Ashland vocalist Shae Johnson teamed with Narada Michael Walden at his San Rafael, Calif., recording studio to put together an album of songs that can stand next to hits by Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Grace Slick and others who've collaborated with the award-winning producer, drummer and songwriter.
Tracks "Shooting Star," "Can You Feel the Music," "Addicted" and "Take Me to the City" showcase Johnson's plucky rhythmic cadence and bring to mind the pop music Houston performed on her 1982 soundtrack to "The Bodyguard." That record went on to win a Grammy for best album and was certified a 17-time platinum seller in 1999. Walden produced the song "I'm Every Woman" performed by Houston.
The dance numbers on "Can You Feel the Music" — written Johnson and Walden — could hold an audience at any Los Angeles dance club.
"That's what we were going for," Johnson says during a telephone interview. "We wanted it to sound like mainstream pop. Narada and I wrote "Shooting Star" together, along with a couple of other songs, with me writing the lyrics. The dance tunes have more of an electronic beat. Narada would send me 10 to 20 DJ mixes each week. I selected the ones I liked and wrote lyrics for them."
One song, "Have Faith," stands out from the others with ethereal, traditional Indian melodies in the background sung by Gaayatri Kaundinya. Johnson and Walden wrote and recorded the song in one day.
"We'd finished work on the other songs and wanted to do something for ourselves," Johnson says. "The song is about believing in one another, friends and ourselves."
Walden and Tarpan Records label engineer Jim Reitzel added drums, piano and bass, respectively, to some of the songs, and there's the requisite number of love songs that give Johnson moments to demonstrate confidence in her own artistic ability.
"I've always known I wanted to be singer," she says. "My mom was a voice teacher, and we always sang together. I belonged to my middle-school and high-school choirs."
Born and raised in Ashland, Johnson studied voice at San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
"I thought I wanted to be an opera singer," she says. "The training was excellent, but I eventually realized it wasn't for me."
Johnson returned to Ashland in 2009 after landing a part as a singer and dancer in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "The Music Man." She's also performed in at least four productions at Oregon Cabaret Theatre.
One Friday night, she heard The Rogue Suspects playing at Alex's in Ashland. The band was sans a female vocal and asked if anyone in the audience could sing an Aretha Franklin song. After Johnson stepped up and sang "Chain of Fools," she was asked to perform regularly with the band.
"It's been life-changing," she says. "It's where I found myself. Rock 'n' roll isn't perfect and it shouldn't be. That's one of the wonderful things about it."
The next big thing for Johnson, she hopes, is to collaborate with Walden and make another album with a big, commercial label such as Sony and tour nationally. With songs such as "Take Me to the City" and "Lights, she may have the impetus to get there.
Johnson and The Rogue Suspects will celebrate the CD's release with a show at 6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 28, RoxyAnn Winery, 3285 Hillcrest Road, Medford. The show also will be a fundraiser to help complete a new The Rogue Suspects CD.