Style and Substance: Alexz Johnson
Musician Alexz Johnson talks through her sniffles about feather-ruffling, wine-drinking and not winding up with her mug on a t-shirt at Target…
You might already recognise her face. And what an adorable little face it is. Even with nostrils reddened by “the worst cold of [her] life”, her big blues give snottiness a kind of charm.
Alexz Johnson is an actress. If you’re a fan of the Final Destination franchise, you’ll know she played Erin, the flame-haired lead, who meets a grisly end at the hands of a nail gun, in the third film of the series. Outside of the horror genre, she’s had the lead in a couple of American TV shows – Instant Star and So Weird.
However, for all her on-screen accolades, it’s what she’s doing largely behind closed doors, in the studio, that ought to be earning her the most acclaim. For Johnson, shrugging off her Disney days, has picked up a guitar…and she knows how to use it.
I caught her on skype in her brand new Brooklyn pad, here’s what she had to say…
Just recently arrived back in New York after her European tour, supporting pop-rocker Ron Pope, Alexz explains that the key to her happiness, far from what you might expect, is having very little at all.
“Oh I had so much fun. We started in Glasgow and we went to Belfast, Dublin, Manchester, Sheffield, Germany, Sweden…I was fine the whole time and then as soon as I flew back to JFK I got the worst cold of my life.”
“I’ve done two US/Canada tours with a full band, but this one I was invited to come and open with just an acoustic set. So basically, I just had to show up, throw a jumper on and play my guitar. It’s a great way to connect with an audience.”
“It was one of the funnest, freest tours I’ve ever done. Everyone just got along great. Mike, from [American alt-pop group] Wakey Wakey is like a brother; Ron and his band are really sweet. Me and [Ron’s wife] Blair were the wine drinkers of the bus.”
One of the things that the XWHY team, who went to see Alexz play at Shepherds Bush Empire, were amused and impressed by, was the way that, after the show, she promptly took herself round to front-of-house to man her own merchandise stall. A great way to meet new fans, of course, and also distinctly un-showbiz.
Final Destination might still earn her the most sidewalk head turns, but she’s actually been doing the music thing for a while now.
“I have quite a history with the music industry. I was signed to Capitol records for a full album and then I was signed to Epic for a full album, but it never got a release. So, I decided to go independent and put out the Skipping Stone EP.”
“I went through Pledge funding to do my album, and I did that with the Kickstarter tour too. There is this real platform for independent artists to get their music out there.”
“It’s hard though. You have to have guts. I’ve been really lucky and been able to work with some amazing people, but a lot of doors have been closed in a lot of weird ways. One minute you’re signed to the same label as Sarah Bareilles and they’re putting out her record, and then next, yours is dropped because someone lost their job.”
“You have to ask yourself over and over and re-check why you’re doing this. It’s not like I have a trust fun. I didn’t just decide one day ‘oh I’m going to do music now’ and buy a cute dress and make it look cool. This is really, truly coming from my heart. I have given my life to this and it’s not easy.”
“That’s why I relate to artists like Ray Lamontagne and Amos Lee. There’s something incredible about seeing the vulnerability of an artist who is on stage and doesn’t have a back-up plan.”
Listening to Alexz’s set, something that struck me was that she’s relatively unplaceable. She doesn’t seem to have a clear-cut “image”…per se. She’s not rock, or folk, or really all that definitively indie. And despite her early acting career in Disney sitcoms, she’s clearly not marketing herself at the “tweens.”
“I’m into a classic sound, but you should never be afraid to change,” she explains.
“As a woman, I am constantly changing. The world changes and so do my influences. If you’re a Tiffany [‘I Think We’re Alone Now’] and doing your little dance on stage to go with the song, it leaves you with not very much room.”
“I also think it’s really dangerous if you’re only selling your music to young females, because they grow so much and change, and let’s be honest, the bands we loved so much at 18, we’re kind of embarrassed by now…”
“That’s why I moved away from the labels. It’s not about getting my face on a t-shirt at Walmart. If you’re not ruffling someone’s feathers in some way, then you’re not doing anything of note.”
Despite sharing a screen with some interesting folk, it’s who she’s put in studio time with which turns out to be much more interesting. For example, she collaborated on an album with multi-Grammy nominated Greg Wells, who has previously produced for Mayer Hawthorne, Katy Perry, Pink, One Republic, Pharrell, Elton John..the list goes on.
Perhaps even more impressively, her recent work was a product of studio time with the renowned David Kahne – responsible for records by Paul McCartney, Sublime, Stevie Nicks, Lana Del Ray and so on…
“I like writing my own music, but I like to reach out to producers that I respect and then write with them. They bring a beat to the table, and it takes me out of my usual norm of writing.”
“In terms of what comes out – Skipping Stone was incredibly stripped down and acoustic. Heart EP is very soulful and I was able to bring in some soul backup singers.”
“I love acting. There’s just not a lot of good work available. I’d love to play a young Stevie Nicks in a feature film, but right now I really just want the chance to do a full album and release it.”
Peter Gabriel or Coldplay
Dead or Alive?
Happy place (besides being on the stage)
On a yoga retreat in India. Connecting to nature. I love being outside.
If you could wake up to one smell for the rest of your life?
Warm lemon trees in Cali. The sun hitting the leaves has a particular kind of smell.
Visit Alexz Johnson’s WEBSITE for details about upcoming shows.
Her HEART EP can be bought on iTunes HERE.
Join her pledge campaign HERE.
WORDS: Natasha Bird
Photo Credit: Jessica Earnshaw