Romina Johnson: ‘Your art should be the focus, without a doubt, before anything else.’

Hazel Brown grabbed a coffee and a chat with singer-songwriter Romina Johnson. Romina has been working in music, performing with her father Wess Johnson, since she was just 13. Some may remember her from Movin’ Too Fast / Artful Dodger fame. She discussed her success to date, her new project Heartbeat and how she feels the industry has developed over the last 20 years.

You broke into the UK charts back in 2000 with the track Movin’ Too Fast. I remember listening to that tune as a teenager! It’s interesting that the lyrics are still really relevant – modern music can sometimes be so derogatory towards women.

I didn’t write the lyrics, but it’s a song that I wrote with my uncle in Italy. It combined my chorus and his verses. I think he wrote it from an uncle/niece perspective. It was recorded in Italy as part of my first album. When I came to London we were looking for people to remix it and Artful Dodger picked up the song.

How’s your career progressed over the years?

I recorded two more albums and a few singles from dance to RnB, so I kept my audience wide. I was coming from a singles market having released Movin’ Too Fast with the guys and at that time I was trying to be an album artist. I was doing different styles of music and I think people got confused on where to place me. I kept on doing what felt natural and what I liked regardless of the genre of music.

The last album that I released was in 2009 on my own label. I produced it as well. When I had a breakthrough into the scene, in the early 2000s, it was easier to get a deal and work with record companies. Nowadays the biggest record companies grab the small ones and they all merge together. Everything is online – all the distribution – which is good and bad. There’s so much out there, there’s no filter and it’s quite difficult to identify and know what’s going on.

I’ve always promoted the songs, did my PAs in clubs and performed live. At some point I started performing live with other artists as well.

I think the best thing is to do your live shows and sell records to the audience. With the internet you have some kind of control but it’s easier for artists who are already established to get the attention. That’s the way it is and you’ve got to find your way through it.

So you self-released your last album?

I self-released my album Soul River. I released another single called Heartbeat a few months ago through my label J&J Music Productions. I wrote it and play a little bit of piano. I produced it with the help of my partner and got a sound engineer to mix it. I’m totally in control of my art at the moment.

Can you tell me a bit more about Heartbeat? In the ‘making of…’ video you mention that the song is inspired by your father and you talk about your pregnancy. One of the lyrics that stood out was ‘you are my inspiration, my reason why.’

My father was my inspiration to become a singer. I used to watch him when I was little and he inspired me so much throughout my life. When he passed away I was living in London and I felt that I didn’t really have a chance to express the way I felt about him and how much he meant to me. I was raised in Rome and he was mostly successful there when I was little. Even in Italy, I felt like I didn’t really have the chance to say anything – I felt like I kept everything inside all those years. I wanted to let that go and I had a chance to put my feelings into that song. In the lyrics I talk about how, two months after my father passed away, I was pregnant with my son and felt that the life connection continued with him.

It’s obviously a very meaningful song…

It’s very meaningful, it’s very emotional. I don’t want it to be sad because life is life and we all have loss in life. There was a happy ending to that in a way because of my son.

How much influence has your father, Wess Johnson, had on your music career? He sold 12 million copies of his music throughout his career which is pretty phenomenal.

He’s always there as my inspiration to say ‘never give up and believe in what you do.’ Music is really tough but believe in yourself and just keep going – that’s how he was throughout his whole career. His strength was performing live and I think I always kept that in mind and tried to have that strength in my career as well. At the end of the day, as many records that go out, you have to be in front of people and deliver, be the person that you are and sing. When you deliver to people, people just feel it and it’s all in there. It has to come from the truth. You can’t lie.

Is live performance what you most enjoy?

It’s what I enjoy the most – being on the road, picking up a mic and just singing for the people. I love performing with a live band, creating my own music and trying to put it out there.

You performed quite a lot with your father when you were younger…

I toured with him on and off from when I was 13 to 17 and then I was working on TV shows in Italy. In my early years, I also worked as a dancer for three years. I was also writing my own music. When I was in Italy I did a lot of TV shows with an orchestra as a backing singer, as a dancer, all kinds of stuff. I’ve always been in the entertainment field. I’ve never quite had the chance to act which is something I’d really love to do.

You’ve also toured with Odyssey and Alexander O’Neal. How have you found touring with other artists?

It’s great but from a creative perspective it can be a little bit frustrating. That said, I’m the kind of person that can respect other artists and I know my boundaries. I know if I’m doing something for them I have to respect their vision and be there to support them. At some point I felt like it was time for me to work on my own music, express myself and go out there by myself a little bit more.

What’s your proudest moment to date?

I’m quite happy at the moment because I feel like I’m in control of my art. For me to produce Heartbeat was a big achievement and it’s been brilliant to have it played on the radio. It’s nice when you put something down, it comes from home, you finish it and you see people’s reactions.

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What about your weirdest moment in your career?

I think my weirdest moment was back in the days when I was just starting touring with my father. I was so emotional I almost peed before I went on stage. It was embarrassing. I remember feeling a few drops and was like: ‘Oh no!’ I must have been about 13 so I was really young.

How did you cope with that?

Moments on stage when the sound goes away or the mic goes away – when something really embarrassing happens – you just have to be prepared. You have to stand there and just keep going and keep smiling and pretend that nothing happened. Don’t panic about something you have no control over.

Have you come across any big challenges within your career?

In the beginning I didn’t really understand the business side very well, but I had to learn the hard way and I finally know and understand more. Once you’re in control, and you understand, you can make better decisions.

Any particular areas?

When you’re young you can end up signing contracts that are ridiculous… It’s all, ‘you’re going to get this percentage of that’ and other people control what’s what, so sometimes you see it and sometimes you don’t. Unfortunately a lot of people that are not artist, the executives, end up making more money than you and it’s hard to control that.

Do you feel that the industry has changed much over the last 20 years?

The model has changed, but the mentality is still the same – very controlling. TV talent shows give people the impression that somebody else can make you. They have everything set up, but to think that a team of people or somebody else can make you I don’t think is the right mentality. What they are portraying to the youth is not quite right.

The reality is you have to recognise that someone has a talent – something to say, a personality. Artists have to go out there – play in clubs, write their own music. I’m not saying that’s it’s not a possibility for you to go through a TV show. If you’re willing to do that and survive and then after that want to carry on and make a name for yourself then it’s great because by then you have the exposure, but there’s a chance that the executives own everything as soon as you get there. It depends what you sign, what you don’t sign.

There’s nothing wrong with getting exposure on TV or a judge telling you what they’re thinking, but it’s the machine that is behind it.

What do you think can be done to move away from manufactured TV reality pop stars or do you think it’s always going to be that way?

It’s our responsibility to have a brain and a heart and to think for ourselves. It always starts from you. Your art should be the focus, without a doubt, before anything else. The music and what you want to communicate should be real and then with that there is always a marketing strategy behind it. You have to identify what that is for you.

What else have you got coming up?

I’m working on finishing and releasing my new album and from the spring will be trying to get out there and perform it.

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