Nearly a decade after the meteoric success of Shania Twain, Jessie James is staking her claim to become one of America's marquee pop starlets. And looking at the current musical landscape, Jessie James may be the breakout star of 2009.
As with all new artists, comparisons are bound to arise—especially with the presence of best-selling artists like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. But Jessie James stands apart, however, through her songwriting prowess, which better suits an audience that would allow for pop chart dominance. Take "Wanted," Jessie James' lead single, for example, which is quite reminiscent of Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle" years.
Although the future is unpredictable, call me clairvoyant. Ten years from now, the world will distinctly remember—and fondly address—the name of Jessie James. Upon the review of her self-titled debut, Jessie James managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Bobbie Gentry, "Wanted," and the long road to Mercury Records.
Several sources note that you've been singing since the age of two and that you won your first talent contest at the age of nine. Do you recall the name of your victory song?
Yeah. It's called "I Want to be a Cowboy Sweetheart" and I had to yodel in the song! [laughing] It was great.
In the early years, what motivated you to pursue your musical passions? Was there a family influence or was this all personally driven?
I asked my mom about it. I had heard about the talent show. It was in Baker, Louisiana and they have one every year. I had heard about it through my grandmother. It was in the paper, I guess, and they were just talking about it happening again. I was like, "I really want to be in this contest." So my mom put me in the show. The good thing about my mom is that she was never that stage mother. It was always my decision. She never forced me to do anything that I didn't want to do. "If you want to do it, you can do it. If not, we won't do it." That was a good thing about her. I really wanted to do this talent show and it's a good thing that I did. I love being onstage.
On your road to Mercury, what do you consider to be the biggest obstacle you had to overcome, in order to secure a major label deal?
I think style of music because – I'm not being cocky – I'm good at doing all types of music it was very hard to pick one. The biggest obstacle was I really loved country music but I really loved pop, soulful music. That's not going to fly in country music. They didn't want me singing about some of the things I had to say and they didn't want me to do some of the runs that I'm doing. Vocally, that was a big obstacle. I thought Nashville is the only place for me but as soon as I came to Island Def Jam and got to meet with the president of the label, I was told I'm able to do the kind of music that I like to do. It was a dream come true. So that was really the biggest obstacle – getting to do the music that I wanted to do.
Before you actually landed at Mercury, what key event do you think set your career in motion?
To be perfectly honest, it has just been one long process. There were a lot of little things that I would do here and there. I think the main one was going to Nashville back and forth when I was 15 writing. I'm a true songwriter and I love doing it. I think the writing and meeting lots of people led me to the point of being signed because one of the songs that I had written was on hold for Carrie Underwood at the time. She was going to cut this song. The song ended up in the hands of the people at Island Def Jam. I think just being a writer led me to that point. If I wouldn't have written that song, I don't think they would've heard it.
Are you at liberty to say the name of that song?
Yeah, it's called "Gypsy Girl." It's not going to be in the record but they heard the vocals and they sent another song that is going to be on the album. It's called "My Cowboy". That's the actual song I auditioned for in front of L.A. Reed so that's the song that got me my record deal.
"My Cowboy" gave some insight on the qualities you seek in a mate. Which quality do you appreciate the most?
Patience, I think. Patience is a big thing, probably for me. I think all around with women it should be respect and having manners. I'm huge when it comes to a guy opening a door for you. There are some points, like, "I can do it myself," but I was just at the airport yesterday, I was on the airplane and I was trying to get off the plane. There was a line of men from another country – I didn't know where they were from – but I was trying to get my bag out from the top of the shelf and they were like five rows behind me and we were all getting off the plane. They kept pushing me out of the way saying "Excuse me. Excuse me." Nobody would help me get out my bag or let me out of the way. I kept thinking to myself, "You know, if we would have been in the south, we would have been somewhere where people had manners and would have let me out." So I think not having manners is a huge, huge deal breaker with me. If they don't have manners, I'm not interested.
The bulk of the songwriting on your debut album was handled by you. Of all the songs, which do you consider to be the most personal?
"Guilty" is probably the most intimate and personal to me because it's about a guy being out on tour and me, assuming—because he's a rock star—that he's cheating on me. So I'm cheating on him while I'm back at home. It's just the dilemma of the situation and feeling everything, every emotion just not feeling guilty because of my anger towards him, assuming that that's what he's doing. It's a true story and it's probably the most personal song out there, like my diary for the world to see. I cheated on somebody and it's not very nice but, you know, women do it, too.
Well, success has a funny way of impacting an artist's personal life. Have you noticed any changes in the way men approach you?
I get stares and stuff like that, but I honestly don't see a difference in the way men approach me now. I don't know if men are intimidated by me, but I don't get approached that much. Maybe I throw out some sort of vibe. [laughing] I think I'm very smiley and I feel like I'm approachable. I feel like I'm very accessible, but I think men are scared of me.
I'm sure that will change with time. I'm sure there are a lot of guys that "want to be wanted" by you! [laughing] Your lead single, "Wanted", was co-written with Kara DioGuardi, who currently serves as a judge on American Idol. Since she's well-known for her songwriting, did she offer you any tips, as your wrote together?
You know, even though I have been writing for a really long time, I was amazed by how fast she worked. The first day we came in, she and I weren't really feeling it at that point. So we're like, "Let's go home, recoup and just come back tomorrow with a different idea and see how it works." Then we came in the following day. She brought in another writer, Mitch Allan, and then we wrote the song "Wanted". So I think the thing that I took from her is if you're not feeling it, get out and then come back to do it later because you'll just burn yourself. I think that's what I learned. It's okay if you're not feeling it at a writing appointment to say come back to it later.
Your music has been labeled as pop with a country twang. And for as long as you remember, in coming to Nashville, some people were a bit hesitant about investing in your particular style. Outside of Nashville and just being a new artist in general, how do you go about generating interest in your work? In what ways did you have to be most creative in getting people to know more about you?
I think just through my writing. I think when you're trying to be an artist and you need to get noticed, you got to have something special and something unique about you. I think, for one, I'm not blonde. And the other is my lyrics. I think my songwriting and my songs are different. I don't think you're going to hear a lot of songs on the radio that are like mine. I feel like I got something new that I brought to the table. I think that was something that made me unique and stand out a little bit compared to the other artists out there that were trying to make it or are trying to make it. I think my songs are the real deal. I'm a little ballsy. I say what I mean. I think I don't try too hard. I don't think I overdo it, you know. I'm just myself.
Your musical influences include Bobbie Gentry, Janis Joplin, Shelby Lynn, and Shania Twain. Since you have so many, pick one or two and tell me what you most admire about their work? What from their careers do you want to incorporate into your own?
The thing I like about Bobbie Gentry was she was signed to a pop label and her song was number one in pop and country radio. The song was called "Ode to Billie Joe". She was able to cross over from pop to country. She was signed to Capitol. You know, I think that's something that I would like to do. I'm a pop artist, but I have so many country influences. I would like to be in both markets and I really admire the fact that she was able to do that. So it's been done before. I don't know if people remember that – it's been a long time ago – but that woman will go down in history. Her songwriting was amazing, too. Shania Twain was turned down by everybody in Nashville as well. She finally got the chance and took over the world. She's the biggest-selling female country artist of all time. She did pop and she did country and had so many different fans in so many different places. That's why I admire those two the most out of that group.
Having attained so much success at an early age, what words of wisdom would you share with other aspiring artists?
For starters, I think an artist should just stay focused and not turn into a diva. I think that's the main thing. You got to look at the big picture, I think. Sometimes girls and guys out there that are singers and artists, some of their demands are just crazy – about what color of couch they want in the dressing room. I just want hot tea and potato chips. You just can't be too demanding. I think you got to stay grounded and look at the actual goal instead of all the other stuff. It just doesn't make sense to me.
Generally, when an artists starts out so young, they tend to lose their focus. Is there someone you consider to be your mentor in the business?
There is an artist named John Rich who I really, really appreciate. He produced my song "My Cowboy". That's the song that got me my record deal. He's a big Nashville guy and he's said a lot of things that maybe offend a lot of people but he also said a lot of things that people appreciate. He's been working at this his entire life and he's given me great advice: be the best that you can be. I think I really appreciate him in this business. He's really helpful.
During your childhood, you lived all over the place, simply because you were a military brat. What value do you see in having so many diverse experiences?
Moving around really helped me, because it made me really, really strong. I always had to be the new girl. Once, I had to be the new girl three times in one year! [laughing] All of my different experiences forced me to meet new people. So it definitely helped. I was born in Italy, lived in Germany for a little while, lived in Iowa, Kentucky, Texas, Louisiana – I could name more. Now, I am able to be in any scenario, any situation and feel comfortable and make people feel comfortable. I think moving around really helped that.
Now that you are in the spotlight, you have instantly become a role model for countless young fans. Is there a message you want to send to your young, female fans in particular?
My advice is to not let anybody bring you down. I was brought down a lot in school and my advice is don't let anybody do that. My answer is never no. If someone makes you feel not pretty enough or not talented enough, take it as people who are insecure in themselves and are pushing you down to make themselves feel better. You can't listen to that. You are your own star. I think that girls can be very hateful in school. So many people being bullied these days and I was one of them. I think if I had listened to everybody, I wouldn't be where I am right now. It made me a lot stronger. So my advice to girls out there is don't take the abuse. Don't even listen to it. Do your own thing.
For more information on Jessie James, visit her official MySpace page.