Pop Artist Jessie James Has Hit "Wanted," Signs With Mercury Records, And Works With Kara DioGuardi
With all the focus in the music industry these days on the success Do It Yourself (DIY) independent artists, it’s easy to forget that major labels can still make dreams come true very quickly for talented, multi-faceted young artists like Jessica Rose (“Jessie”) James. Within months of her impressive live audition for Mercury Records President David Massey and Island/Def Jam (IDJ) CEO Antonio “L.A.” Reid, the 20-year-old vocal powerhouse was signed to the label and started working on her debut single “Wanted” with top songwriters (and American Idol judge) Kara DioGuardi, Mitch Allen (Faith Hill, Daughtry) and David Hodges (Kelly Clarkson, Evanescence). The fiery dance rock track—whose lyrics “I only want to be wanted by you” now seem prophetic--shipped to pop radio in late April. Jessie’s self-titled debut is set to drop from Mercury/IDJ this summer.
While she is new to the pop charts, Jessie has been laying the foundation for her burgeoning career since she started collaborating with top songwriters in her adopted hometown of Nashville at age 15. She was signed to Big Yellow Dog Publishing, whose roster includes Josh Kear (“Before He Cheats”), and had been actively pursuing her own career as a country artist when a demo she did for a song that was on hold for Carrie Underwood at Sony Nashville reached IDJ A&R man David Gray. Gray set up the audition with Massey and Reid, who, she recalls, “got out from behind his desk, hugged me and said, ‘We’re going to dinner…and welcome to the label!
“It should be a more complicated story, I know,” Jessie adds, “but it was really that simple. I’ve been singing from the time I was a toddler and wrote my first song, ‘It’s Gonna Be Alright’ on a plastic guitar at age nine! The years I had put into my career up till this point finally led me to the right opportunity, and I couldn’t be more excited. I had already been writing with Nashville guys like Josh, (Mercury Nashville artist) Jamey Johnson and Randy Houser, and when I got my deal I was happy to bring them to the table. David Massey thought it would be a great idea to hook me up on the pop end with Kara DioGuardi, and the minute she heard ‘My Cowboy,’ she was interested in working with me. The meeting with her, Mitch and David was my first in L.A. after I got signed. She’s the real deal and what you see is what you get with her. Like she is on American Idol, she’s feisty, ballsy, opinionated…and freakishly talented.”
Even before “Wanted” hit the airplay charts, a few tracks from Jessie’s upcoming album were already receiving accolades. The country-flavored “My Cowboy,” co-written with Johnson and Houser, was previewed last year on Perez Hilton’s popular website, and the hip-hop/world music hybrid track “Blue Jeans” was featured on the soundtrack of the hit Touchstone film Confessions of a Shopaholic.
In the spirit of her outlaw namesake, Jessie defies the traditional (if largely unspoken) major label rule of having to stick with one specific genre on her album. Working with producer Julian Bunetta (Hilary Duff, Sean Kingston), her debut shows off a variety of musical styles and sounds, from the arena-rock belt of “Wanted,” the mix of banjo, fiddle and rock guitar in “My Cowboy” and the hip-hop beat and playful schoolyard rhyming of “Blue Jeans” to the torch song ballad “Guilty” and the stark, stripped-down, soulful blues intimacy of “Liar.”
“When I first tried to get a record deal, my real problem was, I couldn’t put my music in a single box,” she says. “I just loved everything. That was part of me growing up in so many different places. I didn’t want to limit myself to just one kind of music. I just decided, why not just do all of it, and somehow blend it together. And I think I’ve done that. There are all different types of music, beats and instrumentation.
“That’s not to say there wasn’t a little struggle involved with the label with me wanting to do things this way,” Jessie adds. “But I’m a fighter and they ultimately understood that I believed in the approach I wanted to take. Because of my country background, I don’t think I can sing a song without it sounding a little twangy. So even when they had me singing a poppier song, the twang was there. Eventually, they realized they just had to go this way with me. The good news is, going the country crossover route is pretty acceptable these days thanks to artists like Carrie and Taylor Swift, who have set career standards I truly aspire to.”
Jessie’s favorite song on the album is “Guilty,” which she penned with Kear and Mark Irwin (Garth Brooks). The lyrics turn the tables on the usual tale of women as victims, deciding, in no uncertain terms, that what’s good for one is good for the other, with telling lines like, “I feel everything/But guilty.” “I love that one, production-wise, lyrics, melody, everything,” she says. “You can really feel the pain I’m going through. I was dating this rock musician at the time that was always on tour. And I was thinking, ‘I bet he’s doing all these things, so why shouldn’t I?’ So I went into a writer’s session with Josh and told him how I was feeling about this guy, what was going on in my head. He started strumming the guitar and I just began singing. It just felt so natural, a really special moment. I’ve never written a song I didn’t feel true to. Everything I’ve ever done is a true story. I feel everything I write. I can’t fake it.”
The five-foot-tall Jessie, a well-traveled military brat who has lived in 14 places in the U.S. and abroad throughout her life, set the course for her journey around age two, when she began singing into a toy microphone and tape recorder. Inspired by a host of unique influences from LeAnn Rimes and Christina Aguilera to Janis Joplin and Bobbie Gentry, she has spent years performing at local fairs, festivals, talent shows and special events like the opening of Sea World and the Republican National Convention.
Jessie also recalls her dad propping her up on tables at restaurants and letting her sing her heart out —something she’ll be doing for much larger audiences this summer. In addition to many promotional radio dates, Jessie is set to open for David Cook at the Patriotic Festival in Virginia Beach at the end of May, and in June at the 93Q Summer Jam 2009 In The Island in Syracuse, New York on a slate with Elliot Yamin, 3OH!3 and White Tie Affair. She’s also scheduled to perform at Red, White & Boom 14 in Kansas City on a bill with Cook, the Veronicas, Kevin Rudolf and others.
“I think to be a successful songwriter,” she says, “you have to word your words correctly, phrase things just right and turn your life experiences into deeply felt creativity. I failed math every year, but I did great in literature and creative writing, so it was just always my thing and a fun way to express myself. For anyone who wants to pursue a career as a writer or singer, my advice would be to never give up because you never know. If you have these special gifts, then you need to develop them. That means singing every day or writing a song every day. For years, each day after school I would sing a total of 12 songs in the mirror, practice moves and work on strengthening my voice. A lot of people in the industry will tell you no, but if you know you’ve got talent and potential, you just have to keep doing it. It’s not just about being a star, it’s about putting the work in so that you can be a true artist and develop a long and successful career.”
Jonathan Widran is a free-lance music/entertainment journalist who contributes regularly to Music Connection, Jazziz and All Music Guide. He can be reached at Few522@aol.com.