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Interview: Jo Dee Messina – Singer, Songwriter & Producer

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Although Holliston, Massachusetts, may seem to be the most unlikely place for a country star to be born, over the past fourteen years, Jo Dee Messina has consistently ranked among the genre’s best. To date, she has racked up nine #1 singles in addition to two platinum and three gold records. Also, Messina has received two GRAMMY nominations: “Best Female Country Vocal Performance” (for “That’s the Way”) and “Best Country Collaboration” (for “Bring on the Rain,” which featured long-time collaborator Tim McGraw).

As the first singer to have three #1 singles from a single album, Jo Dee has set the standard for the contemporary crop of female musicians. And with the release of her forthcoming album on April 13,, Messina will add to an impressive sales count of more than five million records. Beyond all shadow of a doubt, the title of her sixth project gives an “unmistakable” nod to her musical legacy and lasting influence.

While promoting “That’s God,” Unmistakable’s lead single, Jo Dee Messina managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry—reflecting on her cover of Dottie West’s “Lesson in Leavin’,” mainstream misconceptions of country music, and her affiliation with the Special Olympics.

During your teenage years, you used to play local clubs with your brother and sister. What professional lessons did you learn during those early years that prepared you for life as a solo artist?

Well, we played clubs – we were not the reason why people came. Do you know what I mean? When I was a minor, it was more like restaurant clubs – they had a bar and then they’d serve food. Other than that, I was not allowed to work there legally. A lot of it was honing my craft. We didn’t have monitor systems and all that stuff, so I think a lot of that really paid off in the sense now where I don’t have to go on stage with a full sound check and everything has to be perfect in order to pull off a show. It’s made it easier for me to roll with stuff. It taught me stage presence and communicating and connecting with the audience. They weren’t there just to see me, so it wasn’t like I had their total focus. I had to find a way to win that over. I did that through my song selection and the banter that goes on between songs and that kind of stuff. It’s definitely a good training ground if you’re planning on doing this for a living.

When one thinks of Holliston, Massachusetts, country music isn’t the first thing that really comes to their mind. When did country really start to speak to your heart?

My parents listened to it, so I was exposed to it when I was a kid. I think I was maybe around ten or elevenish when I was listening to country music and went, “Oh, I love that song. Oh, that’s so cool.” When I listened to the lyrics, I felt like, “Hey, they’re talking about me. That’s me they’re singing about.” So it was very relatable. I found it very relatable and very real.

On your sophomore album, I’m Alright, you covered “Lesson in Leavin’,” which came out when you were about ten or so. Is that song one of your childhood favorites?

I never heard it on the radio. I saw it in a movie. After Dottie West passed away, there was a story about her life that was on TV, so I watched it. And I remember Tim McGraw, who was co-producing the album say, “Man, you gotta do ‘Lesson in Leavin.’ That song sounds like you. It sounds like something you’d do.” That’s when I was exposed to it. [whispers] You didn’t hear it on the radio?! [laughing] I know. It’s probably a sin. That will be the downfall of my career: the answer to that question! [laughing] But, no, I didn’t hear it. I just heard it from that movie about her life. And I was just in love with that song!

You mentioned Tim McGraw’s role in pushing you to cover Dottie West’s hit. Over the years, you have collaborated with him several times, including your duet, “Bring on the Rain.” When you hear that song, what fond memories immediately come to mind?

It’s funny. I suppose you could get a different perception of how that all came together. He was producing my records at the time. I had gone in and done the vocals and then he was mixing it down and he said, “You know what? I’m thinking. Do you mind if I sing some background parts on that song? If I went in and just tried some stuff out?” “Yeah, yeah, I mind. No, I’m kidding. No, I don’t mind.” So I wasn’t there when he put his part on. That was him just messin’ around and then it just turned out so magical. I think when I hear “Bring on the Rain,” I really think about the stories that go behind that. “Bring on the Rain” was released September 10, 2001. We shot our video on September 17, 2001. And I remember in a planning meeting, all the creative people were saying, “It’s got to be about September 11. You’ve got to make it about the Twin Towers.” I said, “Absolutely not. I will not use a tragedy and the devastation of this country to further my career.” I just didn’t see that. It had been out for a little while on the album – the fourth single off the album. People had already been writing me about what they thought and how that song helped them and I didn’t want to narrow it down. I wanted the song to mean whatever it meant to people. So when you watch the video — you can probably see it on YouTube — it’s just me singing the song. There’s no story depicted in it.

In a recent press release, you were quoted as saying: “While life’s experiences may be hard, it’s those experiences that make us who we are and make life worth living.” What recent experience do you think has been very transformative in your personal or professional life?

The aha moment? Well, I spent a great deal of 2009 in legal battles with my label trying to get them to release the album Unmistakable. The album was technically complete in 2007 and was originally scheduled for release in October of 2007. But it was put on the back shelf and back burner and it really was taking a toll on my touring — you tour with a new record — and now it’s been five years since my last record. It was a really sad time for me. It was like, “Here’s my one gift. This is the way that I make a living. This is all I’ve known since I was a kid, is singing.” Since I was a kid. That’s how I made my living through high school. And then I wasn’t allowed to do it. It was a very sad time for me on a professional level.

But here I had this beautiful kid. Before I had one I wouldn’t hold kids for pictures because they scared the s**t out of me. So now I’ve got one. I’m like, “Oh, man!” Like I’m almost scared I was going to break it! So I’ve got this kid and I’m watching as he becomes a little person. We had gone out for a walk. It was in the middle of July. It was the most beautiful sight. We were up in Jasper, Canada. It’s beautiful. My son was at a point in his life where he was just learning how to focus on stuff. And I’m watching him take in all the surroundings at a moment where I’m like, “This is a very hopeless time. God, if there’s ever a time for you to step in and help out, could it be now? Where are you?”

Then I saw this amazing sight. This beautiful kid, just pure as pure could be. And just happy. That was kind of like the aha moment, when I saw my son trying to take in how beautiful it is, to understand how amazing what he’s looking at is. That’s when I turned to him and I said, “Noah, look. That’s God right there. That is God, the perfect beauty.” That was my aha moment, where it’s like, “All right. I still get to enjoy this. I still get to see my kid be overwhelmed by this sight and myself being overwhelmed by this sight.” I think it was July, 2009 when I didn’t know that my music will ever be heard.

I had told that story on stage. And my keyboard player came up to me and said, “We’ve got to write that. Let’s go write that. Because right now people are feeling like, ‘Where’s God’?” and all this craziness that’s going on. You know what I mean? It’s like, “Well, fine time for you to leave us there, big guy.” But the truth is he’s everywhere. Yes, we’ve witnessed miracles. We’ve seen people be cured of cancer. Lance Armstrong is an amazing miracle. But He’s also in the little things. He’s in something you see every day in people that live on the ocean that may take it for granted, in a kind gesture, in someone listening to you, people just being who they are.

My manager is a very kind man and I always feel very safe when I’m around him. He doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary. It’s just his presence. He makes a difference in my life just being who he is. He is an example for me. So, just those things, as where God shows himself. So, that was an aha moment for me.

To play off the album’s title a little bit – Unmistakable, in what ways do you find God’s presence in your life “unmistakable”? Since the album’s been completed for a couple of years, does the title mean something different to you today?

I think the unmistakable part is a play on words. The song itself talks about “in a world you’re so unsure of, having a love that you can count on, and your love is unmistakable.” That’s the gist of the song “Unmistakable.” It is so where I was in the making of that album. I was engaged to be married [laughing]. I was like crazy in love. Still crazy in love. It was that finding of the wonderful man in my life.

We have a place on my website where people can post what they think of that song — and some woman said, “Oh, I heard that song on the radio and I knew it was you. I can hear your voice among 50,000 other voices, and I know it’s you.” And so I think it’s just kind of a play on the sound, the music – it is unmistakable. And I think we rolled onto that just from years of people saying, “I can always recognize your voice. You don’t sound like anyone else.” So it’s kind of a play on words between the song and what it truly means, and then, “Here she is!” [laughing]

When you hear a fan say, “I know that’s you,” I'm sure you can feel the love. Throughout your career, you have accomplished so much and you have set a great deal of records. Although it’s nice to have industry praise, is there a particular accolade holds a special place in your heart? What do you think has been your lasting contribution to country music?

Oh my God, what a question! [laughing] I think that every time I’m allowed to go out and sing for people, that’s awesome. I mean, every time — a wicked small room, even that crowd. Those are fun. We go out with this show right now called the Music Room where it’s like 1,000 seats and under, just so we can sit and banter back and forth with the audience. It’s hysterical. But I mean, any time I get a chance to get out in front of people, that’s what I love the most. I can’t tell you what I bring to the industry, because I don’t really know. That would have to be what someone else would answer. I’d like to bring truth and honesty in my music. I’ve never cut a song that I don’t relate to — maybe two or three times because of the label — but when I lean towards songs to cut for an album, it’s always something that I feel or I’ve experienced or a vision that I’ve seen or a point of view. So you can get a sense of who I am just from the music.

At the close of 2009, various media outlets came out with “Best of the Decade” charts—spotlighting the top-selling artists. Out of the top twenty, I noticed eight were country music acts. Ironically, country music doesn’t really get a great deal of mainstream love. You don’t really see that many country artists on the cover of Billboard or Rolling Stone. But the numbers don’t lie. People definitely gravitate towards country music, so why do you think it receives so little recognition?

Well, I think there’s a huge misconception. People think we don’t know how to read or write our names. Hey, I’m an Italian chick from Boston that has made my life in country music. So I think it’s surrounded by that stereotype. It’s like when there’s a catastrophe, they always pick the person that they feel would depict the neighborhood. You know what I mean? It’s always the person with no teeth, in the suspenders and the overalls, and the cowboy hat and whatever. And that’s the constant image that’s being pressed about country music in the South and that kind of stuff. It’s very not true. I think there are a lot of stereotypes. So people think it wouldn’t be welcomed in the mainstream. But in all reality, you’ve got your Shania Twains that break out there, and your Faith Hills that break out there. Even back in the day, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers were mainstream. And you can’t get any more country than Dolly Parton, but that woman — she is a helluva businesswoman.

Very true!

She’s like one of my heroes. She’s so smart. I remember a quote from her. When she went to do pop music, or went to do a movie, they said, “Why are you leaving country music?” And she said, “I’m not leaving country music. I’m taking it with me.” So, I don’t know [laughing]. I just think there’s a big misconception for it, and that’s what keeps it in the closet, or keeps it in the box, inside that box. I think as more people get to know it, they realize there’s a lot more relatable music in country music than they would have assumed.

I definitely agree with you on that. Out of all your songs, I really love “Because You Love Me.” Even though you don’t directly mention God, I think the “love” you speak of can be interpreted vertically or horizontally.

Oh, yes! The song is definitely dedicated to Him. At that point in my life, I didn’t know a love like that. You know what I mean? I didn’t know a love like, “I’m alive because you love me.” That was one of those songs where my label was like, “Can you record this?” I’m like, “Well, I have to find a way to relate to it.” And I can’t relate to it from a man and woman perspective because I’ve never experienced that kind of love. And so I drew my strength for that song from God. And I dedicate that song to Him on my album. I don’t know if you saw that or not.

There aren’t a lot of artists that are comfortable spreading a religious message. Sometimes they don’t want to feel like they’re beating people’s heads with it. I really appreciate the message that you bring and that religious impulse. I’ve always appreciated you just being comfortable in your skin while you’re singing.

Well, I’m not pushing it on you. That’s just who I am.

Outside the world of music, you’ve been an ambassador for the Special Olympics. What kind of messages do you want to send out about the mission of the Special Olympics? Why is it so special?

The thing about the Special Olympics: people think it’s just about the games, and it’s not. They help their members with day-to-day activities and functions. They take care of them and make sure their eyesight and ears and everything’s all checked up. They equip the Special Olympics members with the ability to live a day-to-day life and to function in the day-to-day world. It’s more than the games. Yeah, they have the games and it’s a huge focus and it gives incentive to the athletes. But it isn’t just that. It’s about taking the quality of life all the way around, and making it better, not just, “Hey, let’s have a game.” It isn’t that. I think people should check into it and I think people need to get more involved. Us as human beings need to take our heads out of our own worlds and start giving time to other people and to make the world a better place. You can do that with the Special Olympics if you want. Even if you just want to be a hugger, which is someone who stands at the finish line and you hug the athletes — runners, swimmers, whatever —when they come across the finish line. Hey, who doesn’t want to give a hug?

Hugs are always great! [laughing] I know you’re a runner. When you run, do you ever just pause and just say, “Wow. That’s God.”

Oh, my God. Today, it was after I finished my five-mile run! [laughing] It was freezing! It was 32°. The wind was brutal. It was the hilliest run ever. And you know, I just started back running after I had my son. I was really lazy last year. I think I was kind of beat up after I had my son. It was really great. I had a new single coming out at the beginning of last year. Everything was right on track. And then after I had my son, they pulled the single. And then I found myself sitting still more. And those rancid Girl Scouts came around with those cookies.

Oh, my! [laughing] Those thin mints are irresistible.

I’m going to smack a Girl Scout! [laughing] I’m gonna whoop them with my big ol’ hips that they built! [laughing] But, nah, I got real lazy. So I just started back running today — no, no, not today. I’m sorry. Today was my long run. I started running on the 5th of January, is when I started back. So today is the first day of the fourth week in a row that I’ve been running. I’m trying to run six days a week.

I think there’s been several moments where — and again, you have to take a minute to look up and not focus on the panting — to realize what’s around you. Today was a beautiful run. We ran by Alan Jackson’s house — which is a beautiful sight — but across the street from him is a bunch of farmland. And my running coach was like, “That always reminds me of those kids games.” It was like a big farm with the fence all the way around it and a big, red barn in the background. I was like, “Yeah, that’s pretty cool.”

So I think moments like that, when I get to enjoy nature. Or I may witness someone helping somebody else. Like I’m running through a town and somebody drops a grocery and somebody helps pick them up. That’s a kindness that’s always . . . I always stand back and go, “Wow. That’s great. Just awesome.” It could happen at any moment.

When you look over your career, is there one particular obstacle that you are proud to have overcome?

My record label [laughing]. That could be it! [laughing] The biggest obstacle? There is one specific obstacle, but there’s several. In life, you’ve just kind of gotta figure your way around.

As you figured your way around, is there a piece of helpful advice that someone gave you along the way?

Charlie Daniels! When my first record came out, you can go back and you can just look at the history and you’ll see it. You’ll see all these great lengths of time between records. So my second record was being held up for a while. It was supposed to come out shortly after “He’d Never Seen Julie Cry.” But the other record was pretty much in the can and ready to go. People were battling over songs. It was a whole different staff at the label at that point. I don’t even think there’s one person still there that was a matter of this incident. But it was just a struggle. A struggle. A struggle. I’m like, “What’s happening? We just came off of ‘Heads Carolina, Tails California’ and we need another record out. Come on. We’ve got to ride the momentum.”

I did a show with Charlie Daniels. He said, “Hey, kid, how you doing?” And I’m like, “Feeling beat up. Feeling pretty beat up.” Because I thought, you get a record deal. It’s all done. No, man. It just starts. It just starts. So, I’m like, “I feel pretty beat up and a little discouraged.” And he says, “Well, let me tell you one thing. It is not how many times you get knocked down that counts. It’s how many times you get back up that matters.” I always kind of hang on to that. Like I told you, last year, I was giving up on hope and letting myself go a little bit, and then boom. It’s like, “No.” December of last year I was like, “I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to do this. I need to get myself back in shape. Physically I need to get myself back in shape. Mentally. Spiritually.” I’ve got to be like, “All right, let’s go. We’re going to charge again. I’m given today. So I gotta make it count.”

For more information on Jo Dee Messina, visit her official website: http://www.jodeemessina.com/

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About Clayton Perry