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By the time Leah Johnson settled into her first job, the music had stopped.
A singer since childhood, Leah grew up in a house filled with song. Her father was a singer in an R&B group that would often practice in the Johnson home, with young Leah tapping away on the kitchen table to the beat. When asked to sing a tune, she was quick to belt out her go-to jam, Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All."
"I remember when I was 4 thinking that I wanted to be a singer. I used to sing all the time and play the piano at my aunt's house, being really annoying and just making up songs," the 37-year-old recalled. “When I'm singing, it feels like it's the ultimate state of being alive. It's an amazing expression and release."
But she put her passion on indefinite hold to focus on her career — a safe path in business that landed her with financial giant Merrill Lynch in New York City.
She wouldn't rediscover her voice until one sunny morning, when the entire world changed.
“I was working right across the street from the World Trade Center on September 11. After that first building fell, I didn't know that it had actually fallen because I was inside of my building," she recalled. “I just saw a big cloud of smoke coming toward me and I thought it was a bomb.
“I really thought I was going to die," she said. And in that split second, Leah had an a-ha moment: She was making the wrong sacrifices for a life she had never really envisioned for herself. “I just remember thinking, 'I could die today hating everything about my life, and what would be the point?'
“It was a wake-up call for me," she said. “I was so affected by almost losing the ability to do what I wanted to do, that I was compelled … it was like 'I just have to do this.'"
Leah picked the mic back up, and went on a vocal tear.
She joined up with a local performer she met through Craigslist, forming a collaboration that would span years. And in 2009, one fateful restaurant run-in turned into an international gig with C&C Music Factory rapper Freedom Williams. She would be filling in female vocals for the group, belting out classic lyrics like "Everybody dance now!"
“It was crazy. It was bigger than anything I had ever done," said Leah, who found herself sharing a stage with many of her childhood idols. “We were in Rhode Island, performing with groups like Lisa Lisa, the Sugar Hill Gang, Cover Girls, Rob Base and The Jets. After we performed, I went over to say hello to the Jets, because when I was a little girl, I lived for them. And then they asked for my autograph on the poster. I was like, 'What?! Are you kidding me right now?' I thought, 'This is amazing.'"
On tour, Leah traveled to places such as Bulgaria, Istanbul and the Dominican Republic. “I was so nervous [to be on an international stage], but knew I had to go out and kill it."
And that's pretty much the attitude she maintains to this day. Whether it's following through with an audition for “The Voice" — her manager signed her up on a lark, though she didn't make the final cut — or taking center stage at a company presentation, Leah says she's found the perfect balance in her life between work and music.
“I'm equal parts left- and right-brained; I'm a creative but I'm also very organized," she said. And that's why Leah is with Gap Inc., where she's now working as a senior analyst. “The culture here is what definitely keeps me here. I love working at Gap Inc. It's not like I'm just doing this to pass the time. It's really important for me that I work at a place where my team is supportive of me in all aspects of my life. I mean, when I went to Bulgaria, they were like, 'Send us pictures!'"
These days, Leah is keeping local. She often performs around the city, describing her sound as jazz-inflected soul. Her influences include her own father, and legends such as Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and Ella Fitzgerald.
What ultimately sustains Leah is simple: keeping the music going.
“For me, it's like breath; it's like breathing," she said. "I just have to do this. There is no other choice."