The Genuine Article: Kale Johnson Sings True Life with a Full Heart

It’s the kind of voice you don’t expect, the kind you’re blown away by, when you pull back and say, “What just happened?” Kale Johnson’s voice comes out of the blue and is simultaneously two things: powerful and self-possessed.

His new single “Be Still My Heart” shows he has the chops to be an icon of vocalistic style. The song plays like an instant classic. His humor and phrasing are matched by a flawless tone and a most obvious love of the art form.

Johnson will release a new single every other month for a total of six fresh tracks. “Be Still” joins its predecessor “On Top of the World” where he swings just as hard and the syncopation is a gentle tease.

When did you realize you wanted to be a musician?

In my junior year of high school when I heard the album “Stardust” by Willie Nelson, a collection of the singer’s favorite jazz standards. Hearing Willie Nelson play the chord voicings and melodic licks to a song like “Blue Skies” was a musical revelation. I’d never heard anything like it before; the musical nature of jazz to me was so new at the time because all I had listened to before was pop music or rap on the radio.

I remember saying to myself, “I’ve got to learn how to play guitar like that.” So that day right after school I went straight home and picked up my brother’s Fender Dreadnought guitar and I haven’t put down a guitar since. 

What do you count as your first public performance?

My junior year of high school. It was prom season and a couple of my friends, Ravi Tesh (a West Sacramento rapper) and Bostin (EDM Beatmaker) ran a local TV show produced at the high school that ran weekly. For some reason, I thought it would be a great idea to perform a song for my girlfriend at the time for the prom special they were doing. I reached out to my friends and before I knew it I was there in the studio with my guitar getting ready to sing. The song I had decided to sing was called “Moment of Forever” by Kris Kristofferson; a great love song I knew was the right choice the moment I heard it.

There was an interview beforehand of subjects I wasn’t even conscious of because I was so nervous about the upcoming performance. I’d only been playing guitar for three weeks! I still don’t know how I was able to do it, quite frankly. I got up to the mic and opened my mouth and out came the music. The song only had about three chords but at that point in my guitar skills it was a steady commitment to just get all of those right. After the three or so minutes of the song, I took one final strum of the guitar and heard everyone in the studio applauding and I knew at that exact moment music was something that I wanted to do with my life.

Why voice?

The reason I chose voice was because I recognized that it was the one thing that was going to make me stand out musically. In the humblest regards, I can play jazz guitar pretty well; at a recording level or in a performing band, but there’s always going to be somebody better. There’s always going to be better musicians than you for any instrument. The only true thing that’s unique in my opinion is the voice God gave me; every one of us receives one unique voice and you have to use it if it works. Somebody can train and practice to be the best guitarist, pianist or drummer etc., but with singing you’ve either got it or you don’t. You can’t train “feel” or “phrasing.” Just because you’ve got perfect pitch doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to move an audience. 

What were some of the biggest takeaways in your music education?

That music is so complex and beautiful when done right. My parents set me up as a kid doing classical piano lessons and I truly believe that stimulated a musical aspiration within me. Although I didn’t continue with classical piano, it helped me learn to respect and understand that music has to be treated with a sense of integrity and authenticity; only giving it 50% of effort or taking shortcuts is disrespectful to the art form. Whatever genre an artist decides to do, I believe they have to put their life and soul into it; it has to become a part of you and an extension of you in order to be created in its peak form.

I remember as a young teenager playing guitar along with my grandma, Peggy Tilley, a well-known musician and teacher from Merced, CA, who just sadly passed away in 2020; yet the hours I spent with her playing and talking about songs and their compositions and all the theory behind it are treasures I’ll never forget. According to my grandpa, the last song she had been playing before she passed was up on the piano sheet music stand called “Right Through My Heart;” the first real song I’d ever written. She was and is the biggest musical teacher I’ve had in my life and I’m thankful for the time I was able to spend and learn from her. 

Talk about why you were drawn to the Bel Canto approach?

The intimacy and authenticity of it. There was such a power behind it yet a subtle, sentimental nature to it as well.

The first singer I ever heard who really used it was Frank Sinatra and just like hearing “Stardust” by Willie Nelson, it was a musical revelation for me. The way Sinatra is able to express a song is like nothing that will ever be heard again; especially his more melancholy records such as “The Point Of No Return” and “Bang! Bang! My Baby Shot Me Down”. Naturally I started finding more singers who sang in this style such as Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Robert Goulet, etc. and I started to practice the basic principle of it.

Essentially the style of singing requires you to hold in your breath while you exhale creating a full, well-rounded, sustained sound. I was amazed at how much my voice improved just from taking this approach when I first started doing it. Not only does it healthily use your vocal cords in the proper way, it allows for greater range and depth. As a baritone singer, I could hit both high notes and low notes equally with a greater sense of ease; phrasing each lyric in the way I wanted it to come out emotionally. It’s always the emotion of the song I’m trying to express; above myself and everything else. If I don’t do that, I fail as the singer. 

There must be inevitable comparisons to very famous singers. How would you characterize your voice?

Naturally a lot of folks immediately think of the old school crooning era, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin, etc… but surprisingly no comparisons have come such as “oh you sound exactly like so and so” which I consider a good thing. I’ve always wanted to create my own legacy as an artist with my own songs and individual style to be remembered like all the great artists did before me. To me that’s the greatest accomplishment as an artist, to be known for your own unique voice and sound, which I hope to continue creating and establishing as an original jazz artist.

My purpose in singing is to convey the feeling or emotion. If it’s a sad song, my goal is to reminisce with you of that romance that went wrong or if it’s a swinging tune, my goal is to have you tapping your feet or snapping your fingers. I approach each song like an actor would a play and ask myself “What is this song really about?” and through that I can convey my own emotions to hopefully make a relatable experience for the audience listening.

I think there’s been a lot of male jazz singers who adopt a “Sinatra” persona with the big band setup and I think that’s all fine but to me it was never appealing; that’s why I stick to a smaller intimate nightclub style setup. It’s something that’s different; I personally love the sound of it and I can still swing hard or croon out a sad song either way. Not to say I won’t be doing big band in the future; I’d love to!

How did this single come about; how long in the making and what were the highlights of production?

This upcoming single is the second of my six upcoming singles which will be coming out every other month going forward. My previous single “On Top of The World” was released two months ago. This new single was released on May 28th. The process behind this single takes about a month’s time in total. Songwriting can take between one day to one week while arrangements only take about one day to do. With COVID limiting studio accessibility, I’ve performed the rhythm guitar, lead guitar, bass and piano on all the tracks so far with the only instrument being outsourced is the drums. I like to make sure everything is absolutely perfect audio-wise and then I’ll go in and record the vocals for a song in two to three takes max; rarely any more than that unless I hear a bit of audio distortion or feel as if I was off in a spot.

For the production of “Be Still My Heart,” I’d say the arrangement I created for the song was the highlight for me. I challenged myself to make the song more intriguing than songs I’ve arranged in the past and I hope I was able to succeed with this one !

What inspired “Be Still My Heart”?

The inspiration behind “Be Still My Heart” tells the story of the inner conversation all of us have with our heart whenever we begin to fall in love with someone. We try to tell ourselves to not fall too fast and remember all the times whenever we were left brokenhearted. Nevertheless, the heart will do what the heart wants to do and the finale of the song concludes with the ever so true line, “I guess it’s true what people say, romance just can’t stay away.” I write my songs all in a classic style; where it’s more about the relatability than making it complex and vague. There has to be a certain level of depth and substance for me when writing a song. I ask myself with every song I write: how will this stand up musically a hundred years from now?

What were your experiences in lockdown for practicing and rehearsing?

Lockdown was a good wake-up period for me musically. I had been putting off doing a singles campaign and challenging myself instrumentally which all changed with the shutdowns. For a lot of artists, it caused a lack of motivation, but for me it was the opposite. I really got a burst of energy from it which was a welcome surprise. I was able to devote all of my time and energy to my music. Lockdown made me practice my craft on guitar and piano much more often than I had before as well as recording and songwriting

What are your plans going forward?

Now that “Be Still My Heart” has been released, I am starting the recording process of my next single coming out in July but as for shows, I’m hoping to book some in the northern California area this summer permitting state regulations such as in Chico and Redding. Yet I’m banking on the fact that live shows will be back in full swing by fall so there will be gigs in the southern California area where I’ll be living. I’m looking forward to hearing back from the venues regarding new show policies and whenever they give me the green light I’ll be booking them as fast as I can and getting out to play. 

For more information visit https://officialkalejohnson.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

(c) 2021 Debbie Burke

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