Jillette Johnson is a singer/songwriter from New York. Her debut album Water In A Whale was released on Wind-up Records in 2013. Despite the popularity of the more upbeat single “Torpedo”, it is ballads like “Pauvre Coeur” that define her sound. Her abilities are impressive for such a young artist and her voice is impeccable. I had the opportunity to sit down with Jillette when she came to town with Mary Lambert. I picked her brain about her career and her process.
When I arrived at the North Star Bar, Jillette was sitting in across from fellow musician Matt Pynn. The table was full of food and half empty shot glasses, the spoils of another well received set. She is even prettier in person and has the type of charisma that makes you feel welcome immediately, like you’ve been best friends since kindergarten. I don’t know how one would define star quality, but whatever it is … she has it.
What kind of music did you like growing up?
I listened a lot to Fiona Apple, Joni Mitchell, Radiohead, and Paul Simon. I was very fortunate to stumble upon really wonderful artists when I was a kid so I didn’t find myself liking too many things didn’t have a lot of depth, which I think is really lucky. I think it helped me it become a better writer as a kid.
I saw that you’ve been compared to Fiona Apple and Adele and I can definitely see that. Does that flatter you or is it weird to be compared to someone?
It’s always a weird thing to be compared to people but I’m definitely flattered by those comparisons because those are two women who in very different ways know how to really move people and have carved out a space for themselves in music and a timeline in music history, certainly for this generation. So it’s hugely flattering, I take that as a gigantic compliment.
I know you’ve been writing since a really young age; was it really important for you to sing your lyrics?
I am a lyricist and that’s always been the driving force in my song writing. I’m really proud of my lyricism. It’s the way that I listen to music. I digest lyrics very critically and I labor over my own. It’s important to me that I’m saying something that I believe in and that I’m sort of poking people, that it’s doing something to them. So it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to sing other peoples lyrics unless they really move me and in that case I’m probably doing a cover. I don’t generally write with other people and I never really did. I certainly have and I find that when I write with other people it tends to be a song that I think would be great for somebody else probably because lyrically it’s not quite who I am. I tend to keep those in mind for other artists.
Have you given songs away or is that something you may be working on in the future?
I started dabbling in it a little bit but right now my artist career is really my priority and it takes a long time. I’m obsessed with writing songs and I think I’m always kind of working on my next album. I know that I have that other role available to me and I’m starting to rack up quite a bit of a catalog that I could pitch and now I’ve got a really fantastic publisher that I think can do some of that work for me, but in the past it’s all been just my artist stuff.
Your song “Cameron” is about a transgendered person. What made you decide to write a song on this topic?
There is someone in my life that is transgendered and was a childhood friend of mine. I watched this amazing child go through a lot of heartache and actually persevere in an incredibly inspiring way. I didn’t sit down to the piano thinking that I was going to write a song about him necessarily. I just sort of did what I do which is … the wheel started turning and the next thing I know I’m writing a song with a message of trying to learn to love yourself regardless.
You decided to turn down a spot on The Voice; that had to be a hard decision.
At the time it was, I have no regrets on that decision at all. I remember feeling like it was a question of how much I believed in myself because you put an opportunity in front of somebody who has been working for … at that time I was 21 and I started writing songs when I was 8. I’ve been working for most of my life to write songs and then figure out how to share them with as many people as I could and you give me the opportunity to be in front of all of these people that I’ve never had access to. It was like what if saying no to this is a gigantic mistake because I’ll never get there. But the contracts were terrifying and the idea that I wouldn’t be singing my own songs and if I did sing my own songs it would be a really poor business decision. The idea that I wouldn’t really get to have a say in a lot of things involved in my career just really didn’t sit right with me. I had to make the choice to try to do it on my own. I’m on a long road and it’s going to be a slow build. I’m now starting to understand what that means. But I don’t take it back for a second because I have the most amount of freedom and control that an artist can have and I have a fantastic team of people that are helping me work on my dream.
What are some of the highlights of your career so far?
I’ve had a lot of great highlights. I just got back form LA; I got to sing with Norah Jones amongst a ton of amazing artists. That was a trip. I was with so many of my heroes in a scenario where I kind of felt like I was a peer. I’ve never really had that sensation before. When my album came out it actually did pretty well and I got to be like number 12 on Billboard and number 12 on ITunes. I knew that it was something that was exciting and like a victory, but I also knew that it didn’t mean that I ‘made it.’ It was just the beginning of the road. Honestly, every night when I play shows and I meet people that are touched by the music it reminds me that I’m really lucky to get to do what I’m doing.
In your set you mentioned that when you write a good song and sit with it for a little while, you start to hate it… with your album Water In A Whale are you in a place now where you believe it is good?
It’s a tricky thing. I’m really, really proud of that album. The guys who worked on it are phenomenally talented and I poured every part of myself into it and I think for the period of time that we made that album it was really appropriate and made sense for where I was and what the songs were. I am however in a different place as an artist as I think all artists get to. You have to be evolving and if you aren’t you aren’t making art anymore. So I don’t listen to that album the way I used to. It’s interesting to hear it. I don’t always feel like me on that album. I think that’s because I’ve grown into sort of a different artists … the same artist but I’m an older artist.