When it comes to NYC singer/songwriters, they can be a dime a dozen. They're everywhere, from the street corner, to the subway. They are also the most prominent fixtures of open mic nights in bars and coffee shops city wide. That being said, it really takes something special to get our attention in this over saturated scene. Jillette Johnson is one of those remarkable talents who rose above to create one of the most exciting piano-driven EPs in recent memory. To top it off, she has a full length album coming out later this year. Over the course of our conversation, I got the sense that Jillette is currently thriving on her constant musical activity, and it was hard not to share in her excitement. Her genuine voice and expressiveness is only exceeded by her ability to craft magnificent songs. We're eager to see and hear what she does next.
Scattered throughout the interview are exclusive videos of Jillette's impromptu sessions with a look inside her life on the road.
I heard you started to write music on the piano at a pretty young age, is that correct?
Yeah, I was 8.
What kinds of songs came out of those early years?
Really emotional ballads about really dramatic subjects that I didn't have any personal experience with [laughs].
Do you ever pull from the ideas that you came up with as a kid when writing new songs?
Not really, I actually think that there are probably reincarnations of songs I've written , the spirit of certain songs are maintained without me knowing it. But I don't generally look back, I pretty much sit down and write. If something moves me, I go with that. So no, my mom always begs me to do that though.
You have an album coming out in a few months. How did recording the Whiskey and Frosting EP prep you for that process?
I actually did it all at once. Whiskey and Frosting was recorded at the same time the album was being recorded. What Whiskey and Frosting allowed me to have was the time to write and think about some edits I wanted to make when it came time to master the album, so it was actually an awesome gift that I don't think a lot of artists have - to be able to record something and then step away from it for a few months and tour with these songs and grow as an artist and then come back. I didn't have a lot of time to do it. I had two weeks to record a couple of new songs that I felt needed to be on the album, and make what I feel were some pretty important edits.
I know you wrote all of the songs from the EP in your apartment, it must be a pretty creative space.
It is! I really love my apartment, when I moved in there I knew it was going to be my everything, my world, my office, my inspiration so I tried to make it look that way.
Speaking of the EP, is Whiskey still your drink of choice by any chance?
It is my drink of choice! [laughs] Yeah, so that's authentic.
You played a lot of shows here in the city before you officially relocated. Did moving to NYC change the songwriting process for you? What kind of themes emerged in that time?
Well, when I moved to New York I was 18, and I went to NYU for a year. I was already in this place of being independent, kind of being a little bit rebellious, pushing the limits a little bit. Living in New York definitely fuels that, so it inspired me to take it a little bit further. I always use New York as my muse, it's my soul mate almost. It was a coming-of-age experience for me.
How long does it typically take to shape a song from its infancy to finished product?
[laughs] There's no trajectory. Sometimes I write songs really quickly and they kind of are the way they are and I don't go back and reshape them. Sometimes it days and weeks and I leave and I come back and I write a verse but I don't write a chorus for like three weeks or something. That's just the writing process. Who knows if that song is ever going to get laid down in a real way because I write so many! I could have like seven albums out right now. Sometimes it takes a really long time. The last track on Water and a Whale, I wrote three weeks before we recorded it, then we finished the recording in two days, so it wasn't very long.
Were there any songs that were particularly difficult to work through?
It's funny, I don't really think about once I finish a song, it's almost like giving birth in a very lasting way, [laughs] because you go through all these very real emotions and there's definitely some sweat and pain, but then once you know it's done, I sort of black out [laughs] and I know I wrote it, but I don't really remember how it happened.
You mentioned earlier that you were on tour and playing some shows. Could you tell me a little bit about the experience of touring and what that was like?
Yeah, I'm officially not on tour right now as of two days ago, but I'm pretty much still on tour and I'll be until May because I'm doing one offs right now on the west coast and then I pick up a couple more tours. It's been a really wonderful experience and I feel really lucky because this is the first time I've been able to fully tour months at a time, doing a show every night in a different city for the whole country. A lot of people don't like it, but I have found that I absolutely love it. There's nothing more validating then to getting to do the thing I love every night, in front of a new crowd of people and meeting them, and then seeing the whole country and watching this thing grow in the most visceral way you possibly can.
In the past, you've compared your music career to a relationship. Are you guys happy together at the moment?
So happy! I am forever in love with my music career.
In our Follow Friday posts we like to include a song that embodies who you are. We were thinking of using "When The Ship Goes Down" I've heard it's a pretty personal song, can you tell me about it?
Sure! "When The Ship Goes Down" is a very whimsical song, it's also a very dramatic song. Those two things kind of sum up who I am as an artist. I like to talk about things that excite me and sadden me and make me feel alive and put me very visually in place. I wrote it from a place of wanting everything. I have always lived that way. I want to be as happy as I possibly can be, have things around me that are as beautiful as they can be and a "living in the moment" way of being. This might make my life a lot more tumultuous and it might be the thing that does me in, but I just want the brightest possible version of my life.
Check out "When the Ship Goes Down" from Jillette's EP Whiskey and Frosting below:
Be sure to keep an eye out for her new album by following Jillette on Twitter and liking her on Facebook.