Jillette Johnson - Water in a Whale
Producer: Peter Zizzo, Michael Mangini
Release Date: June 25th, 2013
Hometown: New York, New York
I was in Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago and was lucky to find an empty, quiet section of the store. I had a long day at work, and I wanted to escape into a new book. I opened up Overdosed America and began to.... No! You've got to be kidding me! Music over the store intercom? Really? I guess this was their way of saying, "Hey, you. This isn't a library." Fair enough. I tried to zone it out and continue reading, but I was reading the same sentence over and over again. Hang on, who is this? This is actually pretty good. No, this is really good. I abandoned my book and scrambled for my phone to SoundHound it. I gave it two attempts, but the phone couldn't pick up the song. Ah, oh well. I picked the book back up and pressed on, but the music caught me. The songs kept getting better. I broke my phone out once more, not taking no for an answer. I strained my ears to pick up some lyrics. Got it!
The song I was listening to was "Heathen" by Jillette Johnson off of her debut full-length, Water in a Whale. I listened to the album the entire next day, bought it the day after that, and saw her perform two weeks later. Clearly I was hooked.
The album is theatrical, yet authentic and human. Jillette's voice dances between a booming clamor and a graceful hum. She'll whisk you right off into a peaceful dream, and then bring you spiraling back to earth in an instant. The instrumentation in her songs is rich and layered, featuring horns, drums, strings, and everything in between. I asked Jillette if she played any of these instruments, to which she replied, "I'm really just a piano player. But I think that's the reason the record reads so orchestral... Because the piano can easily write for and allude to a symphonic experience. I think it's also a reflection of my songwriting style. I lay everything down just piano/vocal first. That's the way that I write music and like to build a track from the place the song originally came."
My first discovery, "Last Bus Out," churns its verse into a powerful chorus touching down with such a resonating clash that sticks with you for days. Johnson mentions an interesting note on her Spotify commentary, "'Last Bus Out' was a song that I had totally forgotten about, but my producers, I guess, dug it out of my graveyard of songs and insisted that it go on the record, and I'm really glad that they did because it's a really fun, upbeat song about just being in this romantic relationship that makes you want to do nothing but stay in bed and be with the person that you're with and just ignore all your responsibilities. It's one of the more upbeat, sort of rockin' moments of the record." Considering it's one of the strongest tracks on the album, her producers knew exactly what they were doing. Expanding upon the sound here could launch Johnson into the airwaves for sure.
Having two producers, Peter Zizzo (Vanessa Carlton, Avril Lavigne) and Michael Mangini (Joss Stone, David Byrne), allowed for a balanced team effort. Zizzo brought the creative, melodic, side of the equation, with Mangini bringing the voice of reason and a sonic ear (he mixed a lot of the album). Jillette mentioned, "It's been a great ride with those two. I couldn't have asked for a more talented, supportive or lovely team. Having three of us in the room allowed for a checks and balances system that I think did really well by the record."
It seems fitting that "Heathen" remains as one of my favorite tracks. Inspired by Gertrude Stein, it touches on opening your mind and challenging yourself. Its composition is nearly flawless; it starts off with only a guitar and her voice, but by the end of the song we're introduced to an orchestra of sounds all led by her commanding vocals. "Heathen," along with the playful b-side "Box of Crayons," are great starting points if you're new to Johnson.
"True North" was the first song I saw a live video for, and it's what truly sold me to her sound. See if you can pick up the dulcimer in the album version. Her voice is highlighted here—sweet hums and a sudden wail soar above a piano drenched in warmth. She opened with this when I saw her perform. I thought it was odd because I pegged this song as a closer, but it worked well. She has so much power behind the mic, but Whale doesn't do her justice. Seeing her live performance made me realize the full potential of her vocals. They're loud, almost alarming, but a staple of her live performance. We were all transfixed. You can check out my photos from that show over on the AP.net Facebook page.
Out of all of the promising tracks to choose from, I always return to "When The Ship Goes Down." The phenomenal bridge starting at 1:25 is a highlight of the entire record. The whole song shifts in direction as Johnson proclaims, "We deserve a chauffeur in our car / Black truffle loaded with caviar / White gloves to open up every door / Life is short, let’s get what we came for / I want more / And I'll get what I came for." It's a euphoric section I wish continued for a bit longer. I asked Jillette if the final product of this song was the same as how she imagined it.
"Yeah that's just the way I wrote the song, coupled with a string arrangement. That's almost as raw as they come. It always amazes me how grand simplicity can be."
I try my best not to call "Torpedo" the best song on the album, but it's just so good. Definitely the biggest extension into radio-friendly pop of the record, it still flows nicely with the rest of the album. Its loud, pounding drums line its spine while its dynamic chorus sets an insurmountable precedent for the rest of the record. I really wish there were more songs like this on Whale.
Jillette Johnson shows great promise throughout the entire record. If her goal is to reach the mainstream, she certainly has the tools to do so. I hope she reaches her destination no matter where that is.
I was interested to see if there were any major roadblocks that came up during production. Jillette responded with a fascinating story about single, "Cameron."
"We actually had quite the run around with Cameron. The thing about that piano part is it's incredibly metronomic and sounds really odd if any of the notes are a fraction of beat fast or slow. When I play the song live, it's all about the moment and you don't notice. But when it came time to record it on a real piano, I just couldn't get it. I always thought I nailed it and we would listen back in shock of how off it sounded. We then hired 4 people... 4 of the best piano players around to play the damn thing. And literally none of them got it. Eventually I went on the road and my chops got a lot better. I came back right before we had to master the record and finally played the version that you hear now. But it became the running joke that that piano part was cursed. "