Singer/songwriter/actress Alexz Johnson has been making it in the entertainment business for years. Getting her big break acting on the TV show Instant Star in 2004, she has been impressing people ever since with her strong voice and honest, personal lyrics. She has even been through two major label contracts. But Johnson’s biggest success has been as an independent artist, unattached to a label, and making music on her own terms.
Since starting out, Johnson has released three EPs and two full length albums. In 2010, she released her debut album, Voodoo, her first release since Instant Star ended. Through a Kickstarter campaign in 2012, she was able to release her first official EP, Skipping Stones, as well as a national tour. A PledgeMusic campaign in 2014 saw her second EP, Heart, as well as her second full-length.
In October, Johnson released her second full-length, Let ‘Em Eat Cake. Many of the songs have a jazzy element to their 90s pop vibe, matching the husky strength of her vocals perfectly. Title track, “Let ‘Em Eat Cake,” takes strong, confident lyrics and sets them against a gritty, bluesy melody. On “Ruthless Love,” Johnson belts out notes from all over her range with ease and power. “Heart Turns Black” and “I Will Fall In Love” are equal parts old-school pop and jazz, with a little dance experimentation in the background. “Cologne” is reminiscent of an Annie Lennox song. “Gonna Get It” is angry and loud, getting the emotion of the song out clearly and directly.
I had the opportunity to speak with Johnson during the 2014 CMJ Music Marathon to discuss Let ‘Em Eat Cake, being an independent artist, and connecting with her audience.
Tell me about your new album. This is your debut…
Yes, pretty much. It’s my second official album release since Voodoo, which I put out, I believe, in 2010.. I did this with David Khan, who produced it, and my brother Brendon produced it as well, a couple tracks. It was pledge-funded. I turned down a major label upon completion of this album, I wanted to…because I had signed twice previously to majors and I felt like I seem to be building a strong enough following, which is amazing. And I’m not expecting anything huge, I’m not expecting anything…I just want to be able to tour and play and survive and eat and… I’m really proud of this record. It took some time, but I officially sent off all the packages from Pledge, I went with Caroline Distribution through Capital to get it out and get it out as much as I can. The title track is “Let ‘Em Eat Cake,” and I’m really proud of this album.
What was the songwriting like for this album?
The writing process was spread over two years, some songs I wrote two years ago, “Let ‘Em Eat Cake” I wrote five months ago. It was written really quickly, just over a guitar riff I had. The essence of this album and why it’s called Let ‘Em Eat Cake is kind of my personal experience. It can be taken a lot of different ways, it can be taken as personal relationships, it can be taken politically, what’s happening in society right now, in the world, in the major record industry, in the music industry. “Let ‘Em Eat Cake,” as in the song, is saying: ‘I’m going my own way, and do my own thing regardless of the outcome. We’re different. This is what I’m going to do.’ It can be taken that way. It’s also just kind of a reflection of… there’s a real authenticity I tried to put forward on this record, I tried to let go of all barriers vocally and everything. I pushed myself to every limit that I could and I basically took my journal and made it into song. So, I experienced heartbreak, had my heart broken, but through that I kind of found this rebirth of strength and I feel like I kind of grew a pair, to say the least. And this album is kind of a reflection of that. At 27, [I’m] really finding my voice. I feel like I’ll always be finding my voice, but this is the first record I’ve done where I’m kind of like ‘Listen, I don’t care if you don’t like this or not, this is what I’m doing,’ and I’m kind of finding who I am through the music. It’s been a really cool experience.
And it’s amazing that you can do that without a major label now…
You can, it’s amazing. I mean, I’ve been signed to Capitol, I’ve been signed to Epic, I feel like being independent is… There’s just so much more control. That’s my biggest thing is having control over the music I do and the style, and I like getting clothes designed by friends and everything is just a part of my whole vision. And I know it’s unique and different, and I’m just going to keep doing what I do until… forever. There’s no expectation, just growing. And hopefully people connect to the songs, you know.
I mean, they must be. You got your last two releases funded by fans.
Yeah, that’s true.
What kind of relationship do you have with your fans?
Well, this album was funded by fans. I just did Pledge once. I [used] Kickstarter to launch a tour in 2012. In 2014, I did a Pledge, but I put out an EP just for them being so patient while I was finishing my record. Then I put out the record. It’s amazing. It’s like one-on-one. It’s so cool to be able to hold a physical copy of my CD that they did, sign it, and send it to that person. I think it’s kind of… It’s the loyalty that I love and that’s an important thing for me. And I’d rather be building a loyal fan base than be fleeting with a number one single on the charts with the risk of… ‘the quicker you make it to the top, the quicker you fall,’ they say. So I’d rather just build this, no rush at 27. I want to be playing shows for a very long time.
What do you enjoy most about playing live?
Connection with the audience… I love it more than anything. I love it more than acting, I love it more than… I just love being able to connect, and I feel like sometimes this wasn’t really something that I chose, I feel like it kind of chose me. I was born with this really big voice, middle of 10 kids, a lot to say, and I just love being able to emote that on stage. When people feel it, it’s just [the most] amazing feeling in the world. I feel like it’s what my gift is. To be able to utilize it is like me being a doctor and having a gift of hands and movement. I feel like it’s… I didn’t ask for it, so I feel so blessed and I want to share it with as many people as I can.
You mentioned that you did some acting…
Yeah. I was the lead of a TV show called Instant Star for four years and that was about five years ago and I’m Canadian. And since then I moved to Brooklyn three years ago and I decided to just start touring, focus on music, not act in TV shows. That’s what I’ve been doing. This is my fifth tour and I’ve only been living here for three years and it’s been awesome.