..Eugene Melino..

The Joy of Johanna

[Watch Johanna's video.]

Long limbed and swan necked like a prima ballerina, she rules the stage like an old-time Gospel singer three times her size. When you see her perform, you feel joyous for no reason other than the sheer force of her voice and rhythm.

Going to Extremes
As part of her tour to promote her new album, "I'm Not Perfect," New York City-based singer/songwriter Johanna Stahley performs at indie venues throughout the country. (I saw her most recently at "The Knitting Factory" in NYC's Tribeca.) Full of distinctive melodies, sweet harmonies and danceable rhythms, the album's accessibility camouflages the songwriter's depth. In its songs, we meet a young woman experiencing life in all of its contradictory glory.

In the first two cuts, dreamy self-affirmation mixes with unapologetic confession. The title song, "I'm Not Perfect" was "inspired by admitting my faults and idiosyncrasies to my lover, my producers in the studio, my boss in the wedding band I was fired from, and myself," says Johanna. "I played it for my grandmother before she died and she said 'That's great. You know why? Because everyone feels that way.'"

At the opposite extreme, "I Can," the album's first cut, exudes defiant self-confidence. "This song was originally based on a dream I had where I was overcoming all these crazy obstacles -- just with the power of my mind. And I started thinking, 'I Can' write a good song, 'I Can' have a successful career as a singer and songwriter, 'I Can' deal with the death of my grandmother, 'I Can' handle all the changes that are leading me to where I want to go!"

The album also offers songs of love found and love lost. She wrote "Nothing I Would Change" when she was "at the beginning of a relationship when I was happy with him, but not the circumstances of the rest of my life." And the next cut is "Right Here," which Johanna co-wrote with Joe Kacz, her ex-fiancé and band mate from her former band, SpredHaus. "It's about two lives going in different directions." Through it all, the one constant is change, and she embraces it. In "Monday Morning," she sings of leaving her demons in the past and living in the here and now, even if now falls on a Monday morning. No more waiting for the weekend for life to begin. "Change is usually painful," says Johanna. "So I guess what I write is meant to keep me going for it."

Fusion Energy
Like her music, her life is characterized by things that don't seem to go together, at least not on the surface. "As much as music runs in my family, math and science run even deeper," she says. After graduating with a BA in science, Johanna worked for a while as a researcher for Johnson & Johnson. But even as a student, music held first claim. "I spent a lot of time in college starting bands," she recalls. "I even quit school once to move to Pennsylvania so I could play music all the time." She adds, "That didn't really work out, though."

Her life began from a fusion of opposites. She describes her parents as "Catholic hippies," who raised their daughter on the counter-culture music of their time. "They listened to Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, Harry Nielson, The Allman Brothers, Crosby Stills and Nash along with a heck of a lot of church music. I liked it all until I was a teen. And then I got into the whole 'Grunge' thing, which really was just louder hippies for the 90s."

Despite her foray into Grunge rebellion, it's the folk-rock sound of her parents' generation that colors her own songwriting. "Their music was melody driven with great harmonies, and that's what I seem to write. We had this album called 'The Point' by Harry Neilson, and me and my brother and sister used to sing it note for note, harmonies and instrumentations. To this day, we still do. I thought I was rebelling with Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but it's really my parents' generation's music that I look to for inspiration now."

Back to the Future
Like most inherited gifts, the show biz gene skipped a generation in Johanna's family and landed right on her. "My grandmother, Ronnie Constantino, was a wonderful singer and performer. I saw her perform at a wedding when I was a kid, and she just had that spark. She had the chance to sing professionally but chose instead to marry and raise six children, the oldest of which was my mother."

Her grandmother died of lung cancer just as Johanna was finishing "I'm not Perfect." Says Johanna, "I feel she is helping to guide me now."

While a singer in the great rock and roll tradition, the faith and spirituality of her parents continues to influence her as much as their music does. Their community "was a bunch of young Catholics doing it their own way," she recalls. As a teen, Johanna sang alto in her church's choir, where her uncle served as organist and choirmaster.

"I think music is a way to get closer to God," says Johanna. "I think of those goose-bumpy moments when the harmony is just right or it's the top of the song. It just feels divine!"

To catch the joy of Johanna, check out her schedule and purchase a copy of her album by visiting her on the Web at www.johannastahley.com.

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Other stories by Mr. Melino: "Kristina Con Vita: Going it Alone Together," "Mel Flannery: A Movable Feast," and "Erin and Her Cello: Making Us Laugh All By Her Lonesome."