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Photo credit: Betsy Phillips

Tell us about your tour vehicle. Any notable breakdown stories?

I’ve been touring out of my Chevy Traverse lately. It’s got room for my keyboard, boxes of merch, suitcases, and one or two other passengers depending on their instruments and packing habits. I’ve always really liked using my personal car for touring because it makes for a much more comfortable situation, and doesn’t draw a lot of attention to the fact that I have pricey gear in tow.

I used to tour out of RVs and travel trailers, and got robbed in Albuquerque because my vehicle made me look so obviously like a tourist. They stole our passport, computers, and all the cash I had made selling merch from 6 weeks on the road (not smart of me to wait that long before depositing money in the bank). Thankfully no instruments were harmed or taken.

When we left Albuquerque to sleep somewhere we felt safer, we found ourselves almost robbed AGAIN in a Walmart parking lot in Amarillo. Someone came right up to our vehicle in the middle of the night, trying obviously to stay out of the way of security cameras. Thankfully we woke up and spooked him off.

How do you eat cheaply and/or healthy while on tour?

My rider is pretty lean and mean and can get me by on several meals if need be. Raw veggie and fruit platters, hummus, nuts, and tea can pretty much sustain me if I can’t find a healthy/fast option. Also, I love finding health food stores in different cities. It’s kind of a like a way to get to know where I am, and yet it makes every place feel familiar and welcoming. I’m personally not a fan of fast food though, so sometimes it can get a little hairy.

How many strings do you break in a typical year? How much does it cost to replace them?

I play the piano, so that is one thing I don’t have to worry about. But lugging a keyboard around certainly has its own obstacles, especially if I’m visiting a radio station that’s on the top floor of a building that only has stairs.

Also, I once took my Wurlitzer out on tour and that thing was a nightmare for maintenance. They are such beautiful instruments, but if you so much as look at them the wrong way, something falls out of place and they can become virtually unplayable. I had to have my Wurly looked at by a professional in at least a third of the places I played on that tour. Plus, people who know how to fix them are a dying breed, so even finding someone who knew how to help me was a massive challenge.

Where do you rehearse?

My rehearsal space is a room in my house, which since the pandemic, has turned into my husband’s office. It’s arguably the best room in the house, with the prettiest light, so we’ve had to learn to share the room now that everyone’s stuck at home. So, lately I’ve been playing and writing in our bedroom. When I actually do get to rehearse with my band for something, which has been few and far between because, ya know, Covid, we’ve been doing so on my drummer’s screened in porch. Honestly, it’s super vibey, and I think we’ll probably keep doing it that way even when things go back to normal, if they ever do.

What was the title and a sample lyric from the first song that you wrote?

Tommy. Age 8. “Tommy feel in love with the girl next door. He’d rather have her than all the money in the world.”

Describe your first gig.

I was 12 and it was at The Sidewalk Cafe in NYC’s Alphabet City. My ASCAP rep got me the gig. I think I got to play 5 songs or so, and there were probably 10 people in the audience. I played all originals, and then had to leave because it was a bar and, again, I was 12. When I eventually moved into Manhattan and lived there from ages 18-25, it always made me laugh when my friends wanted to meet up at the Sidewalk Cafe. To them, it was a convenient bar with cheap Mojitos. To me, it was the first time I ever truly tried to command a room of strangers with just my voice, a piano, and my songs.

What was your last day job? What was your favorite day job?

My last day job was as a yoga teacher. Also my favorite day job. It’s super creative, and gave me the opportunity to connect with people in a different way. I think that performing is certainly an act of giving, but helping people feel safe in a room while you put their bodies and minds at ease is a whole other thing. I always walked away from teaching a class feeling like a million bucks, regardless of how I felt walking in.

How has your music-related income changed over the past 5-10 years? What do you expect it to look like 5-10 years from now?

My music income is largely royalty based. Thankfully my records have and continue to be played on terrestrial and XM radio, and thankfully I get paid for that! I feel super lucky because if I was relying solely on touring right now, things would be a lot different in Covid times. I really feel for the many, many musicians who I know who are in that boat. I think that will probably remain the case for the next 5-10 years (I hope), but I also hope that as my career grows, that I will be able to diversify a bit more. Maybe writing for other people will take me there, maybe I will launch a line of designer socks and people will go bananas for them. Who knows!

What one thing do you know now that you had wished you knew when you started your career in music?

Putting out records is a huge achievement, and matters, no matter what happens to them. My mom always said I was a success already, even if at the end of the day I decided I just wanted to sing in my shower. I believe her now, but it took me a long a time.

Jillette Johnson started writing songs at age 8; by her teens, she was playing three-hour sets of original music at a restaurant near her suburban New York home. Soon, she was generating enough outside interest that she attended her public high school only one day a year while she developed and recorded her music. That dedication landed Johnson a record deal that resulted in two albums, 2013’s Water in a Whale and 2017’s All I Ever See in You Is Me, the latter of which was produced by fellow Nashvillian Dave Cobb. She began touring 200+ days each year, earning slots at major music festivals, TV appearances and press accolades from outlets ranging from Billboard, Rolling Stone Country, and Paste to Marie Claire, Elle, and Cosmopolitan.

It’s A Beautiful Day And I Love You, Johnson’s latest album, was released in February 2021. Connect with her online.

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