Vocalist Gillian Kohn aims to do more than just entertain listeners at her performances: She wants to transport them. The singer, whose repertoire consists exclusively of songs released between 1925 to 1965, hopes to tap into the audience’s memories, whether conscious or subconscious, of the music of classic film and television.
“I want to take people on a sentimental journey,” Kohn said. “I want to take people back and I want to renew memories and make them feel something.”
Kohn remembers harboring an affinity for creating vibrations in her vocal chords before she even knew what singing was during her childhood in Hartsville, South Carolina.
“I just knew that what I was doing made me feel very comfortable. It was hearing the vibration of my voice, the reverberation of sound and all of that I was like, whatever this is, I want to do it my whole life.”
She began to live for performance, putting on shows for her family and nurturing a dream of becoming a Broadway star. After attending the College of Charleston, Kohn traveled throughout the U.S. and abroad before moving back to Charleston in 2005. That year, not only did she win Fox 24’s Lowcountry Idol competition, but she also met her husband.
“I did what I had always been told I shouldn’t do: I fell in love,” Kohn said, laughing. She and her husband opened and ran Al Di La, an Italian trattoria eatery in West Ashley. Between the restaurant and raising their two young sons, Kohn feared she was destined to be what she called “a lonely bathroom singer” for her life.
Fortunes changed, however, when in 2018, three years after selling the restaurant, Kohn’s neighbor, talented local musician Chris Dodson, convinced her to take up performance once again.
Now you can catch Kohn, who described her voice as an amalgamation of the smooth jazz of Nat King Cole and the cheekiness and emotion of Patsy Cline, out and about in vintage-inspired garb, crooning jazz standards and Bossa Nova sambas at venues like Hotel Bennett and Scotty Doesn’t Know Speakeasy.
“When I first turned 35 I never would have thought these would be the things that I’m doing now professionally and I’m just so incredibly thankful,” Kohn said. “Never give up on the dream. It will find a way to manifest and come true.”
In 2022, Kohn had a six-month residency at Hush Speakeasy at Montage Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton, South Carolina. She’s also a frequent collaborator with local jazz guitarist Lee Barbour, as well as multi-instrumentalist Monty Craig of Greer, South Carolina.
Her life has, at times, proven difficult. Kohn raises a special-needs son, and her husband was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis two years ago. She finds that the hardships reveal how crucial it is for her to give listeners an escape through music.
In addition to performing at venues and private events, Kohn hopes to release a body of work on streaming services sometime this year. Her ultimate desire, however, remains to inspire emotion in her audience, whatever form that takes.
“There’s not a limit and there’s not one goal. I’m not looking to win a Grammy. I’m looking to move as many people [as possible] and to make people remember.”
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