Jillette Johnson is already looking ahead. Her sophomore album, All I Ever See In You Is Me is scheduled to come out on July 28 via Rounder Records, but as she sits in the Paste office on a particularly sweaty June day in New York City, the classically-trained pianist and singer/songwriter talks about the next project she wants to record. But to do that, she has to look back.
Last October, Johnson had just moved from Los Angeles to Nashville. A native of the Bay Area who spent her formative years growing up in Westchester, N.Y. (just outside of NYC), Johnson was overwhelmed with the culture shock of The South. She was struggling to adjust to everything from the size of her new city, its oppressive heat, its dating expectations and more, so she fled to Maine for a work retreat.
“I found this cabin in Acadia National Park and it was peak leaf coloring season, right before everything dropped. And this little cabin had this beautiful Bechstein piano, which was the whole reason why I went there,” she begins.
She doesn’t fidget with her turquoise rings—three on one hand and two on the other, some white and some blue—while she talks. She doesn’t spin in the office chair or pluck its bungee cords like strings. Johnson speaks quickly, but boldly and unflinchingly, like she’s narrating a personal audiobook.
“I had this surreal experience where I wrote 13 songs in five days and I went hiking every day and it was just insane! All the songs really fit together. They sound like Maine. They sound like they’re married to each other. They’re not perfect, at all. They’re just sort of moments in time. And then there are some moments that I’m really really proud of and then there are some that if they weren’t all together, I probably would not put that anywhere, but it makes sense that it’s there,” she says.
That’s impressive, even for someone as prolific as Johnson (she claims to have written 70 contenders for the 11-track All I Ever See In You Is Me.) The trope of retreating to the woods to write a record has of course, been romanticized in the past: The Band recorded Music From Big Pink away from much of society and Bon Iver supposedly spent a winter in a snowy cabin to write For Emma Forever Ago. But it worked for Johnson too, and she left with enough songs for an entire album’s worth of material. The tracks represented an emotional outpouring and challenges fulfilled, all united by her mastery of piano-based pop songs, tinged with country inflections. Leaving Maine with tunes in hand and mind, she was ready to resume her day-to-day routines and finalize the roll-out for All I Ever See In You Is Me.
But when Johnson returned to Nashville, she learned that her record label Wind-up Records was folding. She lost her manager, would have to find a new team and label, and delay releasing the album. After connecting with Rounder Records though, she began to reconsider recording those songs in that cabin, on that piano, in Maine.
“As soon as she said that, all the hair on my arms stood up.”
And here’s where the story gets interesting.
“The post wasn’t on Airbnb anymore,” Johnson reveals. “The post was gone. And the woman who rented the cabin to me responded to me and was like, ‘I want to talk to you on the phone and tell you the story about this cottage. Unfortunately, it sold.’
“She told me the cottage and the piano belonged to…she called him her soul mate. He was this gay classical piano player who had the cottage for 25 years, lived in New York and would go there every year to play piano…He died one or two months before I got to the cottage. She told me that when I requested to book the Airbnb, ‘I just kinda had a feeling that you were going to experience something within.’
“As soon as she said that, all the hair on my arms stood up. Because the thing is, it was such a profound week. I have not been able to articulate it to anyone because it was just this wild combination of everything coming together just right, but in a poignant way,” Johnson professes.
“Since that experience, I’m different. I can feel it. I’m a different writer now…She sent me this link to this recital of his where he was playing piano in the town I was in and it just felt so familiar to me. It was so wild and I just feel like maybe there was some kind of collision of energy.”
That trip changed Johnson, but also encapsulates her draw as a storyteller and performer. “Since that trip,” she says, “I have been the most open as a writer I’ve ever been.”
If that’s Johnson’s past, and the fulfillment of that Maine project represents her hopeful future, the present seems like just the right time to receive All I Ever See In You Is Me. There are the songs about confusion (“Flip A Coin,” with its vacillations on playing God and the devil), fear (“Bunny,” with its mention of a “robot army” with “supersonic guns”), love (of the lost variety on “Not Tonight” and “Love Is Blind”), lust (“In Repair”) and family (“Like You Raised Me” and the title track). Even the closing “Thumbelina” is a feminist anthem wrapped up in a piano pop ballad whose lyrics should probably be on a motivational poster plastered in bedrooms across America.
Johnson’s focus on the present is one of the aspects that gives roots to her music on All I Ever See In You Is Me. It informs her views on relationships, career and creativity. In fact, she chides that the “well of creativity” drying up is a myth artists tell themselves, and that releasing those constraints, will help with embracing what’s happening now.
“[We can’t] make something that sounds like what we made when we were younger,” she says, “because we’re not younger anymore!”
“That’s not honest,” she concludes, “so it’s not really art.”
Check out all of _Paste’s _The Best of What’s Next series here.