Bringin’ It Backwards: Interview with Jillette Johnson

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Together with American Songwriter, we had the pleasure of interviewing Jillette Johnson over Zoom video! 

The hard-won optimism of Jillette Johnson’s It’s a Beautiful Day and I Love You couldn’t have come without tremendous upheaval. “

It’s a Beautiful Day and I Love You carries harmonic and emotional heft in the vein of Patty Griffin’s Flaming Red or Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark. There’s an open-heartedness in the Nashville-based Johnson’s songs, the kind of deeply experienced inner peace that results from a journey through vulnerability, pain, and struggle to gratitude, forgiveness, and, ultimately, acceptance.

Johnson’s a rare gem in Nashville, having written the entirety of It’s a Beautiful Day and I Love You alone, running contrary to the common Music City practice of co-writing. She did, however, find herself drawn to the city’s creative adage of “three chords and the truth” — though in Johnson’s case, it’s more like a dozen chords, especially on the harmonically elegant title track.

Despite its cheery title, It’s a Beautiful Day and I Love You does bear its share of heaviness: the woozy, self-destructiveness of “I Shouldn’t Go Anywhere”; the encounter with the thief of joy in “Jealous”; the helpless feelings that surround an acquaintance’s suicide in “Angelo.” “Songs are painful, and suffering is inherent to life,” Johnson acknowledges. “Part of my journey has been understanding and accepting that, then doing what I can to find joy.”

That joy shines through in the rolling folk-pop guitar patterns of “Annie,” a song of gratitude to the ex who taught her husband “to love with his whole heart.” It’s embedded in the mildly macabre humor of “Graveyard Boyfriend,” the lyrics of which are offset with a buoyant ‘70s-style pop melody. It’s even present in “What Would Jesus Do,” where the irreverent hook — “What would Jesus do? I don’t know, but I know he wouldn’t do it my way” — masks a meditation on acceptance. That song’s bite is balanced somewhat by “Forgive Her,” which begins by paraphrasing Jesus and winds up doing exactly what he would do.

At 15, Johnson’s best friends were her producer, her engineer, and her manager — all men in their 40s. “I was going out drinking with 40-year-old men and coming home at 2 in the morning on a regular basis.” Johnson soon learned first-hand about the prevalence of entertainment- industry predators and saw her parents nearly lose their house as her would-be manager skipped town with the money they had invested in her career.

Later, Johnson signed a 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 Bonnaroo, SXSW, and Firefly that helped lead to TV appearances on VH1 and Rachel Ray, along with accolades from outlets ranging from Billboard, Rolling Stone Country, and Paste to Marie Claire, ELLE, and Cosmopolitan. Even as she built a promising foundation for her career, company acquisitions and executive shuffling left Johnson in a volatile, ever-changing environment.

“This chapter of my life has been about quiet, stillness, gratitude, deepening relationships, and not running away,” she says. “And this record has a lot to do with learning how to be in one place and how to feel freedom in that.”

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