Singer | Songwriter | Voices of Our City Co-founder
San Diego singer-songwriter Steph Johnson was in the midst of a successful musical career, racking up awards and making albums that showcased her blend of jazz, soul, rock and blues.
But it wasn’t until 2016 that she found what she calls “my purpose in this life:” That’s when she co-founded San Diego’s Voices of Our City choir, an ensemble that features unsheltered people. Since its founding, the group has grown to more than 225 voices and has helped more than 60 of its members get into housing.
The choir has made national waves as well: It was a semifinalist last year on the TV show “America’s Got Talent,” has been featured in a PBS documentary and has performed with the San Diego Symphony.
Johnson will talk about her musical journey at 3 p.m. Sunday, February 14 as the guest in the Corvallis Repertory Singers’ “Maestro Moments” series of live online conversations. The conversation will be led by Steven Zielke, the artistic director of the Corvallis Repertory Singers and the director of choral studies at Oregon State University.
The session, to be held via Zoom, is free, but registration is required. Click here to register. After registering, guests will receive a confirmation email containing details about joining the meeting.
To offer a little more background before Sunday’s session, we emailed Johnson a list of questions, giving her a chance to elaborate on topics ranging from misconceptions surrounding homelessness and how her work with the choir helped to shape the recording of “So in Love,” her 2020 collection of jazz standards and favorite ballots.
Question: You’ve had a 20-year career in music, so you’re not a neophyte. But what did you have to learn about leading a chorus as Voices of Our City started?
Steph Johnson: First, we learned how to create a welcoming space for each person who walked through the door. Many of our singers hadn’t eaten, they needed drinking water, safety, a restroom, an outlet to charge their phone – so perfecting a vocal, or jumping into technical stuff, was not the most important piece in our coming together. As we focused on creating an environment full of joy and ease, our choir members relaxed into their voice. We chose songs that were fun, popular hits that our singers remembered: soul music by artists like Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers, and Stevie Wonder became the soundtrack to our weekly rehearsals. As time went on, we assigned parts and worked on harmony – but that was almost secondary to our coming together to breathe, to listen, to receive the healing benefits of the music. The professional musician in me had to learn how to let go and simply allow our rehearsals and performances to be what whatever they were going to be in that moment.
Question: What’s the one misconception about people who are unsheltered that bugs you the most?
Johnson: Unaffordable housing, non-livable wages, health issues, job loss, trauma, poverty, etc. are just a few examples of what may cause a person to become homeless. The Americanized definition of a successful life does not leave much room for individual healing or recovery. The assumption that an unsheltered person you see living on the street did something to be there is one founded in a lack of empathy and understanding.
There is also often the assumption that a person who is homeless is addicted to drugs. I have met many of my unsheltered neighbors who do not struggle with addiction at all. When I do encounter individuals struggling with substance dependencies, I recognize it as a self-medicated approach to living their life. (Also, I know a lot of people who own homes and cope with life by drinking lots of wine. Just saying… 🙂
The Voices of Our City Choir mission is to change the experience and perception of homelessness through music. Our unsheltered singers live a most challenging existence, while enduring a constant cycle of ticketing and criminalizing for simply being — which of course prevents any real progress from taking place. The power of empathy, compassion, community, access to resources and housing will build a bridge to recovery from homelessness—nothing else.
Question: What’s next for the choir after that run on “America’s Got Talent?”
Johnson: We are working on our songbook and developing the material for a full-length album. We offer a myriad of music workshops, one of which is songwriting. My goal this year is to develop these original songs with our singers and record their creations to share with the world.
Question: You put your musical career on hold to focus on your work with the choir. Last year, you released your fifth album, “So in Love.” Do you think your work with the choir shaped the process of making “So in Love?”
Johnson: I love this question! Yes, it did! With the choir I found my purpose in this life and that is an incredible feeling. I know, and live, in joy — I feel more in touch with who I truly am because of the choir. The songs on my album are all songs that bring up ease, joy, and love for me. The experience of making my album was a dream come true – working with pianist Josh Nelson, guitarist Anthony Wilson, trumpeter/flugelhornist Chris Lawrence, drummer Richard Sellers and my husband, bassist Rob Thorsen, was like an ease sandwich. Ha-ha. I mean, I have worked in many projects, writing and slinging my guitar at many (many) gigs. All the things that I have worked for in my life led up to the moment of making one of my greatest recordings to date. “So in Love” is how I feel, overwhelmingly grateful to be alive, to have purpose and to have the support to live a life of service.
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