“It’s the most common questions (fans ask),” she explained to NewNowNext over cupcakes in the West Village. “They always ask me if I’m going to be in another movie. I’d really love to be. To be honest, I’d love to be on Girls. When are they going to cast the female musician on Girls?”
Girls might be the exact perfect fit for someone like Johnson, whose current style places her as very much “struggling musician next door,” who might throw the party that keeps Hannah Horvath up all night, or inspire free-spirit Jessa Johansson to pick up the banjo and join along. It’s also a logical jump for someone who got her start on teen TV — first on Disney’s So Weird and, later, as Jude Harrison on Instant Star, a part of the Degrassi-type Canadian teen show circuit (“I remember when Drake was Aubrey, coming to show me his mix tapes,” Johnson joked) to graduate to Lena Dunham’s post-grad NYC, just so long as there’s singing involved.
At 12 she walked herself into an acting agency in her small town and told them she wanted to sing. After So Weird, her first ever acting gig and one that allowed her to write songs for her character, she swore she’d never do TV again. When Instant Star came knocking she turned them down three times, until she learned she’d be able to write her own music for the show. Johnson partnered with her brother (she’s one of 10 kids in the family) to write music in a style different from her own, a more Avril Lavigne persona, although not totally in line with her own 15-year-old punk-rock loves like Anti Flag or Bad Religion. She even dyed her hair red for the part.
The show’s success lead to two different record deals, first with Capital, then with Epic. Johnson was dropped from both.
“I reached out to Greg Wells personally to do a record without a label,” Johnson explained. “He told me not to sign with a major. I didn’t really listen, I was young and labels come and and wine and dine you.”
Now Johnson is going it alone as an indie artist, foregoing the label route and assembling her own team as she goes. For now she’s without a manager, but has a booking and PR team to set up the Skipping Stone tour, which is funded completely through Kickstarter. Johnson recorded her latest EP, “Skipping Stone” in Nashville with her now ex-boyfriend, completely for free. After it was completed, Johnson realized she wanted to tour, but had no plan. She packed her stuff into storage, moved from Canada with no visa and had six months to figure out a plan. At the three month mark she turned to Kickstarter, setting a modest goal of $30,000, which she hit in her first twenty-four hours.
“I was blown away,” Johnson laughs. “I’ve been off of a label, I’ve never had a chance to put out my music. I’m happy, I just want to be surviving, and if I can survive and keep making the music I can believe in I’ll keep going on.”
She eventually topped out at $67,000 in funding, which Johnson will use to amplify the experience for fans. Rewards for funding the tour ranged from EPs to tour videos all the way to private shows, with support pouring in from locales as far away as Germany and Brazil that won’t even reap the benefits of an Alexz Johnson tour. She’s also found a way to both supplement her tour income and give fans even more on her trek — which kicks off today in Toronto and ends August 18 in Los Angeles — giving fans a VIP option where they can come and chat with Johnson before the show.
“We sold 80 for Webster Studio,” Johnson explained. “They get to come talk to me, I’ll sign whatever, and we can talk one-on-one. Honestly, I don’t know what to expect (on tour). I don’t know where my market is. I’ve never done a tour before. My booking agent took a chance on me. I didn’t know I was going to pack Webster Studio. That was my third show in the U.S.!”
After Instant Star, Johnson held other acting gigs, including a role in Final Destination 3, and guest spots on TV shows like Smallville and Haven. Johnson admits that acting has been a breadwinner for her. “I’ve been doing it my whole life,” she explained “It’s the one thing that’s made me money.” Still, she’s not looking for a quick jump back to TV or movies, but shooting House of Bodies with Queen Latifah and Terrence Howard this year is what got her a visa that allows her to tour this summer. However that’s the exception, not the rule, and Johnson amidst that she often “shoots (herself) in the foot” in her career.
“I’m not hungry for (TV success), I’m hungry for authenticity,” she elaborated. “I want the respect from the musicians that I love. I don’t need to go and be on Glee. I’ll get an audition and forget to tape myself! I carry the weight of what I’ve been through as a musician, and that’s what gets me all the time on the acting end. I need to be the blonde Kristen Stewart, in my head that’s the only thing that fits for me.”
Even when she’s trying, sometimes the acting powers that be are conspiring against her. “I’ll do pilot season, I’ll screentest a lot and they’re end up going with a gay guy for the part,” she laughs. “They change the whole character! I want to be in a position where I’m touring and I write my own damn script and make a cool series.”
At her last show in New York before tour, a small headliner at Rockwood’s Stage 2, her on-stage persona takes over. The chill girl from the Village cupcake shop is gone, replaced with an energetic rock star. Her inspirations — performers like Robyn or Linda Ronstadt, who she admits isn’t the same music, but who “took the same hits” as Johnson has — shine through in the way she carries herself. The Skipping Stone EP, she says, embodies heartbreak, even though Johnson wrote the record while she was still with her boyfriend, Jimmy.
“It was actually a heartbreaking time in my life,” she said “All the songs we wrote together were heartbreak songs. In my head it was like “we’re so strong, we can write this stuff together. But in my heart I was scared. I look at this EP now, it’s empowering to play. I’m so proud that I got something out of that. They’re so honest, and I think it’s good for people to know that you can survive.”
Her fans definitely connect with the message — the truth in her lyrics reflected back as they sing along with her every word. A group of guys are celebrating a birthday, and before the set, the birthday boy had approached Johnson for a picture and hug, then gabbed with his friends about the encounter all through opener Theo Katzman’s set. During the show they call out the birthday again, and Johnson fluidly dedicates a song to them.
“I have a lot of female fans, I have a lot of gay fans which is awesome,” she exclaims. “What’s interesting about this tour is they all know the Skipping Stone EP, but they’ve followed me from my acting. It’s such a blessing”.
After this hectic year, Johnson is cautiously optimistic about her coming one. She’s written with big names like Bruno Mars and up-and-comers like Joy Williams of The Civil Wars, but hasn’t signed a publishing deal yet. Her next steps, she says, will be getting her music in movies or commercials, and when this tour is over her next stop will be London, a place she feels is really open to the kind of pop sound she embodies that doesn’t conform to stereotypes, to record a new album.
“I want to be touring again (next year), opening for someone like Matt Nathanson. I don’t expect anything to go fast, but I want my ducks to be in a row.”