By Gregg Shapiro
Water in a Whale (Wind-Up), the full-length debut album by Jillette Johnson, is the kind of album that fans of female singer/songwriters spend long hours waiting for and will mostly likely embrace with open arms. Johnson, an assured and mature songwriter and performer at 24, sets the tone with the single, “Cameron,” one of the most powerful statements by a straight performer to the LGBT community since Patty Griffin’s “Tony.” “Cameron,” about a trans kid, is insightful and uplifting, and deserves to be a hit. Johnson wisely keeps the music on the disc varied, from the explosive opener “Torpedo” and the stormy “Last Bus Out” to the sexually provocative “Pauvre Couer” and the blind devotion of “Basset Hound.” There is also a “stripped” version of “Cameron” and a pair of b-sides (“17” and “Box of Crayons”) to provide listeners the full scope of Johnson’s abilities. I spoke with Johnson, who is back on tour in support of Water in a Whale, and will be at Kilby Court in Salt Lake City on March 28, shortly before the release of the disc.
Gregg Shapiro: Jillette, I was fortunate enough to catch your performance at Lincoln Hall in Chicago. One of the first things I noticed about your live show is that you have a great sense of humor and that you are an engaging and natural born storyteller. Is that an important component of your live performance?
JJ: Absolutely it is. It took me a while to cultivate that. I think I’m constantly growing with it. When I used to play shows, I was terrified about speaking between songs. I would speak, but I would speak quietly and quickly. It was so obvious when I was losing the audience and it scared the shit out of me. So I made a conscious effort to try and pretend like I was talking to my family and friends and breathe and take my time and not assume that people didn’t care. I used to assume that people didn’t want to hear me speak. [Laughs] That’s never the right way to start out. I now feel that it’s a hugely important part of my show because it allows people to see who I am and to see that these songs come from me. That I have many layers as an artist and to relate to some of the things that I say.
GS: I also took note of several queer audience members responding to your performance, including your song “Cameron” – do you have an awareness of a following in the LGBT community?
JJ: Yes. I’m starting to see that happen and it’s really exciting. I wrote that song because I have a friend who experienced that journey. I was compelled to talk about it. I’m not saying that I’m an expert in the field but I know, in a different way, how it feels to be alien in your own skin. I love that people are rallying around it and that it speaks to people in a real way. The last thing that I wanted was to write a song about someone else’s story and have people tell me it’s false.
GS: Does that song have any relation to your involvement with the anti-bullying organization Hey U.G.L.Y. – Unique Gifted Lovable You?
JJ: It does. I learned about Hey U.G.L.Y. through the person on whom “Cameron” is based. That program has helped this kid quite a lot. I started doing more research and realized how amazing it is as an organization.
GS: What can you tell me about your songwriting process in general?
JJ: It’s usually in my apartment and always at the piano. I have to be pretty emotionally available. I don’t have to be in pain or anything, but I have to be in a certain headspace. Then I just keep walking back to the piano and I’ll start playing something as if the song has already been written. Sometimes it feels like magic and sometimes it feels like nothing. I try to pay attention to the things that feel really good to sing. It’s all really spontaneous. It’s almost like I’m free-styling. Once I find something that I think has legs, I hack away at it for hours. Then I get up and leave or watch TV or go for a walk. If I have conversations with people throughout the course of the day while I’m in the middle of writing a song they usually have about 30 percent of my attention because I’m always working.
GS: There is a long tradition of piano-playing female singer/songwriters from Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon to more recent names such as Tori Amos and Regina Spektor. Who do you consider to be your influences?
JJ: All of the women you just named are people who’ve been really influential to me. Regina is certainly the most current of those and I admire her work. But Joni Mitchell and Carole King, from the beginning, were women I really admired and never stopped listening to. The thing that I love about their music is it’s so full of soul and it’s so honest, and it takes a while to dig into it. Joni more than Carole, I think. Carole’s songs were little more accessible, at first. I am definitely lucky to be able to look at this legacy of powerful and soulful women.
GS: During your set you told a funny story about talking to straight men who wouldn’t think twice about having sex with Ryan Gosling. Do you think, in a small way, that’s comment on your generation and how far the culture has evolved?
JJ: I think so. I definitely have met people my age who are still pretty terrified of their own sexuality and that projects hate, unfortunately. But I think that slowly but surely were starting to live in a world where people are comfortable enough to say what they really are. So it’s okay to say that you think a man is attractive if you’re a straight man. I think that such a breath of fresh air.
GS: What do you think Ryan Gosling would think of that?
JJ: I think he would agree. He seems the most comfortable in his own skin. I can imagine that he wouldn’t have any issues.
GS: You do a chilling live cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.” What would it mean to you to collaborate with Thom Yorke on one of your or his songs?
JJ: That would be a career-making, lifetime achievement. It would be insane for me.
GS: What do you most want people to know about your full-length debut disc Water in a Whale?
JJ: First of all, it’s a fuller summary of who I am as an artist. There’s more diversity and lighthearted moments, but it’s all pretty emotional. I think that it’s going to allow me to be an artist that is taken more seriously. I think it’s going to make a big impact on where I am in my career. Also, I get to have my first album officially out, I can say that.
Johnson will be at Kilby Court in Salt Lake City on March 28 with Wakey Wakey. Tickets at kilbycourt.com.