Jillette Johnson is a piano playing singer-songwriter with a voice full of passion and songs that offer wisdom well beyond her 23 years of age. Her fresh and keen sense of style is ever present in the way she dresses and shines through in her music as well.
Wind-up Records signed Jillette based on the strength of her song “Cameron.” It’s a bravely vulnerable song that explores the struggles of a transgendered person and ultimately emerges as a universal anthem about the need to feel at home in your own skin and the tough decision to stay true to yourself.
Her debut EP, Whiskey & Frosting was produced by Michael Mangini and Peter Zizzo (Vanessa Carlton, Avril Lavigne, Joss Stone) and recently released digitally on iTunes.
Whiskey and Frosting is a pretty accomplished EP. Are those songs that have been around for awhile, or were they written pretty recently?
I wrote these songs over the last year or so -along with about 50 other songs I wrote this year. I write a lot. (Laughs.) It can be overwhelming.
The title of the EP seems to fit the mood of the songs – there’s are part of it that are uplifting, but darker tones underneath. Where did you come up with the title?
Whiskey and frosting are two of my favorite things. After having a hellish day last spring, my friends shocked me with a surprise party and all I had all night was whiskey and the frosting off of all the cupcakes. My friends know me well, and they knew that there was nothing that a little whiskey and frosting couldn’t fix. Thus the title of the EP was born.
One of the things I like about the album was how it managed to feel intimate (“When the Ship Goes Down”) yet sweeping and epic at the same time (particularly “Torpedo”). Was that a vibe you going for?
Honestly I write all of my songs sitting alone at my piano and I have no idea what’s going to come out, or where the songs will take me until I’m there. I write with my instincts, so its rare that I pre-meditate the vibe of any particular song. However I’m not shy, so I definitely like a little drama and dynamic in anything I write. My producers (Peter Zizzo and Michael Mangini) really nailed it though in the sense that they were able to capture my intimacy and make the most of my ferocity.
You’re also a pretty accomplished piano player? Did you take formal lessons as a kid? Or is something you took up on your own?
Thank you! I’ve taken lessons off and on since I was a little kid, but it wasn’t until I started writing that I became so attached to the piano. It really became tool to serve my writing and it’s also an extension of my voice.
Did you write any songs when you younger or is this something you’ve come into recently?
I started writing songs when I was 8. Although I do remember wandering around the sandbox in pre-school, making up words and melodies. But yeah, because I started at such a young age, songwriting is as natural to me as falling asleep. I have to do it, and if I don’t, I’m not a happy camper.
“Cameron” addresses the feelings and tribulations of being a young transgendered individual, and has a positive message. What inspired that particular song?
Cameron is a song about the isms in all of us that we deserve to embrace and to be proud of. I’m blessed to know an incredibly beautiful kid who has been brave enough to go through a sexual transition, and has done it gracefully and without apologies. However, as much as Cameron is inspired by my fearless friend, it is a song about anyone who is made to feel like they don’t belong.
One of the things that caught my attention and I liked about the song about it was that it was very specific. It doesn’t shy away from the emotional context of Cameron. It’s not vague unlike some other songs with a similar theme.
I love details. I think that simple, little intricacies serve to tell a much more relatable and real story. I also don’t see the point in being shy about writing a song like Cameron. Either you write the song and tell the slightly uncomfortably honest version, or you don’t write the song at all.
Now that you’ve got Whiskey and Frosting out – what’s next?
I’m actually setting up to release my full debut album in the spring! Record is already done, just got to hit the road and try to motivate the world to listen to me.