Prudence Johnson's silky voice has taken her from the Midwest to the Middle East, honky-tonks to Carnegie Hall, theater stages to the silver screen — appearing in Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It and in Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion. But be it concert hall or tiny jazz club, Prudence is the perfect complement. As one music critic put it, "[There's] not a genre she hasn't interpreted with her ducky, sensual alto voice and terminally good taste."
So, how does one go from a small town like Moose Lake, MN, to the world stage? Were you raised in a musical family?
My father has a beautiful voice and loves to sing. For decades, he was the go-to guy in our area for weddings and funerals. Singing together was something we always did; until a certain age, I thought all families did. People ask me how to learn to hear harmony parts. Ummm … your dad teaches you when you’re four?
I wouldn’t say I had ambition, so much as a certainty that that’s what I was meant to do, and I just put one foot in front of the other. My family of course thought I was nuts, especially since I was a young mother trying to make a living as a freelance musician. I believe it was my appearances on the Prairie Home show in the early ’80s ( it was nationally broadcast by then) that changed their minds.
'Remember Me' with Prudence & Garrison
You’ve released more than a dozen albums, collaborated on many more, written and performed in plays, performed in several feature films, released several multimedia projects combining music and history. With all the time at home due to the pandemic, are there any new projects on the horizon?
I was very busy during the darkest days of the pandemic working at an independent bookstore (Birchbark Books) in Minneapolis. I love the world of books and got a part-time job there in 2008, mostly to support my book habit. But over the years, my commitment deepened and I took on a lot of duties there while maintaining a schedule creating new shows, recording, and performing. To everyone’s surprise, when we closed our doors to the public in spring 2020, the store got much busier than ever before. So I wasn’t really isolated and I had very little downtime. I left Birchbark in the end of May after 12 1/2 years and had a great summer, and I’m just now really giving some thought to what’s next. I LOVE being in the studio but I realize I don’t recognize the landscape anymore — the business of making and releasing recordings has changed so fundamentally. Working with Garrison and with Robin and Linda, as the next incarnation of the Hopeful Gospel Quartet, is sort of a “new old” project that I’m really looking forward to.
You have performed on A Prairie Home Companion, toured with the show as part of the Rhubarb tour, been featured in the movie, toured with Garrison . . . do you have any favorite memories?
Oh! so many. I thought of the Beatles standing in the very same spot on the Hollywood Bowl stage. My granddaughter celebrating her ninth birthday with me on the APHC cruise of the Norwegian fjords. (She's a 23 yr old Registered Nurse now and has great memories of that time) Feeling Leonard Bernstein's spirit at Tanglewood. Red Maddock's glorious smile. I could go on and on.
It was so much fun being on set of the movie; I pretended to be a smoker so I could bum cigarettes from Kevin Kline and hang out with him. Meryl Streep & Lily Tomlin--truly excellent & sweet human beings. The day I sang in the quartet was totally spontaneous. Jearlyn Steele wasn't able to be on set that day, I was, and they wanted to shoot that song, so I learned it....fast!
We had just been on tour for about 3 weeks; how Garrison, Richie and the whole band and crew slipped right into that movie schedule I don't know--I was exhausted. I was asked to costume myself so I chose a suit I had worn sometimes on the tour. After a few 10 hour days in it, I dearly wished I'd chosen something more comfortable. (ok, not so much a favorite memory as a regret)
'Let Your Light Shine On Me' from the A Prairie Home Companion film >>>
Not all jobs require the integration of physical skills, intellect and the heart--some only require one of those--so it's a rare gift to make one's living doing something so spiritually gratifying. Offer your music with love and it will have an impact, and no matter how you weather the ups and downs of the music "business," it will feed your soul.
As a singer, I think of myself foremost as a storyteller, and I encourage young singers, when they are tempted to get frilly and fancy, to concentrate on telling the story.
'Early' with Prudence & Garrison