Interview: Johanna and the Dusty Floor

(photo by Jessie Sara English)
(photo by Jessie Sara English)

Johanna and the Dusty Floor

by David Chiu

New York-based singer Johanna Cranitch has a jazz music background, but you really couldn’t detect that upon listening to her new album, Northern Lights, under the moniker Johanna and the Dusty Floor. The sound on Cranitch’s record seems to draw inspiration from the likes of Kate Bush for its poetic and atmospheric feel. (Not surprisingly, Cranitch also covers Bush’s classic song “Cloudbusting.”) Accompanied by Cranitch’s soulfully wistful and yearning voice, the songs on Northern Lights possess sound quite dreamy (“Heavy Heart,” the very New Wave-ish “Please Don’t Go”) with a dash of subtle tension (the title track). Somewhat of a departure from the current flash and spectacle nature of music these days, Northern Lights strikes a successful balance between art rock and melodic pop.

It seems that Cranitch was destined to be where she is now as far as music is concerned. Hailing from Sydney, she was born to an Irish/Australian pianist-father and a Hungarian mother. Later, Cranitch studied jazz at the Australian Institute of Music and then arrived to New York with the goal of becoming a recording engineer. Last year she released her EP The Forest—in a review, PopMatters says about the recording: “There’s also a certain vibe to the songs on this album that recalls Christine McVie, not just in songwriting style, but in that Cranitch shares a seemingly deep Contralto vocal range with the Fleetwood Mac singer at times.”

With the release of the full-length coming up later this month, Johanna and the Dusty Floor will perform two New York City shows, first at The Living Room on May 5, and then Rockwood Music Hall on May 24. NewBeats had a chance to talk with Cranitch about how she got started in music, the new album and her arrival to New York.

Your new record is very lush, poetic and soulful.  How does it feel to have your first full-length album under your belt?

It feels quite amazing really. I worked so hard this past two years and wrote so many songs. Cutting it down to 11 was the hardest part for sure. I think for any artist really, finishing an album and having product that is tangible, is really one of the biggest achievements of this whole process.

How would you describe Northern Lights in terms of a thematic or conceptual thread?

The songs for me, are all about losing and gaining something. I moved all over the place when I wrote this record. And because I was all over the place, it was all recorded all over the place. The boyfriend I told you about in Sydney who was an engineer? well I ended up recording at his studio with him and his wife for a few tracks. It is kind of a funny full circle. I was quite lost during that time. felt quite displaced and confused and there were a lot of major things changing for me. I think this record is about that more than anything.

What informs your songwriting: personal experience, storytelling/imagination, or a little bit of both. And do you have a particular favorite track on the new record and if so, which one and why?

Definitely both. I have a vivid imagination. Always have and I still read fairy tales and watch Labyrinth for inspiration. I think my favorite track would have to be “Forest Of Sorrows.” It was the first song I wrote that was this “sound” I had just driven my car across the country from New York to live in Los Angeles and I was so scared I had made the wrong decision.

What and who were some of your musical influences growing up?

My musical influence as a child was sort of a mish-mash. I grew up on opera, as my parents were very active in the classical community. I worked in the Opera Children’s Chorus when I was 11.  My father however, also played a lot of Genesis, Fleetwood Mac, Kate Bush and Wham!,  so I was and still am very influenced by those artists who were popular in the 80’s (and still are) My mother started me in Kodaly classes when I was very, very young (like maybe 2?). It is a Hungarian method of early childhood music education that, funnily enough, I have just completed a course in. I think with all of this musical support at such an early age, it just snowballed from there. All my education following those early years was geared towards music. I simply have always done it, and always will. It’s not really something I do, it is something I truly am.

I read that you studied jazz at the Australian Institute of Music. What jazz styles and artists do you like?

Oh yeah, I was obsessed! My parents tried (and failed) to have me take piano lessons when I was quite young. My sister was very mechanical and disciplined so when they saw how good she was, they thought “take her Johanna to Alexa’s teacher.” Hugh was a very kind older man from Africa who loved to teach children except me. I was unruly and I refused to practice and I was loud and obnoxious. One day, he got fed up, and sent me outside the classroom to just wait for my mother. I was singing outside and he heard me. That was when he discovered I could sing.

From the time I was about 8 till I was 22 or so… he came every week on a Monday night, to sing with me. He played hymns and fold songs… and I sang. During this time, my sister got sick and died. I stopped singing and refused to even look at him. Yet, he still came every week no matter how much I swore at him… he still came. He started playing gospel songs and Billie holiday hits “God Bless the Child” [and] “Summertime.” In essence, he brought me back to life with his persistence. If he had given up on me, I am not sure I would be doing this today.

That spurred my love for jazz music and from then, I only sang jazz songs. I went to the institute because all the amazing musicians in Sydney were all teaching there. I had an amazing Ensemble teacher called Jeremy Sawkins who introduced me to Joni Mitchell and Charles Mingus’ album Mingus and I was off on Joni then. All Joni.. All the time. It was Ella, Nina and Joni for a long time.

What drew you to New York City—what do you like about the city and does being here somehow influence your music in some respect? What do you like about being in the Big Apple?

I finished my degree and was singing a lot around town with my Jazz band, but I was a little bored with it all. I had a boyfriend at the time who was a recording engineer and I would hangout with him a lot in the studio making music. I thought “I can do that, that looks like fun,” so I decided and within a few months, packed myself up and went to New York  and embarked on becoming an engineer.

I knew no one and had a very miserable first year. I was listening to a ton of Blossom Dearie, Annie Ross and John Pizzarelli at the time and saw that they were all recorded at this place “Nola recording.” I thought “I’ll get a job there.. how hard could it be?” I went up there one day… asked for a job, they refused me… and I just didn’t leave. I stayed all day and night getting coffee and answering the phone whether they let me or not. And then the rest is history. I was there for about four years as an assistant engineer and studio manager. I recorded Sesame Street, Liza Minnelli, Annie Ross, Bette Midler, Hank Jones and so, so many other amazing people. It was the best four years and the worst. my bosses rode me very hard and I cried a lot. But as my boss Jim Czar said, “It’s character building.”

How did you come up with the moniker Johanna and the Dusty Floor?

Ha! I wish there was an interesting story. My ex-husband came up with it because my apartment was ridden with dust bunnies. I just couldn’t get rid of the dust.

What has been the most interesting highlight/experience so far in your musical career—perhaps a gig, recording the album, etc.?

Accidentally deleting one of Hank Jones’ final takes at the studio I worked at (I will never do that again) and yes, recording my record. The people, the support… it was the most creative experience I have ever had.

So what’s coming up for you later in the year following the release of the album? Tours, local gigs?

I just want to play out more outside of New York. I would love to tour and also, I have about 70 new songs, so another record/EP? I guess we’ll see….

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