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Claire Johnston: Back in the Groove
20 Mar 2010
Ryan Calder

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IT’S 9 am on Monday morning, and my colleague Galen Schultz and I make our way to the food court of Gateway Shopping Centre, carrying video cameras and dictaphones. Claire Johnston of Mango Groove is instantly recognisable. Wearing a funky tartan cap, the famous blonde singer is sitting with her EMI rep Kevin at a coffee table in the food court as we approach. They stand to greet us and I immediately note her black and white jersey, which I refrain from mentioning, given the poor run of form of the Sharks in recent weeks. Still, I like that she’s thought about it. When in Rome...

We find the quietest corner of the busiest shopping centre in Umhlanga and get to the interview, which has come about after the release of Mango Groove’s latest studio album, Bang the Drum. The album is the band’s first in 14 years.

“Very good question, why now?” Johnston reflects. “Mango Groove never split up, but we all took a break to pursue various projects which we had all wanted to do for a while. You get to a point where you love what you do, but probably don’t appreciate it as much as you should, and that’s a good time to take a break and explore different things.”

Johnston was 17 when she joined the group 25 years ago, and after Mango Groove’s success went on to pursue a solo career which saw the birth of three albums.

“But slowly, over the past seven years, we had each started feeling those stirrings again, which was nice. It was nice to know that we were ready.”

Johnston highlights the launch of the band’s website as a catalytic point in deciding to record again. “It was amazing once the website was up, the response we got from people asking where we’ve been and what we’ve been doing.

“We did some shows in Gauteng and people went crazy for songs like Hometalk and Special Star, and we knew the magic was still there. That’s why we’re in this industry: it’s a feel-good industry as much as it is a business industry.”

Johnston knows the hardships of making a career as a musician, having recorded Fearless, a solo album in the UK, which she admits was very different from Mango Groove and “refreshing on a personal level”, but which wasn’t received well in South Africa. She then recorded Africa Blue, a collection of songs “which have influenced me and which I am fond of” which were closer to the sound of Mango Groove.

“I like to think of my solo career as running parallel with Mango. It can be done, you just have to be savvy about it.”

For now, however, Johnston’s focus is clearly on Bang the Drum, Mango Groove’s new 16-track offering which clocks in at close to 70 minutes. Recording the album “was like coming home,” Johnston reflects, “because it was in the same studio where we recorded our first album. They’d changed some of the wallpaper and some of the technology was new, but it really felt familiar.”

Out of the studio has come an album that is typically Mango Groove. “People ask us who our target market is. I just say ‘well, everyone’. Perhaps I’m naive, but I like to think that music can do that, that it can stretch across all sorts of boundaires.”

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