On August 14th singer-songwriter Jillette Johnson releases the smoldering and passionate debut EP Whiskey & Frosting (Wind-up Records). It’s an intimate and boldly emotional five-song collection of stately pop from a unique and unflinchingly honest artist. Johnson’s commitment to her distinct vision is thorough and uncompromising, from her willingness to explore the raw and controversial in her lyrics, to her unwillingness to give into tempting hot ticket-career opportunities. Johnson audaciously declined a high-exposure spot on the television talent show The Voice to keep her creative autonomy.
“I realized those paths would be inauthentic to me. I know how to write my own music, and I want a say in my career,” Johnson explains.
Whiskey & Frosting is one of those rare and revelatory debuts where you experience a young songwriter with a highly mature sense of artistic self. The NYC-based singer-piano player wrote all the songs on the EP, and her upcoming album. The piano-based songs unfold with honeyed drama and grandeur, showcasing Johnson’s soaring vocals which manage to both be comforting and spiritually rousing.
“Two of my favorite things are whiskey and frosting,” Johnson says laughing. “The title came directly from an impromptu birthday party with friends where I ate the frosting off cupcakes and drank whiskey. I was telling my producers about the night when I realized how similar those two things were to my writing style. I don’t write happy songs without some melancholy feelings in there. I like to paint an entire emotional picture. There is depth, sorrow, and overly sweet tones. Many of the songs are about living as a young person in New York City, living irresponsibly and exploring consequences.”
The bravely vulnerable “Cameron” explores the struggle of a transgendered person and transpires a universal anthem for staying true to oneself. Johnson sings: Cameron's in drag, makes his father mad / Since he was a little boy / He always felt more comfortable in lipstick / These days the world is full of aliens / The world is full of aliens, but you are a human / You're not an alien / You are a real live human / Aren't you, Cameron? At its fundamental core, “Cameron” is about making tough choices to be authentic; a definite thematic thread in Johnson’s life.
“I didn’t know I was going to write about a transgendered boy, the words just came out and I thought, ‘Oh, this is about someone trying be someone they don’t appear to be,’” she reveals. “There is a sensation I get when I want to create. I have energy coursing through my veins, and I just let my hands fall and run with it. I don’t always know the initial reference point, but then I go back and make sense of what I’m saying. It’s pure subconscious inspiration and relentless editing. ‘Cameron’ ended up being inspired by a transgendered kid I’m close with, but the song also captures the need to feel at home in your own skin.”
Jillette Johnson got signed to Wind-up on the strength of “Cameron.” “That song was a turning point. Talent makes people notice you, but songs bring people to action,” she figures. Inking a deal was the culmination of many years of steadfast pursuit of her ideals and her dream to be a professional musician. “I was convinced by the age of 4 I was going to be a rock star,” she says with a smile. At 6 Johnson began taking piano lessons, and by 8 she was writing her own songs. Her formative influences were the Les Misérables Soundtrack and artists such as Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Carole King, and Sarah McLachlan. “I learned song structure from those beautifully articulate songwriters. Joni said so much with quirky lyrics, Carole had a way of simplifying—those two parallels formed me as a lyricist.”
At 18 she left her small town of Pound Ridge, New York, population 4,000, to move to NYC’s vibrantly creative Loho neighborhood. From 12-18 she had been making migratory visits to soak up the city’s buzzing inspiration, but her move cemented a creative relationship between her youth, the city, and her soulful compositions.
The EP also features highlights like the elegant and stirring “When The Ship Goes Down,” and the buoyant and heartfelt “Torpedo.” “Pauvre Coeur” juxtaposes gorgeously spare classical-flavored piano against bluntly confessional lyrics about a dried up romantic relationship. It’s one of the most arresting moments on the EP. Here Johnson sings: If I recall it was a Friday / Gentle hum before the war / You were high and watching poker / And I had just walked in the door / You started screaming at the TV / Saying, make a play you filthy whore / And I was trying to make you see me / Like the way you did before.
“I wrote that from a perspective of strength. I haven’t been in a lot of relationships—the longest has been my music career. Music comes first, anything that got in the way suffered. This was about my first serious adult relationship. It became emotionally abusive as it reached the end, and I lost myself. When I rediscovered myself, I found the strength to leave,” she reveals.
The EP and the upcoming album, were produced by Peter Zizzo, widely respected for developing Vanessa Carlton and Avril Lavigne, and Michael Mangini, esteemed for his work with Joss Stone, Bruce Hornsby, and David Byrne. The duo’s innate understanding of Johnson’s singular vision, and respect for her fully-formed compositions helped them enhance the power and dynamics of the music. “They maintained the spirit of the songs—they still are a 100% my songs—they’re just turned way up on the amp,” she says.
Reflectively, Jillette Johnson says: “I have a specific point of view and I follow my instincts. My sensibility has been in tune with my emotions. I’m always honest with what I feel. I’m passionate with my songs to a fault.”