After lending her stunning voice to bands like Primal Scream, A Certain Ratio and New Order for 30 years, this summer Denise Johnson was almost ready to release her debut solo album.
“It was her pet project for quite a few years,” says best friend Sue Langford. “She was so excited.
“She was self-releasing it, so she did everything. She organised the production and she chose the artwork. She was really thrilled, proud, excited.”
Then, at the end of July, Johnson died unexpectedly. She was 56.
Tributes flowed from stars like Primal Scream, Ian Brown, Johnny Marr, Bernard Butler, Peter Hook and 808 State. If their fans didn’t know Johnson’s name, they probably knew her voice from her guest and backing spots.
Now, Johnson’s solo album is coming out posthumously on Friday. It is both a reminder of the depth and force of her soulful voice, and a fitting way to ensure her name is front and centre at last.
“It does feel a bit like a gift now that she’s gone,” says Langford.
Johnson was best known for her vocals on tracks like Don’t Fight It, Feel It and Free from Primal Scream’s acclaimed albums Screamadelica and Give Out But Don’t Give Up. “Her voice elevated those two albums beyond what they otherwise might have been,” Langford says.
Johnson also appeared with A Certain Ratio over 30 years, and provided backing vocals on hits including Electronic’s Get The Message and Bernard Butler’s Stay.
Such was her reputation in musical circles that when Johnson died, former Suede guitarist Butler wrote on social media that he had heard her voice in his head while writing his first solo album. “I didn’t ask for a backing singer; I asked for Denise Johnson,” he said.
Johnson’s original idea for her own solo album, titled Where Does It Go, was to cover songs by female acts from her beloved native Manchester. That was until she realised there were none.
“In the end we went with songs that inspired her and great songs from Manchester,” says guitarist Thomas “Twem” Twemlow, who plays on the album. “She loved her city.”