Jill Mikelson was working her first job out of college, running the voice-over department at Moore Creative Talent, when she got a call that St. Paul’s Ordway was going to stage “Love, Janis” in 2007.
“It was a small show, and they couldn’t find any musical theater actresses who sang [like Janis Joplin],” she said with a laugh. “It’s not your typical musical theater actress role — the gritty, rock ’n’ roll style of Janis. A friend of mine said, ‘You have to try out.’ I said ‘OK, I’ll do it, but I have a full-time job.’ ”
Mikelson said she was very happy as an agent working for “our mutual friend, Ms. Andrea Hjelm, [president] of Moore Creative Talent. I was hesitant. I wasn’t sure how I would be able to make both the theater show and my job work.
“I worked there for five years. I’ve known Andrea since I was in kindergarten. I was a child model and actor, so I have known that business my whole life.”
The friend who encouraged Mikelson to go out for “Love, Janis,” apparently knows talent. Mikelson won an Ivey Award for the show and will perform her 12th annual Janis Joplin tribute at First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis on Saturday.
“Singing is my side hustle,” said Mikelson, who is a freelance producer.
Q: When did you start singing?
A: Probably when I was 3 years old. I was singing in church with my family. Stood on a chair next to my grandpa and sang. My whole family is a bunch of singers. It kind of led to this rock ’n’ roll lifestyle of mine. [Laughs.]
Q: When did you first realize you had tonal qualities like Janis Joplin’s?
A: I don’t think I realized it until I started studying for that audition. I dug into her repertoire and her story of who she was, not only as a singer but as a human, and from there embraced everything that she was.
Q: In what ways are you like Joplin?
A: I think when I get on the stage particularly, everything else fades away and I throw my heart and soul out through my voice, my body, just the way I carry myself.
At the same time, we’re not all just crazy roll ’n’ roll stars on the stage. There is a human part. She was an artist. She yearned to be loved. She wanted people to see her for who she was. She was just kind of learning who that was at the tender age of 24 and 27, when she was at the height of her career. That’s pretty young to have it all figured out; do any of us have it at 27?
She grew up in a tiny little town, Port Arthur, Texas. To be thrown from that to San Francisco in the ’60s — not only was that a crazy town in general, but then she is boosted into stardom.
She didn’t go there saying, “You know what? I’m going to be a star.” She went to California for freedom and acceptance and to sing, and it just kind of blew up because she was the frontwoman for a band, which was not very common at that time, and didn’t know the rules. People were blown away by her raw authenticity and energy; just how much you could connect with her from an audience’s perspective.
Q: Did you get to see her live?
A: I did not. Her sister, Laura, who co-wrote the play, flew here to see it when we did it in St. Paul. I got to sit down and have dinner and perform for her, which was amazing.
Q: What did her sister provide you that you could use on stage?
A: A little bit of nervousness. [Laughter.] [We wanted to] honor her legacy. I think we did. Laura said she approved.
Q: Was Janis Joplin, in your opinion, running away from demons or a destructive personality?
A: Oh, man. I don’t think she was either of those. One of her quotes was she could go on stage and make love to 2,500 people a night and still go home alone. I think she was chasing a high, and I don’t mean a [drug- or alcohol-related] high. What she really, really wanted was love and acceptance from her family, and I’m not sure she ever got that.
Q: Yeah. Do you ever see someone who is enormously talented, about whom there’s talk of them living on the edge, and wonder if they are going to make it beyond 27?
A: I do. I do. We all set these goals: When I get here, I’m going to do this. And then you do that. Then what? When you achieve all your goals or get thrown into stardom so quickly, I think you are chasing what’s next and more, and where’s the real love. I think that’s what she wanted. She wanted a husband or a man or a woman or wife, there are stories on both sides; somebody who will have a true, real relationship with her, and I don’t think she had many of those people. ... Being a star, in general, makes it difficult to know which of your relationships are authentic.
Q: Speaking of goals, what level of stardom are you chasing?
A: [Big laugh.] I think this show, for me, is probably the thing I wanted the most; to share Janis and to share myself. I knew there was a story to be told beyond “Piece of My Heart” and “Bobby McGee.” There is more to this person and this singer and actress. On the main stage at First Avenue, doing what I love and honoring this person, is pretty much what I wanted.
Q: How did the Ivey Award change your life?
A: A huge surprise. This was a very special show and a team effort of James Rocco from the Ordway and Raymond Berg, the musical director. When you win an award like that, it’s not something you need, but it validates what you thought was so amazing and special.
Q: Why did your friends think you should audition for “Love, Janis” in 2007?
A: I think they would say there are parts of the way Janis performed that are a lot like the way I was performing. I was in other cover bands. You can’t choreograph soul on the stage. That is something that is in you, and I think Janis had the same thing.
C.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and seen on Fox 9’s “Buzz.” E-mailers, please state a subject; “Hello” does not count.