When Jenn Johnson sings, people stop and listen.
That’s because, despite her short statue, she’s a powerhouse vocalist who has been quieting rooms “since birth,” in her own words.
“I started singing basically when I started talking, maybe before that without words. And I started piano when I was 7,” Johnson told NEPA Scene.
“I begged, begged, begged my parents to take piano lessons, and they didn’t know if I was going to stick with it or not because, you know, I was a 7-year-old, so they wouldn’t buy me a piano or anything; I just had this really tiny little Yamaha keyboard that sat right on my lap that I played on for like two years. Then they realized I was going to stick with it, but I don’t think they knew it was going to go this far.”
Her dedication led to a life filled with music that’s reflected in “Window,” her first album of completely original and deeply personal music that is already garnering attention in the local music scene with a series of release shows all across Northeastern Pennsylvania during the last two weeks, finishing up tonight, Aug. 1, at The Main Bean in Luzerne.
Sitting down for an exclusive interview with NEPA Scene in another coffee shop, Northern Light Espresso Bar & Cafe in downtown Scranton, Johnson talked about her vocal training, the poetry in her lyrics, plans for film and television, and how music saved her life.
Born and raised in Taylor and currently a resident of Swoyersville, Johnson began writing music at 13 years old. While other children were drawn towards guitars and drum sets, piano was the only instrument for her, winning the Pennsylvania PTA’s “Reflections” contest at an early age for her compositions.
Over the years, her writing has become increasingly sophisticated, building layers of instrumentation and lyrical imagery that comes with perseverance and passion.
“Thinking back, the progression is actually kind of cool, from the most basic of melodies to this. A song like ‘Home,’ I have all kinds of instruments in it; there’s strings and horns and guitar. It’s a world away from where I started, and yet still kind of pays homage to it a little bit in terms of where it comes from. I’ve always kind of written from personal experience and difficult times,” she noted.
“People like to bust me – I don’t write a lot of happy music, but that’s always been the case, even when I started writing. When I was younger, I basically started because my grandmother died.”
As an only child with working parents, her grandmother became her best friend and moved in during the last few years of her life. Her passing inspired poetry, artwork that still hangs in Johnson’s bedroom and, of course, a lot of music.
“She’s definitely inspired a lot of creative moments,” she said pensively.
“Music has been a coping mechanism, big time. It’s why I’m still here, I think. Sometimes I say it as a joke, but it’s really true – music saved my life on more than one occasion. It’s definitely my way of getting through things that are sometimes too tough to get through.”
Now 31, her cheery personality and bright, wide smile throughout our conversation stand in contrast to the varying emotions she has poured into “Window,” which was written over the last four to five years and spent a year and a half in production at Side B Studios in Wapwallopen with producer and engineer Tom Godin.
“I love working with Tom Godin. My old band worked with him, and I had done a couple songs with him when I first started my solo project. He just redid his whole studio; it’s state of the art, incredible, and he’s just so good. He hears what I hear and knows how to make it happen. He really was in tune with what I was trying to do and what I was looking for. We produced it together, so it was like getting every element out of it that we wanted,” Johnson enthused.
“He’s really good at what he does – definitely a good experience.”
Narrowed down from 25, the 13 tracks on the album were her favorite songs to play and the ones that mean the most to her – as well as the most to other people. The themes of sadness, bittersweet love, and an undercurrent of pain are “hard to ignore,” but “if you listen really closely, there’s still hope in a lot of them.”
“It’s kind of coming out a little bit stronger on the other side, and I hope that everybody would hear that and not just put it on on a day they’re feeling rather miserable and then feeling really miserable by the end of the album. I hope they hear the hope in it,” she emphasized.
“I called it ‘Window’ because a window is a way to peer in, so it’s a way to peer into me as a songwriter. It’s a way to peer into yourself and how you relate to the songs because there is so much emotion in it that I think it would be hard not to get a little introspective when listening to it. Hopefully it helps people through their own stuff too.”
Even songs like “If I’m Lucky” that appear peppy on the surface suggest more in the lyrics, which she spends just as much time with as her compositions.
“Emotions are complicated things. Like ‘If I’m Lucky’ is probably the best example of that. It’s being fed up with the bar scene, the dating scene, whatever. I’m over it. But you’re still kind of rocking out and you had a bad day – just drink away your woes. If you’re at a bar, there’s still going to be music playing,” she detailed.
“My main line in that is, ‘If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll get a song out of you,’ so trying to still find something that you get out of it even if you hate the moment. I like to try to bring people in with that a little bit too and get them listening.”
In fact, the most difficult part of recording “Window” was looking inside that metaphor and not blinking.
“I’m a very emotional person, and I think it comes with being an artist. Poets and theater people and musicians, they all know. Some of the songs I’ve been playing for so long that, it’s not that you forget that they come from an emotional place, but you find that comfortable place where you just perform it all the time, and when you’re by yourself in a vocal booth singing it, I don’t have to worry about what I’m playing on the piano. I can focus solely on what my vocals are doing, and that almost refreshed every one of those songs for me and reminded me of where they came from and where I was when I started them,” Johnson shared.
“‘In Time,’ which I play out frequently, surprisingly got me when I was in the vocal booth. I sobbed through the page; you can ask Godin. I think I made him a little uncomfortable. The first note started and I just started crying.”
Thankfully, she was surrounded by friends during the production who made things a lot easier, including bassist Grant Williams, drummer Anthony “Shiny” Montini, guitarist Dan Schultz, and backing vocalist Rachael Coassolo – all contributors to a record that came together honestly and naturally.
“‘The Page’ is about a friend of mine that died. ‘Home’ is about holding onto sanity. It’s a lot of different things. If something hits me in a particularly strong way, emotionally, I can usually try to get a song out of it. But I don’t like forcing songs about something, like, ‘Oh, this happened. I should write a song.’ Well, if a song isn’t coming about that, I’m not going to write it. I don’t like forcing it. The same thing with instrumentation – I don’t like putting an instrument in there that doesn’t belong there. It all has to serve each other,” Johnson said.
“I’m interested to get more into storytelling kind of songs too. Maybe on the next album.
“I hear a lot of stories from a lot of people, so maybe I can turn something into it and they can feel like somebody understands. That’s what music has always done for me, so that’s kind of what I hope to do for other people.”
Determination and inspiration
A graduate of Riverside High School and Nazareth College in Rochester, Johnson’s goal has always been to write music, but initially she wanted to be a score composer.
“I went originally for music composition and music ed, but I hated my music theory class, which is a big part of composition, so I dropped that and was going for music ed, and then three years into music ed, I realized that the thought of being stuck in a classroom with kids that didn’t want to be there and all of the red tape and stuff that music teachers have to go through made my skin crawl,” she admitted.
“I care about the kids enough that if I don’t want to be there, I’m not going to be any good to them, so then I switched to just a BA in music, but I still have all that music ed coursework, and I love teaching private lessons. That’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. It wasn’t always the goal, but it was a really nice end result – and I ended up writing music anyway.”
She currently teaches at The Music Scene in Pittston and the basement of St. Maria Goretti Church in Laflin, as well as directing music for shows at the Phoenix Performing Arts Centre in Duryea during the school year. Out of all the students she’s had over the years, her message for each of them has remained the same.
“Don’t give up and it gets better,” she stated bluntly, without hesitation.
“The days are hard and you feel like you want to quit; it’s worth it if you don’t. And that they’re not alone because that was a big thing with me in dealing with some of the worst times is that you just feel so alone, like, ‘How could anybody possibly understand what’s going on?’ and then you realize, ‘Oh, somebody does. Oh God, I feel a little better now.’
“I teach a lot of pre-teens and teens, so they’re all kind of in that hormonal cloud where everything is amplified and emotions are running wild, so it’s really important to me for them to know that lessons are a safe place. They don’t have to worry about anything that’s bothering them. Anything that’s an issue is left at the door. If you want to talk about it, talk about it. I never force them, but if they need to. We’ve had some vent sessions where they just kind of have to let it out, and that helps and I was still a teacher that day, even though we didn’t sing or whatever, it was still helpful to them. I’ve always been grateful for the teachers that have done that for me, so I wanted to pay it forward a little bit.”
As for her own singing, she’s been studying voice since the age of 16 and always had a natural ear for it, though she truly began developing her soprano voice into a strong mezzo throughout college – and it didn’t come easy.
“My voice teacher, Joan Floriano, who was amazing, she would try to walk me through some of the techniques, and I would get it, but I wouldn’t get it. It was like a year after I left college; it just one day clicked and I was like, ‘Oh! That’s what she’s been trying to tell me,’” she acknowledged.
“I give her a ton of credit for getting me vocally to where I am now. I understand it on a different level.”
Growing up with classic rock like Heart and Pat Benatar, her influences as a singer/songwriter have been Tori Amos, Stevie Nicks, Damien Rice, Ella Fitzgerald, and Yanni. Yes, Yanni, which even her own teachers busted her about, though she admires him unabashedly.
“I’ve seen him in concert several times. I got front-row seats for one of his concerts a couple years ago – one of the best experiences of my life. It was right in front of his grand piano. It was the coolest thing,” she beamed.
“Just what he can convey through instrumental music is mind-blowing, and I think that affects some of my instrumentation sometimes.”
Her love of music pours through her words, so it’s easy to see how just a little melody that’s stuck in her head can easily turn into a fully realized tune within minutes.
“Some of my students can attest to the fact that we’ll be in the middle of a lesson and they’ll be taking out their sheets for the next thing that we’re going to do and I just start doing something on the piano and I’m like, ‘Oh.’ Then I play again and I’m like, ‘Oh, hang on,’ and I get my little voice recorder and I record it and that turns into songs,” she recalled.
“With ‘If I’m Lucky,’ I actually just started scatting a melody in the car that turned into the piano part; I was in an Ella Fitzgerald mood for a while. I’m like, ‘Oh, hey, that’s a song!’”
She demonstrates her scatting with a laugh, putting her in an even better mood as we address where her soulful voice can be heard next.
The view from here
Her first CD release show for “Window” was at Thirst T’s Bar & Grill in Olyphant on July 24, where Johnson was a finalist in the NEPA Scene’s Got Talent three-month open mic and talent contest and met many friends and fellow performers who opened for her on subsequent shows over the last two weeks.
“I loved the comradery [at NEPA Scene’s Got Talent]. When I walked in, I had no idea that I was going to get so friendly with so many people because you walk in and you’re like, ‘Oh, gosh, I know maybe two people here.’ People were so welcoming and so open and so appreciative of the music and of me. [Singer/songwriter] Adam Bailey and I became pretty good friends through the whole thing, and we like to perform together now when we can. That’s cool,” she noted.
“It encompassed so many aspects of talent in the area. I didn’t know there was a comedy scene really. There was a whole other element of musicians that I had never met or heard of before, and now I feel like I hear them all the time. You get in your own little box and your own groupings and there’s always a lot more people out there than you realize, so I think it was a really awesome change for all of us to get to know each other and perform for each other. All of it was just really awesome.”
While this series of shows, which allowed her to play with a full band as well as solo, ends tonight, this is only the beginning of the realization of her dream.
“It’s not just about the words and it’s not just about the music – they work together to give the full package in each song. One of the things that made me crazy before I got to record the album was, with some of these songs, I heard all the other instruments in my head the whole time; I wrote a song knowing there were going to be strings and horns and stuff like that, and I always knew what it was going to sound like, and I would play it out and I’m like, ‘They don’t know! They don’t know what this song is supposed to be!’ It would make me nuts. One of my biggest achievements is now everybody can hear what I hear,” she explained.
The album, featuring artwork from Amanda Hunisch and photos by Johnson and Amanda Duffy, is now available on iTunes and at all her shows, but while her soothing yet powerful sound is easily accessible to almost any audience, that also made it a bit of a challenge to define.
“That made it very difficult to figure out what my genre was, and that was a longtime issue. I’d talk to people and they’d be like, ‘What’s it sound like?’ Um… I don’t know. My dad was a fan of calling me Neil Diamond because when Neil Diamond came out, he didn’t really fit in a genre either. With a little more research and stuff, there’s something called piano rock or piano pop, which I never knew existed, but it’s like Ben Folds and Billy Joel and Elton John and Tori [Amos] to a degree,” she described.
“I never wanted to admit that it was pop-ish, but because it is accessible to people, it is something that could probably fare well in that genre as well. It’s not Kesha – not by a longshot.
She hopes her voice can become just as recognizable as a pop star’s, but not through traditional means. Open to putting her music in films, television shows, Broadways plays, and even video games, she imagines her songs as the soundtrack to an Oscar-winning drama or an episode of “Criminal Minds” – not blasting live through the speakers of venues across the country.
“I’m not really into the whole touring thing that much. I need to wash my hair every day. Living in a van for a month is not really my goal. I just want it to be heard,” she affirmed.
“I want to do everything. I don’t like being boxed in. I’ve never been good at that.”
Lead photo by Amanda Duffy, inside photos by Robb Malloy and Alex Seeley Photography
by Rich Howells
Rich is an award-winning journalist, longtime blogger, adequate photographer, podcast co-host, and practicing poet. He is the founder and editor of NEPA Scene.