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SCREENSHOT FROM THE VIDEO BELOW Set Your Mind Free is the second full-length record from local soul legend Roland Johnson. The newest album by St. Louis vocalist Roland Johnson is truly a collaborative affair between he and a pair of talented multi-instrumentalists, Kevin O’Connor and Paul Niehuas IV. Recorded inside of the latter’s Blue Lotus Recordings, Set Your Mind Free is an album of largely original material, all geared to highlight the skills of the 71-year-old local soul legend.

“We were building up close to twenty songs over the past eighteen months,” O’Connor says, “with the idea of taking the strongest ten and polishing those to be presented on the album.”

“Paul and I bounce between any of the rhythm section instruments,” O’Connor explains. “Paul added a nice french horn intro in ‘Now You’re Gone’ and I played bari sax on any song with horns.”

The record, which is the first in Blue Lotus’ three-year history as a label to be released on vinyl, comes with a host of players and contributors outside of the core trio, many with names that will be familiar to local music fans.

David Gomez (Tonina) pitched in on tenor sax, Adam Hucke (Funky Butt Brass Band) played trumpet, Mikail Andrea (Arcadia Dance Orchestra) played trombone. For the tunes with a string quintet, Abbie Steiling, Lindsey Wilken, Mark Hochberg, Dragomir Page and Andy Hainz chipped in. Local singer Emily Wallace sang two duets with Johnson,  and the River Kittens provided backing harmonies/hooks on four songs.

“‘Mean Mistreatin’ also features Tyler Stokes on guitar,” Neihaus adds. “Mike Graham played upright bass on ‘You Know You’re Mine.’ John Marshall played drums on ‘Now You’re Gone’ and I played tenor sax on a couple songs, too.”

Nine of the album’s ten tracks are originals, with the lone cover an interesting choice, Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend.” Collaborating on two of the tracks is Gene Jackson, another frequent contributor to Blue Lotus’ live shows and recordings.

Set Your Mind Free’s official October 25 release was preceded by a single and video, shot by Chris Boyd at the ever-videogenic Venice Cafe, which O’Connor suggests aligns with the overall positive message of the album’s title. “Plus,it helps that my wife works there and will happily play the part of the bartender,” he adds.

That kind of interpersonal connection is a hallmark of the new album, it seems.
As O’Connor explains, “Mattie from the River Kittens plays third base on my summer softball team in Tower Grove. One day in between innings I brought up the idea of having the River Kittens sing the hook to the Queen song. Roland was sitting in the control room the day they recorded. As soon as they began the ‘Ooh, you make me live’ hook, he jumped out of his seat with joy and shared a couple positive expletives. We were so happy with their harmonies and efficiency in the studio that we invited them to sing backup on a few more tunes.”

“Still Here,” one of the duets between Wallace and Johnson, is another example O’Connor cites of the album’s collaborative nature and deeply personal material.

“On a public level I wrote it as a duet about mutual appreciation, love, understanding and sticking around through the tough times,” he says. “Personally, I wrote it as an ode to my brother, whom I almost lost to a gunshot. He’s the reason I got into music in the first place. His fortitude and determination to stick around and recover inspired me to say ‘thanks’ for everything. I certainly couldn’t sing it, so I was lucky enough to have Emily and Roland do it for me.”

Niehaus, whose ownership of his own studio enables him to allow projects to gestate in their own time, adds that “Mean Mistreatin” has an interesting origin story as well, in that it was written and recorded live, all together and in the moment.

“The initial idea was to make it long enough to cut the best verses from it, so it would be around three and a half minutes,” he explains. “But when we went back a few weeks later to listen to find the best verses, we realized it was just its own valid and special thing and should be left at seven-plus minutes long. Roland improvised the verses on the spot live, with all of us just maintaining eye contact and groove in a circle.”

The sense that Johnson might be golden for a bit of spontaneous lyricism is confirmed by his own email about the project, filled with poetic platitudes and near-lyrics (Johnson declined a phone interview). Rather than parsing it out, here’s that note, in full, from the man himself (lightly edited for clarity).

FIRST: I believe in faith, and God has given me the sight and focus to set my mind free of closure.
SECOND: I was told Paul, Kevin, and I share a great deal of openness, business and musical traits along the way of this album. Can’t tell about others, because we together created this album.
THIRD: NOTHING is easy, you must have a thought, story, a tale, to make believe its been done, or will be done.
FOURTH: It came in a sense of freedom, the title and all. I felt submerged in my space and just let go after that. I was free in an imaginary dream which just formed.
Finally: We came with what we knew that worked for us: truth, and saying, “Yeah, we did it.”

Set Your Mind Free is now available on Blue Lotus Recordings’ official website. Pick it up here.
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