It's a typical Wednesday night at the Rhino Market in the Freemore West neighborhood. Derrick Hines is setting up the open mic area with a microphone stand, speaker and soundboard, and hooking up his electric guitar and drum pad. Hines' Rhino Market Open Mic is one of singer-songwriter Randi Johnson's weekly performance staples.
Johnson, who was named by Creative Loafing as one of 10 acts to look forward to in last year's annual Music Issue, has found her sound and performance style through Charlotte's rich and varied open-mic circuit over many years. She describes her sound as Motor City Grunge. With childhood influences including the Detroit soul music she heard in her household to her coming-of-age soundtrack during the grunge era of the mid-'90s, Johnson has created a sound that is distinct and all her own.
On this Wednesday, she unleashes her acoustic-based Motor City Grunge sound on Rhino's open-mic regulars. As patrons enjoy conversations and libations, Johnson and Hines put on a show for the few tables of friends who have convened at the neighborhood bodega.
Johnson's black Taylor acoustic guitar is pressed against her bright red Door Dash T-shirt, making it (and her) the star of the show from about 8:40 to 9:30 p.m. Soulful, grungy covers of Janet Jackson, Prince and Radiohead songs mixed in with some Randi Johnson originals fill the nearly hour-long set. The stand-out cover is her rendition of Prince's "Beautiful Ones." Johnson has found a beautiful way to make the Purple One's track all her own.
Open mics are the only way you can experience Johnson's Motor City Grunge sound right now. She currently does not have any recordings of her work available, although in the past you could find them on Soundcloud under the name Randi Johnsoon. You may still find a lo-fi track or two floating around the interwebs, but a proper LP, EP or mixtape is nowhere to be found.
There's a reason for this: It's hard for Johnson to complete long-term projects like full albums or EPs because of a health issue she has dealt with since she was a teen.
Johnson suffers from borderline personality disorder and major depression. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, borderline personality disorder is a mental illness that is characterized by difficulties regulating emotion. People who experience BPD feel emotions intensely and for extended periods of time, and it is hard for them to return to a stable baseline after an emotionally triggering event. This difficulty can lead to impulsivity, poor self-image, stormy relationships and intense emotional responses to stressors. Major depression, also known as clinical depression, is a mental illness that exhibits a constant sense of hopelessness and despair. It can be difficult to work, study, sleep, eat or enjoy friends and activities when dealing with major depression, according to Web MD.
Although these diagnoses can be tough to deal with, Johnson's music helps her get by. "My favorite songs to cover serve a full range of emotion for me, from elation to sadness to hope, anger and so on," Johnson says. Those songs include "Hurt," by Nine Inch Nails; "Beautiful Ones," by Prince; and "Karma Police," by Radiohead. And in one of her own songs, she sings, "Didn't mean to bring you down / But this is how you found me. / If you couldn't pull me up, remember I never asked. / The bottom is the only place where I don't feel like falling. / The surface of the earth up there is full of little traps.
Before Johnson found music as a coping mechanism, drugs and thoughts of death were her ways of coping with major depression for a short period of time.
Johnson attempted suicide in 1997. She was just 19 at the time. "I felt very alone and repressed creatively, this was before I got my guitar," Johnson explains. "This was a time before I knew I could have a life that revolved around storytelling and music." She was working as a receptionist, a job that felt like a dead end to her. "I felt stifled by the routine of being a receptionist with little expressive outlet, which rendered me numb," she says.
That stifled and numb feeling pushed her to a decision that made death seem a reasonable alternative. A cocktail of many pills and hard liquor was a part of the plan — she would fall asleep and never wake up. She remembers that moment as though it were yesterday: "I started to become scared after the last bottle of pills were swallowed. I looked in the mirror and saw my bright bloodshot red eyes and immediately regretted what I had done." She pauses. "I was definitely dying, I felt my life slipping away; not a sick feeling but a terror and shock." She called her cousin, who was a medical doctor, and asked him if she could die from the pills she'd taken. She pauses, then allows, "He confirmed that I could. Then I passed out."
When Johnson came to, she was in the hospital with her wrists bound to keep her from pulling out her tubes. Coming to in the hospital was the start of the period of shame and stigma that comes with a mental illness diagnosis. To avoid that shame, Johnson returned to thoughts of death and drug use for a brief time. She experimented with cocaine, marijuana and cigarettes. But she eventually grew tired of leaning on drugs to self-medicate, and in 2000 Johnson shifted her self-medication to learning how to play the bass and eventually the guitar.
Music literally saved Johnson's life. "At the suggestion of a friend, who was telling me to find a good habit to replace the bad ones, I got serious with learning an instrument," she says.
It took Johnson a year to learn to play the guitar. But once she did, she was off and running. In 2007, after living in the Washington, D.C., area for 21 years living a fast-paced life, Johnson decided to come south to Charlotte to slow down. Charlotte became the place where Johnson opened up to the idea of being a musician full time.
Her first gig was an open mic at the Evening Muse. "The Muse was very supportive, even when I forgot lyrics," Johnson remembers. "The audience was maybe too nice or receptive. Very much like Showtime at the Apollo in bizarro world. The more I messed up, the more applause and revelry." She laughs. "I didn't care their intent, I just loved the attention, because I was lonely. I didn't know anyone in Charlotte except for one married flight attendant friend who didn't like people and social settings like the open-mic scene."
The open mic at the Evening Muse pulled Johnson into Charlotte's thriving acoustic music scene. She has since held down open mics at the Comet Grill, McGlohon Theater, Sam Ash, JackBeagle's, Legion Brewery and the Rhino. Johnson's current staple open mics are Mondays at Legion Brewery from 7:30-10:30 p.m., Wednesdays at Rhino at some time between 7:30-11 p.m., and later Wednesdays at Jack Beagle's from 8-11 p.m.
Initially, Johnson's plan was to transition from an open-mic performer to the life of a working singer-songwriter, but with every bit of momentum, her mental health has stalled her progress. One example was when she began teaching music.
"I was approached by Kylene Edsen at Sam Ash [music store] to become an instructor since I was a regular at the Wednesday open mics and they didn't have a female guitar teacher at the time," Johnson says. "I was very happy to accept, but after a year of mismanaging time and money, I began missing appointments and was eventually let go."
The teaching fiasco is just a microcosm of how major depression and borderline personality disorder bring disarray into the lives of those suffering from them, Johnson says. "Some days I am unable to keep track of time and everything seems to overwhelm me and I shut down to reboot," she says. "And that's not conducive for most schedules."
Although mental health has made it tough for Johnson to get her Motor City Grunge sound into a recorded project, she continues to dedicate her time to getting it out through open mics and busking. She wants people to hear her music. And people should be able to hear it. Because she's that good.
These days, Johnson lives and works out of her van. She calls it "the van life," which she describes as "a community of minimalists who love to drive around and see people, places and things in real time." This way, she can save money to record an EP and also be more mobile, so she can quickly pivot and perform when she's on an emotional upswing.
It takes a lot to make the van life work. Juggling friends' couches, hotels, Airbnbs and 24-hour gym memberships to take care of needs like food, sleep and showering involves a lot of mental energy. Her hope is to upgrade from to an RV with a fridge and a little stove or microwave to make van life a little easier.
But with the gains in financial savings that come with living the van life, there are setbacks, and those setbacks impact Johnson's mental health significantly. She is unable to get good nights of restful sleep and cannot bring along her furry companion, a 2-year-old Yorkie named Atticus Wiggle-Bottom Johnson. Living the van life is scary.
"I guess its a hyper awareness that takes over when you sleep outside, or maybe just those few occurrences when police tried to bust my windows open and shine their mega-watt lights into the window to tell me to 'get,'" she says. "It becomes the kind of sleep you have with one eye open." But for now, she says, "I wouldn't trade it for the world. I love sleeping a few feet from the shore line and listening to the waves on a balmy summer night."
When lack of sleep gets problematic, Johnson reaches out to friends or rents an Airbnb. "Mentally, the sleep deprivation will manifest in exaggerated brattiness and irrational grumpiness, she says. "Typical baby stuff. And sometimes to the emergency room for suicidal ideation."
Johnson eventually hopes to get her Yorkie back and travel to Canada, where the heat is less of a problem for van living. She hopes people there may love her music enough to help her make more of it. What she wants most of all is to go into a real studio and record her Motor City Grunge sound in a quality more people can enjoy. Right now, though, Johnson is beginning to think maybe music is just a hobby. She also works in the gig economy with Door Dash, does nannying, house sitting, cleaning homes and schools and working for the designated driver service Dryver. None of it is sustainable.
But thinking about sustainability has never been a part of Johnson's make-up. With her diagnosis, Johnson, like so many others, has to take what life throws her one day at a time. But she won't allow her mental health issues to take control. "Major depression and/or borderline personality disorder do not define me," she says. "Maybe I can liken it to a weak wifi signal that interrupts my Black Mirror marathon. My life is like the only show I can watch besides the static. Often I get frustrated and want to crack the screen, shut off my brain, rip the plugs from the wall, or whatever. Sometimes even launch the TV out of the window, but the show is just so good and I want to see how it ends. I'd like to know how it all works out, but more often than not, I can never predict the outcome of day to day."
Although Johnson's days can be unpredictable, her curiosity, faith and hope keep her going. "Love is in there too," she says. "I'm just not sure who or what it encompasses." She pauses. "Maybe it encompasses everything and everyone capable of reflecting love."
(If you'd like to reflect love to Randi Johnson, catch her sharing her Motor City Grunge sound at Legion Brewery, Rhino or JackBeagle's. Once you hear her music, you will not forget it. You may even fall in love with it. If you'd like to help Johnson record her music, contribute at www.paypal.com/randijohnson.)
Watch Randi Johnson perform "Dramatical" on Charlotte Star Room: