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    Take note: Back in 2017, Carly Johnson’s home in Louisville had a working old slot machine in it, a reminder of her dad, who lives in Vegas. She had a jackalope head mounted on the wall by the door, and the wall was a pastel green. An ancient crank-up Victrola record player sat in the corner, a Tommy Dorsey record inside, and in the next room, the one with the Mid-Century Modern white leather office chairs, stood the old upright piano that had survived more travel than any upright should. Carly’s degree from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia was propped open on top of the lid, and on the music stand were a yellow legal pad turned to a blank page, a notebook scribbled full of the very same lyrics half of the country has stuck in its head and the backup vocals sheet music for everyone’s favorite song, the multi-platinum hit “The Believer.” On the adjacent wall she’d taped up black-and-white postcards of Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin and RuPaul, with space waiting for Etta James, Carly’s “boo thing,” the one who started “this mess.” Carly had not yet found a good enough postcard of her to pin up. Pay attention to these details. You’ve got to get this movie right, otherwise Carly's legion of fans will have your head.

    You should start with darkness. Her voice will pour into the void like honey, and then we’ll fade in to a performance, probably one of the many New York or Paris or L.A. shows she’s played by the time you’re reading this, or maybe even one of those shows from back in the day in Louisville, stage light warming the natural rouge on her round cheeks. Her voice will surge into a river, drowning the crowd — pan wide, catch all those smiling faces! — in sweetness.

    You are lucky. Carly — surely she’s graduated to mononymity by now — has given you plenty to work with. You only need to put together the pieces. Scene: Carly the toddler in the backseat, too bashful to sing unless her parents look away. Scene: Carly at 4, putting her 45 of the Sleeping Beauty soundtrack on her Fischer-Price record player and singing along to Mary Costa. Scene: Carly at 12, home alone, peeking through the blinds to make sure the driveway is empty before she belts out Whitney Houston, The Bodyguard soundtrack blueprinted in her mind. Scene: Carly at 16, working the late shift at her first job — Banana Republic, Oxmoor Center Mall, a she’s-just-like-us moment for fans. Everyone’s gone but her and the man waxing the floors, whom she watches from the corner of her eye, waiting for him to mop his way out of view before launching her Christina Aguilera up into the vaulted ceiling.


    Photo by Maria Jackson

    You’ll get your requisite conflict in Carly’s senior year at Atherton High School. So many dramatic shots: Carly’s mom trying to get her out of bed to go to class, Carly getting kicked out of advanced courses and into classes so dull she skips them, stacks of unmarked college applications left in her room. This is the kind of danger crowds love, because it’s not really danger; everyone already knows Carly comes out the other side, eclipsing Adele, this depressive stage shrunk down to “annoying teenage time.” You’re only including this for the drama of it all: Carly’s choir teacher, the only teacher whose class she always attends, sitting her down in front of the whole class, saying, “You’re the most talented student I’ve had. Ever. And you need to get your shit together.”

    College: A montage of singing, jazz soundtrack. (Think Whiplash, only with a vocalist, and without a near-homicidal J.K. Simmons.) Next, high romance: Carly working in a hardware store, meeting a boy who’d just got back from art school in Germany — can’t-make-this-up type stuff, a move back to Louisville before the relationship is even official, a wedding, a house with a backyard, a fat orange cat. I can feel the popcorn butter on my fingertips already.

    The scene at the bar downtown — Meta, it’s called — would be a cliché if it hadn’t actually happened. Slick place, hanging filament bulbs warming dark tones. Carly sang there often, it was one of her regular jazz gigs. She’d made a living with her voice since 2012. After her set, a guy comes up to her — gray hair, black glasses, a squarish face that looks younger than it is. He tells Carly he’s a playwright/screenwriter in town for the Humana Festival. This is the kind of guy who has an assistant who can confirm he’s the real deal — you’ll cast somebody who doesn’t need to wear a suit to look nice. He asks Carly what she’s working on. She tells him she’s about to write a soul record long-distance with her friend, Charlotte Littlehales, who lives in San Diego. Next thing she knows, she’s flying to California, funded, unbound by any studio’s rules. The Believer was in mixing for over a year, and Carly pulled it from the first round of mastering to nitpick, mix again. There’ll be a montage here too, Carly leaning over a board of knobs and slides like Beethoven over a keyboard.

    Now we’ve seen Carly from every angle: shy talent, hurt teen, educated artist, soul genius. It’s time for the grand coda, the show-stopping high note. There are easy choices: Another blowout show, Carly accepting her Grammy for Best New Artist or her Grammy for Song of the Year or her Grammy for Album of the Year, likely won for The Believer, her 12-song debut record from 2018 — conceived in Louisville, composed in San Diego, recorded in Louisville and mixed in Austin, Texas. I suggest you do something less obvious, something that shows us just how determined Carly always was, how sure, even when it seemed she was lost. Flash back to her senior year. One last ounce of conflict, the tension before the chord resolves: Carly’s been skipping the freshman social studies class she had to take as a senior — a scheduling problem she had to endure. Mid-semester, it looks like she might fail. (The idea of Carly failing is funny now, coming just after shots of her waving at her droves of fans.) The Atherton Chamber Singers are planning a trip to Germany, and Carly’s already got her ticket, a literal, physical ticket like they used to give out. But her social studies teacher decides to teach her a lesson, and tells the principal Carly can’t go.

    Here’s your finale: Without telling her mom, Carly calls the airline. She finds out she can exchange the ticket, but she has to do it the day of her scheduled flight. Can’t-make-this-up type stuff. So she shows up to the airport with all of her Germany-bound friends, walks past them, approaches a teller, 18 years old and already too clever, too talented, too ambitious to let anyone keep her grounded. Zoom in on her face. “I’d like a ticket to Paris.” Cut to black. Blast Etta James: At laaaaaaaaast!


    Catch Carly Johnson at Waterfront Wednesday tomorrow at 6 p.m.

    Find her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


    Cover photo by Mickie Winters

    Dylon Jones's picture

    About Dylon Jones

    Dylon Jones is a senior editor at Louisville Magazine.

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