It’s clear JJ Wilde does things her own way — and it’s paying off.
After years of gigging across her hometown of Kitchener and beyond, the singer/songwriter recently became the first female artist to see her debut single The Rush hit No. 1 on all three Canadian rock radio formats. She also happens to be the only artist in history to spend 10 weeks in that top spot — surpassing the record previously held by international heavyweights the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
We recently caught up with JJ to chat about what it’s like to score back-to-back hits (thanks to her second consecutive No. 1, Best Boy), the power of music, and why changing the narrative is more important now than ever before.
Why don’t we start things off by letting our readers know a little bit about who you are and how you got started?
I started playing guitar when I was about 15, my brother taught me, and I pretty much started writing songs right then. I had been writing poems before that, but I didn’t really know what to do with them. So, I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I started playing gigs at about 18 wherever I could — in bars and local venues. Really wherever would let me in.
After that I started a band with some people from high school and toured with them for a while across Canada. Back then, we were just a bunch of kids in a van. The band broke up and I started doing solo stuff for a good three or four years before I found my manager and eventually got signed. It’s been a long road. It doesn’t seem like it, but it has.
Word on the street is you’re from Kitchener. Can you tell us a little about the music scene there?
If you don’t live here it really doesn’t seem like there’s a lot going on other than Blues, which is what the city is pretty much known for. But fact is, there’s a great music scene here — you just have to look for it. Once you find it and start meeting people, the crowd is incredible. There’s a ton of local musicians that are super-amazing. So, it may be small, but there’s a lot of talent here.
Growing up in a city with such a strong foundation in Blues, how did you find your place and voice in the genre you wanted to be a part of?
It definitely took a bit of exploring. I’ve always been somebody who’s been drawn to folk music. When I write, I usually write folk songs, and then they end up as rock songs. So, it definitely took a bit of time — especially with this project — to put those two things together. It took a lot of experimenting. I definitely loved performing folk music, and I loved writing it, but with my old band, my favorite songs were always the hard heavy-hitting ones.
And for a while, I just thought, ‘Oh well, I don’t write that kind of music, so too bad.’ But when I went solo, I was really exploring the different things that I could write and different genres, even some Blues, folk and rock — kind of mixing that all together. Those are three genres that I love. I think it’s just trial and error and seeing what you like and what you like to sing. For me, a big thing was what I liked performing on stage, and what I like to move to. That’s the music that I write.
OK, hardest questions ever. How would you describe your sound? What inspires you?
It’s emotional and it’s raw — and kind of unapologetic of what I’m saying or what I’m putting out there. You know, some of my songs are uncomfortable — even for me — because they’re very close to my heart. It’s really all about putting myself out there. So, I would say my sound is a self-expression of how I see the world, and I’m inspired by the things that happen to me, as well as what’s going on around me.
So, when you write, it’s important for you to have a personal story to tell.
It has been. I actually wrote my first concept song a few months ago, which has turned me in a new direction and opened up some more possibilities with writing. But, for the most part, I have always written from personal experience. Now, because I’m having so much time off and a lot of time to write, I’m exploring a lot of different avenues — dreaming up concepts that are like little movies in my head. When you write from a personal place, I think a lot of people can relate to what you’ve gone through.
It may not be the exact same thing, but everyone makes bad choices, and they have regrets. A lot of what I sing about not hating the bad choices you’ve made but accepting them and learning from them. Everyone messes up, you know?
Looking back on the year so far, you’ve clocked some major accomplishments; from the success of your debut single The Rush, to snagging your second consecutive No. 1 with Best Boy. Is it safe to say 2020 has been pretty good to you so far?
It’s been a strange year; I’m not going to lie. My family likes to joke about it, because this is the year I’ve been lucky enough to experience these successes, but it’s also the year the world shuts down. As an artist, experiencing all of this— no matter what — when it’s happening, even during a pandemic, is incredible. Being on the radio is what I’ve dreamed of. Normally, I’d be going to tour and playing shows . . . unfortunately, that just isn’t happening. But the coolest thing is, it’s definitely still happening in other ways. I can feel the momentum. You know, for me, even though it’s not what I thought it was going to be, I’m still really appreciative and very thankful for everything I’ve gotten to celebrate this year.
And rumour has it you got to celebrate those milestones with your parents?
It was actually really cute — very wholesome. Not exactly how I expected to celebrate, but it was very sweet. We were having a weekend at the cottage, and no one’s really going anywhere. There was no big party, or expectations. We were just having some drinks out on the lawn and watching the sunset and my manager called me. He was Facetiming me while he was having dinner with his family, and that’s how I found out. Then all of a sudden, my dad runs out of the cottage with champagne — which was a great way to celebrate.
Even without the usual support of radio tours and gigs, it must be a great feeling to know music really is continuing to make a big impression on a lot of people, regardless of our current circumstances.
The importance of music is clear. You never know what is going to strike a chord with somebody, but when it does, it’s very powerful. And that’s clearly what’s happening. I played my first streaming show recently, and I had never done that before. Obviously, my team was there, but there was no audience. It was just cameras, which was super-strange. But it also felt so amazing because you literally knew people were watching. That was the thing; it doesn’t matter if it’s a huge venue, or a sweaty club — it’s all about getting music out to the people.
Can you tell us a bit about the latest single, Best Boy?
It’s a fun play on the sexism that happens so often in the music industry, but also just in life. It’s just poking fun at it, but also reclaiming power for women. It’s all about a woman that just doesn’t give a shit, and she’s doing whatever she wants. Basically, saying if you want to be in my twisted world, you can, but you’re basically just a pawn and it’s fine. It has the lyrics typically sung by men, which isn’t a new or ground-breaking thing — people have been talking about this forever — it’s just something I’ve never personally put out there. We all have the same feelings, men and women, and it’s time for these stereotypes to end.
Like most women, it’s something I’ve been dealing with my whole life. When I was young and naive, I just thought I was supposed to brush it off and have this nervous giggle. Over time, you just learn to stand up for yourself and squash those things. For me, this song is all about women taking back the power and saying, no, I’ve talked about this, I can do whatever I want, and I don’t need to hear it from you.
The accompanying music video really does showcase that empowerment, but not just for women. Can you tell us how that production evolved?
When we started shooting the video, we had this concept of what it was going to be — but because of COVID, we had to go about finding extras in a very different way. Our director sent out a virtual casting call, since they couldn’t really hold auditions. He’d say here’s the song, listen to it and dance in your home however you want, wearing whatever you want. We got all of these videos back and it was almost overwhelming. We knew we needed to include as many as we could — they were so amazing.
Some of the submitted clips were guys with glitter makeup on and jean shorts, that kind of thing, which really took on a new meaning of self-expression in the sense that it’s not only women that deal with these shitty stereotypes. People catching flak from society for being who they are. So, it changed from just women to everybody. The reality is, no one should really have to deal with people judging them for who they are. We all dance around our living rooms in our underpants.