Vocalist, composer and bandleader Joanna Majoko has built a reputation as one of Canada’s most exciting young singers.
Born in Germany, she moved to Zimbabwe, then to South Africa, then to Winnipeg before finally landing in Toronto. Since then, she’s worked with some of the country’s top musicians including Jane Bunnett and Maqueque, David Clayton-Thomas and Larnell Lewis.
But while she has become a fixture of the local jazz scene, Majoko has yet to release any music of her own — until now. She has just released the first single from her debut release No Holding Back, a four-song EP of rich, modern neo-soul that’s lyrical and fun and packs a really great groove.
For the New Music Spotlight, Majoko joined us to talk about how she arrived at this point in her personal and musical development.
You’re so well-established in the Toronto music scene, but this is the first time that we actually get to hear about life from your perspective. How did this album come about?
It definitely wasn’t something that I sat down and thought, I’m going to write my debut EP. It happened over three or four years. I had started writing the music back when I was living in Winnipeg, right before I moved to Toronto in late 2016, and then I finished it shortly after moving here. I met the producer Nick Tateishi and he said, “I love your music. We should start recording. You should be putting this music out.”
So this has really been a long time coming. Three to four years of work is quite a while.
It is, for a four-track EP. It seems so small, but there’s so much labour and love put into it, for sure.
The musicianship and lyrics on this album seem effortless. Is the writing process as effortless as it seems?
I wish it was effortless. Everyone gets to see the finished, polished product, but I’m quite a slow writer. I really enjoy hearing perspectives not only from the band members but from listeners. What does it make you feel? What is it missing? What does it need? I like to take my time because I really think that good music and good art takes time.
What would you say this album is about?
This album is about realizing your magic, not holding back, not letting anyone dim that, and moving forward with it. Expressing yourself through your magic and showcasing it to people, knowing that people will accept you and love you for who you are. It’s really a celebration of individualism.
Even the title No Holding Back feels like a pep talk. How have you dealt with that fear that your ideas might not be as welcomed as you would like?
The process of bringing this to fruition was very much a healing and therapeutic process for me, because one of the largest reasons why I haven’t released any music as a solo artist until now was mostly that little voice in your head that goes, “I don’t have anything worthy to share with my listeners.” Putting this out was really letting go of a lot of fear and realizing that I have a place in the music community, and that people want to hear that voice and that music. The whole process was very empowering. Even looking back just a month ago, I never would have expected I would be here feeling this excited and confident to be putting out this body of work.
One of the subjects of this album is that concept of finding home. You’ve lived in so many places throughout your life. What has all of that taught you about what home is?
It’s taught me that home isn’t where you were born or where you spent an extended amount of time. It’s a place that makes you feel safe and capable of bringing to life what it is you dream of. For instance, my sense of home is sanctuary — a place I can go to and escape any troubles or to centre myself and check in with myself. Through so many parts of existence, from Germany to Zimbabwe to South Africa to my life here in Canada for almost 19 years now, it really comes down to finding a safe place as well as people. My friends are like family, and my family connection is more important than anything.
You’ve done a wonderful job of broadening those connections through the music community here in Toronto. What are the lessons you learned in playing with others that you were able to bring into making your own EP?
I’ve learned and continue to learn so much. Specifically from Jane Bunnett and Maqueque, it pushed me into a whole different genre of music that was brand new to me. I found a relation to it because of my foundation in jazz. Transitioning to Afro-Cuban music was exciting and nerve-wracking, and it opened up my world to learning a different culture, language, music. And then playing with someone like Larnell Lewis, who has a completely different sound, he taught me so much about what I love in rhythm and drums, and what it means to play with a drummer and for a drummer to play with a vocalist. One thing that everyone will say about Larnell is about how musical and attentive he is in the moment. They taught me all of those elements.
Let’s talk about your new single, Where You Are. Can you tell me about how this song came to be?
Initially, I wrote this song for myself. It was almost like a repetitive affirmation of the struggle I felt about where I was. I wrote that when I was in Winnipeg and I had just graduated from jazz studies at the University of Manitoba, and it was that moment of what now? I have all these dreams of where I want to be, but I feel stuck where I am in this moment. I had to step back and speak to myself and say that it’s completely fine to aspire to where you want to be — but to lessen the value of where you are, it doesn’t foster a positive pathway to those aspirations. I wrote it as a reminder to myself to be present in the moment. But I think that applies to everyone and anyone. We’re constantly in that battle with ourselves.
So this is something that you struggled with.
Definitely. I wouldn’t say I don’t struggle with it anymore, but I have better mechanisms to get through it.
This album feels like it’s about becoming your full self.
Yes, sort of blossoming from the caterpillar into the butterfly.
Do you feel like you’re through that process, or are you still turning into that?
I think I’m right in between. I feel the transition. I really feel like a massive shift is happening within myself personally and in my career. I’d say I’m about to transition into the butterfly.
This interview has been edited and condensed.