Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Buzz Girl

Rebekah shows us how to breathe.

By Franklin Soults

APRIL 6, 1998:  When Rebecca Johnson graduated from Shaker Heights High School, on the East Side of Cleveland, in 1990, she was a quiet, religious girl with strong but unfocused dreams of making a name for herself. Eight years and scores of changes later, the 25-year-old one-time office worker, actress/waitress, visual artist, and designer is now Rebekah -- a bright-voiced singer/songwriter from LA who started a mini press buzz even before the March 10 release of her debut album, Remember To Breathe (Elektra).

The disc -- a timely Lilith Fair blend of folk, rock, pop, and R&B -- has prompted critics to compare Rebekah with such female chartbusters as Jewel and Sarah McLachlan. Part of the attraction is the album's confident range of styles. It moves effortlessly from mood to mood, slipping from the bright, flirty pop of the lead single, "Sin So Well," to the more traditional singer/songwriter ruminations of the title cut, "Remember To Breathe." The song subjects are just as divergent. "Sin So Well" is about achieving heavenly ecstasy through the pleasures of the flesh; "Remember To Breathe" examines the head-spinning contradiction of trying to go through life's mundane rituals while outrageous crimes and injustices jump out of the daily headlines.

But the buzz Rebekah's been generating isn't born of skill alone. After all, the album title could also refer to the head-spinning rapidity with which she moved from total obscurity to European promo tours and Spin photo shoots. It not only puts the lie to the old chestnut that there's no such thing as overnight stardom, it even salvages the older chestnut about an innocent girl being swept to fame and fortune without any craven desire on her own part.

"Nobody thought I was going to be a singer, because I never sang in front of anybody," says Rebekah over the phone from Los Angeles. "I sang in church and I sang in front of my family, but none of my friends, no one at school, knew that I even sang. They're all, like, 'You have a deal? Doing what?' "

In truth, she seems as surprised by her musical success as her friends were. "It was kind of a snowball effect. It was my goal just to record what I had written . . . but then someone from a small label happened to be in the studio one day, and they happened to hear some of my stuff getting transferred down from a tape. That set the ball rolling. I thought, 'Whatever, I'm waitressing now, so I'll just keep working.' Then Sylvia Rhone at Elektra heard it and really loved it. I was really blown away by her passion and her commitment. That was the end of '96. I signed my deal in March of '97."

You have to wonder whether Rhone and the others were responding just to what they heard or to what they saw as well: a beautiful young black woman whose skin color set her apart from the Lilith horde glutting the market. Remember To Breathe addresses her race directly at least once: "It's a minor miracle to make your graduation/When nowhere in your world is there a hint of validation," sings Rebekah plaintively on the album closer, "Little Black Girl" -- a cut that her veteran pop-rock producer, Matthew Wilder, encouraged her to push as deep as possible.

Still, she balks at any attempt to make her color a major issue. "I am black. You can't escape the fact that there aren't very many black women making this kind of music. But music is ultimately about music. When someone likes something, the color of the person who's singing it shouldn't matter."

As naive as this noble idea may be, she has a point. For one thing, her black heritage comes through most in the subtle elements, like the confident rhythmic swing that propels the album's best cuts (the rocking "I Wish I Could," the funky "Love Trap"), a swing surely nurtured by a childhood steeped in Earth Wind & Fire as well as James Taylor. Her heritage also comes out in the Baptist upbringing that gives "Sin So Well" its sly sacrilegious force -- "It's not exactly my father's favorite number," she admits.

Certainly race seems no issue at all when you listen to the album's ambivalent mix of assertiveness and self-doubt, timidity and ambition -- a mix that marks it as being one with Jewel and the Gang. These contradictions are common among a generation of young, middle-class women of all races who grow up expecting sexual and economic independence yet who come of age feeling anxious and bewildered about their chances of making it in this bigger, freer world. For Rebekah, the new folk pop encapsulates these contradictions better than any style out there. "This is just the music that comes out of me. It's what I feel."

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