Beverly Johnson shows up to Assemble Sound looking like a million bucks and carrying a chilled bottle of champagne. She's already won me over with her powerful updated R&B music, but I guess she just wants to ensure our interview is a magical time. She is confident, but not cocky. When I tell her I no longer drink, she's nonplussed, and it means there's more beverage for Garret Koehler, who's opened up the Assemble space in his newly minted musicians' collective/educational space, in this beautiful, 120-year-old church located right across the street from that dog park in Corktown. We're listening to tracks through monitor speakers in a makeshift studio in what's currently the second floor, but will soon be knocked down to restore the space to its former splendor.
Studios are always exciting spaces when you don't spend too much time in them, and I get the pleasure of Johnson singing along to her own music, or showing me what is missing from a track by filling it in live, on the spot. The 25-year-old Johnson records and performs as Bevlove. I contacted her after hearing her distinctive guest on Edward Elecktro's stuttering, strange "Long Live Detroit City," which I posted as a quick blog toward the end of March. When a few trolls critiqued the video, I was impressed at how she sweetly dissed and diffused them, in replying to the post online.
In the 30 years I've written about music, I've spent a lot of time up close with musicians, some of whom became stars in spite of their own wishes, or habits. Johnson tells me some cheesy shit about love and what the music industry most needs today in the course of our conversation, but it only comes off that way looking at it now, on paper. She actually never comes across as cheesy or contrived. And even though she self-promos a lot on Twitter, well, that's what Twitter is for when you're a struggling musician, why fake anything else? "Come to my shows and share my music so I can give up scalps forever," she wrote the other day (she does hair for a living). Bevlove seems to me to simply be direct, and mostly unafraid. And now, here she is explaining how the song "Oxydize" is about a relative who overdosed, and she's telling me of it just matter-of-factly.
This is someone with actual star power and copious talent, whose sound is a compelling blend of the '90s and now. She's making pop music, but it doesn't sound like the pop music on the radio. She's openly disdainful of contemporary radio pop/R&B — one look at her Twitter and you can see this. Her magnetic personality ensures that upward of 100 people regularly show up to her monthly "Bevlove Connection" shows at the Old Miami, where she not only performs but shares the work of the peers she's excited about as well. Her self-released CDs are available at these gigs, and at the salon she works at.
Bevlove puts out her own music, and books her own shows. In two weeks' time, the third iteration of her festival, Americana, takes place in a lovely house space in Woodbridge. Americana is brilliantly named, because Bevlove is African-American, something that "Americana" — which at this point is shorthand for corny-ass folks in matching Deadwood vests and hats making watered-down roots music for other former theater majors (and the bros who love them) — almost never is.
Metro Times: Let's cut to the chase. Why aren't you internationally famous yet?
Bevlove: You know, I ask myself that every day I have to work. Actually, it's because I'm so underground. I do everything myself, and with my friends. And we don't seek out ways to get famous. We just keep making and doing things we like to do. I would love to be famous though; I've always wanted to be.
MT: When did you first realize you have a powerful voice?
Bevlove: I was raised in a family of singers. My dad is the lead singer of two bands: the Saints and Pearl Handled Necktie, while my mom has always been my choir director. When I was in preschool, I was chosen to sing "I Believe I Can Fly," and I remember everyone standing up when I got to fly-iiiiiyee-iiiyye (remember that part). I've wanted every solo since.
MT: You mentioned singing in school and in church, but were you ever in either groups or did you do any recordings as a teenager?
Bevlove: I was in the Courville Concert Choir, and I was in Harp and Vocal at Cass Tech, which is the oldest choir in the city. Also, this is funny, but Big Sean went to school with me, so we used to go to the studio and make hooks all the time. And he would send them off to wherever. That's my earliest recording experience, making hooks. They don't really do that anymore — they have rappers sing the hooks themselves — but in the early 2000s, singers used to sing those.
MT: Can you demonstrate?
Bevlove: They would be really simple, like, (singing) "Boy, you know I love you" — you know, something real simple. But that's where I got my experience with how loud to sing in the mic, the difference between singing live and singing in the studio. Even though it didn't go anywhere, it was a lot of good practice.
MT: Well, Big Sean went somewhere.
Bevlove: Oh yeah, he went everywhere. (laughs) I'm really proud of him, actually.
MT: Are you still in touch a little?
MT: That's what happens. People generally only have room for —
Bevlove: One on the train. Yes. No hard feelings, though.
MT: Your previous collaborations have been more on the dance/electronic spectrum, and you mentioned that your next album will be an R&B record. Why is that?
Bevlove: Because R&B is missing from the radio! And I'm not exactly sure that we'll get on the radio. Right now, it seems like you have to be bad to be on the radio, but, it seems like there's a rule that if you're good, you're underground. But I know that people are missing love, people are missing love songs, people are missing throwing it on and crying about something, or throwing it on and feeling in love like (her own song) "No Better Than This" just encapsulates when you're in love, exactly how that feels. That's how Stevie Wonder used to make you feel and that's how Michael Jackson used to make you feel and that's how SWV made you feel. Like you would turn it on and you very much could see the person that you were in love with. I like singing those songs and I like seeing the crowd respond to them. And I just think that people need, I think right now love is necessary.
MT: What can you tell us about the performers at Americana III?
Bevlove: Britney Stoney: One of my best friends and one of my favorite artists. She makes her own way and is so clear in herself. She's always been an OG, and we're the same age!
Sheefy McFly: My friend and fellow Rager Haus member. We just released a project together called Sonic Disruption, and he was a featured artist in Red Bull (House of Art) cycle 10. He's also a rapper, producer, and party host; he's a vanguard of the scene.
Mic Phelps: The best rapper in Detroit. Last year he asked me to be Nicki Minaj to his Drake at Creepy Cheapy, and I'm hoping we do it again this Halloween.
Crack Killz: One of the new scene curators. He started the Crackhouse a few years ago, and that's where a lot of people may have first heard me.
Sol'le: An electric rapper. This girl was made to fill stadiums. I love going on after her because you can feel the crowd's excitement. She lives this rap thing.
MT: What's Americana all about?
Bevlove: It's a music festival in Woodbridge made for real Detroiters. It happens at the same time as Movement, because we remember when the Movement festival used to be free, but now it costs nearly $300 to attend. This is the third year. It's about redefining the idea of what being an American is, especially with all the racial tension going on right now. As a young black person, it's hard to identify as American sometimes. But that's what we are. My family has been in America for centuries and generations. We have helped to build this city and didn't leave when everyone else did. This land is truly our land — all of ours!
Americana III happens on Sunday, May 24. It is an all-day affair, and in addition to Bevlove the performers are Sol'le, Mic Phelps, Britney Stoney, Sheefy McFly, and Crack Killz. 4304 Trumbull St., Detroit; $10 admission includes free beer and something called "liberty punch."
Mike McGonigal is music editor of the Detroit Metro Times.