September 7th, 2010
After a four-year child-rearing hiatus, singer is still Canada’s country darling
With 16 Canadian Country Music Awards already lined up on her mantle, Carolyn Dawn Johnson’s current nomination for Female Artist of the Year — a title she’s won four times since 2001 — should come as no shock to her fans.
Or maybe it should, considering that Johnson, who is originally from Grande Prairie, has been on a professional hiatus since 2007.
For nearly four years, she’s been preoccupied with raising her two children in Nashville while plotting her eventual public comeback from her home studio.
Johnson worked all through last winter while she was pregnant with her second, and when baby Bennett was born a couple of weeks early back in February, her newest album, Love Rules, wasn’t quite finished.
“It was the hardest record I’ve ever made. There were times when I loathed it, times when I wanted to walk away,” Johnson admits. “I just didn’t get it done in time. When my son was born I wanted to be with him … but (the album) was still hanging over me.”
She felt tremendous pressure to keep producing, to make sure she wasn’t out of the spotlight for too long.
That pressure, she acknowledges, came mostly from within.
Seeing so many of the fresh-faced female contemporaries out in the country music scene — like Crystal Shawanda, who’s also up for Female Artist of the Year — Johnson started to feel that if she didn’t get back into the ring soon, she might fade away entirely. Despite the challenges she faced making the album, the final product is something she’s proud of.
“It’s my favourite record, I think. And I’m trying to figure out if it’s because it’s fresh and new or if it’s because I’ve grown and this music speaks to me in another way.”
Johnson’s musical career goes back to the late 1990s. In 1997, she took her dreams of a “big-time” music career and moved to Nashville, where her songwriting talents were picked up by producers of Jo Dee Messina, Patty Loveless and Chely Wright. Following the success of her co-written hit, Single White Female, recorded by Wright in 1999, Johnson started singing backup vocals for Martina McBride while working on her debut album, Room With A View. It was released to great acclaim in 2001.
Until 2007, Johnson relentlessly toured with the likes of Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire, and later Keith Urban. Three albums later, she’s now producing her own work, and enjoys mentoring younger musicians, especially fellow Canadians who find their way to Nashville.
This year’s recognition did come as a slight surprise to Johnson, who released Love Rules a couple of weeks after the nominations were announced this summer. It was almost like the entire industry simply opened its arms to say “welcome back.”
“It’s such an amazing feeling to have that validation, to have your peers say ‘we like what you’re doing.’ ”
The first single from the album, Let Me Introduce Myself, brought Johnson’s name back onto the charts a few weeks prior to the album release this summer.
“That song is kind of saying this is the girl you’ve always known. I’ve gone through some stuff. I’ve probably changed a little bit, but I’m still me.
“I still like to get out onstage and lose myself in the music.”
Of course, motherhood has changed her outlook somewhat, particularly in how intensely she feels about things.
It’s around this point — during an interview at Churchill Square — that a gaggle of toddlers slowly tiptoe past her, all cutely leashed together and flanked by two babysitters. Johnson grins and waves at them, halting mid-sentence.
“How precious is that?” she coos. “Since I’ve had kids it’s so strange, I’m much more emotional. Maybe it’s still hormones running. I just feel more than I ever thought was possible. Like I could look at something like those kids and I feel like crying.”
For all the challenges she’s facing, such as putting her band back together to go on tour and finally getting back onstage (she plays St. Albert’s Arden Theatre on Oct. 8), Johnson reflects on her time away with no regrets.
“It was definitely worth it. I’m excited to come back out. As long as I can still have a career in music, I don’t think I’ve passed any sort of window. Country music is a little more forgiving that way.