We had the good fortune of connecting with Michelle Johnson and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Michelle, what role has risk played in your life or career?
The willingness to ask for things I may not get is the biggest risk-taking skill I have had to overcome. As babies or kids we don’t even think about asking for or going for what we want. Then somewhere along the way, we unlearn that skill and replace our need to thrive with an intense fear of risk. Suddenly the word “no” is a bad word that is best avoided at all costs. Not avoiding that word is what separates wishers from doers. As cliché as it sounds, you have to play to win. I didn’t always think this way. I used to run from risk. Years ago I had a long-standing dream to perform a solo show at a nationally known, premiere performing arts center in Las Vegas, but my deep fear of rejection kept me from reaching out and sending a simple inquiry email to begin the quest. Just an email.
Performing at this venue was very high on my bucket list, and I even had the connections and relationships to pursue it, but I avoided sending that email for five years. Five. Years. When I finally took the risk, I got an answer within hours and have now become a regular featured performer at this venue. I vowed to never waste time like that again. When I look back at how I got here, I can clearly see my evolution from being a risk-averse person to one who actually thrives on well-thought-out risk-taking, acting on faith, and betting on myself. Despite my educational background, I risked going into music instead of law (sorry parents!) and I have never regretted it. I risked getting married a second time, even though I was emotionally scarred from the premature death of my first husband. The healing and the joy in my second marriage are literally transformative. I risked time and money to make a music video of my original song, even though I am far from twenty-something and my music does not fit into a cookie-cutter mold. I expected to get about 100 views, but it has over 24,000 views now. Every really good thing I have is the result of a risk. In fact, the risk of being rejected is baked into the life of every entertainer. What you do with that fact determines your success. You can hide from it or use it as fuel to kick ass.
The woman I am today chooses the latter, even when I am terrified inside. It is a rush like no other, and it repeats itself with every walk onto the stage, every premiere of a new song or show, and really every time someone asks “What you do?” and you respond with “I’m a singer.” Today I have learned to crave the seemingly unattainable, to be willing to risk failure or setbacks, to push myself beyond what people see on the surface, and to go big or go home. After years of playing it safe or conforming to what others want from or expect of me, I have learned to pursue things that I had always been told (or had assumed) were bigger than me, beyond my capabilities, dangerous, too difficult, and riddled with the possibility of failure. I approach things in a practical manner, but if there is no risk involved in a venture, I rarely find the process to be rewarding. Some people like the path of least resistance, but I thrive on the resistance that makes me better.
Every leader, mentor or trailblazer I respect, admire, and follow found success in life by being willing to take risks at some point. If I am to follow in their footsteps, I have to emulate their courage and bolster my own. That’s what up!
What sets you apart from others? What are you most excited about and proud of?
I am most proud of my songwriting, and its impact on those who experience it. I believe in empowering others by paying it forward and sharing what life has taught me. I am in the middle of recording my first album, and I decided to do it after years of singing backups for or appearing with everyone else from Gladys Knight and Sheena Easton to Elton John (on a recording) and Paul McCartney (live at the Hollywood Bowl). The first single and video is for my song about circling back to the lessons your inner child taught you. The title of that song is “I’m All In” and the title basically says it all … I have decided to invest completely in my music, and I am excited about some great things that are on the horizon as a result of that decision. It is NEVER too late to pursue your passion, and a true creative has no choice. The muse will always beckon you, so you might as well surrender. I am also very passionate about working with and mentoring female entertainers who are navigating what is still a male-dominated industry.
To that end, I am developing workshops and a book about the pitfalls of this industry, best practices and so on. There are many ways to have a career, and I love teaching creatives how to value themselves and craft their stories. The “rules” we think we should follow are not real. I like to blow things up and start from scratch, so I can get down to the raw elements of what makes someone who they are as a creative. The artistic and personal freedom that comes from doing this work is intoxicating and so rewarding, both for me and for those I mentor. What sets me apart from other singer songwriters is my background, and the way my musical and cultural influences have impacted my brand.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I grew up overseas as the child of a Liberian diplomat and an American educator. I went to American overseas schools, but by the time I was 18 I had lived in or visited over 10 countries and learned to speak several languages. My high school graduation was held in front of the Giza Pyramids in Cairo, Egypt. I’d say that would be a starting point for what makes me unique in my business. I have a global perspective when it comes to music and artist development. People often try to put me in a box, but they can’t find one that works. I love that! My music is influenced by Carole King, Ella Fitzgerald, Edith Piaf, Tina Turner, Umm Kulthum (Egyptian legend), Etta James, Jobim, Steely Dan, Roberta Flack and countless artists from Egypt, France, the UK, Brazil …. It all bleeds through.
I started singing at age 3 and sang all through school. It was always “a thing” for me. I graduated from Yale University, but I did not go the lawyer or doctor route. Instead, I began my music career by working for a law firm by day and singing in clubs by night. Then I fell into session work for major artists. After my first gig as a backup singer for a touring artist, I was hooked! I have always been kind of a nerd and touring really brought out my organizational and leadership skills. I ended up being a section leader, tour manager, travel coordinator, and so on in various settings, and over time people kept telling me that I was a “left brain – right brain balanced person.” Eventually I moved to Las Vegas, where on top of performing, I became an event producer and entertainment coordinator for fortune 500 companies, TV, award shows, etc. It just comes naturally to me. My company is called Diva Las Vegas Productions and we do events all over the world, even virtually since the Covid pandemic hit. I love pulling things together and watching others thrive. Behind the scenes is my jam, even though I also love to perform, so now you can find me singing the National Anthem in an arena or performing my own shows with a symphony one day and wearing a headset while calling music and video cues for a corporate event or supplying a choir for a major artist’s tour the next day. I love all of it.
The biggest lesson I have learned in this business (and in life in general) is that you must know yourself and ignore the external influences that keep you from believing that you are capable of whatever it is you are trying to do in this lifetime. If I had known how meaningless all of the outside chatter was when I was 18, the road to today would have been much easier. In fact, when people ask me if clearing hurdles throughout my career up to now has been easy, I always answer “Not at the time.” When you are in the thick of something new or challenging, it never feels easy, and sometimes it is completely overwhelming. Losing a spouse to Cancer and letting my mental and physical health and my career decline while I grieved was not easy. In fact it was crushing. Coming back to life and thriving as a songwriter was empowering. Learning how to stay healthy while traveling was challenging. Now, I have a routine and don’t even think about it.
Being one of only a few black female producers in Las Vegas has been challenging, but now I let hurdles and obstacles propel me into knocking down stereotypes and landing contracts with hotels and venues, securing funding, and garnering respect among my peers. Finding my own voice in an industry that says you must be under 25, pencil thin, and half naked to be relevant has always been hard, and gaining traction when you don’t fit a specific mold (“black girls don’t sing like that”) is even harder, but I have found my place anyway, and along the way have discovered that are so many people just like me. They have something to say and a unique way of saying it.
One of my songs includes the line “It takes every voice to make this world a whole.” I am here for it. I believe in staying open and listening for what the universe is holding in the hearts of artists. There is so much gold out there. If you tune out the chatter that does not serve you and open your heart and mind to your muse and to the gifts others, you will find true happiness. Whether it’s the stories I tell and the songs I sing on stage, or the production work I do for others, I think my willingness to take risks helps me to bring authenticity, vulnerability, and humor to the table, while challenging others to do the same. I am a believer in human resilience.
I am a believer in every soul having a purpose, and all of my creative efforts (song writing, mentoring, teaching, leading) are geared towards helping people connect with the best version of themselves. I am not a cookie-cutter artist, and that is truly liberating. My mission in life is to help others to experience and know that kind of freedom. This is what makes me happy.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Well, I am in Vegas so that list could get REALLY long! I would for sure stop at the breath-taking Bellagio fountains at night … it is my favorite tourist spot in town. I never grow tired of it. Maybe some high-end shopping and people watching at the Forum Shops in Caesar’s Palace, and then a ride to downtown Las Vegas so I could give them a tour of the stunningly gorgeous Smith Center for the Performing Arts. I am blessed to have performed there often in their intimate cabaret space, Myron’s Cabaret Jazz. The whole place is a must see. Speaking of downtown, we would run over to “old Vegas” and grab a drink while standing under the canopy of lights that make up the “Fremont Street Experience.” The next morning we could go to Blueberry Hill for breakfast, and then take a ride out to the Red Rock mountains … So beautiful and serene only minutes from the Strip. Do I sound like an ad yet? Ha ha ha! I like locals places. I am into old Vegas, and I love old famous food joints like the Bootlegger and the Italian American Club. We are talking about Rat Pack hangouts. The actual Rat Pack! This town is amazing.
After dinner, I would take them to the Dispensary Lounge which is my favorite little jazz club off the beaten path in Vegas. No, it is not a pot dispensary! It is a 24/7 venue featuring world class jazz musicians and singers. Wynton Marsalis has stopped by to sit in, as have other jazz musicians who like to have a place to go after their gigs. After all that running around I would check into Canyon Ranch Spa at the Venetian and just chill. I love the vibe there. Next I would have to bring them into a recording studio to see what I do. (It is my favorite place to be.)
Lastly, I would take them to my house for a home cooked meal. If I have learned anything during all of this quarantining it is that I really like being home. Las Vegas is a bright light, fast paced city, until you drive for about 20 minutes, in any given direction. Then it’s just suburbs, schools, restaurants, and grocery stores. Everyone knows everyone in a weird sort of way. We are really just a small town dressed in a big city costume of neon. Oh and our grocery stores do have slot machines in them … so yeah, we are different here. I have walked the aisles of Walmart at 4 am in full lashes and a gown because I had to go pick up an item after a gig. No one bats an eye. It’s fabulous. You can be anyone you want here, and you can start over and redefine yourself. Maybe that’s why it stuck with me … I feel a new song coming on!
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I want to give a shoutout to Carole King. She is the biggest influence on my songwriting, and her album Tapestry has inspired so many. I remember memorizing every note and lyric as a little girl, and I now do a tribute concert to the whole album. So powerful. I love that she has been so active and written SO many great songs over all of these years. Her ability to write songs with universal themes and iconic melodies blows me away. She is such a force and always will be. I also want to give a shout out to Jane Monheit. Jane is a fantastic jazz singer and friend who has shown me that taking ownership of one’s career is incredibly freeing. Watching the way she embraces her image and brand while also supporting so many other aspiring or working singers and musicians is so incredible. She is accessible and kind and she turned the whole cookie-cutter model of how to have a career in music on its head. I love that she makes time to give advice and encouragement to others, and I love her gift. A brief conversation with her transformed the way I see myself as a female entertainer and as an artist in general. That conversation turned into a deep and long lasting friendship, and I will always be grateful to her for my lightbulb moment. Finally, I want to give a shout out to the great ladies of song that paved the way for me and others … Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Lena Horne …. These women hold a special place in my heart.
Edward Foster, Ira Kuzma, Jake Klein, John Falbo, Steven Purifoy, Ish Bermudez