Alexz Johnson on moving away from the pop-punk sound of Jude Harrison and her new album Seasons
Alexz Johnson may have fallen off your radar but she’s never really disappeared. After her nearly five year run as Jude Harrison in the Degrassi co-creator-helmed series Instant Star, the Canadian singer-songwriter and actress was synonymous with her angsty alt-rock on-screen alter-ego. But Johnson’s own identity was still being forged. Johnson was more Carole King than Avril Lavigne, though Spotify would have you fooled — all of Jude Harrison’s music is categorized under her name
After the series wrapped in 2008, her album was shelved after some internal changes at her record label, and she ended up going indie; she released four LPs including 2010's Voodoo, 2014's Let 'Em Eat Cake, 2017's A Stranger Time, and 2020's Still Alive. Now 36, Johnson is set to release her fifth studio album Seasons, a more classic singer-songwriter record that grapples with rough transitions and the resilience that she’s found throughout them.
In an interview with AP, Johnson reveals how her sound has evolved since Instant Star, the possibility of rebooting the series and the trauma that shaped her latest album.
You never stopped putting out music even after Instant Star ended in 2008, but how did your career shift after the show?
It wasn't really necessarily supposed to end. I had signed with Sony, my second major record deal. Season 4 had wrapped, and we could have done a fifth season, but it was almost like it was okay to end there, as well. I didn't really drive it forward with a fifth season. I was like, "Look, I really want to fly away, and I want to do the music that I want to do. I've loved playing Jude for four and a half years, but this is an opportunity for me to make music for me."
All the songs I wrote for Instant Star were written for Jude, and through the process of playing Jude, I kind of morphed into Jude in a way. I was fighting that so much. When I look at the end of Instant Star, I'm literally leaving Tommy and flying off to London, which is what I did. I basically went off and pursued my own music career. And after doing the record of my dreams I put so much work into for six years, it just got shelved. My record never got released. It was interesting because that year I had also turned down one of the lead roles for 90210 [the reboot], Silver. It was my chance to do what I've always wanted to do. I love acting, but music has always been my passion.
How has your sound evolved over the years?
I think it's natural to evolve as an artist, life does that to you. Since putting out my last album, I lost a sister to cancer. She was younger than me and that was really quick. The course of that was like a pregnancy — it was exactly nine months from when she was diagnosed to when she passed. I was pregnant at the same time and bringing life into the world, I had a baby at home and then COVID happened. All those things can really change you. I've grown, I'm a mom, I've learned. I've invested in studio gear. I'm learning how to make music on my own.
In terms of making this record, what was your source of inspiration?
I was inspired by these gardens that we grow in our backyard, chickens, raising these kids on this property, planting, growing and watching the evolution of the seasons. I really was inspired by just looking at my window, creating this record, pregnant with my son, the songs evolved from everything natural.
Is there a theme that runs throughout the record?
This record represents survival. I wanted to bring people through the seasons through sound, as well as push them through any personal fears and mountains that they feel they have to climb.
How does the sound of this record compared to your last one?
I think my voice has changed. I tracked my own vocals on this. I've never had the opportunity to do that as a singer, and it was really interesting how much I pushed myself. When you're doing it on your own as a vocalist and you're listening to every word and every vocal, I really, really challenged myself and it was a really difficult process because I don't like anything I do. It's so honest, it's so emotional. It's an experience for the listener because I don't know how many vocalists track their own vocals. It's an added feeling behind it, I think, that makes it different.
How did Instant Star change your life?
I'm from a pretty middle-class family, and we all work together. When I was 12, I walked down to a dance studio that was connected to a talent agency, and I didn't know what that was. I walked myself down and said, "I want to sing," and the agent said, "Okay, well, we're a talent agency, so I guess we'll get you out on auditions." A couple commercials later, I landed the lead of So Weird on the Disney Channel. You don't say "no" when you're from a middle class family in Canada — you don't say no to getting an opportunity to be the lead of a Disney show. Henry Winkler called and told me I got the part. I was flown down to LA. I was hanging out with the Fonz. I also wrote some music for that show, but from then on, they set me up on this trajectory. I thought that after I had done So Weird, I'm done with the TV thing, I'm going to do music, I'm going to be an artist, and I'm going to last as long as Anne Murray.
I started to focus on singing and songwriting, and Instant Star came right into my life. It was a friend who suggested I put myself on tape. She was friends with [the producers] Steven [Stohn] and Linda [Schuyler] and played my manager on So Weird. I was like, "I don't know if I want to get back into this world of portraying a different musician. I want to do my own music. I want to earn this." I said, "Okay, I'll take Instant Star if me and my brother can write the majority of the music for the show." They said, "Yeah, you got the part and you can write the music for the show." Now, in hindsight, was that a good idea? Because when I go to Spotify now, with all the records I put out in my life, and I look at who my contemporaries are, when you listen to my last couple records that I've put out, they're nothing like Jude Harrison and Instant Star. But my contemporaries are all Jude Harrison contemporaries, and I can't change that. I wish it was uploaded as Jude Harrison. It gave me so much, but it shadowed my identity a bit. I will always be Jude to some people.
Have you thought about what an Instant Star reboot would look like?
We have to go back. I feel like Jude should be a judge, [Tim Rozon's character] Tommy should be a judge. Let's go, like a miniseries — five episodes. I know that Steven and Linda don't have the rights to the show anymore, but of course, I'd be down.
On the topic of Jude and Tommy, their relationship was very representative of the age gap and the power dynamics in relationships that often come from the music industry. Do you think that would have been a plot line today if the show came out?
It’s so integral to what artists deal with in the industry. Putting everything else aside, being a young, female pop star, it's really convenient that a producer really picks and chooses to come into a creative process and make a music baby together. It's super vulnerable for an artist — you are creating your sound, your music — and seven out of 10 times, you will in some way fall in love. There's so many layers when you are being so creative with somebody who understands you and gets you in such a vulnerable, intimate [way, like] creating music. So I love that Stephen and Linda went right there because with their Degrassi history — they go there. I'm surprised I didn't get an STD on the show, I was waiting for that episode.
You released your single "Hurt Me" last month. What's the story behind that song?
It felt like it was a nice, easy way to introduce the record, but also I really wanted to stop people. With this song, there's a part of us that feels like because we're broken or aspects of us are broken that we are not worthy of love, and "Hurt Me" is basically an anthem about showing somebody that you're there regardless of their flaws. It's like, "Okay, you can like shit on me, and I'll be fine because I've been through enough in my life at this point that I can actually take it."
Tell me about why you decided to end the record with "Mad World."
Because I think the world is going mad. There's a lot of danger in the access that we have. People are having a really hard time navigating the world right now. I feel like we're in this weird place where we don't know what the future holds, and we're all swimming, swimming, swimming. "Mad World" was a reflection of like, "Yeah, I'm gonna make it work no matter what ends up being thrown." I'm hoping that it's a song that uplifts people through and makes them feel like they can push through this.
Is this the sonic direction you want to continue with for future records?
Without meaning to in the process of making it, I kept throwing down, "I want classic. I am doing classic chords on the guitar. The songs are being written from the ground up. I want live drums, I want live musicians. I want it to be just a classic record." When I hear it now, it really does bring me back to some old school stuff like Paul Simon. People have said to me when they hear the record that it reminds me of Paul Simon mixed with Rickie Lee Jones mixed with Carole King. I hear these things, and I go, "Wow, what a huge compliment." That's the exact kind of record I wanted to make.