New York City-based Jillette Johnson started playing the piano and writing her own music at the age of 10. Now, at 25, she has released a full-length album and is on a nationwide tour. Her debut album, called Water in a Whale, earned her critical acclaim and had critics drawing comparisons to Adele and Fiona Apple (the latter of whom influenced Johnson’s music immensely).
Johnson is the opening act for Mary Lambert, who is promoting her own album, called Heart On My Sleeve. Florida crowds can see Lambert and Johnson at Ruth Eckerd Hall’s Capitol Theatre in Clearwater on Saturday, October 25 at 9 p.m. Tickets start at $20 online (available at rutheckerdhall.com) and $23 at the door.
I got to speak with Jillette Johnson about her music, just days before she takes the stage at the Capitol Theatre, in an exclusive Hotspots interview.
How excited are you to come to Florida to perform? When was the last time you were down here?
Very excited! I was last in Florida in May for a music festival.
What things must you do every time you visit Florida?
Of course I have to go the beach when I come down. It’s hard to remember that those things even exist when you live in New York City. I don’t think I have a ton of time this tour, but we’re traveling in an RV…maybe we’ll just park the thing on the sand!
I read that you’ve been influenced by Fiona Apple and Stevie Nicks. Why do they influence you? Who else influences you musically?
Fiona and Stevie taught me how to be vulnerable with my voice and how to tell a story with my songs. I learned the same lessons in different ways from Paul Simon, Thom Yorke, Neko Case, Ryan Adams, Randy Newman and, well, the list certainly goes on. It’s that songwriting forward, lyrically challenging, and melodically resonant thing that gets me.
Tell us what it was like to produce Water in a Whale. Guide us through the album and what emotions you felt when you wrote these songs.
A lot of those songs came to me in about a year-long period of a lot of change. I had just gotten signed, I was making my first album, living alone in a mammoth city, I was in a new relationship, and was massaging the residual feelings out of an old one. There was a lot of excitement and a lot of fear, and I was trying to simply hold it all together and believe in the journey.
What was the recording and production process like?
We recorded Water in a Whale in a studio in Times Square, where I spent about six months of my life. We labored over every kick drum and every guitar strum of every song until it felt like the soul of the song could come through clearly and loudly. I’ve come to realize that I don’t write easy songs to produce. I give Peter Zizzo and Michael Mangini, the producers of that album, a ton of credit for navigating through them so creatively.
You talk about perseverance and how that was a big motif in your single “Torpedo.” Can you tell us about the kinds of setbacks and rejections you dealt with and how they inspired you to write this song?
The thing about the record industry that I love is, if you’re not ready, it’s not ready for you. When I started showcasing for labels at 12, I was not ready. When I did it again at 15, I was not ready. Nor at 17, or even 19. I’m very grateful that my career didn’t truly start until a few years ago, because it gave me many years to cultivate my identity as an artist without pressure or expectation. However, so many rounds of disappointment certainly were not lost on my ego. My self-worth and self-belief has been challenged many, many times. I wrote “Torpedo” about wiping the blood off my kneecaps and getting back on the horse.
What is it like to go on tour with Mary Lambert? Are you two good friends?
Oh, it’s so awesome. She is such a genuine spirit and a pretty lady. We’re still getting to know each other but I’m very grateful she invited me to come on tour with her. She’s an artist who actually has something to say, and does it in such an eloquent and refreshingly available way. I think we’re gonna have an absolute blast together on the road.
Tell us about your support of the anti-bullying campaign “Hey U.G.L.Y.”
I learned about Hey U.G.L.Y. a couple of years ago. They are an organization focused on teaching kids how to protect and cultivate their individuality in a way that battles the very prominent bullying culture in schools. I’ve since been trying to bring awareness to their cause via as many platforms as I can find.
Speaking of anti-bullying, did you participate in Spirit Day recently?
Yes, I went purple for Spirit Day!
How hard or easy is it for you to write a song? Is there anything special you must do in order to drum up inspiration?
It is both easy as cake and hard as hell. There’s no special formula for it. At the end of the day though, I have to be willing to sweat through the process. Otherwise the song won’t be worth its salt.
You can get updates, photos and videos sent straight to your Facebook feed from Jillette herself by pressing “like” on her Facebook page, at facebook.com/jillettejohnson.