Calling from outside Atlanta, where the Chicago native now lives, singer-songwriter Syleena Johnson laughed when asked about the challenges of creating her new album, “Rebirth of Soul,” being released Friday. “It was a very special project for me — for sure. But it’s always a challenge working with my dad,” said Johnson, talking about her father, veteran soul/blues singer and producer Syl Johnson.
“It wasn’t a challenge in a bad way. As a daughter, you obviously want him to approve what you do. My dad’s a perfectionist, so it was challenging in that respect, but it’s also because he comes from that era of music that makes him very judgmental about these particular songs. The music on this record was very precious to him, so he was very judgmental on how I approached it. But it was good, because, in a way, it was a learning experience for me. It was awesome to be able to reinterpret those artists for our time today. It was exciting to again work with my dad for the first time since his 1994 recording of ‘Back in the Game,’ when I was still in my teens!”
The senior Johnson produced “Rebirth of Soul,” and its songs span quite a range, selected by Syl in close cooperation with his daughter. Among the tracks are such classics as Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” and Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind,” plus some lesser-known pieces as Betty Everett’s “There’ll Come a Time,” Syl Johnson’s own “We Did It” and Bettye Swann’s “Make Me Yours.”
“A very important aspect of this album is that it doesn’t sound like anything out there right now,” said Johnson. “The difference is that I didn’t just go into the studio and re-record these songs, but worked with some amazing orchestral musicians from that classic period to give the record such a wonderful orchestral component.”
Among the collaborators — along with her father — were veteran Chicago bandleader, arranger and keyboardist Tom Washington and the late drummer Mo Jennings — who once played with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, — plus saxophonist Willie Henderson (who played with and produced he Chi-Lites, Barbara Acklin and Tyrone Davis).
While Johnson has worked in the contemporary genres of hip-hop and rap, the singer stressed that bringing this classic music to a younger generation “is the goal. I’m hoping it will serve to educate younger audiences.”
There is also an important political and cultural message that Johnson wanted to communicate with “Rebirth of Soul.” One of the songs on the album — “Is It Because I’m Black” — is something the singer called “a song for now, as it was a song for when my dad wrote it back in 1969. It absolutely is so important now because we are living history — as people always live history. While the song was written at a time when there was a lot of racial tension, obviously that’s still true today.”
However, Johnson pointed out that even the other tracks on the album — while not overtly political or message-based — “were written and performed by the original artists back in that previous time of racial tension. So they still resonate with audiences today, if for somewhat different reasons.”
Growing up in the south suburbs, Johnson said, “it was inevitable that I’d find a career in music. Chicago is the city of the blues, and it’s impossible not to be affected by the blues — especially growing up in the home I grew up in. People like Buddy Guy were constantly in and out of our house, making music all the time. I’ve been around great entertainers and musicians my whole life..”
Over the years, Johnson has worked with such music greats as Busta Rhymes, Common, Jermaine Dupri, Twista, R. Kelly and Kanye West — with whom she shared a Grammy nomination for doing vocals on the mega-hit “All Falls Down.” The song’s video received four VMA nominations.
In recent years Johnson has also branched out — appearing on such reality television shows as TV One’s “R&B Divas: Atlanta” and WE-TV’s “Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars.” This fall, she signed on as the co-host of a daily talk show, “Sister Circle,” which the entertainer said “really is stretching me in great new ways.”
And she added, “I can’t wait to get back to Chicago early next year,” when she will be appearing at City Winery in the West Loop in February.