At one point, Canadian singer-songwriter JJ Wilde thought about giving up on her aspirations of ever getting a record deal and performing outside of her southeastern Ontario hometown of Kitchener.
“I was working four jobs,” she says in a recent phone interview. Wilde opens for the Blue Stones, who perform at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 22, at the Grog Shop. “They were part-time jobs. None of them were what I wanted to do. I had broken up from the band I was with and went into the solo world. I didn’t know how to navigate that very well because I just had an acoustic guitar. It was a whole different experience.”
Working her various jobs to pay rent, she took a moment of what she refers to as “self-reflection” and even thought about going back to school. She went to a career counselor at the local college to see what kind of options she might have.
“It was very eye-opening because this woman was telling me about all these programs that I should have been excited about,” she says. “I just had this sinking feeling. I didn’t want to do any of it. Nothing caught my eye. It was a bittersweet thing. It finalized the decision. Even though I was unhappy, I was happier doing this than I ever would be pursuing any of those other options. I had to bite the bullet and see what happens.”
Not long after renewing her commitment to making music, she got a manager and, as she puts it, “things started developing.”
Last year alone proves Wilde made the right decision. She toured in support of the Struts, the Glorious Sons, Reignwolf and Incubus. She also released her debut single, “Wired,” and embarked on her first headlining U.S. tour supporting her debut EP Wilde Eyes, Steady Hands. This year, in addition to opening for the Blue Stones on their Hidden Gems tour, she’ll open for emo icons Jimmy Eat World on their Canadian tour.
Wilde, who says she listened to “a little bit of everything” while growing up, takes inspiration from a range of influences.
“I grew up on classic rock — things like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen,” she says. “Then, I went more into the singer-songwriter and Damien Rice and Bob Dylan more quiet stuff. The lyrics caught my attention. I fell in love with that softer side. It’s never been one specific genre. I go through phases and I feel like most people do. If it’s gray outside, I might put on folk or classical. It’s dependent on different things.”
Wilde Eyes, Steady Hands starts with the grunge-y “Wired,” a tune that references those four part-time jobs she worked at the time she wrote the tune. “There’s something better than this,” she howls over distorted guitars and cooing backing vocals.
“We took a bunch of those songs that I had written over the past I don’t know how many years and me and [producer] Frederik [Thaae] locked ourselves in a week and did it all,” she says. “It was an incredible experience. I had never been that hands on with all the instrumentation. It was really great. Frederik has this awesome little spot in L.A. right in Studio City. It’s very chill and it’s a great writing space. We would do the demo in the studio and to get the right live drums and tones, we went to New Monkey in Van Nuys. That was an amazing experience as well. The whole thing was just great.”
“The Rush,” another highlight on the EP, has a glam rock feel to it with the drums and what sounds like handclaps.
“There are handclaps,” Wilde confirms. “Working with Fred, we would get all the work done, and on the last day when we had the song done, we would pick apart little things. We would do snaps and claps. There was random and stupid stuff that was so much fun, creating sounds. That was a fun song to write. It came about from an old voice note. I was working at a brewery in Waterloo [Canada]. The employees would close down the bar and then just stay until four in the morning hanging out and drinking the beer. The owner was not happy about it when we got caught. I woke up from one of those nights and I started writing when I was half drunk.”
Album closer “Gave It All” switches gears and finds Wilde singing a ballad over soft guitars and fractured keyboard riffs.
“It’s one of the oldest from that crop,” she says when asked about the tune. “I wrote it when I was 17. It was after a breakup. It was this moment of realizing that some things just don’t work. It’s about forgetting a part of yourself to please somebody else and getting caught up in that. That happens in a lot of relationships, usually toward the end. You hold on to the beginning of the relationship and all the good times. You try to get back to that point, but you forget yourself. I remember that towards the end of some bad relationships, I’ll realize it’s terrible because I haven’t written any music. I’ve been so caught up in it that I’m forgetting the creative part of my life. That’s just one example.”
She also just released a provocative new music video for the song “Funeral for a Lover,” a bluesy piano ballad that addresses mental health issues.
“The big message that I want out to people is about mental health,” she says. “That’s what that whole song is about. I was with someone who struggled terribly with depression and was bi-polar. They were having a rough go, and I was trying to help them navigate that. It’s about the toll that can take on a person and also how watching that happen takes a toll on yourself as well. I felt like it needs to be said that it’s okay to break down and admit you can only be so strong for somebody. That’s why I wanted the video to be so uncomfortable. Sitting in a tub naked in front of people isn’t comfortable. I never felt so vulnerable and raw and exposed but I wanted that. That’s what the feeling is. I wanted people to know they’re not alone when they feel that.”
Wilde’s going to be on the road for most of 2020, but she says that won’t stop her from writing tunes for her next album.
“Oh buddy, I’m always writing,” she says. “I had some time off over the holidays and that was a great time for writing. I’ve been adding to the voice notes and that big file of songs. On this tour specifically, I’ll be playing new songs that aren’t out yet. It’s always fun to test them out at the shows. It’s shaping up to be a pretty exciting year. I can’t wait to get out there and start again. I’m getting restless here in Kitchener.”
The Blue Stones, JJ Wilde, the Dead Licks, 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., Cleveland Heights. Tickets: $12 ADV, $14 DOS, grogshop.gs
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