With the sad news today that Suzi Fray has died, we're sharing our interview with her from earlier in the year so you can read about her rollicking ride with The Johnnys and what the gay community meant to her, in her own words.
This piece first appeared on GayNZ.com in February 2015.
The flash of inspiration for forming an all-girl Johnny Cash band came to Suzi Fray like lightning. âIf I believed in god, I would say the idea came from god. It was this lightning bolt straight out of the blue and I thought âshit this could workâ. And it does.â
Indeed it does work. Nelson-based three-piece The Johhnys are creating buzz wherever they play, from gay festivals to wool sheds.
Theyâve even been given the seal approval of from Johnny Cashâs own daughter.
It is a magic concept. One which captures peopleâs imaginations: the worldâs first and only all-girl, all Johnny Cash Band.
Suzi Fray, who provides the bandâs vocals, guitar, ukulele and melodica, came up with the idea three and a half years ago. In fact, she feels she was more like a âvehicleâ for it.
âIt was this kind of bizarre thing, to come out of the blue.â
Sheâd spent quarter of a century trying to make a living as a musician, and had just decided to leave her job in radio to see what happened.
âI was sitting in a studio one day and this idea just suddenly came of an all-female Johnny Cash band. Just out of the blue. And I thought, god, thatâs a good idea.â
She started spreading the word about the venture and met the women who are now her bandmates - Jo Taylor and Liala Gianstefani. There was an immediate connection - both as friends and musically.
Fray says they have a great time on stage â and enjoy looking the part as well.
âI, at that point, wanted a reason to wear suits really. It seemed like a good way of doing that. I liked the idea of dressing up for the part. And our whole look and style has developed from that.â
Fray says the concept creates a lot of intrigue, especially with hard core Johnny Cash fans.
âQuite often, men actually, start off quite sceptical, like âhow the hell are girls gonna do Johnny Cashâ. And without seeing us, they think weâre going to try and sing like Johnny Cash âŚ and then they end up loving it. They see we donât try and sound and be like Johnny Cash at all. We just interpret his music. That was the whole point â girls doing Johnny Cash. We would never try and cover a female artist, we would never be as good.
âPeople come up afterwards and say âI was a bit unsure about girls doing Johnny Cash, but I love you guysâ. It seems to work.â
They have had a big three and half years and Fray says it just seems like it was meant to be. âThings happened pretty quickly. Things seemed to just fall into place for us, as and when we needed it. Which continued to affirm what we were doing.â
In 2012 they performed at the Johnny Cash Music Festival in California, sharing the stage with the legendary Wanda Jackson. They were hosted by Cashâs daughter, Cindy Cash, who was a co-producer of the event.
âOur first meeting with her they picked us up in a limousine and took us for lunch, then we went to this TV station in Santa Barbara and performed live acoustically on the roof while they filmed it, promoting the festival,â Fray recalls.
âCindy was really cool and she actually thanked us for helping to keep her dadâs music alive ... she actually invited us to come and stay with her next time we are over there.
âWe definitely made a connection there with her and that was pretty special. She shared some stuff with us about her dad and took us out for dinner at this restaurant they always used to go to when she was a child.â
The Johnnys were a massive hit when they came to the inaugural Auckland Pride Festival.
Their next lgbti stop is headlining Wellingtonâs Out the Park, the revamped, bigger version of Wellingtonâs queer fair Out in the Square. It will be held at its new home in Waitangi Park on Valentineâs Day.
Such events are special for Fray, the bandâs sole queer member â with two bandmates who are incredibly supportive.
She says Auckland Pride was really empowering for her personally, âbecause all of a sudden I actually felt like I could mention I had a girlfriend, or whatever, and be out on stage, and know that it was safe.â
She says generally they play to what she assumes are mostly heterosexual audiences. âSo that was actually really empowering for me to do that and be able to be that out,â something her bandmates were rapt about too, on her behalf.
Their Out in the Park concert is on Valentineâs Day and Frayâs girlfriend will be in Wellington with her for the weekend.
âThatâll be cool. It will be really cool for her to be in that environment. Because itâs a rarity isnât it? To be in an environment where there are mostly queer people around you? I live in Nelson â thereâs nothing like that. Weâre totally invisible. And it doesnât bother me, Iâve got lots of good friends who totally love me for who I am. But it is always a buzz to be in that environment âŚ to just feel like youâre not being judged. To be out openly with your partner and know people arenât going to be staring at you â or they might be, but for different reasons, you know?!â
They are comfortable with any audience though, Fray explains:
âA queer audience is one of our audiences âŚ we can play to hard core conservative 70-plus people and bring them on board, or 18-year-old boys getting completely wasted in front of us and throwing their undies on stage. We are very down to earth people generally and that is how we present on stage. Weâre just about âwe want to have a good time with you guys so letâs do itâ. It doesnât really matter who you are.
âWe have never really tried to target a queer audience at all. And I wouldnât do that even as a soloist â I am a solo artist as well. Itâs more about getting known for your music than âhey I am queer you should like meâ. That wouldnât feel good. We just are who we are and people can take whatever they want really.â
Mostly, the trio are just having a hell of a lot of fun, thanks to a friendship which has only grown.
âWeâre a really tight unit, itâs all about the team, and people say that comes across on stage. Weâre a really playful band. Weâre living out this sort of rock star alter ego from our youth,â she laughs.
âWeâre just out there to have a good time and bring people on board with that âŚ itâs usually a party atmosphere.â
Fray says they all feel really lucky to be doing what theyâre doing, and for people to open up their minds to the idea of women doing Johnny Cash.
âWeâre not a tribute band âŚ weâre paying tribute to his music and tribute to the man. But we just feel lucky, actually. There are not many things you get to do in life where you have that kind of connection. And we do. And you do feel it. Itâs a two-way exchange performance, the energy thatâs created by us and the audience back to us âŚ itâs actually very, very empowering.
âThereâs something else that happened that we didnât go out to achieve, and that is we end up with a large part of our audience being middle-aged women. And we think thatâs about us being up there, being middle-aged women ourselves, and that whole sort of role model thing. Living out the dream.
âAnd these women are going âfuck man, look at these fucking women up on the stage doing their shitâ. So itâs quite inspirational for those women and quite empowering, which is fucking cool, as something we didnât expect or go out there to achieve. Itâs just happened by going out there and doing it and itâs really cool.â
You can catch The Johnnys at Out in the Park at Wellingtonâs Waitangi Park on 14 February.