We find our ladies everywhere on the internet – worldwide. We found Kenya (McGuire Johnson) Kenyamjmusic.com on facebook. Happened in bounce in and there she was in the stream. We looked, we listened and realized that this is real talent. The inspiration that Kenya gives us, besides her music, talent and her lovely voice is that fact that she faced her fears and pursued her dream of doing music full-time. She one of our “sheroes.” Take a read and a listen and enjoy!
“Started singing at the age of 8,” according to your bio. What made you decide to sing and what did you do to get started?
As a child, I was the absolute “pretender” – meaning I often pretended I was an actress or teacher and of course, a singer. My father is a musician (drummer/percussionist) but never pursued it professionally. Music was always encouraged in my household and I simply wanted to be a part of what I was already experiencing as a listener. As a 3rd grader, I began singing in my elementary school plays and joined band by playing the flute. As an adult, I stopped performing after college and didn’t resume until my late 30’s. To get “re-started” I enrolled in a community college music theory course and from there, things simply began to take off musically.
You also play piano. Do you play during your gigs and for your recordings?
When I first got back into performing as an adult, I played the piano for gigs all of the time because I didn’t have a band and was just beginning to meet musicians. I played the keyboard for my first demo and recordings (scratch versions), but once I began working with a producer, I no longer played on recordings, with the exception of my first released EP/CD “Starting Over” where I played on 2 songs (“Who’s Crying Now” and an original song titled “Rest”).
When did you start playing piano and how long do you think it took before you became what you feel is proficient?
I began tinkering on the piano playing by ear when I was 8 years old. I officially began piano lessons when I was 12. I only took lessons for about 2 years and wish I had stayed with it longer formally because I don’t feel as “proficient” as I would like. Now, I mostly use the piano for writing purposes, but occasionally play during a gig to simply let the audience hear me in a different perspective.
You have a nice way of phrasing when you sing and all the scatting that you do is nice. How did you develop your vocal style? Who were your major influences?
I grew up listening to a lot of jazz and since I also played an instrument, I always hear various types of “sounds” and harmonies in my mind. I think that has greatly helped me develop my vocal style. I love dynamics- the quiet points that are still really intense are so special to me and I want my voice to be able to emulate that. Some major influences are Stevie Wonder, Lisa Fischer, Lalah Hathaway, Dianne Reeves, Diane Schuur, and Gretchen Parlato to name a very few!
You’ve recently made the leap to be a full-time musician. It is interesting in that you first obtained a master of arts degree in counseling and student development and became an administrator and educator. You were a working person who flipped the script. What brought you to that decision?
I was extremely restless in my mid-30’s. I think trying to work full time, raise children, being a wife and not attending to my personal passions left me feeling empty. While I truly enjoyed working in higher education with students, I knew that not doing music was leaving me depressed and I was feeling “cloudy,” almost numb. I started counseling trying to find the perfect “remedy” to getting to happy and it was through counseling and a very significant spiritual retreat that ultimately lead me to take the leap of faith and follow my passion. Releasing fear saved me…
You’re married and a mom. Obviously one could not make such a change without the approval of their spouse, but what was it about your dream/career change that made your husband support it?
My husband is an EXTREMELY patient person! I have an artist’s soul; therefore, it is not uncommon for me to be a bit all over the place (smile). But, I believe once he saw me actually performing and nurturing my craft as a musician, he not only saw, but felt my energy shift. He knew I was going through a very difficult period in life prior to returning to music and made it clear that he would support whatever would allow me to feel like my best me.
How are things going now that you’ve become a full-time artist?
I am in complete awe of how wonderful things are going as a full-time artist. I never imagined half of the opportunities I’ve received as a musician. I am performing, recording, and simply developing as an artist. I want to underline that it was a process to me becoming a full-time artist. I didn’t simply quit my full time job one day and declare full-time artist status! Instead, I slowly lessened my professional career as an educator and physical therapist. I kept my spiritual and prayer life nurtured and always told myself, I will know when its time to do music full time. As things became more difficult to juggle within my educational profession, I would lessen my hours. I also had on-going discussions with my husband regarding our budget/expenses and of course, saved money along the way to prepare accordingly.
Tell us what your typical day is like?
My typical day involves me waking up at 6 am and reading a Daily Word message and scripture to simply put my mind in the right space. I then get my kids ready for school (or camp as we start summer) including preparing breakfast, lunch, etc. Once they are out of the house I exercise 45mins-1hr at least 4-5 times/week and then eat breakfast. After I take care of me, I usually hop on the computer and face the world of social media as well as respond to emails and music business. Depending on my performance schedule I will then do rehearsals as necessary. I am trying to incorporate more time spent on practicing vocal technique. I just completed recording a new LP/CD, so for the past several months I’ve also done a ton of writing and traveling for studio recordings. Now that the project is complete, I am in the height of music business mode to prepare for radio airplay, marketing, promo, music releases, etc. I try to get as much music business done during the day so that I am ready for when my kids come home from school/camp. Once they are home, mommy mode is in full effect including homework, after school activities, dinner, etc. I wind the evening down with my husband and occasional social media moments (ugh!). If I have gigs, of course, my evenings are completely different and I have assistance with managing my mom duties. When not performing, I try very hard to be in bed between 10 and 11pm.
What is your goal as a singer, musician and artist?
My ultimate goal is to have my music heard! I simply want audiences nationally and internationally to hear music from my perspective- messages of love, self, spirit…all of those things that we carry in this human journey. If I can provide a new thought or help someone as they push through or towards something by simply listening to my music or if I simply provide a good tune to whistle to, I want to be able to share that experience with others. Also, as an artist, I desire to help and support other artists so that their gifts are shared as well.
Just curious – what is the ipad on your microphone stand for during your performances?
I love my iPad stand! This allows me to have my set list, some lyrics (if necessary) and any other special notes right at my finger tips during a performance. I mostly use my iPad for longer gigs where I have multiple sets and I’m singing a variety of covers. Its basically my music stand.
Knowing that there are other singers who sit while they perform, and with young people who sing – it’s all about “shakin’ your booty while you sing” – tell us why you sit while singing during some of your performances?
Again, music for me is about experiencing a special moment. When I play in small intimate venues, I sit so that I can relate more to the audience. Its about the vocals and the music. I have found that my style is most appealing when my movements are subtle and I’m able to fully get into vocalization. However, bigger venues require more movement due to the size of the crowd. Still, even in those cases I try to make the music experience be about just that…the music!
Describe your future as you would like to see it unfold.
I am embarking on another level within my musical career. I am now working with more musicians (including producers) who have been professional musicians for much longer than myself and are amazing mentors. I see my listening audience increasing and really hope to perform more nationally and internationally.
You’ve rearranged a number of cover tunes (and nicely so!). But, why do that instead of just writing your own songs?
My EP “Jazz Made Rhythm” which is all cover songs, was almost a fluke. Let me explain…during my live performances prior to recording Jazz Made Rhythm, I would perform rearranged covers and after my gigs, many people would ask for recorded versions of the cover re-arrangements and I had nothing to offer. So, as a way to have the recordings available at gigs, I decided to do a recording. We literally finished the project in less than a month. I had no idea it would be so well received! Writing original music is my passion; therefore, my forthcoming full length CD (LP) includes all original songs with the exception of one song. I hope to always include a cover here and there because I love to rearrange music to fit my style. But, original music is what sets an artist apart from the masses.
Do you ask anything of the music that you create and perform?
I simply want to make music vibrant, alive and an experience. I try my best to create and perform music in a way that appeals to a person’s emotions and personal experiences.
What would you like people to come away with after listening to your music and/or watching you perform?
I want people to go on a musical journey. I want them to be able to relate to the lyrics, but also experience the lyrics and the sounds. Music is an incredible art form that appeals to so many senses. If I can simply provide a special moment for the listener, one where they feel as though they matter and they feel alive, I’ve done my job as an artist!
Links for Kenya: