By Brent Thompson
“I really wanted to make a record that sounded the way that I sound live,” Jillette Johnson recalls when asked about her latest release, All I Ever See In You Is Me [Rounder Records]. Enlisting the help of Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton) for the recording, Johnson accomplished her mission. The singer/songwriter/pianist’s sophomore release is an 11-track collection of songs so well-produced that it sounds loose, natural and, well, rather un-produced. On Tuesday, May 15, Johnson will return to Birmingham to perform at Saturn as the supporting act for Parker Millsap. Recently, Johnson spoke with us by phone as she drove across Texas to join Millsap for their current run of shows.
Birmingham Stages: Jillette, thanks for your time. If you will, talk about the evolution of All I Ever See In You Is Me.
Jillette Johnson: We recorded that record two years ago in April. Some of these songs were floating around for a while because I had four years between my first release and All I Ever See In You Is Me, not because I didn’t want to make another record; I just had a lot of shifts in my team. My record label was bought by a larger label and dissolved by that label. The beauty of that is I had a long time to amass a lot of work. I made this record with Dave Cobb and I had a folder of songs – I think there were like 80 songs or something. He only got half of them [laughs] and I didn’t realize that until we were far into making the record. The songs that we chose were from an older period of time and that was because of a technical error, but I think we made a beautiful record that represented myself at that time. Sometimes it’s nice when those things happen because it’s hard to pick from a large catalog – it’s pretty overwhelming.
Birmingham Stages: Obviously, Dave Cobb is associated with a number of respected artists and successful releases. Given his high-profile status, it speaks highly of you and your songs that he chose this project.
JJ: My last record [2013’s Water in a Whale] was like going into a lab to piece together everything. When I took that record out on tour, I was giving different representations of the songs. So, my goal was to make the most honest-sounding record that I could. In my research of trying to figure out who would be the right person, Dave’s name kept coming up. I noticed that he was making records with artists that sounded like the artists. I sent a list of producers to my A&R guy with Dave’s name at the top and Dave listened to a bunch of my homemade demos and I flew to Nashville to meet him. We had conversations about artists that inspire us and we agreed on a lot of them. Looking back, it was a lot easier than it should have been because he’s so in-demand. Recording with him was really easy – he just captures who you are and where you are. He’ll fine-tune it in a really brilliant way, but I didn’t feel like I was being told to be anything other than who I was.
Birmingham Stages: Even though the piano isn’t an obscure instrument, it doesn’t seem to be at the forefront enough these days. It’s nice to hear it as the lead instrument on All I Ever See In You Is Me.
JJ: I agree and thank you. I listen to a lot of artists that write on piano and I think that’s why I listen to a lot of artists that aren’t my age or aren’t putting out records right now. There’s a lot that’s available to you harmonically and that’s exciting because I love being challenged and also feeling safe within a song. Randy Newman does an amazing job at that – his chord progressions are beautiful but you always feel like you’re in on the joke, too. I’ve been writing on piano for 20 years so it’s such an extension of me it’s hard to get away from. Sometimes I write on guitar but I always come back to the piano.
Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about your writing process.
JJ: Even though there’s a lot of material floating around and I feel really strongly about a lot of it, this industry is really hard and I have a lot to prove to myself and it doesn’t have to do with a level of success. I want to be the best artist that I can be. To me, that means always showing up and writing more songs because I think it’s easy to count the songs and think that you’re done, but I don’t feel that way.
Jillette Johnson will perform with Parker Millsap at Saturn on Tuesday, May 15. Doors open at 7 p.m. and showtime is 8 p.m. Advance seated tickets are $16 and advance standing tickets are $13. Tickets to the 18+ show can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com.