Image Source: Jen Squires

“Why aren’t you more famous?” It’s one question independent singer-songwriter and actor Alexz Johnson gets too often. “[That question is] very sweet, and it’s obviously coming from a really beautiful place, but what’s behind that is, ‘You should be more of a success,'” the 36-year-old mother of two tells POPSUGAR. From 2010 until now, Johnson has released five studio albums independently. Her latest, “Seasons,” came out on April 7.

For an artist with a résumé as impressive as Johnson’s (she starred in hit television shows on Disney Channel and The N, as well as inked record deals with major labels throughout her career spanning 20 years), it’s somewhat natural to wonder why her powerhouse voice isn’t dominating the airwaves. But Johnson is right where she wants to be as an artist, and she’s aiming to redefine what success looks like with her new album.

“When I started the process of doing ‘Seasons,’ I was Pregnant with my son and it was COVID still . . . I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to do a record from home. I’m going to speak about my experience,'” she says, referencing the inspiration behind the album. “All of the vulnerable moments of motherhood. I want to be an example for artists to see that anything is possible and . . . You don’t need approval from anybody to live your dreams.”

“I want to be an example for artists to see that anything is possible and . . . You don’t need approval from anybody to live your dreams.”

Those dreams took form when Johnson was a child growing up in Canada. Singing came easy to her, and she regarded it as a gift that required her to write her own music, share her experiences, and help people from the start. “It’s not something that I feel like I necessarily earned,” she says of her vocal ability. “I just came with this big voice, and I felt like . . . I had a responsibility with that.” Growing up as a middle child in a family with 10 children, Johnson also realized quickly that her musical talent was an asset. “I found that for me to get what I needed . . . the attention, a hug, for me to get seen, for me to get noticed . . . I could use my voice as a tool for love,” she says.

That’s why, although she had childhood dreams of becoming a singing nurse (“I wanted to take care of people and sing them to sleep”), Johnson set her sights on being a famous singer like her idols, Whitney Houston and fellow Canadians Jann Arden and Celine Dion. When she was barely a teenager, she marched to a local talent agency down the street from her home in the little town of Maple Ridge, British Columbia, all by herself, knocked on the door, and said, “I want to sing. I want to sing.” The talent agent who answered the door had other plans for Johnson, and sent her out for acting auditions instead.

She quickly booked a few commercials, but one of her first significant auditions came around 2000; it was for the lead role in the supernatural Disney Channel show “So Weird.” It would require her to sing alongside real-life rockstar Mackenzie Phillips. “I was flown down to LA, I did the audition, I sang for Henry Winkler and a room full of people. . . and I got the role . . . I literally landed the lead of a Disney [Channel] show,” Johnson says. While acting was never her dream, the opportunity was still mind-blowing. As she puts it, “I was from a middle class family. You don’t say no to that.”

Johnson’s big break came a few years later, when she locked down the role of up-and-coming rockstar Jude Harrison on The N’s musical drama “Instant Star.” The show would draw several parallels between Jude’s fictional life and Johnson’s real one, as they were both up-and-coming teenage musicians fighting to make it in an unforgiving and volatile music industry. The hit drama, which ran for four seasons from 2004 to 2008, was unique in that Johnson performed an original song as Jude in each episode, and the songs were released as soundtracks at the culmination of each season. Unlike many musical TV shows, the songs were very good, and Johnson drew in countless dedicated fans through the show. But its success was a double-edged sword, as Johnson’s real-life musical footprint was being drowned out by her TV counterpart’s.

INSTANT STAR, Alexz Johnson, 2004-08.  The N / Courtesy: Everett CollectionImage Source: Everett Collection

“So much of my time was playing a rockstar. My time wasn’t playing venues . . . I was playing Jude Harrison,” Johnson explains. “My job was to learn dialogue, look great, be on my game, hold a TV show.” Johnson knew things had gone too far when producers asked her to perform mall tours as Jude. “I was like, ‘I can’t do that. I will never not be Jude.'”

Make no mistake: Johnson is grateful for “Instant Star” and its legacy. “It did give me an opportunity to be heard, and it’s kept the people that care enough to follow me through and after that,” she says, adding, “I have fans that support me on my Patreon community — I mean die-hard fans who know my story.” But on the flip side, separating herself from Jude has been challenging. She says that when she searches “Alexz Johnson” on Spotify, contemporaries of hers don’t show up. “They’re actually Jude Harrison’s contemporaries,” she explains. “So it’s been a very difficult journey for me breaking free. I don’t know if I ever will.”

Part of that journey involved chasing a major label release for some time. During her tenure on “Instant Star,” Johnson was signed to Capitol Records for a year and a half and then moved to Epic Records at Sony. “I did an entire album with Greg Wells, who had just worked with OneRepublic and was working in the studio with Katy Perry . . . He was working in tandem with both of us.” While Perry would release 2008’s “I Kissed a Girl” to great success at that time, Johnson’s more experimental music was apparently getting held up by the label. “[They] said it was too Kate Bush. It was too Peter Gabriel. It was too weird. It wasn’t going to do great on radio,” she recounts.

“I was completely betrayed . . . The sacrifice that goes into it, years of my life shelved, and I’m sitting in my apartment in tears. It was like losing a baby. At the time I hadn’t had children.”

Johnson would ultimately be let go by Sony in 2009 amid shakeups at the label — the finished album she had in hand, shelved. The pain of losing the music she had slaved over for years was visceral. “I was completely betrayed . . . The sacrifice that goes into it, years of my life shelved, and I’m sitting in my apartment in tears,” she says. “It was like losing a baby. At the time I hadn’t had children. It felt like I had been through a horrible loss and I was a mess.”

But the betrayal lit a fire under Johnson. “I was like, ‘Screw this sh*t. I’m not doing this anymore. I’m going to do this my way . . . I don’t care how many fans I get. I have people that listen to my music and they matter to me.’ And to this day, that’s my relationship with my fans. I don’t really care. I’m like, ‘This is what I do. This is my story. Take it or leave it.'”

Indeed, Johnson is done chasing approval from industry insiders. “This approval, the audition process, am I slim enough? Am I pretty enough? Do I fit this? Okay, I don’t. The rejection, the rejection, the rejection. It’s enough to make you go absolutely insane,” she says.

The experience also fundamentally changed the way she saw the industry. “It made me see just how horrible the major record industry is, how that needs to shift . . . It’s all about money. It’s all corporate. There’s nothing really creative,” she says. “And even the artists that get a chance that do get released on a major, how much control did they have? Did they do it their way?”

There’s no shortage of major artists who have spoken out about how constricting, toxic, and inequitable major labels can be, from Taylor Swift to Megan Thee Stallion. Still, Johnson says that just speaking out does little to help struggling artists if stars ultimately just sign better deals with other majors. “I think they have to leave their [labels]. Don’t be on a major anymore,” she says. “You can talk about it all you want, but it’s like, ‘You’re still sleeping with the devil.’ Really do it yourself and then do a masterclass. Start showing young artists how to do it themselves.”

“I’ve not made a penny from Spotify . . . You can stream my music. I love that. Stream it, stream it. But if you want to support me, buy an album. That’s the direct way to support me as an artist.

Johnson also learned quickly that streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music would be close to no help to an indie artist like her. “[Streamers are] the new radio. You’re still paying to get on the playlist,” she says. “It’s all on algorithms, and again, all my algorithms on Spotify are Jude Harrison, which is fine because Jude Harrison had beautiful music.”

Johnson stresses that, for the sake of small and independent artists like her, fans should buy albums and merchandise. “I’ve not made a penny from Spotify,” she shares. “One of my best forms of income is my physical merchandise, my vinyl, and my CDs. And I say to people, ‘Just get it.’ You can stream my music. I love that. Stream it, stream it. But if you want to support me, buy an album. That’s the direct way to support me as an artist.”

When Johnson set her sights on going her own way in 2009, she told herself, “I’m going to build something in a different way, and I’m going to do it on my terms . . . No one’s going to own it. No one’s going to touch it. It’s going to be my music that goes directly to my fans.”

That’s what makes “Seasons” a full-circle moment for Johnson. Her single off the album, “Ain’t That the Way,” explores the beautiful messiness of life — how just about nothing goes to plan, and yet you often end up right where you belong. “I pulled so much strength in the process of making this record, and I bit off way more than I could chew . . . between babies’ naps and being pregnant and all the emotion around that,” she says of the challenging, but fulfilling, creative process. She adds, “I think it’s frigging awesome that I made a record as a mom from home and that I believe in it so much and these songs so much that I’m like, ‘I’m willing to get it out there.'”

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - FEBRUARY 08: Alexz Johnson performs on stage at Shepherds Bush Empire on February 8, 2014 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by C Brandon/Redferns via Getty Images)Image Source: Getty / C Brandon / Redferns

Johnson is currently on the road with her husband and two children to perform her new music on her “Seasons” tour, which will traverse cities across the US, Europe, and the UK. “I have a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old, and it’s going to be messy, and their nap schedules are going to be off, but it’s my dream,” she says. “I have something to say, and this is my planet, and it’s spinning, and my kids are going to spin in it with me . . . until they go off and find their own planet to spin around.”

To Johnson, this moment — the exhilarating, messy, triumphant release of “Seasons” and the tour — defines success. She owns it. No one touched it. It’s all hers. And she’s delivering it directly to her fans with no one’s approval but her own.

Alexz Johnson’s “Seasons” physical CD, vinyl, and merchandise are available to purchase through her official music store. The album is also streaming now on major streamers.

Reps for Sony and Spotify did not immediately respond to POPSUGAR’s request for comment on this piece.

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