A Kolbe Times Interview with Jaylene Johnson
A head-on collision in 2004 was almost fatal for singer/songwriter Jaylene Johnson, but she survived – and embarked on the long road to recovery. It turned out to be one in a series of difficult experiences that God used to shape her life and her music.
Kolbe Times recently caught up with Jaylene to talk about her recently released album Potter & Clay, and find out more about her faith journey.
Known for her rich, soulful voice and poignant songwriting, Jaylene Johnson released her first album in 1999 and was awarded top prize for her song “Daughter” by the International Gospel Music Association. She went on to release a number of albums and singles, garnering rave reviews and more recognition. Her new album, with its stirring lyrics and warm acoustic sound, is being called “a defining moment in her career”. The songs are honest expressions of grief, confession and longing…as well as joyful surrender to a loving God. Jaylene lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba with her husband and baby daughter.
Listen here for a few samplings of songs from Jaylene’s new album Potter & Clay, as she explains the inspiration behind them:
Kolbe Times: Tell us about your childhood, and how you got into music.
Jaylene: I was born and raised in Winnipeg. My high school had an amazing music program. I was in all the choirs including a small ensemble in which we sang mostly a cappella novelty-type songs. We would be taken out of school on a regular basis to sing for various business lunches and events. Our teacher was really wonderful at getting us opportunities to sing. It was fantastic. So I really credit those experiences in school and my private music teachers, both singing and piano, for encouraging me and getting me started.
Kolbe Times: Was singing a part of your family experience, too?
Jaylene: Yes. My mom has a beautiful voice, and growing up I remember hearing her sing at church and loving how she would harmonize. I’m sure that helped me develop my own ability to harmonize. I don’t remember “choosing” music; it’s just been a part of me for as long as I can remember. My dad and mom describe me as a toddler, sitting on the balcony of our little apartment with my face pressed between the bars, singing songs to Jesus!
Kolbe Times: You’re also a songwriter – has writing always been a part of your life as well?
Jaylene: Yes, it has been. I would say that for a long time, my release has been words – whether writing or speaking. Apparently I was called the talking baby, though I’m not sure what that means! The funny thing is that I’m actually quite an introvert, so I need to recharge on my own, and I prefer small gatherings. I guess I’m an expressive introvert – I’d say I’ve always been keen to communicate.
Kolbe Times: After high school, was it pretty natural to want to make music as your career, or how did that come about?
Jaylene: You know, when I think back on it now, I realize that for whatever reason I had developed a perception of God that He would naturally withhold the things that I greatly desired. I was leading worship music at my church and I had a little jazz combo – but when I would go and hear other people on stage, I would go home and cry! I didn’t have much self-confidence, but at the same time I had this burning desire to be doing more, building up inside me, and I felt like I was going to burst. And then I heard a great sermon, where the preacher was talking about destiny. Somehow it just opened something up inside me, and I realized that maybe I could start taking some serious steps in that direction.
Kolbe Times: So what were those first steps?
Jaylene: Well, I had this idea to record a jazz and gospel record. I was working with a producer named Lloyd Peterson in Winnipeg, and he asked if I’d written any of my own songs. I said well, no, not really – because I didn’t think I was any good. But then I got up the courage to play him a couple of things I’d written, and I remember him saying, “Jaylene, you’re a songwriter! Why don’t we do a record of your own material?” So I really credit Lloyd with encouraging me in my song writing and getting the ball rolling. Two songs from that record went on to win some songwriting awards – and that got me thinking that maybe I could do another record.
Kolbe Times: And that next record was Finding Beautiful, released in 2004.
Jaylene: Yes, that’s right. Eldon Winter, who produced the album, and Steve Rendall who also worked on it with me, taught me so much about songwriting. Every experience seemed to give me a little more encouragement, so little by little I started to get more confident as a songwriter.
Kolbe Times: One of the tracks on that album, “Angels”, was featured on the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance”. That must have been encouraging.
Jaylene: Yes, it was. A number of songs I’ve recorded were picked up and licenced for TV shows. I’ve been fortunate to have quite a few licences, actually – for “Joan of Arcadia”, “Dawson’s Creek”, “Beautiful People”, “The Black Donnellys”, “Pretty Little Liars” and “Degrassi: The Next Generation”.
Kolbe Times: You also enjoy co-writing.
Jaylene: Very much! And it was kind of a crazy story how that came about. At the end of 2004 I had a brutal car accident. It was a head-on collision with a transport truck on the highway just outside of Thunder Bay. After that I had some very painful back problems, really debilitating. I got so discouraged. I couldn’t go on the road and perform because of all the pain. But then I got this idea that maybe I could publish some music. Well, it’s really hard to obtain a publishing deal when you are a totally unknown songwriter at the level that I was at, but doors just opened wide and I connected with a music publisher in Toronto. And from that experience I started co-writing, which I just fell in love with. I truly love collaborating with people and creating brand new songs where everybody contributes from their strengths. And it really helped me develop my craft.
Kolbe Times: What a great story – a very unexpected outcome from your almost fatal car accident.
Jaylene: Yes, and I want to tell you another story about another really beautiful and unexpected gift. When I first had my back issues after the accident, I needed homecare. I was in so much pain – it was really horrible. One day, in total frustration, I just shouted at God, “What am I supposed to do now?!” And I felt, or heard, or was impressed by words that said, “Jaylene, write and sing! Who said you could stop just because it’s harder? A bird doesn’t stop being a bird when things get difficult – it honours its Creator by simply being a bird. It builds its nest; it flies around; it sings its song. You need to stop worrying about results. Those are in my hands. Do what you were called to do. Write and sing.”
Well, later that day a woman came to my house to do homecare, and she said, “Before we get started, I need to ask you – are you THE Jaylene Johnson?” And of course that made me laugh because I’m not famous. And she went on and said, “You don’t understand. Several months ago I was going to kill myself and I heard your song “Butterfly Girl” on the radio and I believed every word, and God used that song to speak to me.” Well, then I cried and she cried, and I thought, “Well, God, here’s an example of a result that is completely out of my hands – a result that I had nothing to do with other than to write a song and send it on its way.”
It was a humbling and very privileged moment. There was another miraculous element to this story, because she had actually prayed that someday she’d have a chance to meet me. And God not only allowed that to happen, He also allowed me to have the experience of seeing the result of my music… and as songwriters we don’t always get to see the results.
Kolbe Times: Talk a bit about Saint Benedict’s Table, the Anglican church in Winnipeg where you serve as part-time Ministry Coordinator. How did you get involved there?
Jaylene: Well, I was going through a very painful time. This was many years ago now. I wondered if I would have a place in church at all. I met the priest at St. Benedict’s, Jamie Howison, for coffee. He said that sometimes there are seasons where you step away, but as a Christian you need community – and he said I want you to know that you’d always be welcome with us. At that time St. Benedict’s was fairly new, so I was there from almost the very beginning. It was the first time I’d felt like I could be in church and sit with my questions and I didn’t need to have all my theology tied up with a neat little bow. Eventually I started writing material for the congregation to sing, and I’ve even done some preaching. It’s been a very, very encouraging place for me, in so many ways.
Kolbe Times: Writing for a congregation must have a different feeling about it.
Jaylene: Yes, it does. For one thing, it requires a lot of humility! As a songwriter, we come with all these creative ideas for a song, but I’ve discovered that congregations respond best to simplicity. This might seem like a strange analogy, but when the French are making a sauce, they start with a massive pot of really good ingredients. And then they simmer it down, simmer it down, simmer it down – it’s a really long process! And eventually they end up with a very small pot that’s rich and amazing, but it’s far more condensed than what they started with. Songwriting for a congregation in a lot of ways needs to be like that. When it came to writing for my new album, Potter & Clay, I brought that experience and those ideas with me.
Kolbe Times: Then in 2012 you had another very difficult experience, when you lost your voice.
Jaylene: Yes, it was an intubation injury during routine surgery. It shouldn’t have happened, but I ended up with quite severe vocal damage. I knew something was wrong with my voice, but nobody could figure out what was wrong. I tried to keep singing but it was not going well at all, so I had to cancel all my singing engagements. My work was really impeded in a big way for a year and a half. It was a major identity crisis, because so much of what I do – well, pretty much everything I do – is tied to my voice. Finally I went to see a specialist in Toronto, who found a hairline scar in my left vocal cord. She performed another surgery in 2014 and it restored my voice. I’ve very thankful for her.
But you know, speaking of unexpected gifts, I learned out of that experience what it’s like to be voiceless, and to understand what it feels like to never get heard. I was one of those people who if there was ever a silence, I’d fill it. I had to make sure that I had my say, that my opinion was heard. And now when I observe other people doing that, I find it so annoying! That sounds kind of mean, but I think I’ve learned that there are people out there who really don’t feel like they have a voice, and I understand a little better now how defeating that can feel.
Kolbe Times: It feels like that understanding plays a part in your new album. Many of the songs carry truth in them that could only come out of personal struggles.
Jaylene: Well, I hope in expressing my own pain and my own laments, my own confessions, maybe other people will be able to engage with that – and maybe the songs on this album can become their songs.
Kolbe Times: Tell us about Steve Bell’s role in the album.
Jaylene: Steve and I have known each other a long time – from music and church circles. But I attended a workshop Steve was doing in the spring of 2015 and I was at a point where I was really questioning whether I should be making another record. I had a desire in my heart for it, but I just felt very defeated. A lot of what Steve said at his workshop really made me think, and I asked if he would meet with me and explore some of these topics more. He was so generous with his time and we sat down together, and as we talked I think I came to understand that when I was co-writing songs, which I love doing, something of me as an artist was set aside. That might not make any sense because people think well you’re still being creative as a songwriter. But there’s a difference between working with people and helping them create songs for certain projects, and really going deep into your own heart and trying to discover if there is anything there worth exploring. I had started to wonder if anybody would even care. And Steve spoke into my life, and said that when God gives us gifts, He will go with us as we explore them. Then he said, “Let’s do a record! We’ll let you use our studio, Signpost Music – and our producer Murray Pulver would be great for you to work with.” Suddenly I started to think, hey, maybe this is possible.
Kolbe Times: And at that point you were married.
Jaylene: Yes. And during the time when I was going through all the vocal problems, we were trying to start a family. We were finally told that we had a less than one percent chance of having a baby. It was such an emotional roller coaster. With Steve’s encouragement to work on a new album, I decided that instead of going to Nashville to do co-writing like I usually did in the summer, I would rent a cabin for two weeks. I wanted to go and face myself – just sit with my heart and see what songs came out. So I was about to head off all by myself to this very remote cabin, and the night before I left, I discovered that I was pregnant.
Kolbe Times: Wow, that’s incredible. So what happened at the cabin?
Jaylene: Well, I just let the songs pour out and tried to not be self-critical. It felt like such a release. Most of the songs on the new record were written at that cabin on Lake Winnipeg. And I kept the precious news about my pregnancy to myself, close to my heart, that entire first week. My husband came out to the cabin and joined me for the second week, and that’s when I told him the news…which happened to be on our anniversary!
Kolbe Times: That’s beautiful. So now you had all these songs – what was it like recording the album at Signpost Music, with Juno Award-winning Murray Pulver as producer?
Jaylene: It was lovely. I couldn’t have asked for a better person than Murray to handle my songs with such care, and we had so much fun working with great people. Having Joey Landreth featured with me on the song “Pray, Pray Again” was wonderful. And then having Steve Bell, who was executive producer of the album, playing and singing with me on “Lord of All”, along with a string quartet from the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, was a total dream come true. When we heard that song coming together, with Ron Paley’s arrangement, I was like a kid in a candy shop – it was amazing.
You know, when you’re in a ‘desert’ time, as we Christians say, it can be hard to imagine that there might be anything good that can come from it. I think the greatest gift for me from these recent years is realizing that God’s intention is to lead us through the desert – not to leave us there!
Jaylene: You know, many artists seem to have this compulsion to express what’s inside, and share their story. It’s so true for me, and in my case I feel especially compelled to share my faith story. And I firmly believe that a big part of my calling as an artist is to create a way that invites people in, so they can share their own story with others. And in the sharing with one another, we learn and we grow. Being in community with others, in ways either big or small, changes the way you are. I think it helps you more fully see and understand God’s great mercy.
Photos by Pamela Penner Photography
Jaylene Johnson’s new album Potter & Clay is available on iTunes or on her website.
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“Pray, Pray Again” from Jaylene Johnson’s new CD Potter & Clay: