Meet Kristi Johnston. Tough, diamond-hard, vulnerable and joyful. A prairie rocker with heart, soul and a brand-new take on the blues.
A chance meeting in Winnipeg between a veteran guitanst and a young 18-year-old sparked a career that, only now, is moving into high gear.
Now 27, and with a brand new debut album on the Stony Plain label, Kristi Johnston remembers the day she became an "obsessive" guitarist as clearly as if it was yesterday. "I'd met this guy, and he said he was going to be playing the following week, so I said I'd go see him," she says now.
"His name was Terry B. Moore, and he led a local blues band called The Dirty Senders. And he was playing on a float (the back of a flatbed truck) in the annual FollcLorama Parade. It just blew me away. And I decided, then and there, that I was going to play the guitar."
In fact, Kristi explains, she'd never really heard the instrument before. "Sure, I was listening to music. The Jackson Five and other teenybopper stuff. Then I liked Aerosmith and Pink Floyd, just the overall sound. I never heard a guitar solo and said 'Wow!' Not until I saw Terry on the back of that float!"
Still in high school, where she just wanted to "get the credits and get out", she was stunned by what she heard. "Terry was a wild player, and I remember thinking 'what is that? That's not a voice, but it's so amazingly expressive."
TWO MONTHS TO LEARN TO PLAY
Within days, she'd bought a guitar, and inside two months, she was playing well enough to convince her this was going to be her life. "I became obsessive about it. I was listening to Little Charlie and the Nightcats, getting Pat Martino instructional tapes, listening to Ronnie Earl. I was learning jazz lines and blues changes. Then I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan and his brother, and they were amazing."
"And I discovered Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters and the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Wolf. I'm listening to Robert Johnson, Louisiana Red, and Lightning Hopkins, I really liked him. Most of all, I'm hanging around local guitarists, and picking up ideas and tips from them. I'm learning to play, and I'm practicing all the time, and I'm really getting somewhere with it."
A year later, Terry Moore called her again. His guitar player had quit, and just before a big gig at Winnipeg's West End Cultural Centre. Could she learn 10 tunes, if he sent her a tape, and be ready to play the date? She agreed, instantly; she knew she was ready.
And thus began a five-year on-the-road career with Moore's band. Mostly, the band kept out of the mainstream centres, playing in small towns in the interior of British Columbia, well under the radar of the music industry. "It was a good experience; I got to play a lot of solos, but I knew not to show off and l learned how feeling the music was the most important part of what I did. Best of all, we worked all the time. The guys and I all got along, and we were stars in Castlegar and Nelson and Williams Lake, and that was good enough - we didn't have to battle our way through big gigs in big cities. Sometimes we'd put on our own dances in smaller towns, and we would make huge money.
"And for me it was best of times; I was always playing."
ALWAYS PLAYING: THE MOST IMPORTANT THING
"Always playing" is the most important thing for Kristi. Three years ago this May she was back in Winnipeg, and her first band played its first gig. "The new record was coming out almost exactly three years to the day since the first gig at the Blue Note, May 10, 1996," she tells people, adding: "And, boy, have we ever come a million miles since!"
Kristi's demands for her band, currently working as a three-piece with Nenad (Kaza) Zdjelar on bass and George Demeduk on drums, are considerable. "Before that first gig, I rehearsed with the drummer alone for two months. Since then we've gone through some players, five bass players alone. I wanted professional people who'd be able to work with my music, handle some weird arrangements, yet come up with their own ideas."
Soon the band was working in any Winnipeg club that would have them, and there was no shortage. Even now she and the band work at least three times a week in the city, with a regular Wednesday night packed-house spot at the Bella Vista, it's a gig she's had for over a year.
"We're changing the songs all the time, and I know people who drive from one end of town to the other to hear us, so I figure we're doing something right," she says. It may well be the songs, which as likely as not she makes up while she's driving. "Songs seem to come to me in the car, words and music together, and then I drive home and figure out how to play 'em on the guitar."
Translating them onto her Stony Plain debut wasn't hard. With producer Rick Fenton behind the board, and a handful of friends in the studio (including harmonica ace Gord Kidder), the music rocked out over a four-day period.
The songs are very much reflective of their writer, and they also refiect the city she lives in. There's a rock edge, and something of Winnipeg's rock tradition, in the music. These are the blues taken to extremes - tough, diamond-hard, occasionally vulnerableС and sometimes surprisingly joyful.
Exactly like Winnipeg. Exactly like Kristi Johnston.
Now wait till the rest of Canada and the world discover her.
© STONY PLAIN Recording Co. Ltd.