WMMW featured The Lyrical Life of Lara Part I – introducing our readers to this young gifted Female Artist, her work ethic and business approach. Part II of the Lara Johnston story focuses on her education, influences, touring, songwriting approach and personal take on female artistry in the music business. Enjoy!
By Katharine W. Poole
For Women of Music Music of Women
l though she knew that music was her chosen profession and life long passion, Lara took the college route somewhat to her own surprise. In High School she drifted through the social scene, spending her time perfecting her musical talent. “I wasn’t sure. I was just kind of lonely the whole time – there were great people – but I never really clicked with a group. I felt like a floater. It was kind of a tricky thing for me, because I knew I wanted to go straight into pursuing a music career – but there was something about the college experience that really seemed appealing – the chance to be around other people – this program came up and it seemed like a really great thing to be a part of. It was the first of its kind. It was very, very innovative. That’s what changed my mind.” She is referring to being in the first graduating class of the Popular Music Degree Program at USC’s highly recognized Thornton School of Music. Acclaimed by Rolling Stone as one of the “top 5 cutting edge departments,” and in the top 3 of The Hollywood Reporter’s 2014 list, only usurped by Juilliard and Berklee.
It seems her father’s influence was passed along not only musically, but educationally as well. Tom Johnston went to college, a graphic design major, and clearly has a high respect for learning. Both Lara’s parents wanted her to go to college, but they were supportive either way. Supportive and honest. “They [said] whatever happens. If an opportunity comes up before college absolutely run with it if it’s the right [one.]“ Lara knew she had a lot of growing to do. “When I think about it – I was 17. I was like: I want to make it now! I still had so much development to do. I think they [her parents] knew that too. So they said: It’s up to you. We’re not going to force you, but we’d love for you to have a degree.”
College turned out to be a fruitful experience for Lara on multiple levels – socially, educationally, artistically and professionally. The opportunities were incredible. “From the get I feel like I was really lucky because we had a super small class and we all bonded a lot. This can be such a lonely career choice to pursue and it’s so uncertain – to have something like this in place while I was aspiring and working out my professional goals. To have this structure and these people and these amazing teachers was such a gift.” She instantly felt at home. “…they were just great kids and really talented – we could relate – we’re all kinda goofy.” Goofy and fun, but students with a calling. A true and driven purpose.
Lara is thankful to have achieved many of her career goals early, and she is surprised by the gifts along the way. “I have been able to perform, whether it’s in clubs or opening for another act on a bigger stage. I always knew I would be performing. I knew I would find a way to make it happen. Something I didn’t expect…I’ve been lucky enough to sing with sing backup for [a number of famous musicians.]” Lara is humble in sharing these moments. Yet there are many. The list of veteran artist that Lara has worked with proves she is actively pursued for her incredible talent and professionalism. Among the iconic list are Gregg Allman and Belinda Carlisle of the GoGo’s. “That I didn’t expect. Many [of these experiences] came from my professor at USC – Will Hollis. That’s another reason I’m grateful I went to USC because that led to great opportunities.” Experiences that have helped to mold her style and her technique.
Originally, much of Lara’s own music was pop based, and she loves that genre. “I think a great Pop song is so fun. I definitely still want to chase that Pop sensibility as far as melodies and song structure goes, but also leave room to truly sing.” She continues…“I’m really excited about the new music I’m working on. It’s very much a product of what I’ve grown up loving and what inspires me most. The vibe I’m going for is honest writing and the room to sing with emotion.”
There are undertones and structural hints of Amy Winehouse in some of her more jazz based songs, when asked about this Lara reflects: “I absolutely love her and think she was gifted beyond her years…I never really sang along to Amy growing up, but I think that she was influenced by the same singers that I was.” She references the Jazz background with notes of Etta James…”I love the way she wrote music – these biting honest lyrics amazing soulful soundscapes.” Lara’s true influences come from Soul, Blues, Jazz, Folk and Rock -n- Roll artists. “In shaping my vocal style, the people that I’ve sung along with most have been Aretha, and Dusty Springfield – I went through my Christina Aguilera phase – I think every female singer does – she has the most amazing voice.”
By studying iconic performers from varied genres Lara created her own unique and incredible sound. The education and knowledge she possesses is evident in her writing and performing; with structure and mastery of an artist well beyond her years. “Some of those great standards – you know, Gershwin and Porter – these beautiful songs that are so clever and elegant – inspired me as a writer.” These shaping impacts are evident to the trained ear in songs such as Keep You in My Pocket and Mister Be My Man. Surprisingly both of these songs she wrote in college, and they are brilliant.
When Lara speaks of Mister she lights up. “That one shows the jazz influence, ‘cause I was listening to a lot of jazz music at the time. I want to recut it.” Mister was written and produced as a school project. The elegant video takes you back in time to old Jazz clubs. During her Freshman year in a songwriting class Lara was to write a standard from the 30’s. “I wasn’t sure I was going to record it. A kid that lived in the same dorm building was inspired by it and asked if we could do a video.” The kid’s name was Sherif Higazy, the Executive Creative Director of Nuclear Creative and co-founder of Homage Arts & Production in LA. It’s no wonder the video looks and sounds professionally produced. For Lara college was a part of her career not a pause in it. Therefore the transition to the “real world” was not an issue. She was already a professional working in her chosen field.
Describing her “typical day” Lara tells a familiar singer/songwriter tale. “It depends. I just try to fit in vocal and guitar practice no matter what. If I’m co-writing it’s usually dictated by where the cowriter wants to work. If I’m here [in Nashville], I find that people tend to [say]: ‘Oh, I have a room from this time to this time in the ASCAP building.’ In LA a buddy of mine who I love to write with has a little studio. Sometimes I have people over to my apartment.” Lara chooses to co-write with many other professionals. “There are those sessions where you don’t necessarily click with someone and that’s fine. They could be your best friend. They could be someone you admire musically so much, but for whatever reason that day you just don’t gel – the chemistry isn’t there. And, I’ve had amazing cowriting sessions – where the ideas are flying!” She smiles with inspiring enthusiasm as she shifts – “If it’s a gig day then the schedule is very tight. Work out in the morning, ‘cause I find that that helps open my voice up. Have breakfast. Warm my voice up before the show, definitely. It’s all geared around the show.”
Lara has performed all over the country. “It’s hard to pick a best [experience] because every time you get to play it’s just so fun…” One that stands out for her proves a bit easier to answer – “This summer, I got to perform at the Summer Fest in Milwaukee, in front of a pretty big crowd and I was really nervous because being a new artist, and doing original music that people haven’t heard before – sometimes you don’t know if crowd’s are going to be receptive to it. People want to hear songs they can sing along to [familiar music.]” She stops and thinks aloud: “I should give people more credit than that – not always but in many cases, especially at festivals. But – they were really great and really supportive and with me all the way. It just gives you this magic feeling like you’re ten times taller than you used to be! You feel like you’re full of this crazy energy. It was so fun! [It made me feel like] I just want to do this forever.”
Her most challenging experience performing, no pause no question, is comical in delivery. “When I was 18 I think, I played at Crab Feed.” Yep. Already smells bad. “I’d never really heard of it. I think it was for the Santa Rosa Rotary Club. I’m not saying it was bad – they did a beautiful job putting it together.” She is adamantly genuine. “But – It’s just a weird thing for an eighteen year old to perform at a Crab Feed. Basically they gather all these people in this exhibition hall and there’s just tables and tables of crab…and it smells like crab…” She paints this hysterical picture of the crowd, cracking crab legs as she is trying to sing above the din. “I mean it wasn’t terribly unpleasant, but I just remember standing up there thinking: Why am I playing at a Crab Feed?” Kind of like trying to play a Writers Round at a Sports Bar during The Super Bowl.
Lara’s family life and career have taken her all over the world. She is well versed in the music business from the joy and the trials to the work and the play. Though she loves her LA community it is a bit spread out unlike the closeness of Nashville. Her love of this town and professional goals are making her a member of the Music City scene – she is a most welcomed and notable addition.
“I think that female artists are celebrated in Nashville in that there’s an amazing network here of really strong female artists. Not only that, there’s a sense of friendship and kinship that that they show each other. It’s something I’ve been absolutely knocked out by every time I’ve been here, just how kind and genuine women artists are to each other.” The culture of women artists inviting each other to sit in, attending each others gigs and collaborating is a refreshing idea to Lara. “It’s such a positivity. Very unique. I’ve never felt that anywhere else. I love it. It just makes you feel great. I think that as a woman in the business there’s a lot of competition and it can get very catty at times, especially places like LA – not that it’s always that way – but [it’s] definitely not like it is here – where you feel a support. That’s a beautiful thing.”