IF YOU'RE hip to today's underground soul movement, then you probably already know about Angela Johnson either through her own work or through her collaborations with Christian Urich, her partner in the dance-R&B; duo Cooly's Hot Box.
She's fierce. Born and raised in Utica, N.Y., Johnson arranges, produces, plays keyboards, the violin. And she writes the songs she sings so urgently. Hers is a clear, strong voice -- reminiscent of a young Jean Carne -- that swoops, plunges and soars. But it never feels as if Johnson is showing off, like she's on American Idol or something.
Her new album, her second release on the independent Purpose label, is Got to Let It Go, in stores this month. It's a grand leap forward from her first solo album, 2002's slightly hesitant They Don't Know.
Of course, I tell her this when I call her one bright morning at her Newark, N.J., home. Her speaking voice sweet and inviting, Johnson is gracious on the phone.
"Well, you know this album is more R&B-oriented;," she says. "The first was more acid jazz and ballads. This is more uplifting and more about my R&B; roots. I wanted to stay true to what I do live."
The easy melodies throughout the record recall the '70s soul Johnson grew up on: Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack. But the uncluttered arrangements of programmed drums and keyboards bring to mind the synthesized sounds of early '80s R&B.; Johnson warms the digital noise and hard beats with live percussion and horns, layering the mix with her multitracked vocals. She sounds like a one-woman EnVogue on "On My Way." Another highlight is "All I Need," a bubbling track with an odd, undulating synth keyboard line.
"That's a song you would probably hear on a Cooly's Hot Box album," says the former violin major at the State University of New York at Purchase. "The song started as a joke. I thought I would give it to another artist. But it fits."
Hate to admit it, but if Johnson were a man, she'd probably be more well-known and revered. The artist is one of few black women in the business (other than perhaps Missy Elliott) who's truly doing it for herself, directing her own musical path. Betty Wright, Angela Winbush and Patrice Rushen did it back in the '70s and '80s -- sang, wrote, played on and produced their own records as well as some for others. In the '80s, Wright even formed her own label, Ms. B. Records, through which she continues to release overlooked albums. Although the sistas have earned a measure of r-e-s-p-e-c-t, they never really have garnered the commercial and critical attention they deserve. Rushen, a multi-instrumentalist with firm roots in jazz and R&B; who's best known for the 1982 dance classic "Forget Me Nots," is one of Johnson's main influences.
"I'm pretty much following her lead," she says. "She laid it down being a multi-instrumentalist. I hope I can add to what she's done."
Although Johnson has yet to break in the United States, she regularly tours Japan and London, where she's played on the radio.
"It's warming up a little here," says the performer, who has a modest cult audience along the East Coast. "It's a shame I have to go so many thousands of miles away to get recognition. The U.K. started early to bring the underground artists to the mainstream over there. Over here, I hear my music on college stations, and I'm grateful. But it reminds me that I have more work to do to get my work out there."
I doubt Got to Let It Go will change her fortunes. It isn't a masterpiece; it lags a bit in the middle. But the CD is still a solid collection of focused, thoughtfully executed songs dealing mostly with matters of the heart. Johnson's breezy, jazz-inflected music seems to reflect a serene, centered woman.
"My husband [Russell Johnson] is also my manager and best friend. We've been married for 12 years," the artist says. You feel her smiling over the phone. "My daughter, Maysa Elon, was born last January. She keeps me working. I have my music and I'm able to make a living. I know I'm blessed."