BILLY SUTER chats to CLAIRE JOHNSTON, lead vocalist with top South African band Mango Groove. The group has a new double-album out, Faces to the Sun, containing the singles Kind and From the Get Go, two of nine new songs among the 24 on the collection. The album marks the band’s first new material in seven years and also contains covers of iconic South African songs and various guest acts.
YOU ARE CURRENTLY TOURING TO PROMOTE MANGO GROOVE’S NEW ALBUM. TELL US ABOUT THE CONTENT – AND WHAT MAKES YOU MOST EXCITED ABOUT IT ALL.
Faces to the Sun is our first album in seven years. It took us four-and-a-half years to record and is a double album. Hopefully it sounds like a 2017 version of Mango Groove.
Album 1 is called Memories and Moments, and is essentially a tribute album with Mango Groove and friends doing versions of some of our favourite South African songs ever. We are honoured to have the talents of Zolani Mahola, Juanita du Plessis, Vusi Mahlasela, Rebecca Malope and Mo T from Mi Casa, to name but a few. They add their distinctive, beautiful voices and styles to the album.
Songs featured range from Kinders van die Wind through to Vulindlela, Weeping and Master Jack, plus many more classics.
Album 2 is titled Here, Now and Forever. It was inspired by Album 1 and is all-new, original material. We were having such a good time that all sorts of new and fresh ideas started to form. and it became obvious that we would need to make this a double album.
WHAT ARE YOUR TWO FAVOURITE SONGS ON THE NEW ALBUM – AND WHY?
Given that it’s a double album I would like to choose one from each. From CD 1, the tribute album, I would go with Remember Me (originally done by the late Lucky Dube).
Recording the vocal for this song was very tough as there are some lyrics that felt raw and really resonated with me: ‘Mother died of a heart attack many years ago’ and ‘daddy, wherever you are, remember me’. My mum had just passed away from what was essentially a heart attack and my father left South Africa and us when I was 8 years old.
From CD 2, my current favourite track is definitely Kind. It’s a wonderful song to sing and I love the sentiment. John (Leyden), founding member of Mango Groove, wrote it after he and I separated in 2012. It feels like the right message for the world right now – a little kindness goes a long way.
WHAT WAS MOST REWARDING AND/OR INTERESTING ABOUT RECORDING THE NEW MATERIAL?
Faces to the Sun has been in the works for a while and we finished recording it in the middle of 2016. It’s always tough letting go of a project, especially when it’s been such a long and emotional process.
We recorded it at Orangotang Studios in Johannesburg with our good friend and keyboard player Andrew Baird. He and John produced the album.
WHAT SUCCESS HAS BEEN ACHIEVED WITH THE NEW ALBUM SO FAR?
So far all is going as well as we could have hoped. We’re getting lots of comments about the album coming out at just the right time for South Africa, which is a huge compliment.
We’ve been nominated for two Samas (best adult contemporary album and best engineered album).
We are getting lots of play on radio stations across the board – especially for our new single, Kind – as well as some chart success. Also, our new video for Kind, with its message of tolerance and compassion, is being very well received.
OF ALL MANGO GROOVE SONGS WHAT IS CLOSEST TO YOUR HEART?
I am going to choose Special Star and for one reason only: performing it live. The response we get when the pennywhistle intro starts up is simply mind -blowing. And then, by the time it all slows down and I drift back onto stage for the vocal part, the audience goes mad all over again!
It never ceases to amaze me. Even when we perform the song internationally where it’s not well known it gets a remarkable response….
HOW FAR AFIELD HAS MANGO GROOVE PERFORMED – AND WHAT ONE PERFORMANCE MOST STANDS OUT FOR YOU?
We’ve been lucky enough to go all over the place: Australia, parts of the Far East, The UK, France, parts of the US, Canada and much of Africa.
There have been lots of standout shows – the 1997 Handover of Hong Kong to China concert was awesome because it was such a momentous event to be part of; as well as Rock against Racism in Paris, our first huge international gig which made a massive impact on me.
My personal favourite happened at home with the 1994 Inauguration of Nelson Mandela concert – complete with military fly-overs, satellite link-ups around the world and a huge sense of national pride and optimism.
WHAT PLANS FOR THE GROUP FOR THE REST OF THE YEAR – AND ANY OTHER RECORDINGS PLANNED?
The plan is to tour as much as possible. The band is in a very happy space and we have more fun now than at any time in the 32 years of Mango Groove, which is something I’m proud and happy to be able to say.
In terms of recording we are looking at filming a live DVD, and will keep you posted.
YOU WERE IN THE ORIGINAL SOUTH AFRICAN TOURING STAGE PRODUCTION OF ‘ANNIE’, WITH JOAN BRICKHILL AS MISS HANNIGAN. WHAT MEMORIES OF THAT EXPERIENCE?
Yes, and what an amazing experience to have, especially at the age of 10. We had a long run in Johannesburg and then toured to Durban and Cape Town for three months. Through the incredible Joan Brickhill I learned a lot about stage etiquette and the importance of being professional. No matter what’s going on in your personal life, the show must go on!!
I have a very clear memory of causing her genuine pain on stage: my character (Tessie) was in a scene with Joan (Miss Hannigan), where Tessie is supposed to ‘stamp’ on Miss Hannigan’s foot.
One night I got so caught up in the moment that I forgot to miss and did a very good job of almost breaking Joan’s foot. I was mortified but when I apologised profusely afterwards. Joan was her professional and gracious self, even praising me for my passion and commitment.
WHAT FIVE WORDS BEST DESCRIBE YOU?
Emotional, over-sensitive, impatient, courageous and kind.
WHAT ARE FIVE THINGS ABOUT YOURSELF (HOWEVER TRIVIAL) THAT PEOPLE ARE UNLIKELY TO KNOW?
I am an only child; I have four tattoos; I love being silly; I suffer from stage fright and I am obsessed with shoes.
YOUR MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENT ON STAGE?
My strapless dress slipping off! It was a very brief moment as I was so quick to react, but it was for a show that was being filmed for TV and I was all of 19 years old and very shy, so it felt like a really big deal.
HOBBIES, PASTIMES AND FAVOURITE THINGS?
Cooking, reading, going for walks, interior design and a desire to design and make handbags and shoes.
WHAT FIVE THINGS WOULD YOU LIST UNDER ‘VASTLY OVERRATED’?
Disposable anythings (from razors to Kardashians); fluorescent lighting (unless it’s in an operating theatre); beards (unless you’re a lumberjack); topiary and jodhpurs.
WHAT ARE YOUR FEARS AND PHOBIAS – AND WHY?
I’m terrified of people I love having to suffer… and I’m frightened of sharks, but in a fascinated and admiring sort of way.
TWO HIGHLIGHTS OF YOUR CAREER?
Mango’s performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, where we received three encores; and the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert which was satellite-linked to London and San Francisco.
WHAT IS THE WORST TROUBLE YOU HAVE EVER BEEN IN?
I was almost arrested for doing 140km in an 80km zone. In mitigation, the road was completely empty and I sort of lost my head… but I am still ashamed of myself and have learned my lesson. *hangs head*
WHAT THINGS DO YOU MOST MISS FROM CHILDHOOD?
My mum, playing in the streets, having no responsibilities, believing in fairies and the sense that anything is possible.
THE MOST FRIGHTENING THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO YOU?
Life? And being held up at gunpoint with my mum in her home.
FIVE OF YOUR ALL-TIME FAVOURITE SONGS?
Every Breath You Take by The Police; One of Us by Abba; The Man I Love by Ella Fitzgerald; Eleanor Rigby by The Beatles and Natural Mystic by Bob Marley.
THE BEST COMPLIMENT YOU EVER HAD? AND THE WORST?
The best was in 1991 at the launch of our first album in San Francisco. I was told by someone at our record label that I looked like a very young Debbie Harry of Blondie. This made me very happy as she’d always been my pop heroine
Worst was being told by Quincy Jones’ daughter’s boyfriend that my shoes were disgusting.