There can’t be many people who have lived the sort of life that Noah Francis Johnson has.
His unconventional career path has led him to such unorthodox places as:
- World disco dancing champion
- Welsh professional boxing belt holder
- Trainee priest
- Frontman of a heavy rock band
Now the 51-year-old from Cardiff says he’s finally where he should be – about to release his debut solo album Life and Times after signing a deal with major label Warners.
However, the record comes with heartache etched throughout its autobiographical and confessional songs.
For Noah, who in his youth growing up in Tiger Bay was known as Frankie Johnson, (he was born Noah Francis Johnson), has had to contend with the heartbreaking death of his father and his brother within the space of three months at the start of this year.
His dad, well-known Cardiff entertainer Frankie Johnson Snr was 76 and while the singer says he was prepared for the passing of his father, who had been stricken with Alzeheimers for some time, the death of his brother Blue was a huge shock.
“Blue died of a heart attack, he was only 44,” says Noah. “He had been living on an Indian reservation camp in Canada.
“He was a magazine editor out there, doing great work and representing the rights of the native Indians.”
Before his brother’s death Noah tells me he had written a song – that would have eerie resonance with events that were to unfold just weeks later.
“One day when I was at home my daughter brought in a pigeon feather from the garden and I wrote a song called Grey Feather,” says the musician who now divides his time between London and Los Angeles.
“I was born in Wales so I thought what am I doing writing about a Native Indian.
I finished the whole song and the last line was ‘and that grey feather fell when he passed away’.
“My mother phoned my brother in Canada and said your brother has written a great song and he’s writing for the Indians.
“Blue said ‘wow I’d love to hear that’ and he died three days later.”
The coincidences continued when Noah sang at his brother’s funeral.
“I told them I haven’t got a speech but I’m going to sing this song about the feather.
“The opening line is ‘on a dusty old trail in a white pick up truck’.
“When Blue died they put him in a pine box in a white pick up truck and we drove up a dusty trail and buried him on Indian sacred burial ground because they loved him so much.
“A procession of Indians followed and they chanted over his grave. I asked them if they would come to a studio and I would put their chant on the end of the song which appears on the album.”
Noah, who also has another brother Tony, an artist in London, says there’s poignancy about every track on Life and Times and none more so than Ballroom Blues – a song written days after his dad’s death.
“I was in the studio and I didn’t feel like writing. I was missing my father who we were going to cremate just a few days later,” he recalls.
“I was numb, but this guy who works with me started playing and it inspired me. I took the mic, we started recording and I just sang, no pen or paper, I didn’t know what was going to come out.
“I just felt like singing to this track, it was amazing. It turned out that the words that came out were about my dad. It felt like the lyrics were being channelled.
“My dad was big black guy and he used to smoke a lot of cigarettes back in the day. The first verse that came out of my mouth was, ‘remember looking at you feeling so proud, the cigarettes, the hat, the smell, the stories you told; Right next to you in the car you’re looking down smiling; everybody loved you and I can still hear the cheering. And I remember the band playing on you looked at each other and they’re playing our song’.
“I remember my mum and dad dancing with each other when I was little in a club. I thought they were the best in the world,” he adds, his voice wavering with emotion.
“The chorus went, ‘you took my mother’s hand, and spun around and around, watching you dance the ballroom blues… so you took my mother’s hand in your patent shoes and you spun around and around and I watched you dance the ballroom blues’.
“My dad used to say to me, ‘son when I die don’t worry about me I had a ball’. And I didn’t realise what I’d written until I’d played it back and realised it was so relevant.”
I suggest that this album must feel both poignant and bittersweet given his father isn’t around to see Noah finally fulfil his dream.
“For sure, he would have been so proud,” he says.
“They say your father hands on the mantle and I feel like that. I’ve been in the business since I was a kid, since I was seven years old touring the workingmen’s clubs with my dad, that was my apprenticeship as I like to call it.
“I’ve gone right through the ranks, I’ve had deals, I was a boxer, a world dance champion, but this is it now, this is what everything was leading to.”
It’s been a long road travelled and the singer himself admits there have been several detours.
Noah, who professes a deep spirituality, tells me he twice tried to pursue the priesthood before being told by one senior clergyman that he was born to be an entertainer.
It was around 2002 when he was fronting heavy rock band Ellis, that the singer found himself at a spiritual crossroads.
“We were about to be signed to Interscope Records in America and I’m in the rehearsal room in LA, we’ve got Guns ‘n’ Roses in the rehearsal room next to us. We’ve got Christina Aguilera coming to our show, I mean this is proper, but to me it was like a circus. I thought I can’t do this for 10 years. It was not for me. I felt a bit of a fake
“From a kid when I was really young and born in Tiger Bay my grandmother used to take me to church and I really got into it,” he remembers.
“Any my whole belief about spirituality stems from that time. It got to a point where I was fronting Ellis and we were doing our thing playing with Slayer, Metallica, Lenny Kravitz, all these big names but I’d reached a point where I thought where am I going with this. It felt like I was leading a superficial life.
“I thought with spirituality I could go deeper I could help people, do a bit more with this existence while I’m on this earth.
“So I went to the church and they said ‘you’re not a priest, you are a rock star. Go and be a rock star,” he says, laughing at the memory of this statement.
“This priest said to me ‘look at me I’m a priest, you’re not a priest. I’m not saying you’re not a good guy, go and be a good guy because I’m sure you will be. You don’t need a collar to be a good man’.
“He said, ‘singing one song is a thousand prayers. So go and do what you can do on the outside.”
For Noah that was the affirmation that he needed to pursue his heart-embroidered solo album, playing the sort of soulful music that he heard in his parents Stax and Motown albums. And it wasn’t long after utilising his record company contacts that a deal with global music giant Warner was put on the table.
It’s evidently all about the physical and the spiritual for the man who maintains a punishing fitness regime and looks 10 years younger than he actually is.
“This record is called Life and Times, and this record is about my life but at the same time one of the main songs on the album, the title track is about Wales,” says Noah, who moved away from his Cardiff home 20 years ago. “I express the fact that when I cross the Severn Bridge, all the stuff I picked up along the way, the negatives, Wales is like my decompression tank it washes me down.
“When I get there it feels like home. Wherever I go in the world, be it LA, New York or wherever, I return to Wales and go ‘aah’,” he says, letting out a contented sigh. “And this is what this album feels like, I’ve just finished it and now I’m sitting in the apartment talking to you going ‘aah’!”
* Life and Times is released on Monday, June 10. Noah’s debut single Try is out now. For more visit www.noahfrancisjohnson.com