Jillette Johnson's mother used to break out the singer-songwriter's old recordings the way some moms get out old photo albums. That she does this with much less frequency in recent years makes Johnson happy.
Johnson told The Beat her parents fostered her creativity from an early age. She started playing the piano at age 6, writing songs by age 8 and was in the studio by age 11. She soon started playing club gigs in New York City (she grew up in Pound Ridge, N.Y., about an hour north of the city).
"None of those (early) songs are in my set now," she said with a laugh. "I'd like to send them to the graveyard, but my mother still has them."
And there are a lot of them, Johnson said. She writes every day, "then and now."
She credits her father with helping develop her sense of creativity. While not professional musicians, both of her parents were fun and theatrical, she said. Her dad would make up words as the family listened to Les Miserables, or read children's books to made-up melodies.
"The concept that melody and words are things that we create is rational to me. I'm a writer. Everyone is a writer."
Perhaps not everyone approaches this realization with the same passion that the 24-year-old Johnson has. Inspired by her parents and songwriters such as Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon, "I've always felt like this is what I'm supposed to be doing."
"I'm blessed with a hunger and a love of doing this. It can be anxiety-inducing, but I keep at it relentlessly. I continue to carve out this thing. It requires continuous excavation."
Johnson relocated to NYC permanently at age 18, and immediately rekindled her relationship with the city's bars and clubs that began six years earlier. In the six years since, she has made them her home-away-from-home-away-from-home. Indeed, she misses her regular haunts when she's touring.
"I've been on the road so much in the past year, I don't get to play my local clubs as much. And while they're different and the pressure, if you want to call it that, in a New York show, which it seems is more about the industry, versus a tour show, which is more about the fans, is different, both are important -- separate but connected things that keep me working toward what's going to happen next."
Johnson has released a five-song EP and, earlier this year, a debut full-length CD, Water In a Whale. The songs, with a few exceptions, feature just Johnson and her piano, much like her live shows.
"I feel most tapped into my emotions when I'm at the piano. I write best there, and there's something about performing that way."
"I've played a few shows with a band, and I loved it. There are things I'm itching to do with other musicians. But just me and a piano, that's what I am as an artist."