Tumultuous times, suburban awakenings, music and more: Mango Groove’s Claire Johnston gives a rare inside glimpse at her career

2019-02-23 19:31
Claire Johnston

Cape Town – As one of the most iconic voices in South African music, Claire Johnston has featured on the soundtrack of most of our lives. 

From road trips to weddings, songs like Special Star and Dance Some More still get people moving and grooving but what was it like to join ten other people on stage and belt her heart out during a time of segregation and violence? 

Claire sat down with us and over a cup of coffee explained what is was like growing up in the spotlight, what she’s learnt about herself, and even what her favourite song is to perform. 


Claire Johnston

When Claire was a teenager, she joined Mango Groove during her final year of school, explaining, “I was an ordinary white girl growing up in suburbia when I joined Mango Groove and it made me wake up; I saw that there was a whole other world. That’s when things changed for me. I was at Greenside High and I guess in some ways, very sheltered.” 

She reflected, “I look back now and I was a child. At 17 you’re obviously still a child, I was still in school. I’ve done most of my growing up in Mango Groove. I’ve still got a lot of growing up to do, but that’s probably a project for all of us as we grow up (laughs). There’s the weight of history in terms of my story with the band. We’re looking back at everything because of the realisation of the 30th anniversary tour. There’s a sense of ‘my goodness, where has the time gone?’ I’ve been going back through my press clippings and reliving some of the memories. I’ve been realising what a journey it’s been, and I’ve been feeling quite nostalgic and it’s just a lovely feeling."

South Africa’s divided history made music a vehicle for expression and so much more, for which fans of Mango Groove have shown appreciation. Claire elaborated, “I think we’re lucky that we came together in a time in this country’s development when music was more than music; especially during those dark days. I joined the band in 1985 and the State of Emergency was in 1986. We were living through very tumultuous times. Music did mean more than it does now. We’ve been hearing that a lot from a lot of people, saying that a particular song got them through a tough time and made them feel optimistic.”

When the singer looked back at herself as the young woman who joined Mango Groove and later went on to study at Wits, she said, “There are quite a few things I wish I had known, some of them trivial and some of them quite profound. The main thing is just about being true to yourself. I don’t think I ever realised it was going to be alright. It was a very uncertain time. I wish I had a better sense of what was coming and that I was a part of something. Whereas I was just being a young woman reacting to things and feeling anxious and not trusting myself.”

She added, “Trusting myself is something I’m still working on. I was young and clueless (laughs). I suppose it’s appropriate to be that at that age (17).  Most of us wish we could go back, knowing what I know now, but that’s not the way it goes, otherwise we would all just have perfect people at the age of 17. I think if my 51-year-old self-went back and inhabited that 17-year-old’s body I would probably have said, ‘this is unrealistic, it’s never going to work. This is scary, you must make more realistic choices (laughs)’. Thank God I didn’t have a 51-year-old brain in a 17-year-old’s body (laughs)."

Claire Johnston

Here’s Claire on that magical moment when she heard herself on the radio for the first time, “It was a song called Two Hearts and it was a bolt out of the blue! I was at home, maybe even doing my homework and I think we knew that it had gone to radio and it was a big deal, it was a moment, a big moment.”

Mango Groove’s most recent album, 2016's Faces to the Sun, was four years in the making. Claire unpacked the tough life challenges that hit before the record’s release, saying, “Part of the reason it took so long was that John – who is now my ex-husband – and I separated. John was one of the founding members of Mango Groove. And then a few months after that my mother died. I was sort of reeling a bit, you know how it is, life sometimes comes at you like an avalanche, blow after blow. It’s not happy giving you just the one blow. So that album was born out of a lot of emotion and I think that it’s all the better for it, to be honest. In this particular case we wanted to do a sort-of South African song book; honouring our favourite South African artists with a collaborative aspect which we obviously got right. We took a long time researching it and being emotional about all of it. We took our time finding our collaborators and that was starting to sound good, we were really excited about it. And then John got so excited he started writing new material and became more collaborative in the writing sense. I got involved and the brass section came up with some beautiful lines. John will often be the guy with the idea and then it gets fleshed out by other people."

About working on songs with John, Claire explained that even she has had doubts about it all working out, “Over the years there have been times when I turned to him and said, ‘John I don’t understand this, there’s no hook.’ But I was forgetting what it would sound like when there’s a production behind it and if it is sung in a particular way. His instincts are usually impeccable. I’ve handed myself over to that fact.”

The singer’s favourite song is one that she once resented, Claire confessed, “It’s Special Star and I never thought I’d say it. Twenty or so years ago where I resented Special Star because we put out a new album – and with the arrogance I had in those days - I would say, ‘No! They have to hear the new music!’ And then you realise, hang on a moment, give the audience what they’re there for and in so doing, that’s the win. When you do Special Star – and let’s face it, it’s a bizarre song - it starts instrumentally, it starts slow and then speeds up to a gallop and then goes down again in come the vocals, it speeds up again and off it goes. Not to mention, it’s over six minutes long but when Nthemba starts playing the whistle and the audience just erupts…. then the song slows down, and the audience erupts again…it’s like oh my God, this is heaven, this is the song that makes me the happiest.”

She went on to say, “Now that I’m older and wiser I realise the win it is to have songs that mean so much to people, why not perform them for people? As an artist and you’re out promoting new music, you’re essentially promoting a new product and that is my job, but you’ve also got to be grateful for the history. The history is what’s gotten you to the point where you can have a new product because it’s tough out there. It’s not easy to come up with budgets and everything else that goes along with the business. It’s a different industry now. So, if you’ve got the support to do what you love, then you should be grateful.”

As someone who knows the business of music, the 51-year-old said about money, “We’ve gotten to the point now where we fund our own projects and so we’re really only answerable to ourselves but obviously given that we are investing heavily, we have to make things work. Look we’ve always wanted to do, what we do, well. There was a brief time when we were involved in a company and it didn’t last long, and it wasn’t for us. We found that they wanted to do all the creative stuff and they wanted us to do the business plans! Meanwhile, had gone to them for their business expertise So that didn’t last long and didn’t do well.”

She explained, “I think there’s more and more pressure on artists these days. You manage everything in your life now. When we started off with Mango Groove, you would have photographer do your photo-shoots, now everyone is their own photographer. Everyone is their publicist! And I’m not the world’s best, self-publicist, I prefer someone else saying those things for me or about me. I’m old school that way and I’m trying to change.” 

What makes Claire nervous? Not much, except being away from the band. She admitted, “I’m usually okay if it’s just something with the rest of the band but if I’m on my own or with just one other person then it makes me extraordinarily nervous. Because I’m so used to having nine other people on stage with me. It’s kind of my security blanket; I probably need the rest of the band to feel completely comfortable.”

Lastly, the veteran local performer gave us the inside scoop on who she would like to collaborate with next, saying, “I would love to work with Amanda Black. She’s so talented and she’s a nice person as well. I’ve co-hosted with her at event held in honour of Women’s Day and she was just effortless to work with. And she’s smart and she’s warm and she’s so talented! We also performed with her at a big festival in December in Lesotho and she’s stunning, I’m a big fan.”

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