Greensboro’s Johanna Breed asks a question in the title track of her debut EP. It’s a question that the singer said she’d been asking herself, and it’s one that she thinks a lot of people kick around. “Is it too late for me to try?” she sings on Is It Too Late?
Breed will celebrate the release of her EP at a show at the Crown at the Carolina Theater in Greensboro. The EP just came out last week, and I spoke with Breed earlier this week after a rehearsal for the show. With minimalist neo-soul production, gospel-tinged piano, layered vocal harmonies, fingersnap backbeats and a warmth to Breed’s singing, the record has a slinky exuberance. It’s a mellow future-funk statement of optimism and uplift.
Back to that question posed in the title track. It’s not like Breed hadn’t been putting in effort before. It’s not as if she had been phoning it in. Breed did have to put her aspirations as a singer on hold for a time though. The title relates to pursuing a dream after you had maybe set it aside for a time.
In her days as a college athlete and a singer in musical theater productions at Guilford College, Breed had realized that her vocals were more strained than they should have been.
“I didn’t know how to fix it,” Breed said.
Eventually, a doctor used fiber optic technology to get images of Breed’s larynx and concluded that she had cysts on her vocal cords. She had to practice an extreme regimen of vocal rest for several months, being virtually silent, leading up to what she expected to be surgery. But the weeks of near silence seemed to solve her problem. Rather than having her vocal cords operated on, based on a doctor’s recommendation, Breed continued to take it very easy on her voice. Which wasn’t the most natural thing for her personality type.
“I’m very much an extrovert,” Breed said. “I was trying to kind of become this zen person.”
She got to the point where she couldn’t bear to go see live music because the experience left her feeling like she wanted to make music so much herself that she couldn’t properly enjoy it as an audience member. But eventually, she gravitated back to singing.
Over the years, as she’s worked as a backup singer on other people’s projects and performed at open mics, Breed, 32, has learned to manage her voice.
The music that she’s made on her debut EP, with the help of Greensboro-based producer and performer Quilla, is subdued in its way. It’s mostly sparsely layered vocals, sparse beats, sparse piano and organ and other effects. There’s plenty of space and breathing room inside the songs. Some of the tracks bring to mind artists such as Prince, Tuneyards or Natalie Merchant, or you might hear a connection to Amy Winehouse, Beck or D’Angelo. This is music that’s steeped in the past, but it’s working to replicate music of bygone eras. Breed is more interested synth-based futuristic explorations loosely rooted in tradition than in wax-museum retro throwbacks. Tinkering with the materials at hand is a way of finding your place as you move forward. And that’s a theme that comes through in the music, too.
“There’s no way for me to learn the nature of my world until I mess it up,” sings Breed on “Misplaced Love.”
Breed’s EP project has been funded in part by a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. Originally from Maine, Breed said she has extended family and friends throughout New England who have been supportive of her music-making efforts. The singer said she hadn’t really done very many shows around town, and she didn’t have a very strong social media presence, so the success of the campaign has been a gratifying surprise.
Is It Too Late? was recorded mostly by Breed, with the help of Quilla and a few of Breed’s friends. But this release-celebration show will involve a larger band.
“I’ve never performed with this many people before, but I’ve always wanted to,” Breed said.
To answer the question she poses for herself, Breed is obviously engaged in trying and succeeding. Breed said she’s relentlessly upbeat. She likes to jokingly explore the outer limits of good cheer, to see how far a pervasive positive attitude can take you before running into some wall. Following her own wisdom of you-can-do-it energy, Breed said she’s ready to jump into the writing and recording of another record, one that she hopes to have completed and ready for release by summer of next year.
As with her balancing of soul fundamentals with a willingness to take the music into some uncharted new place that mixes analog and digital, Breed also likes to blend a mix of lighthearted and humorous riffs into music that is based on the idea of inspiring positive action in people’s lives. You can hear it in the slightly warped synth bass sounds, the lip-popping percussion, the bottom-scraping low-end, or just the playful way that parts drop in and out of the mix, like the sonic equivalent of a photobomb.
“It’s important to me that I don’t take my music too seriously,” she said, “because I don’t take myself too seriously.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Johanna Breed at the Crown at the Carolina Theatre, 310 South Greene St., Greensboro, on Nov. 17 at 7:30 p.m., with Sun Queen Kelsey opening.