Frank Sinatra, Michael Bublé, Shaun Johnson.
The evolution of big band music continues at Lourdes High School on Friday night. Shaun Johnson, of Tonic Sol-fa fame, took big band sounds, tossed in some other genres, and gave it a breath of cool. His big band is comprised of guys who have played with Aretha Franklin, and Johnny Mathis.
Tonic Sol-fa, Johnson’s trail-blazing vocal group, which has sold over two million albums on their own, is also on the bill.
We caught up Johnson him while he was driving through South Dakota.
Where did the inspiration come from to combine contemporary music with Big Band sound?
I was always attracted to the big band sound. I thought about doing it for many years. But I wasn’t quite sure how. I liked that classic sound, but I wanted to put a modern spin on it. I thought, if I was ever going to do something, I don’t want to do it like everybody else. I don’t want to just be up there singing old songs from the 40s.
Once we did [a big band show], we actually had a school that called, and then we started having a lot more schools say, ‘Would you ever consider bringing Tonic Sol-fa and big band together and do part for the choir with Tonic Sol-fa, part for the band with big band experience?’ In a lot of colleges, and some high schools, the two don’t really meet.
If there was anyone who you could resurrect or bring back from retirement from the big band era, that you could perform with for one night, who would you pick?
An obvious answer would be Frank Sinatra, but it’s not so obvious to me, because, growing up, I was very into rock music, R&B music, and I did not appreciate Frank Sinatra…If I could spend a day with him, I don’t know if I’d like him very much, but if I could sing with him, I don’t think I could probably make any words come out of my mouth.
Allison grew up watching Tonic Sol-fa, she said that you guys were doing a cappella before it got cool, so to speak. Can you talk about being the underground a cappella lord?
When we started, it was such a niche thing. It was kind of ridiculous. In fact, we had some people say to us, ‘I think it’s fun watching a song, but I can’t imagine watching a whole show of this. What would you guys do for a show?’
We’ve always wanted to improve, but couldn’t care less if every single person in the world knows us. We just wanted to have a long career…it just, all the time it was, how can we make this what we love to do, for life?
So far, it has been over 15 years of doing what you like to do. A lot of people don’t understand that, but for us, it’s more important.
How do you keep your hair so perfect all the time?
I have tried everything at some point. I had a friend of mine that died it all dark once, I’ve had it blue, long, shaved off…I think when you have a very average face, you’ve got to try to do something with your hair. And I have a very average face.
What goes into crafting a perfect setlist?
It’s something that we actually spend a lot of time on. When we’re trying to figure it out, we’re trying to imagine that amusement park ride, that roller coaster, and you bring people up and you bring them down, but for how long?
We’ve never done the same set at a show, ever. Every single night it changes in some way.