For Jillette Johnson the journey has been as integral to her musical experience as the destination. Jillette, who began taking music lessons and penning songs as a child, has been performing live since she was 12, captivating audiences with her sultry, thoughtful piano-driven tunes. The musician, now 23, has spent the last decade cultivating her sound and defining her unique perspective. When she moved to New York City from her small town of Pound Ridge, NY at 18, Jillette was already familiar with the city and its clubs, from Sidewalk Cafe to The Bitter End to Rockwood Music Hall.
In early 2012, Jillette inked a deal with Wind-Up Records, who were drawn in by her standout track “Cameron,” an inspirational number that explores the struggle of a transgendered person. The song appeared on the singer’s five-track EP, Whiskey & Frosting, which came out in August 2012, a prelude to her debut album Water In A Whale, out June 25, 2013. Culled from six months worth of recording sessions at Wind-Up’s New York studio, the album traces Jillette’s experiences and ideas about living in the city and being young in today’s society. She finished the album fall 2012, just before going out on tour, and as it turned out those weeks on the road shifted the musician’s sensibilities.
“There’s this funny thing that happens when you go on the road,” Jillette says. “Because you’re not around the people that you’re normally around and you’re in a different environment and you’re constantly being creative and putting out things. Your voice starts to change, both literally and figuratively. I just started growing really rapidly and my perspective started changing a lot. I got back two weeks before Christmas and I knew that we had to have everything done by the first of the year. So I had six months to make the record and two weeks to change everything. A lot of artists don’t get that opportunity, to be able to have the album that they made and come back and make tweaks. That’s pretty rare and I got to do it.”
The final album, which features the five tracks found on Whiskey & Frosting, centers on Jillette’s soaring vocals and the sparse, haunting piano lines she wrote to accompany them. Produced by Peter Zizzo (Vanessa Carlton, Avril Lavigne) and Michael Mangini (Joss Stone, David Byrne), the album reveals Jillette’s pensive reflections on the world around her, all of which lead to a deeper understand of self-identity. “Cameron,” the disc’s lead single, was written both from personal experience with someone the musician knows and from the idea of what it means to grapple with who you are. The glowing number focuses on what it means to be authentic to one’s self, a universal theme.
“I do have someone in my life that’s transgendered and I’ve learned a lot from this person,” Jillette says. “But I think I actually wrote ‘Cameron’ more about myself and about that feeling of being alien in your own skin. It’s been really awesome to play that song around the country and meet people who share stories that may have to do with being transgendered or may have to do with feeling a little bit different.”
The real power comes from those songs about the musician herself, however and the rest of the album follows in tone. “When the Ship Goes Down,” a hushed ballad, plays with the idea of the immortality you feel when you’re young while the sultry “Bassett Hound” offers an unbalanced account of unrequited love, based on, as Jillette says, “every time I showed too many of my cards and wanted someone too much.” The ethereal “Pauvre Coeur” treads similar ground, excising the anger the singer felt about a relationship that started to “devour” her. “True North,” a soaring and epic number written in that urgent two-week period last winter, touches on what it means to return home, a fulcrum for the musician’s ideas about her identity. “It’s about coming home and accepting the failures that you endure along the way,” Jillette says. “And realizing that you’re gonna have a place to come home to, and that’s the home inside your own head when all the other voices go away. Because they’re not you so they don’t care enough to stay that long. You’re still going to have your own voice and that’s what coming home means to me.”
Jillette, who’s toured with Delta Rae among others, brings her impassioned live aesthetic onto the album, infusing each number with a sense of intimacy and fervor. The songs shift from light-hearted buoyancy of “Bassett Hound” to the heavy urgency of “Cameron,” showcasing a viable array of musical – and lyrical – inspiration. For Jillette, whose years of experience and practice have set her up for what’s to come, the goal is to bring these songs to life for as many people as possible.
“The next year or two I think are wide open, in terms of what amazing things could happen,” the singer says. “And I think it’s just up to me to work hard every day and have a lot of luck. I hope to really build my live show. I can’t get to hung up on what exactly will happen. It’s really just about every day playing my heart out and connecting with fans over human experiences.”