Artist: Jillette Johnson
Hometown: Nashville, Tennessee
Latest Album: It’s a Beautiful Day and I Love You
Personal nicknames: JJ
Which artist has influenced you the most … and how?
It’s so hard to pick one, but Randy Newman has greatly impacted me as a songwriter and performer. I heard my first Randy Newman song when I was a toddler, watching the movie Beaches with my parents. Bette Midler sings his song, “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” at the end of the movie, and it cut right into me. I didn’t know he wrote that song until by accident, I got to see him play and essentially lead a lecture in Los Angeles when I was 16. He completely transfixed me.
His musical sophistication and ear for beauty, coupled with his cutting, hilarious, and deeply empathetic storytelling was like nothing else I had ever heard. He’s so prolific, and so unchained to whatever the world expects of a singer-songwriter. He takes risks, tells the truth, and lets his humanity lead the charge in every song. And he’s still doing it, to the highest level, which inspires the hell out of me. I’ve said often that I want to be Randy Newman when I grow up, meaning that I want to keep making exciting music that matters for the rest of my life, just like him.
What’s your favorite memory from being on stage?
This wasn’t exactly a stage, but it sure felt like one. When I was 17, I was invited to go to Liza Minnelli’s apartment on the Upper East Side in Manhattan to play songs for her on her beautiful grand piano overlooking Central Park. She greeted me at the door with those big bright eyes, no makeup, wearing sweatpants and a giant smile. Her apartment was under construction, but the “piano room,” was perfectly intact — a room of only mirrors, windows, one couch, and the piano where I played. We sat there for hours while I performed songs I had written, and she sat next to me, asking me to replay certain parts of each song so she could really let them sink it.
She made me feel like what I was making mattered, and like I belonged. I’ll never forget that feeling, or her kindness. Towards the end of the visit, she told me I reminded her of Laura Nyro, whom I’d never heard before then, and she insisted I go to her bedroom with her while she crawled on the floor of her closet looking for a Laura Nyro record to give me. She never found the record, but I still relish the image in my mind of her in a pile of clothes scouring for it and swearing under her breath.
What was the first moment that you knew you wanted to be a musician?
It happened before I can remember. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know that I wanted to be a musician. I was the kid wandering around the edge of the sandbox making up songs and singing them to myself out loud. My grandmother asked me when I was like 4 or 5 what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said a rock star. She asked what my second choice would be, and I said I didn’t have one. And I still feel that way. Music has been with me before everything. I’d be an entirely different person without it.
What rituals do you have, either in the studio or before a show?
It’s really helpful for me to find some time to be quiet and center before a show. I always warm up my voice first, usually an hour or so before I go on, while I get changed and do my hair and makeup. But then, in that half hour before I go on, I really like to be alone. I’ll often take that time to meditate first, and then move my body in ways that energize me and make me feel powerful. The sweet spot for me is to go on stage feeling calm and in control, but still full of vigor and excitement. It’s a hard line to walk sometimes, and my nerves have been getting harder to control as I’ve gotten older. That’s why the meditation part is so important.
How often do you hide behind a character in a song or use “you” when it’s actually “me”?
Often! It’s a fun way to have a little therapy session without having to leave my house or pay anybody. And in writing land, it can lead to songs that speak more clearly and feel more inclusive. When I need guidance or am feeling insecure, I like to ask myself what I would tell someone that I loved if they came to me for help with the same issues. And when I’m writing a song that starts to sound like a pity party, or I get lost in what I’m trying to say, I often do the same thing. It’s so much easier to find clarity and compassion for others than it is for yourself, at least in my experience. Flipping the “I” to “you” or “her” is a tool I like to use in both art and life.
Photo credit: Betsy Phillips