I’m going to say what everyone is thinking. Denise Johnson was and is one of the most underrated female vocalist to come out of Manchester. The likes of Lisa Stansfield and Rowetta may have received their acclaim, rightly so for being 2 creative and vocally gifted artists to come out of the northern quarters. However Johnson never seemingly received the same adulation. Maybe the limelight wasn’t something she overly craved, however the natural gift of her angelic soul voice should have given her much more attention than she received in her life time. Sadly it’s the case with many artists when they departs this moral sphere the plaudits and praise all come readily in wave upon wave and so it will be with the release of Johnsons debut solo album Where Does It Go released via Adassa records on October 2nd.
The album is firmly a Manchester affair with it recorded in Hope Mill studios in Ancoats with her long-time collaborator Thomas Twenlow, the pair have made a 7 track album of stripped down, beautiful acoustic tracks mixing covers that meant something personal to Johnson plus some of her own compositions, the finished results are a remarkable lasting reminder from this goddess of soul. Opening with the well-known upbeat electro New Order anthem True Faith. Instead of the busy clattering of keyboards, bass and drums, the delicate beginnings of acoustic guitar mixed with that unforgettable voice of Johnsons make you take a double take and draw breath as the tune gradually builds itself to a lofty musical height that is often lost with multiple layers of unnecessary additional instruments, luckily Johnson and Twenlow haven’t read the complication manual, rather they’ve centred their attention on the solo acoustic appeal of Nick Drake, Jodi Mitchell and John Martyn. To clarify, True Faith is an adorable opening track.
Having received approval from 10CC, something that overly please Johnson, her cover of another all-time classic track in the guise of I’m Not In Love, the lamenting song regarding love and the complications that come from being in love, Johnson yet again delivers a heart-warming vocal set to make the heart race. It’s evident how personal these recordings actually are, what the bare minimal instrumentation used plus the production isn’t overly complicated these recordings simply show off each of the personnel for their naturally gifted talent, no gimmicks are needed here.
The first of Johnsons original songs Nothing You Can Do. Lyrically powerful, with Johnsons emphatic powerhouse vocal proclaiming to a distant ‘there’s nothing you can do, to make me come your way’, the multi layering of vocals on this track is striking. The next 3 tracks are further evidence of making her own songs written by those that Johnson has admired enough to give inclusion on her debut long player. One of her favourite writers Simon Aldred of Cherry Ghost has their track Evangeline given the acoustic treatment here. Whilst the track once again oozes the instinctive gift of Johnson, its the 3 minutes 21, mark on the track where Johnson really shines with an extraordinary vocal.
There is some stunning footage of Johnson singing up on a fully lit stage, Johnson centre stage, in Manchester in 2006 where she played Mary in the BBC’s live staging of The Manchester Passion. Stand out performances were her version of Oasis Cast No Shadow plus Ellie Greenwich’s Sunshine After The Rain, something that Johnson embraced so much she wanted it included here and it fits perfectly, it’s a powerful sounding folk number and you can imagine Johnsons vocal echoing over the heads of an enthralled Mancunian audience.
What would an album by a Manchester artist be without some reference to The Smiths. That oft cited influential quartet fronted by the quiffed Morrissey, aided by the genius guitar player Johnny Marr with Rouke and Joyce pulling up the rear brought much joy in the 80’s their audiences and so it would seem to Johnson who covers Well I Wonder from the number one album Meat Is Murder. You instantly hear that familiar Smiths chord structure tucked away in the back of this version, yet again Johnsons vocals sparkles and shines, there’s a depth and intensely impressive expertise to her vocal that I’m sure even Moz nod his approval of this version on show. The final curtain on the record is another self-penned number Steal Me Easy which follows in the same enchanted and subtle attraction that attributed John Martyn and The Faces worldwide praise for their delicate acoustic folk. Johnson can be heard singing ‘I feel I’m ready to go on’, she has certainly gone on, but to new planets, the sweet organ and country slide guitar add another unexpected dimension to this grand album.
Some might see this as a closing chapter on Denise Johnsons life, I don’t, I see it as an exciting road map for further exploration into her musical life. So I would suggest after listening to this exceptional new album that you spend so time exploring her work whether it be with Primal Scream, Electronic, A Certain Ratio or her first steps onto record with Fifth of Heaven or simply play this album again. Denise Johnson, a soul singing legend, a lovely person and now a stunning solo artist. Thanks D for your ever present enthusiasm and never forgotten talent.
Limited vinyl & CD will only be available from Piccadilly Records