Entertainment freelancer finds inspiration in pain, joy, love, hope and sorrow

Michelle Johnson poses for a photo in her home on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. WADE VANDERVORT

Michelle Johnson has been performing since she was 3 years old. Growing up in musical theater, Johnson got the opportunity to tour as a backup singer for rock stars and play on Broadway before moving to Las Vegas, where she produces events for conventions and headliners, performs her own shows and works as a singer-songwriter for Diva Las Vegas Productions.

Do you have any recent news you’d like to share?

My upcoming show, “Salute to the Great Singer Songwriters,” will be at 8 p.m. Aug. 9 at Myron’s Cabaret Jazz at the Smith Center. It’s a concert of hits that pays tribute to Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Smokey Robinson, Joni Mitchell, Glenn Campbell, Carole King and many others. It is one of my favorite self-produced shows. Also, my soon-to-be released single “I’m All In” will be featured in the show. I just finished shooting a music video for that song. I am really excited about it! It should be up on my website next month.

You’ve worked with many big names in the industry. What is the most exciting project you’ve taken on?

It’s a tie between providing the backing choir for Barbra Streisand’s “Back to Brooklyn” concert at the MGM Grand Garden Arena and getting to sing backups on “Hey Jude” with Paul McCartney at the Hollywood Bowl. Both were unforgettable, exciting moments alongside incredible legends in my field. They were both very gracious and kind. There’s nothing better than finding that your heroes are just regular people.

Are you more involved with the business side or the artistic side of your production company?

My business is artistic in nature, so I am always creating and producing new projects, from live shows to recordings. However, there is a lot of logistical planning that happens in entertainment. I would say the behind-the-scenes work, like creating budgets and production schedules, contracting talent, designing and securing staging and lighting, booking travel and so on takes up the bulk of my time. The creative magic you see on the stage happens in the blink of an eye, but the work that goes into it is time-consuming and complicated. It’s my job to make beautiful shows and big productions for corporate events look easy to create.

How has the local entertainment scene evolved since you landed in Las Vegas?

Today there is less live entertainment on a local level. Many lounges have closed, DJ’s have replaced live music and large-scale production shows, and many shows are outsourced and not part of the hotel itself. The change from having a stable, main showroom gig means that today’s local entertainers often have to cobble together a living by staying versatile and open to different kinds of work in multiple formats.

On the upside, the changes in entertainment have spurred entertainers like me to create their own shows, and to make a name for themselves by creating a personal brand. I am blessed at the reception I have gotten here, and I am continually surprised when people know who I am because they have seen one of my shows.

What are some of the challenges and rewards that come with a life in entertainment?

The biggest challenge is work-life balance. Entertainers are usually working on holidays, and we have no official “day off” or work week because our schedules are often fluid. As freelancers, we have to be ready to jump at opportunities which often require planning and preparing in the day and working late into the evening on any given day, and that makes it hard to plan down time or maintain a healthy sleep schedule.

The biggest rewards are the onstage connection we make with the audience and the joy of making a living doing something we truly love. No “day at the office” is the same. Beyond my performing and event production life, my husband, Bob Traver, and I run a full-service sound and backline company. We supply some of the gear you see onstage when bands are on tour. It is a lot of work and sometimes we don’t see each other for days. However, we absolutely love it and we get to work with legends every week, so who’s complaining? I see our busy schedule as both a challenge and a reward. It’s the life we chose and we have no regrets.

Where do you get your inspiration for songwriting?

My songs come from my life story and from daily life observations. Pain, joy, love, hope, sorrow, relationships, societal challenges … when I see it in the world, I can’t help but write about it. I was inspired by Carole King at the age of 6. I learned to sing and play her songs on the piano and by age 15, I had penned over 40 of my own compositions. I do a tribute concert to Carole’s album “Tapestry” to pay homage to her career and influence on my life. The show plays every fall at the Smith Center and I plan to take it across the country. Writing songs is my medicine and my therapy. I believe music is a healer.

What was your plan B if your career in entertainment didn’t work out?

I graduated from Yale University with a degree in English. Attending Yale was my fallback plan, and my plan B was to attend Harvard Law School so I could pursue a law career. I held odd jobs so I could pay my rent when I lived in New York, and I took a paralegal job to keep my backup plan going. However, one year of paralegal work in New York while singing and acting at night convinced me that entertainment was my calling. I never looked back.

What are you passionate about outside of showbiz?

I am a bit of a computer geek. I love technology. I worked for Apple for six years and it was an incredible experience. Technology has greatly changed the speed at which things can get done. Today, I can contact a 50-piece choir with the push of a button. I can video chat with clients in Australia and Japan at the same time, with a device I hold in my hand. That blows me away.

I am also passionate about music therapy and its ability to heal people on an emotional level. I did a brief stint as the music program director for an after-school program for at-risk youth, and it was eye-opening, humbling and life-changing. I would love to open a music therapy center that targets at-risk youths and abused kids. I think it is sorely lacking in our community.

Where is your favorite local spot to wind up or wind down?

Believe it or not, my house. Many entertainers are what you would call “extroverted introverts.” Our jobs require us spend a lot of time around and in front of crowds of people, and we are continuously under the microscope of the public eye. Some of us are actually shy and very private once the spotlight is off. Being at home gives me a break from being “on” all the time, and it also means no heels, no makeup, no hair done, and no talking. Resting up when I can helps me to recharge so I can come back and give 200% on stage the next day. I owe that to my audience and my clients.

If I had to choose a local place, I would say I love hanging out at the Dispensary Lounge Bar. It has been there since 1976, and it has an award-winning live jazz series and delicious food.

If you had a magic wand, what three things would you change about Southern Nevada?

1. I would make spring and fall last longer, because the weather is perfect during those seasons.

2. I would bring back the hey day of having live local music in every venue. I think that added to Vegas’ charm, and it kept people working.

3. I would create a high-end, professional school of the arts with training by Broadway, Hollywood and recording industry professionals. I believe we could compete with New York and LA arts programs. We have incredible talent here.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Trust your instincts, and don’t wait to pursue what you want. Time is fleeting and you are worth the effort. Remember to run your own race, because it is yours and yours alone to run.

Who do you admire?

I admire people who stand up for what’s right, even when it isn’t popular. I admire creative people. I admire my fellow artists — writers, musicians, singers, dancers. They are unsung healers who are willing to be vulnerable and open as they offer their gifts to the world. What we all do is important and essential. Live music is a transactional experience and a conversation between artist and audience. I admire the transformational work that artists perform. Posthumously, Ella Fitzgerald, the greatest singer of all time.

What is your biggest pet peeve?

I don’t like when insecure people try to extinguish the light of another. There is room for everyone to shine.

What is something that people might not know about you?

I grew up in Cairo, Egypt, and I graduated from high school in front of the Giza pyramids. (My dad was a diplomat.) I speak several languages and have traveled to several countries. I see myself as a world citizen.