Analogue Music | J.J. Wilde

J.J. Wilde

By Matt Conner

It's as if Pat Benatar or Alannah Myles passed a torch right in front of us.

One listen to the scorching debut from JJ Wilde puts the Canadian artist squarely in the conversation of most captivating female making rock and roll these days. It's impossible to resist the revving motor of "The Rush", while other highlights like "Cold Shoulder" and "Funeral for a Lover" showcase how she can expand her palette while retaining her musical edge. We're hooked.

Last year, Wilde toured with Incubus and opened for The Glorious Sons and The Struts and this year promised even greater opportunities, including her first European swing. Instead, the coronavirus has altered all plans—as we've all experienced. Yet instead of crushing her spirit, Wilde is an artist who has had her resolve tested before and this latest season is just another hurdle to overcome.

On the verge of releasing her debut, we recently sat down with Wilde to hear more about her influences, her mettle, and the most surreal moment of her young career so far.

Analogue: I don't want to set you up to sound like you're complaining, so I'll include that disclaimer in the question, but I'd love to hear what sort of emotional toll this quarantine is taking when you had so many set plans changed or even cancelled?

JJ Wilde: It's been tough. I'm not going to lie. I feel guilty for whining or complaining about my situation because it's a lot better than a lot of situations. But in the sense of strictly my feelings toward it, it was definitely hard to take the news. There was a span of a week or so where it was like, 'Okay, this was cancelled. Now this is cancelled, too.' We'd worked very hard this year to put these things in motion and this year was looking very promising with festivals I'd never played, side stages I'd never played, non-stop touring and my first Europe trip in the summer. We had a lot of things planned, so I'm not going to lie, it definitely stung.

But right from the start, there was probably a day with the first bit of bad news, it hit pretty hard and I was upset about it. But I knew I couldn't dwell on that because, again, there's so much more going on than just my little world. Every musician is in the sam eboat. If we all jsut sit there and whine about it, it's not going to do anything. It's the whole crying over spilled milk thing. The only thing I can do is keep hope that these things will just be postponed or that these doors are closing to open a bigger one kind of thing.

Analogue: Does this sort of time test your resolve as an artist?

JJ: The world isn't going to be the same after this. No one really will be. Everyone is experiencing losses, and it does shape you. It's how you move forward from them—or you don't. My perspective personally on the music side and the loss of those things has honestly made me more hungry. I felt this sense of panic where I didn't want to let the last year go to waste, so it was almost like, 'Okay, now it's time to work harder. Everyone is in the same position. Everything is getting cancelled.' It's easy to let that consume you and think, 'Oh, well I guess it's over.' But it can't be. That's not an option for me. At least, that's how I think of it. [Laughs]

So it definitely shapes you in terms of fight or flight mode. You either say, 'Well, I guess I had a good run' or you say, 'Well that door closed, but now where can I find a little mouse hole to squeeze myself through.' [Laughs]

Analogue: I wanted to get a sense of your influences because I love the new record. Were you pretty steeped in rock music growing up?

JJ: A little bit. When I was a lot younger, I was definitely into my dad's influences and my older brother's influences. That was a lot of classic rock—Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello. There was just a bunch of different rock artists. My dad has great taste in music. He had rock, weird '80s stuff. There was a lot of really good music in my house growing up—and there still is. My mom's influences were like Paul Simon.

'Ruthless' cover art
'Ruthless' cover art

As I grew into my own influences, it was pretty folk based. I really got into singer-songwriters and that gentle folk music and then into folk rock which brought me back into the rock space. But there were a lot of twists and turns in between. There was definitely a pop phase and a hip-hop phase. I think I take a little bit from everything. I don't know if that's why the music sounds the way it does, because I've never taken to just one genre. But I think most people are like that. If it's good music then I'll listen to it. It doesn't matter if it's classical or classic rock or pop. If I like it, I like it.

Analogue: I was reading your story that said you've written hundreds of songs before ever recording your debut. Was there a flip of a switch somewhere to go from writing those songs to wanting to pursue a career as a performing artist?

JJ: There was a turning point, but I've honestly been trying to do this since I was 16. I fell in love with writing and performing and everything in my teens and I was one of those people who said, 'I'm gonna do this.' 'I'm gonna be famous one day' was what I always used to say. Classic kids' stuff dreaming. But I never really let go of that. When I was in my early twenties, I was in a folk band and we toured around Canada. It was just kids from my high school. We'd all gone away to college and had come back and started this band. I thought, 'This is it. This is my life and career,' and then the band broke up.

Then I realized that I needed to get a job. I'd always had jobs in between, but I'd quit them at the drop of a hat because there was always something going on with the band. It always took precedent in my life. Music has always done that. So I held three or four jobs at a time doing different part-time things to make a living, but it was all around me still making music. So I was still playing gigs three or four times per week. I just didn't know what I was doing. I thought I was doing what I needed to be succcessful, but really I was just singing my heart out to 30 drunks who didn't give a shit. [Laughs]

Then I was working a bartending job, a serving job, and a receptionist job all while playing three nights a week. It was exhausting and it was all while I was living in a shitty apartment. It was a real low in my life. A lot of things were just going wrong and it seemed like I'd veered so far from what I thought was the path. That was probably the turning point. My mom is a career counselor at a college here, so I knew I could go in and sit with somebody and go over my options to see what my future career could be. That terrified me. [Laughs] But I knew I was at a point where I was like, 'Fuck this. This isn't working. I'm not getting anywhere.' It was a frustrating hamster wheel that wouldn't end.

"There was no second guessing. I knew in my heart I'd be broke and singing to nobody in a bar or making it work. But I knew I was going to do it."

So I went in and thought maybe I'd blown my chance. I sat with a lovely career counselor and they told me all the options I could do, and I left feeling completely defeated but also hopeful. Defeated, because I realized I would not be happy doing anything else. I could feel a sinking feeling during the meeting like, 'Fuck, I know I don't want to do any of that. I know I wouldn't be as happy as I am now and I'm miserable.' [Laughs] It was defeating but it did give me hope. I realized, 'Now I know for sure.' There was no second guessing. I knew in my heart I'd be broke and singing to nobody in a bar or making it work. But I knew I was going to do it.

Then maybe a week later, I heard from my manager for the first time. It was very serendipitous how it happened. That was definitely the turning point was realizing that I wouldn't be happy doing anything else.

Analogue: That's really incredible. I was going to ask if there was a validating point thereafter but you just described it.

JJ: Yeah, it was what I needed to focus. Things really did start changing. I know it sounds corny and there have been struggles in between, but that was the turning point where I was like, 'Okay, something is going on.'

Analogue: What's the most surreal moment for you thus far?

JJ: The first tour that I did was insane in its own way. I'd been on little cross-Canada tours but this time I bought a van under my name. It was my tour van and all of those little details adding up it was like, 'Oh, this is me. This isn't my old band where I was somebody who just kinda sang backup.' It was surreal to sign the papers and all that stuff. Other than that, the most insane thing was likely opening for Incubus in Buffalo. That first show, I'd never seen a crowd that big and just to be on the same stage as them was the most surreal thing that's happened.