuff. It’s not like that anymore. The older you get, you just play to be with the people you want to be with. I know I keep referring to Lee Sklar, but I watch his videos every day. He talks about his band [The Immediate Family] and how he’s been playing with them for fifty years. He’s done a million other things as well, but it’s great hearing that. If you dig playing with some people, why do you have to go and play with everybody?
Our videos aren’t doctored up. We don’t edit them much, and they’re pretty raw. The biggest compliment we get is about our groove. We listen to each other and know what we’re going to do. We might do the same songs, but they’re always going to be different. It’s nice that [our connection] recognized. People must feel it and hear it, and that’s the best thing.
Well, your videos always do well on No Treble.
That’s always awesome. Something I do find funny is when people comment on whether or not I played the original bass line to something. There’s another funny thing on one of our YouTube videos about the Buddy Miles/Jimi Hendrix song “Them Changes”. Somebody wrote something like “You’re cheating us bass players because you’re not playing the original bass line.” I just laugh at this stuff. I say, “Listen, I’m singing as well and we do our own versions of songs.” I don’t play the original bass line of any song! [laughs] It’s not disrespectful to the player who played it. It’s just that I’m singing, for a start. We’re doing our own vibe on something. I don’t want to have the same vibe someone had back in 1970-something. He already did it. We’re complimenting that we like the song, so we’re playing it and doing our own thing to it. I’m not going to sing “Proud Mary” the way it was sung on the original, you know?
Do you like to re-harmonize and tear songs apart like that?
We will change the groove of something more than chord reharmonizing. None of it is set out like, “We’re going to do this with it.” It just happens on gigs. Things evolve and become what they do the longer we do them. Funnily enough, the video I posted today is the Prince song “Sign of the Times”. It was from two years ago and the way we played it then compared to how we play it now is just a whole different thing. They just evolve as you go. Nothing is set down and worked out.
One thing I know bass players struggle with a lot is singing while playing. Do you have any tips? I know your parents must have been a big part.
That’s all I’ve ever known my entire life. I grew up going to their gigs. As I said, I’ve never had a lesson of either thing. It’s hard to explain, but the best way I can explain singing and playing is that I think about the singing and especially the pitch. If I hear myself singing one thing out of tune it makes me sick. The singing comes first and the playing just spews out. I don’t know how better to explain that.
The singing comes first, then whatever follows from the bass is what it’s going to be. That’s why I’m not playing the original bass parts. I’ll play the basic patterns, but the bass playing has to suit the singing for it to gel.
How did you come to the bass, and who were your early influences?
The kind of records back in those days that my parents had are what brought me here. My parents had every Tower of Power album, every Chicago album, all the horn bands, and the funk bands. I was raised listening to all of that music. I used to get home from school, and I’d be the one who didn’t go out and play with other kids. I’d sneak my dad’s bass and teach myself. That’s all it is, really.
I listened to Louis Johnson, Larry Graham, Rocco Prestia… I listened to a lot of Level 42 stuff through the ’80s and ’90s. Anything that grooved. All the disco-era stuff. I had all the Stanley Clarke albums, too. I didn’t listen to a lot of pop. I never got into that music. After I started playing bass, I played in some bands that did covers, but I never did gigs where I backed up artists or reading club dates.
Do you feel like you missed out on something there?
No, I’m fine not doing that. There are times that you think, “Maybe I should have gone down those roads.” But no, I’m alright with it.
I think there’s this pressure to be able to do everything all the time. I’m not sure it’s super healthy.
Yeah. People can pigeonhole you and just say, “Oh yeah, they’re funky” and whatever, but I’ve never wanted to be a jack of all trades. I’ve never felt I missed the boat with that. Back in the ’80s when you’re in everyone’s bands – which I did – you’d just know every song. You learn everyone’s repertoire. You’re playing with singers and half of them do the same songs anyway.
It was my drummer that actually came to me and said, “Why don’t we do our own thing? You should be the singer.” Eighteen years ago, I was never the lead singer of bands. I was everybody’s bass player that sang a song here and there. It was only eighteen years ago that being the front person and the bass player started for me.
I really love the song you put out, “Glow In The Dark.” The bass line is great and the mix sounds amazing, too.
Thank you! Do you know who did the mix? My drummer and love of my life, Con. It’s the first song we’ve collaborated on with anybody. If you’ve heard anything from our two CDs, it’s all my vocals. “Glow In The Dark” features Jerry Lopez from the band Santa Fe and the Fat City Horns. We just met online through mutual respect of liking each other’s music. We had the basic track of it together. When we sent it to him as a demo, it was just me singing on it, obviously. I said, “You have every freedom in the world. Take it on as your own.” So now it’s a song with five writers. He wrote his own lyrics and parts and triple tracked all these vocals. It built into what it is.
I wish someone would hear it and use it for something big. [laughs] It’s got that world peace vibe to it.
Are you all writing new music?
Not at the moment. That “Glow In The Dark” was the first offering from anything coming up. The way we write and record stuff is by building them up. Usually, they start with Con and I playing bass and drums at home. Then we give it to Bill Risby, our keyboard player, and James Vertley, our guitarist. There will be a third album down the line, it’s just not there yet.
Are you a big gear head?
I’m not. The amount of people that ask me about what pedals I use is astounding. I don’t use any pedals! I’m a set and forget kind of player because I haven’t got time to mess around with it while I’m singing. If you can get yourself a good sound through anything, that’s fine.
I’m not precious about instruments. It’s funny reading video comments. Some clips have the StingRay, some have the Sire, some have the Yamaha, and people argue about which one sounds better. Every bass sounds good for what it is. I’ve probably played StingRays more than anything else. I had a four-string StingRay for twenty years. Then I got the five-string Yamaha and the StingRay went to hell. I got a five-string StingRay as you see on a lot of the videos and I put a pair of EMG’s in it. It sounded like a hotted-up race car, but I sold it because the neck wasn’t right for me. Then I got the Sire and I like it. What I’m saying is I’m not stuck on one bass. I’m the kind of person that has the same amp for 20 years.
I think that’s a sign of a working bassist. You don’t have time to get hung up on every detail if you’re putting in the work.
You’ve hit the nail on the head. You can pick up a piece of wood with a couple of bits of wire on it and if you can get a sound of out it, [that’s all you need]. I know every bass has its quality about it, but people often say it’s all in the hands. I can dig that.