Singer/songwriter Stephanie Anne Johnson is proudly Tacoma-born and bred, and there’s something about her songs and voice that reflect that, in the best possible way.
In contrast to the airs of pretense that its sibling to the North—Seattle—often puts on, Tacoma’s a scrappier, more blue-collar, and much less pretentious place. Tacomans have no problem keeping it real. And that genuineness is all over Take This Love, Johnson’s incredibly assured, one-of-a-kind new album with her ace backing band, The Hidogs. There are elements of comfortable familiarity embedded in Take This Love, but it’s what Johnson and her cronies do with that familiarity that makes the end result special.
In case you’ve had pop culture blinders on for most of the decade, you’ll likely recognize Stephanie Anne Johnson as a Top Twenty finalist on season 5 of the reality show juggernaut that is The Voice. That TV star turn put her incredible versatility on full display. But for several years she’s eschewed the kind of grandiose pop normally associated with reality-show vocal virtuosos, and written and recorded original material that’s as unaffected and unique as the town she calls home.
On the face of it, Take This Love is a great Americana record sung and played with a winning combination of skill and engaging looseness. The most resonant element of the record, not surprisingly, is Johnson’s voice. And it’s a unique instrument. If ever someone’s singing has earned the label of Americana soul, it’s Johnson’s.
Those pipes are as remarkable for what she doesn’t do with them, as they are for what she does do. Singers with raw talent are rare enough; Johnson’s ability to match her firepower with nuance and plainspoken purity sets her apart. And happily, most of her original material is more than equal to that singular voice.
Take This Love navigates a classic, can’t-miss pathway through love, romance, and heartbreak, so as such it’s very much a mood-and-vibe record. Like any good Americana album, many of the songs are built on an acoustic foundation. Here, that’s layered on by The Hidogs’ instrumentation—a mix that establishes a groove as lived-in and genuine as a favorite worn denim jacket.
“Never No More,” Take This Love‘s opening cut, sets the romantic-roots tone. The song follows Johnson as she ruminates on a fleeting but memorable encounter with a charismatic drifter of a lover. It pulses with a vagabond spirit that reflects the object of its protagonist’s desire (“I was looking for a moment of distraction/in the tangle of these sheets”), thanks to drummer Ivan Gunderson’s shuffling drums, Jesse Turcotte’s easy-walking bass, and some tasty pedal steel courtesy of veteran player Dan Tyack.
There’s no denying the almost telepathic rapport Johnson and The Hidogs share on Take This Love, and it gives the record an impressive, sustained consistency. Johnson’s voice (lyrically and literally) provides the entry point. She’s supremely confident yet disarmingly vulnerable on “Talk to Me,” her singing effortlessly gliding and trembling to parallel the well of conflicting emotions she’s experiencing. And the sense of yearning she displays in the wonderful folk/rockabilly number “Whisper” is charmingly contrasted by her sass and swagger.
Throughout the record, Johnson deploys her voice with the kind of maturity and control you almost don’t notice until you’ve listened to Take This Love more than once. I’m utterly smitten with her singing on “Not a Day Goes By,” where she somehow grafts Aretha Franklin-worthy soul belting with unadorned, angelic folkiness. Meantime, the title track sees her combining girl-group coolness with gospel exultance to thrilling effect, as her singing and Tyack’s pedal steel get gloriously hot and bothered.
Amidst some stiff competition, the two cuts on Take This Love with the deepest impact turn out to be the most dusky ones. Johnson and the Hidogs cut a whopping 23 songs in two days for the sessions (11 made it to the final album), so it’s no surprise that “2am,” with its wonderful last-call wistfulness, sure feels like it was laid down at that wee hour—right down to the wearily gorgeous high notes Johnson wrings out at the end.
But the stone classic on Take This Love (to these ears, at least) is “I Want You,” a smoky ballad that boasts Johnson’s most chills-inducing singing and a Tyack solo that’ll melt your heart. It’s a seamless marriage of Patsy Cline melancholy and stripped-down soul, with ebbs and flows that’ll turn you into a mass of goosebumps. Best of all, it’s delivered with a raw, emotional directness that doesn’t just capture the romantic spirit of Stephanie Anne Johnson: It also reflects—in characteristically honest fashion—the ragged-but-right ambience of the town that’s helped define her.
Take This Love drops today on American Standard Time Records (you can order here); and Stephanie and The Hidogs play the Clock-Out Lounge tomorrow night, Friday December 6, with the Betsy Olson Band and Intisaar providing support. Tickets are available here.