by Ellen C. Warren
“Music is what I do.”
It is not the answer to a question. It is a pronouncement. An explanation. Her big upright bass, leaning against the wall, stands witness.
Musician, vocalist, artist, songwriter Johanna Rose has thrown her heart into her greatest love, music. And even when she is not in the act of making it, music flavors everything she does. But that’s another story. First let’s get to the music.
When mom and dad Rose moved the family from Milwaukee’s East Side to Shorewood the one real benefit, according to Johanna, was “a great orchestra program. I started playing bass when I was nine years old. And it has certainly changed my life, in unforeseen ways.” Eighteen years later she plays upright bass in four different groups with occasional guest spots in others. These are not her first, and will probably not be her last bands. When you check out the array of styles in which she plays, you can’t help but wonder where she might go next.
The band that she calls “kind of my baby” is her own New Boyz Club. An eight-piece group which lists its genre as glitter jazz folk punk on their Facebook page. Johanna writes for, plays and sings with this manifestation of her talents. They were recently videotaped for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s “Tap Milwaukee.”
Her brother, Will Rose, plays drums in New Boyz Club. Johanna sings and plays bass behind his rapping in his experimental hip hop group, Airo Kwil.(Check them out at www.facebook.com/AiroAiroAiro/)
Another group she writes for is Ruth B8R Ginsburg. As you might guess from the name, this all female band has a political tilt. The six members are all vocalists. Johanna’s bass complements keyboards, drums, fiddle, and guitar. (Find them at www.facebook.com/ruthb8rginsburg) Ruth B8R Ginsburg was interviewed and performed on Riverwest Radio in early January.
Bluegrass is a genre that can hardly do without an upright bass. Johanna lends her harmonious plucking and voice to the bluegrass sounds of Thistledown Thunders. (Look into this four-part group at www.facebook.com/ThistledownThunders)
Johanna’s activism is another aspect of the “Music is what I do” story. Her dad, whose death in May of 2015 deeply affected her, was a social activist. He played roles in the labor movement and the civil rights movement. In her words, “His degree of activism was very strong, which is what I’ve been trying to make happen with music.”
She shares information and opinions about music and Milwaukee in a piece she authored in December of 2015 called “5 Things To Remember About Milwaukee 2015; A Candid Op-Ed.” In it she asserts, “We have an incredible music scene. I am confident that there is a way to harness it in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.”
She continues, “Music has and will change the world. Music in the 1960s created a culture of love during the beginning of the civil rights movement. It forged a culture of freedom. In Milwaukee, it can create a culture of compassion, love and solidarity.”
Towards these ends, Johanna’s activism has involved her as a co-organizer for two different fund and awareness-raising festivals. “Arte Para Todos and Riverwest FemFest are fitting examples of 100% volunteer based events and organizations that channeled music for change,” she writes.
Arte Para Todos (Art For Everyone) came together in response to the defunding of art and music programming in the schools. Last year’s festival ran three days in three different neighborhoods and featured seventy performances at fifteen venues. It raised over $21,000. Art programming at three local schools benefitted. Johanna is involved in the planning for this year. It will take place in April. Look for their website.
FemFest, billed as “celebrating talented and strong women through music, art and poetry, ran from January 21 to 24 at venues around Riverwest. Johanna played with New Boyz Club on Saturday and Ruth B8R Ginsburg on Sunday. Over forty acts, all of which have some female membership, were showcased in this annual weekend community festival. This was its second year. The funds raised will go to Milwaukee Women’s Center and DRAM (Date Rape Awareness Milwaukee).
The exception to her exclusive play of the upright bass happens when Johanna volunteers for Girls Rock Camp and Ladies Rock Camp. “I prefer not to play electric bass. I only play it when I teach it. But I don’t like to play it in my bands,” she says. “I love upright bass. I like bowing a lot, the feel of it. It’s the one for me.”
Johanna began hanging out in Riverwest going to cafes and attending punk performances while she was still in high school. She moved here when she was eighteen and started playing with a band called the Candliers. “That was sort of my introduction to the Riverwest music scene,” muses Johanna.
A few years later she headed to Portland, Oregon where she lived “on and off” for the next five years. “I played some music out there, too,” she says, adding, “It’s easier to grow up away from home.” Her dad’s illness drew her, and her other siblings, back in 2013.
“It’s been really awesome to be back in Milwaukee. I’ve met a whole bunch of new musicians…that I didn’t know when I lived here before, as well as reconnected with old friends and people I used to play music with,”she shares. “Yeah, it’s just been wonderful.”
Her home in Riverwest, shared with musician friend, Alex, plants her exactly where she wants to be. “I feel like you have all the resources all around you. You leave your house for twenty minutes and you can accomplish so much, ‘cause everyone around here is trying to create. So there’s this constant sense of collaboration in this neighborhood that I love!” Johanna throws in a final thought, “We really get a lot of sh*t done, considering that it snows for about five months of the year. It’s ridiculous.”
Her goals include a lot of recording and a lot of touring. “I want to be touring all the time,” she exclaims. So, catch her, live, while you can. It’s not just her hair that’s on fire!