When Lola Whyte and Chelsea D.E. Johnson first met in 2014, through mutual friends and musicians on Commercial Drive, it was a marriage made in soul-rock heaven. Whyte had discovered her love of music at age five, teaching herself how to play "Greensleeves" on the organ, before buying her first tape--an Aretha Franklin cassette--at 16. Johnson had grown up in a musical family, loving rock and blues and singing in the gospel choir her mom put together. Then there was the convergence of Whyte's First Nations and Johnson's African-American backgrounds.
"Well, rock 'n' roll is the fusion of black and Indigenous people," posits Johnson on a conference call from East Van, with Whyte chiming in from Squamish, "so I think just us playing music together is kind of our ancestors communicating, for sure. And because we talk about our human experience, the experience of being a black or indigenous person kind of just rains through with the topics that end up getting bought up, just from us being us, and collaborating."
A year or two after connecting the two musicians formed Old Soul Rebel, which CBC Radio quickly named as one of Canada's best new bands. And judging by the sound of the self-titled five-track E.P. the duo released last year, that assessment was bang on. Recorded at the Tragically Hip's Bathouse Studio in Bath, Ontario, and "ghost produced" by the Hip's longtime tech guy Dave "Billy Ray" Koster, it shows both Whyte and Johnson to be stunningly soulful singers. And on the opening track, "Old Soul Rebel", it's nice to hear that they aren't afraid to crank up the guitars.
"Hell yeah!," declare Johnson, who handles the duo's six-string action. "You know, I grew up with rock and roll, blues, B.B. King, Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground, Mountain--I just really like the crunch of guitar and rhythm. So once I started playing electric it was kinda like, 'Let's turn up', and all of those influences came in. Jimi Hendrix is definitely in there. I don't roll like him, but in my mind I'm serving what he's serving."
On killer tracks like "One Day" and "Runs in the Family", Johnson's gutsy guitarwork shines, but then so does Whyte's tasty banjo playing. It wasn't as if the latter learned to play the instrument after hours of studying banjo greats like Earl Scruggs or Ralph Stanley, though.
"Who do I take my banjo licks from?," she ponders. "I mean, I actually got inspired to pick up the banjo from an ex-girlfriend I was dating, around the same time I met Chelsea. And so I had already been playing guitar for many years, and I think just being in the music industry, you know, you are who you hang out with, and if everyone around you is great at what they're doing then eventually you want to be just as great. So I definitely had to work at it. And I'm not the best lead guitar-slash-banjo player, but..."
As far as future recording goes, Old Soul Rebel say that they've been contacted by Matthew "Slim" Moon, founder of the American independent music label Kill Rock Stars, about working on their next single. In the meantime, highlights of their career so far include getting booked on upcoming festivals featuring acts like the Black Pumas (the Squamish Constellation Festival) and the Wu-Tang Clan (the Laketown Shakedown in Lake Cowichan). On July 1 they'll be taking part in the free Surrey Canada Day celebrations, with top-billed the Arkells.
The recent heightening of the duo's profile, gigwise, isn't the result of getting signed by any hot-shot management firm or anything.
"Well, that's just another highlight," says Whyte, "that somehow Chelsea and I have been managing ourselves, and doing it, I think, rather successfully. We've had a lot of really great offers, but we just think that we know ourselves best, and we'd like to guide our own careers."
One of the upcoming concerts Old Soul Rebel is most excited about playing is a show with JB The First Lady on Granville Island on June 24 that's copresented by the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival and the Talking Stick Festival.
"We love the Talking Stick Festival," notes Whyte. "A few years ago a friend of ours, Zaccheus Jackson, was running it, and because he's since passed, it just has so much power along with it. And now with Nimkish and Rob [artistic producers Nimkish Younging and Rob Thomson] running the festival, and all the other beautiful people that are a part of it, it has a heavy place in our hearts for sure."