“My piano tuner was here for over three hours, so I’m a little disoriented,” Jillette Johnson jokes from her home in Nashville, Tennessee. The singer/songwriter is making definitive waves with her new retro-tinged new album All I Ever See In You Is Me. In our new series DISCOVERY, she speaks about the songs and stories that helped make the album a reality.
Where did you grow up?
I lived in Westchester, New York as a kid. We moved there from the Bay Area in California when I was nine years-old. And then I moved to New York City when I was 18.
You definitely sound like you have more Bay Area in your music than Westchester County.
That’s nice to hear! [Laughs.]
Your new album has a variety of different moods and textures on it, but all are framed by your remarkable voice. How did the project come together, and what was it like working with Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb?
I recorded it in April of 2016, but because of label changes and bureaucracy, it took a while to come out. When I worked with Dave, he was already a big deal - having won the Grammy Award for his work with Chris Stapleton. I felt really lucky to work with Dave, and I was really knocked-over that he wanted to work with me. Working with him was the opposite of every experience I had ever had in the studio. He makes records the way I think people used to make records. He’s not afraid to do that – to work fast and capture the humanity in things. And that’s what I want. I write all of my songs alone at the piano, and there’s a spirit that happens that’s always been really hard for me to capture on a record. I’ll play shows and tour, and people will come up to me and say, “Man, can you make a record that sounds like that? I feel like I know two different artists that both have your name.” Dave’s style and his reverence for some of the same artists that I revere heavily made for a really nice match. I feel honored that he wanted to put his name on it.
Who’s playing on the album with you?
It’s Brian Allen playing bass and Chris Powell playing drums. Dave works with them a lot, and they all started working together in Los Angeles and then moved to Nashville. The three of them have a pretty worked-out groove, which made working with them really natural and organic. Dave played guitar on some things – it’s pretty sparse on the record, but the most prominent moment is in “Love Is Blind.” I also play Mellotron in some moments, but mostly it’s just me playing piano and singing. There was no shortage of access to gear, for sure. But we wanted to keep things pretty simple. So, I’m basically just playing piano.
What kind of piano did you record the album on?
It was a beautiful, old Steinway grand that belonged to Ben Folds. He had RCA Studio A for 12 years before Dave Cobb took it over. Gena Johnson, who was the assistant engineer on my record, used to work for Ben and said when he was there, the entire studio was covered in pianos and keyboards. She said he left behind two of them – one was an upright piano, and the other was this beautiful grand piano that was perfect for my record.
That’s interesting, because I interviewed Ben a few years ago when he still had the studio, and he described to me how he uses different pianos on different songs for effect.
I was so psyched Ben left that one piano behind. It was such a pleasure to play.
You’ve lived in California, New York and now Nashville. What do you like about your current city of choice?
Well, I really like change, and I like challenging my idea of who I think I am and where I think I’m supposed to be. I lived in New York City for eight years, but I was there basically every day from the time I was 12 until I was 25. Then I moved to L.A. for a year and got into a relationship. But it’s a transient place, and when I got out of that relationship and later made my record in Nashville, I decided to move there. I didn’t think it was going to happen. I had told myself I would never move to Nashville, but that’s like the kiss of death for me. As soon as I say I’m never going to do something, I usually do it! But I felt like I would be seen in Nashville in a way that’s been hard for me in the bigger cities. I don’t think what I do is the obvious thing, and the older I get, the subtler what I do gets. All of a sudden, I found myself surrounded by people who I had a lot respect for who saw me as a peer. Nashville felt like a really supportive environment, and I knew it was probably the right thing to do for my career at this point. You go to a coffee shop and you run into 20 people you know who are all working on cool stuff and want to know what you’re doing. The city really fosters creativity.
Besides your piano, do you have any other keyboards at home?
I have my Wurly that I bought at a Guitar Center in Central Florida while I was on-tour a couple of years ago. I lugged it around in my rental RV and I love it. It’s right by the foot of my bed because I like having keys where I sleep. If there’s that moment right before I close my eyes that something pops into my head and I’m too lazy to go into the other room, I’ll usually get a song out of it. And I usually really like those songs. They seem to be the ones that just want to fall out. I also have a Kawai keyboard with built-in speakers near my computer that I can record on and bring with me if I ever want to get out of my environment and write someplace else. And I have a Hammond organ that I don’t have an amp for right now, but it looks great! I know it will find it’s time again. So, I have trinkets and stuff. I’m not really a gear head at all. The most import thing to me is access to any kind of keys. It’s just about the song for me.
The album’s first single “Flip A Coin” has a killer piano riff and a really seductive groove. How did you decide that was going to be the lead-off track?
We went with “Flip A Coin” because it has a story. I was living in L.A. at the time and I had a gig in Vegas. So, I was driving to Vegas and we drove through San Bernadino right as the  shootings were happening. And so we wanted a single that had a message you could hold on to.
You’ve talked about Paul Simon and Carole King as two of your biggest influences. Who else helped point you in the right direction?
Randy Newman is really important to me. He breaks my heart and just makes me feel like I want to write a lot of songs. He’s proof to me that the well doesn’t have to dry up. That makes me feel completely excited to be a songwriter, because it means you can live this way for the rest of your life if you want to. As he gets older, his songs reflect it and are honest about where he is in his life. That’s what I want to listen to. I feel the same way about Loudon Wainwright.
The music that you’re making now sounds unhurried. That’s a rarity in this day and age.
That’s an interesting way to put it. I like that a lot. It’s getting less and less hurried. I have a folder of 160 songs that are contenders for the next record. I’m watching myself progressively become someone that just wants to write songs that sound like jazz standards. And that’s an unhurried sound.