BY Cady Kuzmich
Clifton Park — Former Clifton Park resident and Shenendehowa graduate Laura Johnson of the band Sorrow Estate plans to release her first full-length, 10 song album in May. Of all the things that set Johnson apart from other artists, perhaps what stands out most initially is this: she’s still in college and is coming up with the funding without help from a record label.
Johnson, 21, is a junior at Houghton College where she is majoring in writing and communications with a minor in music. With this album, Johnson joins “a select group of students in the college’s 133-year history to independently release a full album of music,” according to a press release from Houghton College.
Band members include Laura Johnson’s younger brother James Johnson on bass, Marc LeGrand on lead guitar, Chelsea Lee on vocals and piano, and Shehan Rodrigo on drums. Johnson, LeGrand, Lee and Rodrigo are all students at the Greatbatch School of Music at Houghton College.
Johnson began putting the album together in September when she shared some of her songs with a friend and asked for help choosing which to record as a demo. The next month, she got a group of studio musicians together to record three songs with her. In November, they decided to extend the project to a full length album.
Johnson said she was inspired by her friend Patrick Grace, who released an album of original music last year. “Patrick and I became friends the year we both started writing songs so his decision to put out an album last year was very exciting and encouraging to me. In a way it sort of sparked this whole thing,” said Johnson.
While Johnson said her art originated as a way to express and “unriddle” herself, she said the intention of her art has grown along with her and has transformed into an effort to create space for more empathy in the world. She explained, “I believe that the world can always use more empathy because empathy begets kindness, kindness begets love, and love is what makes this whole thing worth anything.”
Throughout her years at Shenendehowa, Johnson took advantage of nearly every musical extracurricular the school offered. She was part of Vocal Jazz for two years, acted in musicals each year, sang in various ensembles and took part in the Poetry Out Loud competitions. Johnson played “Belle” in Beauty and the Beast her senior year. Her love of musicals remains — she will be playing Madame Giry in Houghton College’s performance of Phantom of the Opera this year.
A family held together by music
Johnson has three brothers — two older and one younger. Her younger brother acted in both Beauty in the Beast at Shenendehowa and in Phantom of the Opera in Houghton, with Johnson. “Music is something that ties us all together,” she said. All four siblings sing and play instruments. They also expose one another to music they might not have listened to on their own. “ I’ve been into vocal jazz and spoken word (lots of Ella Fitzgerald and Levi the Poet), Paul likes rap and indie rock (Alt-J), Matt listens to acoustic music, pop punk, and metal, and lately James has been into acid jazz and the work of John Whitaker.” She added, “We love to share and compare our music tastes. I’ve definitely been influenced by them when it comes to what I listen to and write. We’ve all ended up with rather eccentric taste because of it.”
Johnson’s parents are the music directors of Grace Chapel of Clifton Park. “They’ve been the worship leaders of every church we’ve ever been to,” said Johnson. She grew up listening to her parents harmonizing. Her dad, a tenor, plays guitar and sings with her mom, an alto. They met in a Christian singing group that Johnson said traveled the United States and Europe.
“I’ve never experience life without music,” explained Johnson. She said she listened to her parents harmonize so many times that she was able to fill in the third part, completing the chord, by age 10. “Whenever my dad unexpectedly needed a band member for the worship team we would fill in. That’s how all of the boys learned their instruments. Dad would be short a bass player, hand James a bass, show him three notes, say “You got this!” and start rehearsal,” she said.
When Johnson was seven years old, she and her father sang a song together at Okte Elementary School. He wrote the song before she was born. Johnson said she was so shy at the time she’s barely audible in the recording her mother took. “It’s a bit ironic now since performance is a huge aspect of music. But for me music is more about connecting with people and building bridges than it is about holding the attention of a room,” she said.
Johnson had no formal training, beyond what was offered in school, but said “Singing was as natural as being a sister and a daughter. ”
Unriddling herself and the world around her
One song Johnson holds particularly close to heart is The Widow, a song inspired by the sudden loss of Shen students Chris Stewart and Deanna Rivers after they were struck by a drunk driver in 2012. The tragedy shook the Shen community back in 2012, when Johnson was a senior. “It’s just one of those things that should not have happened. We were all devastated,” said Johnson. Despite feeling sad for the victim’s families and the community as a whole, Johnson said she “felt something that resembled guilt– since I didn’t know either of them well.” She said her grief felt misplaced and formless.
“It was a very confusing time emotionally for a lot of us,” she said. Johnson couldn’t write for months but the first song she did write after the accident was called Plainsmen which she said was too painful to finish. “I think their lives will always feel unfinished to me, so I can’t finish the song,” she said.
“Months later though I took the emotion and confusion of that time and that song and re-imagined it in the character of a widow. The song is important to me because she embodies the grief I felt I didn’t have the right to feel,” she explained. The song is from the perspective of a young woman who lost her husband in war and “is struggling to find reconciliation between the goodness of her experiences up until that point and her bewilderment that a life can stop without warning or explanation.” The song has loud moments but cuts off abruptly in the middle of a measure in the end. This was intentional. Johnson hopes that her listeners will connect with the widow’s feelings of loss when the song ends suddenly.
Last year she spent a semester studying abroad in Tanzania. “Every day after class I would go down to the Little Ruaha River and sit on the rocks singing and writing songs.” What she missed most about home was making music with her family. “On the hardest nights I listened to old recordings of my parents singing worship songs and sang along, singing my part. I need music to experience life fully,” she said.
Upon returning from Tanzania, Johnson took a journalism internship in Indianapolis. “I came from a place I’d never been to, where I knew no one, and went through the culture shock of re-entering the States to a place that was almost as foreign to me. I wasn’t 3000 miles away from my home with no phone or Internet, but still it was a strange city and a difficult journalism position that provided challenging work.” Johnson said the experience forced her to define her identity.
One of Johnson’s favorite personal performances was at a Houghton variety show last month when she sang, “I Will Always Love You.” Johnson said she was nervous since it was the most challenging song she had ever attempted in public, but felt more confident with her band behind her. “At the key change the whole place stood up and cheered,” she said. The moment reminded Johnson of a time she “ran behind a flock of geese, scaring them into flight — a big black mass of teeming, honking wings. (Not to compare people to geese but it was just so so so odd.) Their energy and warmth pressing into me so suddenly, making me believe that if I just kept running I’d be able to soar, too.”
Q&A with Laura Johnson
Q: What other musicians (or artists in general) do you draw inspiration from?
A: For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver, On The Road by Jack Kerouac (as well as his journals which I find invigorating), The Lady of Shallot- both the Waterhouse painting and Tennyson’s poem, Idiot Verse by Keaton Henson, anything of Conor Oberst’s, but especially Laura Laurent, Lua, and Poison Oak, Correspondence: A Fiction by Levi the Poet, If You Feel Too Much by Jamie Tworkowski, Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold which gave me the framework with which to understand love, Psalm 19 & Psalm 69.
Q: What is your favorite book?
A: My favorite book is generally the last one I’ve read (I love to love things) which in this case is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. But the two last truly great novels I’ve read which I would place in my top five of all time was The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and On The Road by Jack Kerouac. I love these works because they are one part madness, two parts genius, and three parts non-fiction. I am attracted by autobiographical work because I value transparency. Something else I like about those two works is that the authors are intentional with their syntax and story. Good art is honest and intentional.
Q: Do you have a favorite spot in Clifton Park?
A: My favorite spot in Clifton Park is the Stoney Creek Reservoir. When I am home I drive past it at least once on Englemore Road going real slow if no ones behind me. I used to watch the sunrise there some mornings. It’s the only place in Clifton Park where the sky opens upward. Around here trees, hills, and buildings often block the horizon. I like the limitlessness of a lateral sky.
Q: What’s your fondest memory in Clifton Park?
A: My fondest memory of Clifton Park is the Fourth of July Celebration at the Commons. Every year we sit in the same spot. We invite the same families and friends (along with plenty of new ones). We cook food, play frisbee, and bring out the guitars to play songs together. From ages 12 to 18 I took part in the Clifton Park Winterfest singing competitions. For the first couple years I placed second, the rest I placed first which meant I got to sing the national anthem on the Fourth of July from the stage. My last year of competing I lost to James who placed first! Beat out by my baby brother!! We ended up singing it together anyway. I harmonized.
Q: Do you have any plans for a tour?
A: I would love to tour and I do plan on playing wherever I end up. I’m hoping to spend next semester in LA studying film so if that pans out I’ll be playing in the LA area as much as I have time for. It’s important to me that I finish my degree before thinking about really touring, but after I graduate I’m game for whatever opportunities I am blessed with.
Q: Where does the name The Sorrow Estate come from?
A:The name comes from a Bright Eyes song titled “Laura Laurent”. The first line of the song reads, “Laura are you still living there in your estate of sorrows?” The song is basically one broken, sad person talking to another sad, broken person and encouraging them to hope. It ends with a line “you shouldn’t never be embarrassed by your trouble with singing. ‘Cause it’s the ones with the sorest throats, Laura, who have done the most singing” I’ve spent a lot of my life embarrassed by my struggles. Trying to hide my depression, my anxiety, trying to seem a certain way, but over the past year I’ve slowly received clarity that I’m just broken. In that last line Conor, from his own sorrow estate, reaches out and comfort this character Laura who dwells, alone, in hers. Arguably, he is only able to because of his condition.