Jillette Johnson is 24, but her songs sound much older. They travel in and out of relationships, like they’ve spent time in the deepest of ditches. Their characters have been abused, yes; but they always fight back, searching for a true identity.
Johnson’s voice is sometimes sweet, but don’t let that fool you into thinking she’s one-dimensional. I hate making comparisons, but we either have the next Sara Bareilles on our hands, or the next Tori Amos. My guess is she’s probably somewhere in between.
What we definitely have right now is Johnson’s Water in a Whale, a smart, thoughtful, and melodic full-length debut. We also have her voice, which has range and a thick backbone; in other words, it’s in charge. Let’s have a listen to “Cameron.”
Jillette Johnson will be performing at The Firebird in St. Louis on Thursday, August 29th ($10 / purchase tickets here), and we recently caught up with the New York-based singer-songwriter over the phone.
How are you?
I’m good, really good. Thanks for asking.
How was Bonnaroo?
Bonnaroo was awesome. It was such a crazy weekend — there’s so many people there, it’s hot, Paul McCartney was there… (laughing) It was just a great experience, and I was happy to be a part of it. I got to play with a full band, which was fun for me because I usually play solo. And, I spent the whole weekend there, which was great. I got to be dusty, and have free drinks…it was an experience, you know? (laughs)
I remember it being very dusty the last time I was there. I didn’t get to go this year, but I’ve been there a couple of times.
You know, I think it’s probably one of those things where you have to be mentally prepared to go. To go every year seems like overkill to me.
I totally agree. My body wasn’t ready this year.
But that’s what makes it so great.
Oh, totally. It’s all part of it. I wouldn’t change any of it. And it’s cool to be an artist in those situations, because you’re not camping. You have some shelter, some shade. Some sense of peace.
The camping thing wears you down.
Oh yeah. I was not going to camp…no way. (laughing)
Cool. Well, let’s talk about your music. The first song I heard of yours was “Cameron,” and it was late last year when I found it. And right away…I was really moved, affected. “The world is full of aliens,” that line especially. Can you talk about that line, and maybe what was going through your head at the time when you wrote that?
Yeah. “Cameron” is about trying to figure out what it is you really are when you look in the mirror. I think that’s something that I have certainly struggled with in my life, and I think that’s a pretty normal thing for a human to feel. You don’t really know if you really belong in your cover, you know? And I…I happen to be lucky enough to know someone who is very, very strong and has a very powerful story, and they are transgendered, and that certainly inspires the story of “Cameron.” But, it really is a lot about the universal need to understand our own identity, and to not let other people tell us what that is supposed to be.
Absolutely. You know, here’s what I want to ask you. The song is being marketed as a song about a transgendered person, a strong person, but do you worry that the song is only being thought of in that way? Because I think the song is that, but it’s also more than that.
You know, I think the thing about music, and I think the thing that I’m learning about releasing an album into the public is that everyone is going to have their own concept of what you do, and whatever they want to take from it, they can take from it. And, sure, there are going to be people who only see it as a song about a transgendered person, and that’s fine with me, because that’s part of the story. And then there are people who will listen to it and say, “well, that’s about me, too.”
The thing about playing this song around the country — people come from such different worlds, and they seem to relate to this story. Whether it’s someone that they know who is transgendered, or they know someone who is gay, they all can relate. It’s been a fun thing; people identify with “Cameron” no matter what walk of life they come from.
That’s the beauty of music, I think.
I think that’s why we listen. When I hear a song like “Cameron,” I keep listening because it pulls me in, and I get a feeling you have something to say, which I like. I don’t always get that feeling.
Well, when I’m writing, I just want to say exactly the words that are going through my head. I do always have something to say. (laughs) I’m a very talkative, opinionated woman. And, I try not to censor myself. At the end of the day, the lyrics that stay in my songs are the ones that come from an uncensored, unfiltered place. So, I do feel that I really have something to say, and it’s important to me that I’m not afraid to say it.
How did you get to be that way?
Well, I’ve been living in New York since I was 18, and I started being a very independent young woman who came to the city by herself every day, starting when I was 12 or 13. So, there’s definitely a sense of being inspired by people, because I think that New York is full of people who are unabashedly themselves.
But, also, I come from a family who values my opinion. My parents have always made me feel like I was someone who could say whatever they wanted. Not like swearing, or anything over the top, but they always felt like I had something intelligent and interesting to say, so I felt empowered to do that.
Well, you lay it all out in a song like “Pauvre Coeur.” That is a personal song, about a relationship. You’re a young woman, and you wrote a really emotional song. Obviously you’ve been through something — some big moment in your life. How does a song like that come out?
(laughing) I’m someone that is very emotional, I don’t think that that’s a secret. If you know me and are around me, you know I feel things very intensely. And sometimes it’s difficult to articulate in a song what that feels like, to write a song about something that has hurt you. And “Pauvre Coeur,” it is a very personal song, but it’s also a song about being in a relationship, and wanting to be seen as valuable.
I think that sometimes the language I use, it’s the language I use in my head and with friends — and it’s jarring. It can come across as more of a dire situation. But, the truth is that people actually feel that way all the time, whether it’s physical abuse or they’re just in something that they don’t feel good in at the moment. It’s a powerful feeling to be in a relationship, you’re so vulnerable.
Is writing a song like that therapeutic to you at all? I interviewed Josh Ritter a few months ago…
I love Josh Ritter! He is so amazing. Fuck. Sorry. (laughs)
(laughing) Well, he told me that the songs on his latest album, which are about his divorce, that writing them wasn’t therapeutic as it was just necessary. Do you agree?
Yeah. I totally feel that way. Sometimes it can be therapeutic, but writing a song can be so stressful, because something feels good, but you don’t know what should go next, and there’s a lot of anxiety involved in that. And especially if you’re someone who cares about songwriting as I think someone like Josh does, and certainly I do, you want everything to fit perfectly. I think it is more necessary, because once you get there, you are saying something real. And then you get to play the song at shows every night, and then it becomes extremely therapeutic.
And this is your job. You’re an artist. I think some people still don’t view it as work. Do you ever feel that way?
I do, but I don’t let people think that I’m just not working. (laughing) Because I know how hard I work, and if they’re in my environment, then they will see that this shit is real, and that this is a real job. I work really hard.
I know what you mean, though. There is just so much to understand, and unless you are really doing it, you have no concept of all the intricacies of this job. There’s a lot of stress.
So I read something about you that you were going to be on the show “The Voice.” What’s the story with that?
So, the first season came along, and I didn’t know what it was, and I have never been a person who has wanted to go on one of those shows. I was living in New York, as I still am, but I was sort of treading water a little bit, working with a lot of people who didn’t have a lot to do with the soul that I live in when I make music. And this random person who helped me get demo work, because I needed to make some money, basically found out about the show and said I should go to this audition because the world needed to hear my voice. And I just…you know..my mindset has always been…well, maybe a little bit less right now, but until I made my record, it was just to try things, and then you can say no later. But try and see.
So I went to the audition, and they kept asking me back, and things were going really well, but there were also parts that made me feel very uncomfortable. Like, I had this feeling in my gut that it wasn’t right, but at the same time, no one was asking me to sign anything yet, and I didn’t have to make any decisions, so I felt like, you know, who knows.
Well, push came to shove, and I was supposed to fly to L.A. like three days after they sent me the contract that basically asked me to sign eight years of my life away to a huge company that didn’t really know who I was. (laughs). And…no. I’m not going to do that. Not going to get on that plane. So, I didn’t. And I got a record deal, and here I am.
And you have a beautiful record.
Is the biggest challenge just getting people to hear it?
You know, I think it’s just a matter of time. And I don’t say that in like a, “yes, this is going to be the biggest record in the world,” and I certainly hope that it is. But I think that what it takes these days to be an artist of integrity that sticks around, is just putting in the time and putting in all the work. It’s one fan at a time, and then eventually there’s a tipping point, and then it’s viral…I’ve seen it happens to my friends, and the most important thing is that I still love doing it every day, and the people on my team are passionate about it, and people seem to be responding really well to the music. So, with those three ingredients, plus a lot of work, hopefully this thing will be a hurricane.