Kaylee Johnston is tough with a sensitive side

Johnston might not have gone to college but she never stopped learning.

When Kaylee Johnston walked into our interview a few days before her self-titled EP release party at the Biltmore Cabaret, she bypassed the handshake and headed straight for a hug.

Johnston was in the Canadian Radio Star competition early on in her career, and released her last EP, Streetlight, in 2010. Since then, aside from a single released in 2013 (“Gone”), she’s been figuring out what she wants out of her career and honing her musical abilities. Her new release is a taste of the big things we can expect from her in the future.

Johnston has known since kindergarten that music was where she was meant to be. She applied to college at her parent’s encouragement, but didn’t get in. “I knew that I was still going to do music. I remember not even feeling disappointed.”

According to Johnston, she was never much of an academic. However, her best advice is, “Just be a student of life. I’ve never stopped learning or wanting to learn and that’s why . . . if I’m having a bad day, I can always turn it around. Like, OK, this is an experience that I’m going to learn from, and my life’s going to get better because of this uncomfortable moment in time.”

It’s pretty solid advice. And just because she didn’t do well in a structured educational setting doesn’t mean she wasn’t educated. “I’ve done, probably, thousands of hours of voice training . . . and thousands of hours of song-writing with different people and styles. I’m conscious of where I’m putting my energy.” It’s easy to see that all of her hard work has paid off — the new EP is dynamite.

“Are You the One” is Johnston’s favourite song to perform, because of the bridge. “I kind of rap it, and it’s not really rap, but it’s really fast spoken word . . . Every time I do that I just feel so badass. I always get a good reaction from the audience. That one’s my sexy, sassy song so I always feel really good when I sing it.”

Another personal favourite for Johnston is “Let’s Pretend.” It’s got a slightly different feel than her other songs, stemming from the 18-month time difference between writing the majority of her EP and writing that song.

“I felt like that was the first song I’d ever written that was truly vulnerable. All the songs have moments of vulnerability, but that whole song is just me being very accepting of a situation I was in and being honest about it.”

It’s true. A lot of her other songs have a toughness to them to coat the vulnerability, and it’s great to see her expanding the realms of her emotional songwriting capacity.

Johnston’s show opened with Mathew V and Windmills — two terrifically talented acts with vocal chops and great musicality. They set the tone of a fun, celebratory night and Johnston ran with that throughout her set. Her vocals were on point, her performance was captivating, and her energy was infectious. The dancing she did on stage was amplified in the crowd, following her lead.

There were a few technical difficulties, but nothing major. Her cover of “Teenage Dirtbag” took everyone back to high school in the 2000s and turned into a massive singalong, with Windmills joining her on stage. She’s such a charismatic performer, regaling the audience with stories in between every couple of songs. It makes her feel like a friend, even though she’s up on that stage.

All in all, the party was a fantastic launch event, with more than a few people walking away with CDs. She’ll be one to watch in the years to come.