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A conversation with Jillette Johnson

Jillette Johnson performing at Sunfest Festival
Jillette Johnson performing at Sunfest Festival
Chris Zambello

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with singer/songwriter Jillette Johnson courtesy of Wind-Up Records prior to her show at Sunfest Festival in West Palm Beach, Fla. The woman is as real as they come: full of passion and belief for her love of music. He live show was incredible as she had the entire audience eating out of the palm of her hand. You’d be hard-pressed to find a performer today who possesses such a compassion for others rendering her beautiful inside and out.

Jillette Johnson Performing at Sunfest Festival
Chris Zambello

Her album, Water In A Whale has been critically acclaimed and picked apart by the media for it’s real life issues, but not many have actually talked to Jillette about Jillette, until now. Here’s what she had to say:

I interview a lot of artists, I find that a good majority of them have all started writing songs as a child. You were no different. Tell me about yourself growing up as a child writing songs.
Jillette: I really started writing songs when I was eight. That’s when I started registering that’s what I was doing. I was sort of already doing it, but I wasn’t sure what that meant and it became my favorite thing to do. Because eight is such a pretty young age, it became such a natural part of how I exist as a human. It means that it’s just engrained in me, I do it all the time and I will until I die.

What artist did you idolize as a child?
Jillette: I listened to a lot of Carole King. As a songwriter, I was really inspired by her. Vocally, I didn’t really listen to singers like Mariah Carey to the point that I wanted to emulate them. It seemed like a different kind of art form to me.

And when did you first start to perform in front of a live audience? Were you nervous or excited?
Jillette: I was 12. I think there definitely was some nervous parts of my body but it was always something that I felt I was supposed to do so it never really scared me that badly.

What about now?
Jillette: No, now I’m pretty comfortable up on stage although now I’m starting to play guitar more. I just got this beautiful Gretsch and I’d sort of messed around with an acoustic guitar. I inherited this beautiful 1948 Martin from my grandfather when he passed away and I wrote a few songs on it though I’m not really a guitar player, until now.

Does that make you nervous?
Jillette: Yeah, since I was 12 I got up and played piano. That is home for me. I haven’t really challenged myself this much...ever. It’s nervous making for sure, but I think it’s making me a better musician.

Did you continue to perform throughout your teenage years. Did it ever cross your mind that you wanted to do something else with your life? Another career choice? Maybe become a doctor or something? You would look cute in scrubs!
Jillette: No, I never considered doing something else, music is the only thing I wanted.

So music is obviously your “True North”.
Jillette: Yes, it is. It’s the thing that keeps me on my path.

Last year I compared you to Sheryl Crow, Jewel, and Alanis Morissette in the sense that you are unique in your own way, true to yourself, refusing to go mainstream pop like the Celine Dion’s, Whitney Houston’s, or even these days Miley Cyrus’. Do you think that’s a fair comparison and how does it make you feel?
Jillette: The three women that you just listed are women that I grew up listening to and that I have massive respect for so to be put in a category with them is such a huge honor for me. That’s wonderful that you get what I’m doing because I only know how to do the things I started doing when I was a little kid. The moment when I started straying away from it and making it innately my own, is the moment when this becomes less special and I stop making it. I won’t do that, I love it too much. I think I’m starting to understand the power that I hold in maintaining this special parts of me that are my own, that means being exactly the artist that I am.

I find your honesty and sensitivity intriguing. You sing about real-life issues that are relevant in today’s society. Take “Cameron” as an example. It not only takes us on a journey of growing up transgender, but the hardship of just being different in general. Just because someone is different than others, they still have feelings. I think everyone has felt that way at some point in their lives. I think that’s why people are drawn to your music.
Jillette: That’s exactly the point. That’s wonderful. It’s an interesting subject, “Cameron”, because I wrote that song not knowing that I was going to write that song. It was loosely based around a friend of mine, but the story came out of’s just an emotion, the emotion of wanting to feel beautiful and to believe that you’re beautiful.

In my review of Water in a Whale I wrote: “Speaking of feelings, listening to “Pauvre Coer”, which translates to “poor heart”, you can feel the anguish of a woman’s heart who has just been broken in her voice. She sings with such a passion, full of vibrance and feeling that it takes the listener right inside her heart, feeling her loss first-hand. There are no other artists today that can sing with such emotion and touch the hearts of their listeners like Jillette.” Take me inside this song.
Jillette: That song is about learning how to get out of something that you grew very attached to and it’s about learning how to find your voice in it. I’m an incredibly emotional human and I’m also as you said a very honest person. I’ve never really been one to let myself get stepped on emotionally or in any way. As I learned when you start to fall in love and be in relationships, you start to make compromises. They are all wonderful human experiences, but at the end of the day, the point of pretty much everything I write is that I got to find my way back to me.

You’ve been touring basically non-stop since the album has been released. What are some of your best memories of this tour?
Jillette: I played a festival called Firefly last summer and I hadn’t slept in a week pretty much. And that’s kinda how it goes, during certain tours you can get in the groove and you get used to it. But sometimes, if it’s a really pressed, heavy situation or flying around the country, sleep is really blissed, so I get like two hours a night, which is crazy. That was one of those weeks and Firefly was at the end of the week. I remember driving up and being so delusional. I looked crazy, I sounded crazy but I rolled up and it’s pouring rain in Delaware and my tour manager and I couldn’t find the artist entrance so we ended up driving this Pathfinder through the festival field. We pulled up to the tent, and I played one of my favorite shows in my life. It was such an incredible feeling. I love being pushed just enough to where you feel like dying and then you have to play a show, that’s usually when you get the good stuff.

When not performing or writing songs, what do you like to do to have fun?
Jillette: When I home, I really love my city of New York. I spend a lot of time just existing around. I like to go this little French coffee shop near my apartment, I just sit and I write in my journal. I look around and just take it in. Because I spend so much time putting it out, that sometimes I just need the opportunity. New York is such a wonderful city to do that. I haven’t done this in a while, mostly now because it’s just starting to get warm but I used to walk up to Central Park and lay on a rock for like five hours and just stare up through the trees at the sun listening to music.

What’s your one vice?
Jillette: (giggles) Bacon’s not a vice! I get really messy, frantically messy. My stuff traps me. My apartment gets crazy, my suitcases get crazy. It’s hard to stay organized if you’re really busy.

If you could collaborate with anyone in the world, who would you choose?
Jillette: It’s a great question and it challenges me because I look up to a lot of people. I think that getting to be in a room with Randy Newman would really be a special experience for me. I think that would be pretty amazing. I don’t know if it would be the kind of thing where we would make a record together, but just to be in a room creatively with him would be a dream.

Jillette has several west coast tour dates left on her current tour so be sure to check her website for dates and cities.

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