Prudence Johnson’s long and successful musical career started by “happenstance,” she said. Although she grew up around music, she never thought of it as a possible career. “I fell in with people who had similar interests, and they talked me into joining their band.” In 1976, she joined Tim Sparks and Tom Lieberman to create the first iteration of Rio Nido. Johnson stayed with the group until 1987.
In those days, Johnson recalled, there were far more Twin Cities venues for live music. “We were working six nights a week, and we had a few concert dates. I don’t remember being really flush, but we were all supporting families playing music,” she said. “There were plenty of days when I thought ‘I have to put on a dress and makeup again? Play the same the same songs again?’ But how else are you going to develop your chops?”
After 10 years, Johnson said, “I just had this idea that I really needed to change. I moved to Nashville for a while — it was a silly move in retrospect. I was too much of an introvert to start all over. What was really funny was the nightclubs down there where you could make money all wanted jazz. All the other clubs expected to be ‘showcase clubs’ for country acts.”
When she came back to the Twin Cities, she went to Hamline University full-time, completing a degree in International Studies. Her performing career was revived when she attended the Cabaret Symposium at the Eugene O’Neill Center in Connecticut. “I wish it had happened 20 years earlier. I realized that storytelling was the most important thing. Everything else was there to support that. Then it doesn’t matter what kind of music you’re doing.”
She got a McKnight Foundation grant that she said was “like a huge neon message: ‘Now you’re on the right track.’” Funding from the Legacy Amendment has enabled Johnson and Twin Cities musician Dan Chouinard to develop five shows and tour the state with them. “I publicly thank the voters and taxpayers of Minnesota as often as I can. It’s gotten us out to a lot of smaller Minnesota communities, presenting to different kinds of audiences than we would have gotten to otherwise.”
When she’s not performing, Johnson works part-time at Birchbark Books in Minneapolis. She and Chouinard are rereleasing their George Gershwin CD, with six new tracks. The official release party is on May 10 at the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis.
What’s the best part of your job?
Ultimately, I am my own boss and have been for my entire adult life. I get to work with incredible people creating things. That’s the really fun part — the rehearsals, the research. That’s incredible — I’m sure there are millions of people who would envy me.
What’s the biggest challenge?
Security has never been a part of the deal. I don’t mind the idea of tightening my belt. I can live inexpensively. Travel is wonderful, luxury is fantastic. But just being alive on this earth and having enough food is plenty for me.
Where do you go from here?
There was a time in my life I thought, “What would I do if I weren’t performing?” I’m not trained to do much else. But I was able to let go of the panic. I’ll always make art in some way, but whether it’s my job or not, I don’t know. □