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WIMC Feature: Molly Johnson on Songwriting as a Radical Act of Observation

Published: 14 novembre 2023

On the track “Notown” from Molly Johnson’s first project (the heralded art rock outfit Alta Moda), she wonders out loud if anyone else remembers the “stories untold.” Eventually, she  concludes that posing the question “seems like an old song.” Now, with a nearly 40 year career in the rearview, Johnson is still energized by the potential of sharing the stories she has yet to write. The Juno Award-winning jazz vocalist and officer of the Order of Canada dives into how she negotiates the sacrifices at the heart of music making, and what nourishes her approach to songwriting. 

As-told-to Melissa Vincent. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How have your priorities as an artist shifted over time? 

“I've always wanted to write songs. My priorities have not shifted over time. I grew with my music and my audience grew with me. Since my punk days that has always been a goal. I've always been a ‘finger on the pulse’ kind of a girl, so politics and worldviews often find themselves in my music. I'm an incredible eavesdropper. If I'm sitting behind you on the streetcar, and you're talking too loudly on your phone, that conversation may end up in one of my songs. Artists hold a mirror up for people to look at and see themselves. I don't necessarily write about me. I actually write about you.

I've been doing this for many, many years and I've never had a hit record. The motivation is not there. It's within me. If it's the best I can do with that song, under those particular circumstances, then I'm happy with it. If you've got stuff to say, if you've got stories to tell, then there's a platform for you. 

I don't write necessarily about me. I actually write about you.

Q: What advice do you have for artists figuring out how to reconcile the financial volatility of working as a musician with an increasingly pinched economic reality? 

Art is not supposed to be easy. If it was easy everyone would do it. If you're in the music business to be a star, and to make lots of money, you're actually in the wrong business, because her chances are extremely slim. If that's your motivation, you could very well live a life of disappointment. 

If your motivation is to create great relationships in music and with music, that doesn't have a price tag on it. Some of the greatest artists in the world were stone broke when they died. My accountant has said to my children on numerous occasions, ‘your mother is worth more to you dead than alive.’ 

I've never made a lot of money. I've always been a little bit broke. As a young musician, I was a waitress. I cleaned bar bathrooms. I've always had to do other things, as I did my music. I’ve kept my art very separate from what paid my bills.

Art is not supposed to be easy. If it was easy everyone would do it.

Q: How has your experience with motherhood woven its way into how you approach your craft?

Many times when my kids were little I had to make a choice between them and going on the road. My favorite story was from Diana Ross's kids. Their idea of their mother wasn’t the superstar in a sequined gown. It was the girl at the stove flipping pancakes in a bathrobe. When I was really young, maybe when I had one baby at that time, I thought to myself, ‘that's the mom I want to be.’

I think the women's movement over the last 30 years has given women voice, whether it's engineering and producing, or playing instruments. I also see more and more women taking ownership and writing their own songs. The feminist movement has given women a choice. That's what we have now. “


Molly Johnson's most recent full-length album, It’s A Snow Globe World, is now available on vinyl. You can catch her performing with the  Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall in December. 


Recognized as one of Canada’s greatest voices, jazz vocalist Molly Johnson is a mother, singer-songwriter, artist, and philanthropist. Throughout her career, she has captivated audiences both in Canada and Europe with her original pieces and interpretations of jazz standards. Not surprisingly, Molly is a laureate of multiple notable awards, including two JUNO awards, the Governor General Award, the Order of Canada, and the Chevalier Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Outside her own musical endeavours, Molly is also an avid supporter and patron of the arts. As the founding artistic director of Toronto's Kensington Market Jazz Festival, she has introduced hundreds of performers and in her own words built a “local jazz festival that reflects the cultural depth” of the immediate musical community.