Jillette Johnson, who was born on the West Coast, but found her home in New York City has already started to have a huge impact on the entertainment world with her debut album, Water in a Whale. I had the privilege of talking to lovely songstress recently, here’s how it went.
Brandon Enyeart: First off, congratulations on Water in a Whale. I don’t know where you came from, to be honest. I had heard a few rumblings about you but it’s like you just burst onto the scene with it. So tell us a little bit about yourself.
JJ: I was born on the west coast, in Northern California near San Francisco. I moved to Pound Ridge with my family when I was nine. The great thing about that move for me was, even though I was only nine, I was already writing songs and knew that I wanted to do this professionally. I had access to New York City at a really young age and I took advantage of it immediately. I started coming into Manhattan and Brooklyn on an almost daily basis from the time I was 12 until I moved when I was 18.
BE: I grew up in a small town and you know, people tend to have their opinion “Oh, you’ll never make it in the big city”. Was it ever a culture shock to actually live there rather than visit?
JJ: No, I was actually really well adjusted once I finally moved in. Pound Ridge is a really small town, and it’s beautiful, but it felt really isolating. I actually didn’t go through most of high school, I kind of taught myself from sophomore year on, even though it looks like I went to my public high school and graduated. So it was really freeing to get to move into the city and have everything at my fingertips and do whatever I wanted.
BE: You mentioned you were writing and making music from a young age. What’s it like looking back at some of the stuff you wrote at that age?
JJ: It’s really fun and a little cringeworthy. They are all rough little bugs of songs that I sang with my whole heart. It’s sort of like, “Oh my God! It’s really adorable and really embarrassing!” It’s also a great reminder to get to see how you actually got to where you are. I think if you’re doing something for long enough and you start to pick up some momentum, it’s really easy to forget all of the pieces that brought you there. You start to get used to the way your life is now. That can get a little unhealthy.
BE: So to the album, the lead single, “Cameron” is a very serious and important song to this day and age. Tell us a little about the importance of the song to you as well as the making of the video.
JJ: I am very grateful to the song “Cameron”. Even though I wrote the song, it’s taken on a life of its own. It’s allowed me to have conversations with people all over the country that I don’t know that I would’ve gotten to have before. It really has been a beautiful catalyst to getting to know a ton of people. It helps me really explore how I feel when I look in the mirror. As a human being, we all experience confusion in terms of who we are.
I’m a girl and I identify as a girl, but the sexual identification of “Cameron” is a different story than mine. It’s actually the story of a friend. I’m very grateful that the song fell out of my mouth and into the world. It’s continued to challenge me to be unafraid of the person that I actually am. In regards to making the video, it was a really awesome, euphoric experience. I’ve had less than great experiences with making music videos and those have not reached the light of day because I don’t want to put something out that I’m not happy with. The minute I read the treatment that Real Sprague, the director, wrote, I was absolutely in love with it. I had seen a lot of his other works and I knew that he was the perfect guy for this. He has this ability to capture so much pain and beauty all at the same time. I stepped onto the set and there were already so many things going on – the characters were all being made up and there was this feeling of joyous creativity everywhere. Everyone who was a part of it was excited to be a part of it.
BE: You’re right, the video was directed perfectly. It captures the song perfectly which doesn’t happen all that often.
JJ: The casting portion is actually an interesting story. The little boy who is Cameron was not supposed to be Cameron. We were going to be using this stunt guy. The stunt guy was in New Jersey, where we were filming because it was cheaper. We went out and his family offered their house as one of the locations to help us save money. Then his neighbor started getting curious as to what was going on and they had this little boy who just happened to not be in school that day. The director took one look at him and was like “Hey, maybe he could be Cameron.” The little boy was completely perfect and open-minded and excited, he was asking questions. He’s the most magical little thing. I don’t think that video would’ve come even close to being the same without him.
BE: I would’ve never guessed that. He was perfect for it. That’s almost like fate how that happened.
JJ: It was like fate! The story feels like a made up story to me, but it’s real. I hadn’t even met him yet. I missed the first day of shooting because I was stuck in traffic, so by the time I got there the little boy had gone home. I haven’t even met this kid! It’s something I plan on making happen as soon as I can. It was absolutely fate. I can’t even imagine what the video would’ve looked like without him.
BE: Everything you’ve put out has been of complete quality. All of us at the magazine love the album, but we’re just writers. I’ve noticed other artists reacting positively to the album as well, what is that like?
JJ: It’s such a humbling thing to have somebody that you respect and look up to acknowledge that you even exist and on top of that actually respect and like what you do. I don’t think that will ever start to feel normal. I think, no matter how much it happens, it would still feel very surreal.
BE: There is something incredibly special about this album. There isn’t a bad song throughout it, but I was surprised by how much I liked the two B-sides (“Box of Crayons” and “17”). What made you decide to leave those off the album?
JJ: Those are just older songs, I didn’t even think they were going to be B-sides. “17” was supposed to be on the record but then I went on tour and wrote a bunch more songs. It was one of two songs on the record that was written before I actually made the record. I just felt that I had grown beyond it, so it didn’t feel like it accurately represented me as an artist.
I wanted “True North” to make the record instead of “17” which I’m still very happy with that decision. “True North” is the last song I wrote for the record and it sort of sums it up. In regards to “Box of Crayons”, I wrote that when I was 19! I didn’t even consider it being on the album. I knew that some people liked it and it was a poppier, quirkier licensable song. It was definitely a different side of me. The label actually decided to put “17” and “Box of Crayons” as B-sides, and I didn’t really want that to happen. But since that’s happened, I’ve become re-enchanted with them, especially “Box of Crayons”.
I recently played a show at Joe’s Pub, a club in New York and it’s been a dream of mine to always play there, and I decided to do “Box of Crayons” as one of my encores. I hadn’t played that song in five years and I sang it so much different. It came from a different place, and I fell back in love with it.
BE: You also work with some extremely talented producers on this album (Peter Zizzo and Michael Mangini). Tell us about what it was like working with them.
JJ: I’ve known Peter since I was 17 and he became a very consistent person in my life. We wrote a couple songs together, then we stopped writing songs and it became a relationship where I could bring a song to him and he’d be honest with me about it. We played around with making a record together a few times in the past seven years and it wasn’t until two years ago when we started writing again for other people.
We were writing really poppy songs with tracks. Then we put on Ricki Lee Jones and her song called “The Real End” and we just turned to each other, “Why aren’t we making my record?!” and decided to just do it already. He mentioned that Mike Mangini would be a great production partner on this because he comes in with a different ear, so we started down this journey together. We made the EP. They got me a deal.
The thing I’ll say about those guys is that, beyond the fact that they are incredibly talented guys, I am so lucky to have had people around me who are so excited about what I’m excited about. I’ll come to them with songs and it means something to them, they go to bat for me, they never disrespect the songs. What you hear on the record are just beautiful elaborations on songs I wrote in my apartment.
BE: As I mentioned earlier, “Cameron” is a very honest song that has already touched many people. I interviewed Fun. a while back and as a writer I drew a few comparisons to them when listening to your album. Obviously there is a place for all types of music, but looking back on history and how other artists have tackled serious subjects that affect us as a society, how important do you think it is for artists like yourself to address these issues?
JJ: I mean that word “honest” is truly the point of my music. I think it makes the distinction between something I can be proud of and continue to play and something that’s going to go away really quickly. I like to continue to challenge myself to figure out what I am trying to say and figure out what I actually care about and what’s paining me or exciting me. I do run into moments when I am writing a song and I am like, “I am not talking about anything, this is bullshit!” or I am just trying to sound like this thing that I really am not, so I cut myself off there. I try to continue to be as sure with who I am as possible. I think it’s so important. I think that people are starving for that sort of conversation in the world. I think having people in the world who have a platform and use it in a responsible way, who aren’t afraid to say how much it fucking hurts and “this is why I am upset about this”. I mean that’s like – I don’t know how the world is supposed to progress unless you can actually have an honest conversation about what’s wrong.
Make sure to catch Jillette Johnson on the tour soon and if you haven’t already…check out her brand new album, Water in a Whale, featuring the single “Cameron” on iTunes now.
Editor in Chief of Lemonade Magazine
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