Jaylene Johnson on “Happiness”

This article is from an interview conducted in September 2009, shortly after Jaylene’s Happiness CD was released.

 

Afew weeks back, on one of the rare hot days of this past summer, I sat down with singer/songwriter (and saint ben’s regular) Jaylene Johnson at The Toad Pub in the Osborne Village to enjoy a cold pint of cider and to chat with her about vocation as a musician and artist.

Jaylene is bright and insightful, and has this way of looking at things that is just enough off kilter to make a conversation with her really, really interesting.  She also happens to be a very fine singer/songwriter, as is evidenced on her most recent disc Happiness, a 10 song album (with three bonus tracks embedded as MP3 files…) which is at once pure pop and substantial music.

While Jaylene admits that Happiness “came out more pop than I thought it would,” she readily confesses that she “loves this record.”  And while the title – Happiness – is an apt descriptor of the tone of much of the recording, the project is not without weight.  “It is a pop sounding record, fairly pretty and ‘hooky’”, she commented, “but that is set against some pretty heavy lyrics in some songs.  I like that tension, because that is life.”

The most personal song on the album – and the one she admits is probably her favourite – is “No Matter How Hard We Try;” a painfully searching song about facing up to the limits of our hopes and dreams and of our very selves.

We hold on tight,
We fight, we fight
We lose the light
Sometimes we have to give
All of ourselves
We give, we give
Until we slip from sight.

 

And then a few lines later:

Sometimes we can’t find a way to make it better
No matter how hard
No matter how hard
No matter how hard we try
 
(©2007 J. Johnson Publishing; used with permission)

Though marked by pain, the song is also full of grit, and in the end is neither hopeless nor self-absorbed.  It is, in that sense, a song of resilience for life in the real world.

Happiness is her second album, following up on 2004’s Finding Beautiful.  That earlier album found Jaylene located on the edge of the Contemporary Christian Music genre, yet in many respects Finding Beautiful did not fit a narrow “Christian Music” slot.  While the majority of her live performances did take place in church-related settings, the songs from that first album found their way into the soundtracks of such television shows as “Dawson’s Creek” and “Joan of Arcadia” (and now “Grow” from the new disc has made its way on to “Being Erika”; no mean feat…).  While she says that on the whole the church has been very good to her in her vocation as a musician, along the way she became aware that the label of  “Christian music” ultimately was limiting at a few levels.  With that tag of ‘Christian musician’ “the secular music world does not entirely trust you,” she commented, “while the church can become limiting with its expectations.”

So, while her music is “faith-informed,” she steadfastly resists combining the adjectives “Christian” and “artist” – each of which on its own she readily embraces – into the single label of Christian-artist.  It isn’t even that she has made a conscious decision to reject a label she’d once claimed for herself, but rather that she never made “a definitive choice to be a ‘Christian artist’ in the first place.”

As our conversation progressed, one thing became abundantly clear: Jaylene does understand her artistic gift to be precisely that, a gift.  This is something that God has given to her, but as is so often the case with God-given gifts, it also comes with a real sense of responsibility, even of being a burden.  “Why God did you give me this?” she mused.  “This is hard.”  And it is hard work to ply a craft in a marketplace that is sometimes indifferent to independent artists; it is hard being out on the road, driving hundreds – even thousands – of miles to string together a series of concerts; it is hard to have doors shut on a great new song, simply because you don’t have the right connections; it is even hard to deal in a healthy way with the successes along the way, which Jaylene says can leave the artist feeling narcissistic and self-centred.  There are days when it would be much easier to just give it all up… but then a new song begins to form, a new idea takes shape, a new insight crystallizes, and she finds the strength to shoulder the burden and embrace the gift.

If you want to get to know more of her music, you can visit her home page. If you like what you hear, you should order a copy of this CD; sure, you can download the tunes, but the packaging on this one makes it a keeper. If you happen to make your way to saint ben’s, we’ll make sure we have copies available there too.

Jamie Howison

One Response to Jaylene Johnson on “Happiness”

  1. byron says:

    Reading backwards here Jamie, I find one statement from this artist encapsulates the problem of being a Christian songwriter…”The expectations of the church”. Almost reminds me of the notorius Sistine Chapel incident. It is nothing more than an exercise in control for a non-artist to tell an artist what to paint or write.
    Drives yuh crazy really…
    Don’t know this woman, but she has a good handle on the music biz.Ioffered some songs once for a simple coffee house, but the minute there was any reality involved , or actual names and situations, the disapproval was obvious. Better the quick bumper sticker/sound byte/fridge magnet generic simplicity it seems.
    sigh…

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