I had just returned from a movie last night when I heard the news about yet another senseless act of violence and inhumanity, the kind which seem to take place all too frequently in our nation in this day and age. At a theater in Louisiana, two innocents lost their lives, nine others were injured, and one monster lay dead by his own hand. The prospect of random shootings looms heavily in my mind these days; my anxious thought process considers the 2012 shootings in Aurora, Colorado at least once every time I go to a movie which, considering my vocation, tends to be at least once a week. We live in a world where shit can—and all too frequently does—happen. Again. And again. And again.
My heart ached and my mind raged as I watched the stories from Louisiana unfold on television and across the internet last night, internally weeping over the losses felt by the families and friends of the women who lost their lives. Perhaps this is ghoulish, I don’t know, but whenever one of these tragedies occurs, I like to learn what I can about the souls that were extinguished at the hands of madmen. The names and faces of the killers will be dragged into popular consciousness by the media for months, or even years, after the fact and it seems unjust to me that the lives of the innocent will be forever linked to the actions of the twisted. Maybe if I learn their names, maybe if I see their faces, I can give them new life, one that exists separately in my mind from the horror that befell them.
This is how I came to find Jillian Johnson.
The more I read about this remarkable woman, the more my heart weighed at her loss. She was, by all accounts, the best of us, the kind of woman I hope my step-daughter grows to be. A resident of Lafayette, Louisiana, Johnson was a leader among the arts scene in town, a businesswoman, a wife, and a daughter. She was also, come to find out, an extraordinarily talented musician.
In my researching of her life, I found more than a few articles about this wonderful woman who seemed to touch the spirit of all who encountered her, before I stumbled across her Soundcloud page. It was then that she touched mine. As a lifelong lover of music, I’ve always been on the lookout for new bands and new artists to share with my friends and this facet of my personality carried through as I began my career writing about music and entertainment. If I am writing about a band, it’s because there’s something about their sound and style that needs to be heard and shared among music fans. And while it appears to have been a few years since she added new material to her Soundcloud, Jillian Johnson deserves to be heard.
Johnson worked in a neo-Americana idiom, singing songs of heartbreak and hope, love and loss, and all the things you might expect from someone with a background in bluegrass. While she’s best known as a member of the bluegrass group The Figs, Jillian’s solo output is something to behold. The recordings are raw and unpolished, which only add to their power; the background hiss found in many of them, such as on “Thirteen,” are almost reminiscent of an old timey sound, alluding to a sort of timelessness to their quality and impact.
I was struck immediately by the song “From June to September.” More polished than much of her other output, it loses none of its punch. Its simple, old country backbeat forms a kind of funnel, filtering the ear directly to her vocals, full of mournful longing. I listened to it, and then listened to it again, taken in totally by her voice and entranced at her music. Her style here suggests a talent far beyond her audience reach, but the effortlessness of her delivery seems an indication of true passion.
As great as her polished work is, I find myself gravitating more and more to the more raw sounding songs she released, like the old timey throwback “Heaven’s Radio,” which feels like it belongs on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. This was an old Carter Family song, and her reverence to their style speaks to the depth of her musical knowledge and ability. It’s not anyone who can cover the Carters and manage the same level of spiritual intensity they were known for, but here Johnson pulls it off, and the end result is glorious.
I could go on. I want to go on. Her output on Soundcloud consists of 11 tracks, grouped into two separate collections. All told, it’s about 40 minutes of music that culls from blues, bluegrass, country, and Americana in equal measures. It shows passion, it shows grace, it shows skill.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll experience a wide range of emotions when listening to her output. I was angry, at first, not only at her loss but at the loss of 21 year old Mayci Breaux, whose life was also ripped from us too soon in last night’s horror. I was angry that it happened, angry because it didn’t have to happen. That anger gave way to sadness as the sounds of Johnson’s music washed over me, because this was a woman who brought light to all she met. The pain they must feel at her loss is inexpressible, and my soul hurts just contemplating what they must be going through. I hope they know that my thoughts are with them.
As difficult it as it might be to reach this point, I also found myself experiencing a certain amount joy as I listened to Johnson’s 11 Soundcloud tracks. It’s clear from her art and from the words of the people who knew and loved her that Johnson was a special individual. As angry as I feel over her senseless murder, there’s joy because people like Jillian Johnson exist on this earth. People with passion, people with heart, people that bring joy to others with their abundance of life.
I don’t know what we can do to end the madness and the mass murder that grips our nation. I don’t know if there’s anything we can do. Maybe the cynics are right and maybe there are just bad people on this earth and that those bad people will always do bad things. But with the bad comes the good, and as vile as the creature who took Jillian from the people who loved her was, I refuse to let his wickedness taint my view of life and the world I live in. There are far more angels in this world than there are demons, and while I did not know her—and never would have were it not for the tragedy in Lafayette—I can say for certain that Jillian Johnson shined far brighter than one man’s darkness could ever touch. And that gives me hope. As unfair as it is that the world lost such an amazing spirit, we were blessed that she ever walked among us in the first place.