Jess hopped on a weekend phone call with Kaylee Johnston to chat about music, life, and her upcoming release. Kaylee has been busy with everything from creating her own sound style under the umbrella of "pop" music to planning the business end of her art - not to mention running around making a music video, doing press interviews, and so much more. Here's our conversation.
Jess: How did you settle into the pop genre?
Kaylee: I resisted pop music for so long because I felt like it had a stigma around it. Still to this day when I tell someone I sing pop music, they instantly just imagine Britney Spears or this super bubble gum thing, and I don’t think I'm doing anything like that, but that’s how I categorize myself. Every time I tried to do someting weird I'd feel like I'm not being true to myself. I was like 'Man, I’m writing pop songs, I visualize my career going down that path, I should just own that!' When I owned it, doors opened up.
Jess: How did you start to own it?
Kaylee: Change was always possible. I think people sometimes will release these songs that are totally out of their genre, like Justin Timberlake - he does a lot of stuff on the cusp of funk and R&B, and he started in the pop world and I think he’s still considered pop. Everyone goes through these phases, I don’t doubt that my music and direction will shift and go with where I’m at in my life.
Jess: Your press release says you've written over 300 songs - how do you do it?
Kaylee: It’s getting close to 400 now! I write so quick. It’s like I feel the songs and the ideas come through me and I’ll start a song in the morning, write for 15 minutes, get most of the verse and some of the chorus done, and maybe I'll be walking to a meeting and some more lyrics come to my head and it’s an ongoing thing. When it comes time to finalize the songs for an album I might step back and be like ‘These are my top 10 songs,’ and kind of step back and I’ll go in and tweak and really refine the songs - but 80 to 90 percent of the work is always done within the first few days. There’s always these times when a song comes into my head at the wrong moment, and its like ‘Can you please come back later?’ Like if I have a really busy day or busy week. I kind of talk to my ideas and if there’s one that I'm like 'OMG this is a song that I have to write, please come back in 2 days!'
I read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and that’s something that she talks about and recommends, and it can be super frustrating when an idea comes at the wrong time but if you really do feel connected to it, it usually comes back.
Jess: How much of the music do you do yourself on the recording, and do you direct the producer? Or do you let the producer take on some creative direction?
Kaylee: On this EP I was in the studio for probably 80 to 90 percent of the whole process and so I wasn’t playin the beats, but I was there being like ‘Okay, that’s right’ ‘Okay, that’s not right’ and I think I played all of the acoustic guitar stuff and some of the synth stuff, and the producers played the drums and bass guitars and electric guitars. I was there choosing what samples to use but I kind of really like that process and I love being in the room. But there is also something to be said for trusting someone, and them mabe having an idea or knowing that something’s going to work that sometimes you might hear and be like ‘Oh no don’t do that,’ but if I let them flesh out their idea it surprises me. I always leave room for that and I think I’m going to continue to do that even more and I think an album should be a collaboration. The more everyone is invested, the better it is. If the artist completely checks out or the producer feels like they have no control, then I feel like there are things being sacrificed that don’t need to be sacrificed.
Jess: Did anything unexpected or bad happen during the recording of the EP?
Kaylee: I don’t feel like this anymore but what was really disheartening when we finished the album, I wanted to do a radio campaign. I wanted to do that because my fans tend to be a little bit younger, and I did some research and a lot of deciphering I decided that was the best way to reach them. When I reached out to my radio promoter he said the songs are great and a couple work on radio, but the production isn’t commercial enough for radio. That was really discouraging. He told me that in August and I sat on that for four months before I did anything. I was like 'Noooo I don’t want to change anything!' But after a lot of thinking I decided I want to go after this, and this is one of the bumps in the road. So I called him up and we ended up getting the first single ‘Getting Over You’ mixed by an L.A. duo, and once I decided on that and let go of my attachments of what I’d created, a lot of stuff started falling into place. The producer knew a mixing engineer who agreed to do a song and the music video fell into place so once I kind of let go of everything, doors started to open which was an amazing lesson. Sometimes we hold our art so close to our heart without getting some perspective, and now I’m totally good and I love the remix and the original version of the song.
Jess: Why do you think your listeners are teenagers, and how do you address that?
Kaylee: I’ve always connected to teenagers because I hated being a teenager and remember feeling like when I was a teenager back when my parents divorced, I experienced bullying, I had my first relationship… I alway felt like the world was going to end and it never got better. Now that I'm grown up I feel like I’m so grateful for those shitty times as a teenager because I learned so much. I feel like if I gave them perspective, they can do so many amazing things. Teenagers are in this amazing place where they’re supported by their parents, they don’t have to go into the world alone but they can make their own decisions and I see young people doing really cool stuff. I felt connected to them. Over the past 4 years some of the opportunities and people I’ve gotten to open for... I hadn’t released an album and so I’d go stand at my merchandise booth after shows with some t-shirts and I was signing t-shirts for over an hour! When I had to write a business plan to get my FACTOR grant, which helped me pay for the album, I was writing that grant and doing research, and you have to give a demographic and it kept feeling more and more right.
Jess: Is your music about a certain stage in your life, like your teenaged years or a break up, for example?
Kaylee: It wasn’t intended, but it’s definitely about a stage. I went through a break up in my early 20's and it was really the first time that... I mean I'd go through break ups in high school and stuff but it was the first one where I had to get over the future. Usually when you break up with someone you break up with the past, like all the memories, but this one was the first one where I was like ‘OMG I kind of saw us being together forever an having kids, and now I need to get over all of that and be alone and independent and happy without needing someone.’ It's about the break up, learning to be single, feeling alone, and that stage. I feel like people in their 20's go through that, it’s kind of like we're let loose in the world and we try to figure things out. It’s about that stage in my life.
Jess: Where do you see pop music going, and do you see yourself following those trends?
Kaylee: Pop music is such an interesting thing - I feel right now where a lot of the big hits are sitting, they sound like alternative productions to me. They sound like what indie sounded like 5 or 10 years ago. There's a huge opportunity to explore with pop music and for me will always come down to the song. I write all my songs on the acoustic guitar or piano and that’s where it’s always started for me, and the production is secondary. What I feel about that is I can always be really malleable. It’s an accumulation of things I loved grown up like Fleetwood Mac and Annie Lennox and when I was a teenager I loved The Killers and TV on the Radio, and now I love 1989 [Taylor Swift] and I love Robyn’s stuff and I think we just keep adding to that and then sometimes something comes out of the studio and you’re like ‘I don't know how I thought of that,' and it just kind of exists and you kind of run with it.
Kaylee's debut album Getting Over You is out now! Don't miss her tour - she plays Vancouver TONIGHT at the Biltmore Cabaret.