Star-ry Eyed Alexz Johnson Cuts Through the Bull and Regains Her Independence
Courtesy of Jessica Earnshaw
Alexz Johnson really loves Brooklyn. It shows on her face with the way she lights up whenever her neck of the woods is mentioned. The 26-year-old singer-songwriter/actress relocated to the borough with one goal for herself as an artist: total scene immersion. It's a pretty good goal when you have to rebuild your career from scratch.
Alexz Johnson performs tonight, 2/28, at Highline Ballroom with Charlene Kaye, Jay Stolar, and Misty Boyce.
After stints on the Disney series So Weird and Canadian teen soap Instant Star ( edit: a cult-favorite that has two of its four seasons available on Netflix Instant), Johnson's career felt ready for a smooth transition to the music industry until a split with her major label lost her an entire album's worth of material and forced her to start fresh. With some help from her devoted and loyal fans, independence became a little less complicated for her thanks to immense success using crowdfunding resources like Kickstarter -- which helped support her first US tour -- and currently Pledge Music , a similar but more musically-inclined version of Kickstarter, which is helping pay for her next album. Now, as she prepares to kick off her second US tour, Alexz Johnson is ready to give the world fire with her sweet rasp, honest lyrics, and love of A$AP Rocky.
See also: A$AP Rocky Lights Up The City
How do you like being a musician in New York? It's awesome! It's like the perfect place. I mean, I love acting as well, but I just have decided I want to be a touring artist. I thought the best place to move to would be Brooklyn, just because there's so much talent here. I wanted to integrate myself with those kinds of musicians, so I moved here about a year and a half ago and did my first US tour a couple months ago, which was awesome. It's very music-based.
What other artists in Brooklyn have you been working with? Ethan Mentzer and an artist named Theo Katzman. He's really awesome. [Ethan] is from the band the Click 5 [from] a couple years ago. I'm going on tour with Charlene Kaye, Jay Stolar, and Misty Boyce.
What came first, the acting or the singing? Oh my gosh, I'd say singing was my first thing. I went to an agency at 12-years-old by myself and said I wanted to sing, and they just ended up sending me out on auditions. Never went to acting school. Music's always been my passion. Then I got Instant Star, and I got acting shows where I played a musician. I was kind of lucky; it was like acting as myself. Those are the kind of roles I'm attracted to - ones where I can write music for or be musical.
I read somewhere that you were called the "West Coast Celine"? When I was really young, I would sing the National Anthem for the Canucks games and the Grizzlies games. They ended up pegging me as "the little girl with the big voice."
You were on Disney during this really big era -- Lizzie McGuire, Even Stevens, and, your show, So Weird -- what was it like being a part of that Disney community? It was just quick for me. I did just the last season of So Weird, then went back to Canada and started doing auditions and started writing music all the time. I got away from that for a little bit. I wanted to go back to school, play basketball, and have a real, normal life. That's when Instant star came into my life. I never really fell into the Disney [experience]. There's so much talent from there it's insane. Like, Justin Timberlake. Disney's like the flagship for a lot of artists.
How have the music and the acting interacted with one another for you? Have you sought out roles that have both? I mean, I would love to play a musician on Girls or something! That'd be awesome, but it's so hard. I'm kind of managing myself right now, which has been really liberating and amazing. I've been signed twice -- I was with Capitol, then I was signed with Sony. I've been doing the music thing for so long, I just really love having the independence of putting out the music I want to put out and touring with my friends and doing the music I want to do. Music really comes first, but if great acting presents itself, I'd have to put music aside for a bit and focus on that.
How do you feel the songs you wrote for Instant Star differ from now, especially with your independence and not writing for a role? I always thought of myself separate from the show. It was interesting. I wrote music for the show, and I was signed with Capitol. Then I signed with Epic and was writing my own stuff. It was very separate from the show. The stuff I did under Epic/Sony is very unique. I love Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, and Fleetwood Mac. Stuff like that. It's definitely something different. I love pop; there's a certain pop mentality even to the Beatles and to stuff I love. I think I've just taken a more indie route. I'm not really trying to write for radio at this point.
When you were writing the songs for the show, were you writing them as Alexz or as Jude Harrison [the character]? I was writing them as a character. So much of it was based on Jude. I was very focused on her. I liked that. I really wanted to make it a defining line, which is why I dyed my hair red for the show for the first season. I wanted to make sure people know that it's a character so that when they look at my record they can see that it's different. Instant Star was a real blessing for me because it helped provide me this kind of international bit of a fanbase based on the singing.
Do you write a lot of songs by yourself or with other writers? Yeah, I write songs by myself, but I also like collaborating with producers. I like being able to write with production. There are positives to both. I've written songs I love by myself, and others with co-writes that wouldn't have happened if I didn't write it with that person, you know? It just changes each experience.
You've mentioned your fanbase and had a successful Kickstarter campaign for your last tour. With how quickly you raised the money, and then some, how did you get that type of attention for your campaign? I did not know what to expect! I asked for $30K because that's what I needed to tour the States. I made it in one day. One day, and I was, like, shaking. We ended up making around $70K, which was great. It all went towards the tour, and the next tour I'm going on now. It's really important building that connection with the fans. Like, when you sign with a major label, they can kind of show you on a billboard and people just buy it because it's everywhere. With indie stuff, it's one-on-one with meet-and-greets at the shows, connecting with the fans, and Twitter and Facebook. Like, I trended on Twitter for four days.
I wanted to talk with you about that, especially the importance of building a career via the internet. How do you manage all these different social networks and having the fans interact with you? It's managing Stageit shows. It's contests. It's every single day. I never stop working. It's definitely getting my product out there, branding my website, and making sure everything matches so people remember. [We're] living in a time where you can really be your own entrepreneur whether you're a filmmaker or a writer or a singer. I feel like if you can get people to back your project, you don't need anything like the label format. I just don't think it's necessary anymore when you can do it yourself. I feel like it's such an exciting time for crowdfunding because you can bypass all of the bullshit and just go straight to giving fans your stuff and bring them along. It's really exciting.
When you trended on Twitter, it was for your song "Time to Be Your 21" being used on the show Pretty Little Liars, right? Yeah!
Do you have any other TV shows you would want a song of yours featured on? You had mentioned Girls earlier, but are there any others? I've had some of my songs on Degrassi, which was cool, and LA Complex on the CW. I'd love to get my music on Girls. Grey's Anatomy would be amazing.
Do you have any particular songs you would want featured on these shows? My last EP that I released - Skipping Stone EP. That was really special to me because I made that on $300, and I used that as bait on my Kickstarter. So I was like "I'll send you a signed CD so I can tour the Skipping Stone EP." But those songs...in particular "Walking." I did a video for that with a friend of mine in Central Park. It was a really special video to me because we did that on nothing. I've been using my Brooklyn contacts with creative people so we can do favors for each other. Like "I'll write a song with you and help you on your project if you help me on my project." That's the best thing about Brooklyn.
I know that your tour mate Charlene Kaye raised money for her album through Kickstarter as well. Is that how you guys connected to get this tour together? I met her at Rockwood, actually. I play at Rockwood in Brooklyn all the time, and we have the same circle with the same friends. I played with her drummer Dave Scalia, and [we] ended up connecting. We were like "we're two badass chicks who live in Brooklyn." Well, I'm not [badass]. She is. And we were like "we should tour together!" So we're going to give it a shot.
You've mentioned a few influences, like Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel. Who else do you draw from? There's an artist called Rickie Lee Jones, who I think is an amazing writer. Her lyrics are amazing. Mykki Ekko is really cool. I don't know. It's funny because I'm kind of all across the map. Sometimes when I'm working I'll listen to A$AP Rocky, and I'll listen to Imagine Dragons and Local Natives and Jessie Ware. I've always been focused on really strong singers.
Do you find that you draw from a lot of different genres? Like, you just mentioned A$AP Rocky... I do! I grew up listening to punk music.
Any favorite punk musicians? I think Brand New is amazing. They're not really punk. Well, I guess they kind of are. I listened to like Misfits growing up. Bad Religion. Antiflag. Screaching Weasel. I love old stuff, like the Temptations, Roy Orbison, and I love Tom Petty. Tom Petty is probably one of my favorite musicians. I love classic, classic stuff.
I always find that the influences that aren't so directly apparent in a musician's songs reveal the most about them. Yeah, totally! What you draw from is different. I listen to all different kinds. I draw from all different things. I'm never trying to be cool, you know what I mean? For me, it's always staying true to what I connect to. I think as soon as somebody tries to make something cool, it doesn't work.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.