Singer-songwriters have always been a staple in the American pop scene. To join the vocal powerhouses like Adele, Tori Amos and Fiona Apple is Jillette Johnson.
Johnson, a Manhattan native, took the stage last night at the Brighton Music Hall opening for Wakey! Wakey! on the first night of their North American tour. The tour, which will only last a month, will cross through the United States following two stops in Canada.
Armed with powerful, and sometimes painful, lyrics and a voice that can only be described as strong, sexy and smoky, Johnson is clearly at home in front of a crowd. She’s been performing in New York venues since she was 12 years old, according to an interview featured on Sarah’s Musical Kitchen, and began writing her own music when she was 8 years old.
“Before then I was singing and playing piano. I just hadn’t really figured out that what I was doing was writing songs,” said Johnson. “I write really from the heart and I don’t like to sing about things that I can’t relate to. Not to say that I don’t like to tell stories that aren’t mine, but I’m just talking about how I feel and how I live.”
And here’s the thing, she really does. She writes about organic experiences—a break up, a friendship, and fears for the future. Her songs are accessible and raw, but never angst-ridden clichés. One track in particular, “Cameron” pays tribute to a transgendered friend of Johnson’s, whom she calls an inspiration. Real Sprague directed the beautiful music video, which focuses on a young boy exploring a harsh world as Johnson plays piano in a small room.
But while her songs are serious, she’s easy-going and even a little awkward. Before performing a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” she told an anecdote about standing behind Thom Yorke in a coffee shop and breathing on him. She recounted a fan’s hilarious misinterpretation of her song “Butterfly Catcher” and repeatedly dropped her water bottles on the floor. (“Where do you want me to put them?” she responded to laughter from fans.) But for Johnson, performing and working the crowd is more than just a job, it’s her purpose.
“That’s how I relate to the world around me,” she explained. “I want people to engage and talk back. I’m trying to have a conversation with the world.”
With the exception of “Creep” Johnson performed material from her debut album Water in a Whale (Wind-up Records.) The album, released on June 25, 2013, contains tracks from her EP Whiskey & Frosting. Water in a Whale is available through Johnson’s website, as well as iTunes and Amazon.
Upcoming tour dates can be found on Johnson’s website as well.