By Jay S. Jacobs
This year was Jessie Wagner’s spotlight move. The diverse, soulful singer songwriter had finished her first solo album. (She had previously recorded an EP as the lead singer of the band Envy.) She had been signed up with the wickedly hip indie label Wicked Cool – with the offer coming directly by label owner (and Bruce Springsteen E Street Band compatriot and Sopranos actor) Little Steven Van Zandt. Plans were underway for her first nationwide solo tour.
Unfortunately, 2020 had other plans for Wagner – and everyone else.
The coronavirus pandemic put the music business on pause, and particularly to the whole idea of live concerts. Which is a shame, Wagner is no stranger to the concert stage, having performed live as a backing vocalist with major acts like Van Zandt, Lenny Kravitz, Duran Duran and Chic. She was ready to take center stage.
However, now touring is limited to virtual shows. Still, recently Wagner’s debut album, Shoes Droppin’ was released into stores, downloads, and streaming. And it’s even better than you expect and makes the missed tour even more of a shame. A wonderful gumbo of musical styles and moods, it mixes introspective lyrics with gorgeous singing and powerful instrumentation. These songs would smoke live, but they sound tight in the studio versions as well.
Wagner is having to hustle the album in new ways because she can’t take it on the road, but don’t let the new normal cause you to drop the ball on this album – it should not be missed. Shoes Droppin’ is certainly worth searching out, and people are taking notice of the positive reviews and good word of mouth.
We caught up with Jessie Wagner soon after Shoes Droppin’ was dropped into record stores and streaming sites.
Several years ago, there was a great documentary called 20 Feet from Stardom, which is about people who sing backing vocals to big stars and how hard it is to make the jump to the spotlight. You’ve done that type of thing, as well. What is the leap like for you?
It’s not really a leap. It’s something I’ve always wanted. It’s nice that this year felt like I was getting a little bit closer to having the spotlight the way I wanted it to, even though it got a little derailed. The pandemic changed everything. But this year was validating, knowing that someone like Steven Van Zandt really connected with my music and thought it was worth sharing to the world. From that point, it was validating, but I didn’t feel like it’s a leap for me, because I always feel comfortable being in front. It was just the next step instead of a leap. It’s just the next gradual step. Hopefully, it would be well received.
In the past, you have played in your own bands, like Envy, which I believe is now called Army of the Underdog. What was it about these songs that you felt really needed to be done as a solo project?
It came out of a very tragic experience. I’ve always tried to be honest. The things that I’ve written with Envy was a little bit sassier and flirtier. This album wasn’t necessarily about that… although there’s sprinkles and elements of it there. It’s mostly about just getting through a dark period in one’s life and trying to navigate through that. Navigate through the fear and the doubt that’s associated with dealing with tragedy, as well as how do you process what you’re doing with yourself with your career and how do you move forward? Can you move forward?
I was grappling with all these really serious and heavy questions. The only way I could really process it was through writing some of the songs that I wrote. Once those songs came out of me, I was like, okay, this is something different. It’s a different approach. Everything I’ve done is still ultimately Jessie, but because I was so exposed with this, it just needed a different packaging.
Like you said, there’s a lot of very personal stuff. For example, “Caretaker” seemed very, very intimate. What is your songwriting process like? Is it difficult to let these parts of you out?
Yes, and no. It’s scary. I don’t know if it’s difficult as much as it is scary because you don’t know how people are going to respond. How people are going to look at you after you say these things. Sometimes I get scared. Can I go that far? Can I say this? With this I think I had to. These songs, especially “Caretaker,” it was such a confusing and overwhelming time period in my life. The only thing I could do was trying to channel it in some way. When “Caretaker” came out of me, it came from all this doubt, guilt and frustration. That was the only way I could process it. My writing style, I don’t know how to explain it. Sometimes I’m one of those “it comes to you when you’re inspired” kind of people. Usually I’ll dream it. I’ll dream my songs. I’ll wake up and I’m like, oh, I have to write that down before I forget…. (laughs) I’ve forgotten so many songs that way.
I know that feeling.
Yeah, it’s the worst feeling. It’s like, why didn’t I just get up? Usually, whenever that moment of inspiration hits, I try to stop what I’m doing at least have my phone ready or something where I can at least take the snippet of the idea and put it somewhere so I can revisit it later. Otherwise, it’s hard for me. I do it. I do write songs for people and for necessity, for money, whatever. When I’m truly inspired, that’s when I feel like I’m really getting at the core of who I am. I have to wait for that. I have to wait for it for the divine inspiration to come down, usually, when I’m drooling on pillows. (laughs)
One of the things I really loved about the album is that you have so many different styles. You’re not being held down to one type of music, for example, “Great One” is a lovely ballad, “Passing Me By” of feels like an old Stax single, “Lovers Lullaby” has a bit of a folk-rock feel to it, to “Shoes Droppin’” is more gospel and “My Darling, My Dear” is almost torchy in a lot of ways. “The Biggest Mistake” is almost country. Were you looking to play with styles with the album? Or is that just something that comes naturally to you as a songwriter?
It just comes naturally. I let the songs be what they’re going to be. I don’t want to be in a box. That was the risk with packaging all these things together. People have always tried to say, “Well, who are you?” “What are you?” I’m all of these things. I’m so grateful to Steven Van Zandt for recognizing that. He’s somebody that I look up to. If you look at his catalogue of songs, it’s so all over the place. He has like salsa and has rock and there’s these old doo wop ballads. I’m like: That’s it! This is who you are.
Yes, it is…
You have all these inspirations and things that come to you. You can’t say it has to be this when it’s not that. That’s not what it is. “Lovers’ Lullaby” is not going to be some trap song. (laughs) I can’t help the way I wrote it. I’ve always loved different kinds of music. Different kinds of music inspired me and give me the impetus to write certain things this way or write it that way. I think when I write with people, they get that. They hear where I’m coming from, where I’m like: No, I want more like this or a little bit like that. You get this schizophrenic package. (laughs again)
Little Steven, like you said, played a big part in getting this music out there. He basically helped get you signed. Obviously, you played with him live before as part of his band, but how did him getting to know your music and really championing it come in?
I totally believe in a divine hand guiding things. I think with my whole career, it’s been this divine intervention, guiding things. I was just going to do this on my own. I really went to Steven asking him for advice, because I’m still trying to figure out how to tour on my own. I just wanted to get out there as Jessie Wagner. I didn’t want to just be the chick with the big hair in the back.
I get that…
So, I sent him the songs. You never know if these people are going to listen – these grand idols that everyone looks up to. People are busy. They have other things. I’m like, yeah, I’ll send it to him. I’ll see what he says and take any advice he can give me. A couple of days later, he said, “Jessie, let’s meet.” I’m like… uh, okay. I’m thinking I’m going to get like a really good sit down and take notes, whatever. I met up with him in this little underground restaurant in middle of the East Village. I’m thinking oh, my God, this is so Sopranos, you know. (laughs) There he is drinking a cappuccino in the corner. I’m like, Oh, my God, am I going to get whacked? It was crazy.
Wow, very wild…
We sat down in this empty restaurant, and he’s like, “I like it. I like it. I really like it.” (laughs) I was like, oh, wow, thanks. I mean, I’m excited that you like the tunes. He was like, “Oh, have you ever heard of my record label, Wicked Cool?” Of course, I’ve heard of Wicked Cool. Of course, in the back of my mind, I want to be Wicked Cool artist. That would be wicked cool. (laughs) But he’s like, “Yeah, have you ever heard of the record label?” Oh, yeah, I might have heard of it. Yeah. (laughs again)
Playing it cool. Just maybe…
He’s like, “Would you like to be part of the Wicked Cool family?” Dreams coming true – lightning bolts, explosions. It was just so out of the blue and unexpected. I’m just hoping to get some cool pointers or tips. Here’s someone who has written iconic music, and he wants to help promote my vision, my sound. It was humbling. I was so honored. I was flabbergasted. All these emotions all at once. Again, like I said, it was validating to have someone on that level listen to your music. He said, “You’re a real artist.” I’m like, holding back tears, because you always want to hear something like that. Even if this record goes nowhere, or does nothing, I still have that one person who’s in the upper echelon of the rock world who said, “You done good, girl.” That’s such an amazing feeling.
Okay, to steal a question from your title track, “What have you done to deserve all this?”
Oh, wow. (laughs) That’s a loaded question.
I don’t know. I guess I put in my time. Who knows why someone gets the push forward and who doesn’t? I’ve worked with so many different, amazing artists, who are still singing weddings like me, or are just doing like local things. I’m like, why isn’t this person living in a mansion somewhere because they’re ridiculously famous? I don’t know why God chooses this person, or that person. I hope God continues to want to work with me and propel my career to even the next level. I hope it has something to do with the talent that he’s given me and that he wants that talent to be shared with the world.
I would think so.
I hope that my perseverance is finally being recognized because you can’t get anywhere in this this career without constantly fighting. It is a battle every day to be in the music industry. It gets harder and harder as it keeps changing. I hope that this moment, where my music is being recognized is because people are seeing all the effort and all the tears and the sweat and the happiness that I put into it. They’re like, “Well done, let’s see what else you got?”
You have worked with a lot of musicians who have made it. Do you feel that you’ve learned anything from working with say, Lenny Kravitz, or Duran Duran, or Chic, or Little Steven?
With all of them it is that they are very business minded. That’s the only way to have longevity in this career. Talent will take you so far, but you have to understand all the workings of this industry. I watched how each of them were on their hustle. They were on their game. They understood who’s doing what and when they’re doing it. I admired that because I’m not very business minded. I tend to just write the songs. I’m like, here. (laughs) What do I do now? So, their work ethic is something I admire, and I hope to improve with myself. Just to have that side of it. Be stronger on that end of it versus just wanting to write a song and get on the stage and look pretty. You have to know what’s going on behind all of that.
I was seeing that for Halloween. You did a cover of “I Put a Spell on You” by Screaming Jay Hawkins. Is it fun recording other people’s music? And is it different as a songwriter to do other people’s songs?
Oh, yeah. I don’t mind doing covers at all. I mean, that’s what inspires you, these songs that mean something to you. That fill you with that intangible feeling that you just can’t describe. That’s why you sing the song that you do. It’s like, oh, this person who gets it. They get what I was going through. For that particular thing, it was just so fun. The lyrics, the vibe of it, everything is just exciting and a little naughty, a little scary. It was perfect for Halloween. I’ve always wanted to do something like that. I’ve always wanted to do that particular song, too. When my friend Scott Martin came to me and was like, “Hey, would you like to do this?” I was like, (gasps) finally! It came out fun. It was just so much fun.
I know that right now you’re focused on Shoes Droppin’. But is Army of the Underdog still active? Will you be doing any more music with them?
I want to. I definitely want to. All the guys in the band are in other bands. (laughs) That makes it difficult. That’s like the story of a New York musician; how many bands can you possibly be in? It just keeps being more and more and more. But yeah, I’ve talked to the guys about doing more songs. In the future I hope that we can nail something together – another EP or something.
The music world – well the whole world – is so strange right now. Musicians can’t tour and you can only make so much off streaming. You’re not going to make a living off that. How are you going about getting your music out there during this crazy time in history?
The label is helping, doing these fabulous, wonderful interviews with people like you. I’m so grateful that you guys even want to talk to me. (laughs) I’ve noticed by doing these interviews, I’m gaining different people from different avenues. They’re like, “Oh, I saw this and I really like your music.” And then doing the live streams. No, I have not been able to make a living doing live streams, (laughs again) but it’s almost you have to do it just to keep the interest. People have short attention spans, reminding people who you are where you are. Don’t forget about me.
I’m still here! Just virtually…
That’s one way to keep the interest levels up there. I miss being in front of an audience of live audience. I try to have as much fun with the live streams as I possibly can. I always do trivia. I give away swag. I’m a complete nut ball. I hope that people when they tune in, they enjoy just being kind of kooky and nutty with me. I’m not one of those people who’s just going to sit there and (sings) “I’m going to sing you a song.” That’s not me. I’m going to get up and jump around and sweat and be silly. I hope it makes it fun. That makes it fun for me to do that when you don’t get that interaction. It’s the strangest thing to finish a song and it is silence. (laughs) You find ways to get around it. That’s how I’ve been able to promote this this record – these wonderful interviews with you guys and just continue doing the live streams. Slowly but surely, I’ve been getting different people from different walks of life tuning in and like yeah, dig it.
Great. Now on a more personal level beyond just music, how are you dealing with the whole new reality – the shelter in place, socially-distanced world?
I’m not going to lie. I’ve been like everyone else. I’ve have had some really dark moments. Everything with Shoes Droppin’ happened in January. I finished the record in January. I presented it to Steven in January. I got the deal in January. (laughs) So, the trajectory of my career this year was looking very different in January, February, even in March. Then all of a sudden, I see the goal. The ultimate goal for me is always like I said to tour as Jessie Wagner. I could see it. I could almost reach out and touch it, and it got snatched away from me. It was really hard to figure out how to deal with that emotionally.
I can imagine.
On top of that, this whole year has been full of turmoil. It’s like, can I even do these shows? Should I be more political? Should I be this? I’m not. I’m not a political person. I try to keep everything very light because that’s just who I am. I try to keep certain aspects of myself to myself, so it’s been very confusing to how to approach my shows. How to approach living. For a minute there, I was delivering groceries. (laughs) I’m doing all kinds of weird things I never thought I do. I have a college degree and I’m like, oh, why didn’t I listen to my mother and go to law school? (laughs again) Yeah, I had all the highs, the lows, the in between, everything that you could possibly have.
We all have.
But I’m trying to keep going. I’m trying to keep thinking about the possibility of the next year, or the year after. Hopefully, I can get out there with Shoes Droppin’, or the next album I write, or whatever. And finally, obtain that unattainable dream that I’ve been fighting for so long (laughs), just going out there and people coming to see Jessie.
That would be nice.
It’s been a blast performing for other people. I love being on stage. I mean to say that I’ve sung with Steven Van Zandt and Lenny Kravitz, Duran Duran, Kid Rock and Nile Rodgers – these are amazing experiences that most people don’t get to do. I’ve had a brilliantly fascinating career. But it’s always been support; you know. As wonderful as that is, I just want to know for once what it feels like just to be out front. Hopefully. I am holding on to that hope. I’m holding on to that dream. When everybody can go out and breathe again, I’ll be able to do that and have that moment.
You just said that you’re not a political person. But tomorrow is election day. So, I’m just going to ask you are you going to vote?
I’m going to vote. I plan on standing however long it takes in line. First thing in the morning, I’m going up to my polling place [which] is like one block up. (laughs) So, it’s not like other people who have to trudge to the snow. I’m lazy. I can go one block up. Maybe I’ll just have someone hold my place when we run home, go to the bathroom, and come back. (laughs again) But I will be there. I will be in line. I can’t wait.
Okay, great. Well, what kind of things would people be surprised to know about you?
I don’t know. I think the things I want people to know about me I have already shared. Most people who tune into my page know I love sci fi. Know I love just being silly. I love Renaissance fairs. (laughs) I’m kind of a dork. I think most people see me on stage and think I’m like, “Ooh, let me love you. I’m sexy.” People who know me are like, oh my God, that is the biggest nerd I’ve ever met in my life. I read fantasy novels. I’m excited for the Dune movie to come out. This is Jessie in a nutshell. But I think most people know that about me. They know I’m kind of a kooky girl.
One last question – sort of vague to get close things out. If people get a message or some messages out with your music, what do you think they’d be?
The one that speaks the most on my record, that one really talks about my doubt, my fears about this career. If you’re in the music industry, or not, whatever it is you’re going after you have to do it wholeheartedly. Fight through the doubt and fight through the fear. If you if you really feel like this is where you belong, that’s what you really need. To be and to let the world know about it. You can’t let the doubts take over. Because you’ll always be grappling with that for the rest of your life if you don’t take that chance. I hope with the record, you see all the darkness and the sadness that I went through, but in the end, you find hope and acceptance and perseverance. I hope that people take that with them. You can get through the darkness. There is hope. There is light.
Copyright ©2020 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: November 18, 2020.
Photos ©2020. Courtesy of Mark Doyle/Mark Doyle Photography. All rights reserved. Angelina Decarmen – Art Director, Anthony Giles – Makeup.