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The Johnnys: A brilliant bolt from the blue

Posted in: Music
By Jacqui Stanford - 26th June 2015

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.

RIP Suzi.

 


 

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. “If 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 ‘shit this could work’. And it does.”

Indeed it does work. Nelson-based three-piece The Johhnys are creating buzz wherever they play, from gay festivals to wool sheds.

They’ve even been given the seal approval of from Johnny Cash’s own daughter.

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It is a magic concept. One which captures people’s imaginations: the world’s first and only all-girl, all Johnny Cash Band.

Suzi Fray, who provides the band’s 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 ‘vehicle’ for it.

“It was this kind of bizarre thing, to come out of the blue.”

She’d 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.

“I 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, that’s a good idea.”

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 – and enjoy looking the part as well.

“I, 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.”

Fray says the concept creates a lot of intrigue, especially with hard core Johnny Cash fans.

“Quite often, men actually, start off quite sceptical, like ‘how the hell are girls gonna do Johnny Cash’. And without seeing us, they think we’re going to try and sing like Johnny Cash … and then they end up loving it. They see we don’t try and sound and be like Johnny Cash at all. We just interpret his music. That was the whole point – girls doing Johnny Cash. We would never try and cover a female artist, we would never be as good.

“People come up afterwards and say ‘I was a bit unsure about girls doing Johnny Cash, but I love you guys’. It seems to work.”

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They have had a big three and half years and Fray says it just seems like it was meant to be. “Things 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.”

In 2012 they performed at the Johnny Cash Music Festival in California, sharing the stage with the legendary Wanda Jackson. They were hosted by Cash’s daughter, Cindy Cash, who was a co-producer of the event.

“Our 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,” Fray recalls.

“Cindy was really cool and she actually thanked us for helping to keep her dad’s music alive ... she actually invited us to come and stay with her next time we are over there.

“We 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.”

The Johnnys were a massive hit when they came to the inaugural Auckland Pride Festival.

Their next lgbti stop is headlining Wellington’s Out the Park, the revamped, bigger version of Wellington’s queer fair Out in the Square. It will be held at its new home in Waitangi Park on Valentine’s Day.

Such events are special for Fray, the band’s sole queer member – with two bandmates who are incredibly supportive.

She says Auckland Pride was really empowering for her personally, “because 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.”

She says generally they play to what she assumes are mostly heterosexual audiences. “So that was actually really empowering for me to do that and be able to be that out,” something her bandmates were rapt about too, on her behalf.

Their Out in the Park concert is on Valentine’s Day and Fray’s girlfriend will be in Wellington with her for the weekend.

“That’ll be cool. It will be really cool for her to be in that environment. Because it’s a rarity isn’t it? To be in an environment where there are mostly queer people around you? I live in Nelson – there’s nothing like that. We’re totally invisible. And it doesn’t bother me, I’ve got lots of good friends who totally love me for who I am. But it is always a buzz to be in that environment … to just feel like you’re not being judged. To be out openly with your partner and know people aren’t going to be staring at you – or they might be, but for different reasons, you know?!”

They are comfortable with any audience though, Fray explains:

“A queer audience is one of our audiences … 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. We’re just about ‘we want to have a good time with you guys so let’s do it’. It doesn’t really matter who you are.

“We have never really tried to target a queer audience at all. And I wouldn’t do that even as a soloist – I am a solo artist as well. It’s more about getting known for your music than ‘hey I am queer you should like me’. That wouldn’t feel good. We just are who we are and people can take whatever they want really.”

Mostly, the trio are just having a hell of a lot of fun, thanks to a friendship which has only grown.

“We’re a really tight unit, it’s all about the team, and people say that comes across on stage. We’re a really playful band. We’re living out this sort of rock star alter ego from our youth,” she laughs.

“We’re just out there to have a good time and bring people on board with that … it’s usually a party atmosphere.”

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Fray says they all feel really lucky to be doing what they’re doing, and for people to open up their minds to the idea of women doing Johnny Cash.

“We’re not a tribute band … we’re 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. It’s a two-way exchange performance, the energy that’s created by us and the audience back to us … it’s actually very, very empowering.

“There’s something else that happened that we didn’t go out to achieve, and that is we end up with a large part of our audience being middle-aged women. And we think that’s about us being up there, being middle-aged women ourselves, and that whole sort of role model thing. Living out the dream.

“And these women are going ‘fuck man, look at these fucking women up on the stage doing their shit’. So it’s quite inspirational for those women and quite empowering, which is fucking cool, as something we didn’t expect or go out there to achieve. It’s just happened by going out there and doing it and it’s really cool.”

You can catch The Johnnys at Out in the Park at Wellington’s Waitangi Park on 14 February.


Jacqui Stanford - 26th June 2015

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