As Mango Groove get ready for their first ever live concert DVD recording, Claire Johnston tells us about losing her voice, reconnecting with fans, beating her nerves, spontaneity, Hong Kong, presidential inaugurations, being married to the group’s founder John Leyden, and staying sane.
Do you still get nervous before shows?
You have no idea – terrified. I occasionally ask myself: ‘Why still so nervous?’ I’m perhaps possibly more nervous now than when I was much younger. It’s a weird thing, isn’t it? I think possibly with experience you trust yourself more, so that would suggest you wouldn’t be nervous. But you also become more aware of what could go wrong, which is a vast number of things. Most of them never do go wrong, but you do occasionally focus on what might go wrong. Falling off the stage comes into the picture, your dress falling down comes into the picture – now that actually has happened. All of these little things.
And then there’s just a sense of taking things seriously and a sense of anticipation. I guess the balance to strike is to take it seriously while still being light about it and having fun. It’s the same thing with life: it should be serious, but quite light at the same time.
Do you think it helped being a teenager when you started with Mango Groove?
Definitely. I’d already been bitten by the acting and singing bug at the age of 10 when I’d had my first professional experience. By the time I joined Mango when I was in Matric, I knew I wanted to do this. And I think when you’re young, you’re so completely full of enthusiasm, so completely imaginative in all the right ways, in all the positive ways. And anything’s possible when you’re younger. When you’re older, you become aware of limitations and often limitations that are imposed from within. You start to conservatise, or grow cautious. So I think starting young was a very good thing.
How did you handle that initial rise to fame without getting messed up?
How do you know I’m not? [laughs] Oh I’ve had my issues, everyone does, and I’ve realised that life is complicated and potentially quite damaging. So we’ve had our issues, we’ve had our business scrapes, we’ve had personal problems – that’s what life throws at you. I like to think I’ve stayed vaguely sane. I’ve got really good friends, and a wonderful husband who obviously I met through Mango Groove, so my life is fairly ordered, fairly stable within the crazy industry.
Does working with your husband become all encompassing?
I suppose it is all encompassing, but what’s so lovely is that you have complete and utter understanding. So if I’ve had a bad day, chances are he might have had it as well. He’s just a very calm person, he’s got a lot of headroom emotionally. I panic at small things, which he doesn’t – he’s quite a big picture person. So I think we complement one another, we just share huge emotional support and trust, and I really think that does make a difference. I guess I don’t know any different – I’ve always worked with john.
Although the band never really went away, last year’s ‘Bang Your Drum’ was the first new Mango Groove album in almost 15 years. Did you feel some pressure going back into that realm?
There was definitely a sense of ‘Where’s the time gone?’ We didn’t realise how much time had gone by. It was only when we finally set up a website and we got all these lovely comments with people asking: ‘Where have you been?’ that got us thinking: ‘Well, what do you mean? We’re still here’. The perception was that Mango had stopped doing what we do – meanwhile we’d just put it on the backburner and focused on other musical ventures.
So we took it incredibly seriously while having fun, which is what music should be about really. The moment you take it too seriously, it does lose its magic. People aren’t going to buy into what you’re doing if it’s too heavy and too self-conscious. So there was a sense of reconnecting with our roots, going back to what drove us in the first place, which was just loving what we do. So I like to think it was a mixture of being fairly conscious of what we were doing while adding a big dollop of spontaneity and fun.
You supported the album with a major national tour. How did that compare to those early ’90s roadtrips?
It was very similar actually. The feelings were all the same but what I loved is that our audiences have grown. We’ve got people in their 70s, we’ve got their children, we’ve got their children’s children, and what struck us so much was how many young children know Mango Groove’s music and that was very much through their parents and, dare I say, their grandparents. It’s just lovely how music continues and becomes part of peoples’ lives. It’s very special to feel that so strongly.
Looking back on your career, is there anything that stands out in your memory?
Without question, the 1994 inauguration of Nelson Mandela. That was incredible. We were satellite-linked to the world, but more important for us was standing on that stage and looking out to the crowd at Union Buildings, seeing the seething, seething hordes of people and that sense of change. It was all so positive and full of promise. That was an amazing day. I remember I wasn’t very well – I had a stomach bug – but it didn’t matter, it sort of faded away because the energy was so incredible.
And then another one that was great was probably the handover of Hong Kong to China, in something more than just a musical experience. It was part of the world changing, hopefully improving, so that was amazing too.
Now, back to the present. You had to postpone the taping of your live concert DVD to September because you lost your voice earlier this year. That must be a worst nightmare situation.
It really is. It took me back to the very first time I lost my voice very very drastically. It was 1988, I was 20 years old, and we were just about to start recording our very first album so it was a very big deal. We’d been on the road a lot during the December and late nights, early morning, lots and lots of singing, smoky nightclubs, and basically my voice just went away. For an entire yet I had no voice and Mango Groove continued without me, doing instrumental songs in the clubs. It was quite a crisis for me – I went to several doctors who shook their heads and looked grave and didn’t have any answers for me. Eventually I found this doctor in Pretoria who saw that my tonsils were in a terrible state so he decided to take them out, thinking that it would make a difference. So while they were down there taking out my tonsils, they also removed a nodule.
So when I lost my voice recently, I thought: ‘I can’t believe it. Why now?’ And I thought I was exempt from that. But of course, one is never exempt. If you get the flu and you sing on top of that – which is what I had to do – your voice goes away. And there’s nothing you can do. We visited a specialist and he was very concerned that, not only would I not be able to sing, but that I would do serious damage, which was a real worry. So we realised about a week before the show that we had no choice. It’s not just a concert, it’s a live DVD shoot. What’s the point of having a singer who can’t sing?
The short answer is: I felt terrible and, above all, so responsible. We had a film crew booked, everybody was ready and organised, so I felt like I was letting everyone down, knowing at the same time it was pointless carrying on without a voice.
With everything back on track, what can we expect from the show?
It’s going to be fun. Mango is all about fun. We have our serious moments – ‘Another Country’ ballad-type moments – but most of it is just huge energy and fun. What we’ve picked up from working so much live again, is how people love it and come away positive, smiling, feeling good. And I think that’s always a good thing in this complicated, crazy world. I know I always go away smiling from a Mango show, feeling lighter and happier.