A Q&A with Jessica Childress

Despite the fact that the Los Angeles, CA-based singer/songwriter and vocalist, Jessica Childress, who won over millions of viewers on NBC‘s The Voicegrew up in a musical household where her mother, father and sister were all vocalists, she actually didn’t consider music as a viable career until about 18 months ago. In her mind, it was something that was a pipe dream.

So for years, Childress worked a legitimate day job, working in PR until she went to audition for The Voice. Her rendition of Bruno Mars’ “Marry Me” in particular, won the attention of both the show’s live audience and millions across the nation; however, she would only last a few weeks on a show, in which the goal is to be the last contestant standing. Granted, much like American Idolwinning the grand prize on The Voice hasn’t exactly proved to be the key to sustainable career – just ask Taylor Hicks, Clay Aiken, Adam Lambert and others. 

And although millions of people saw Childress and heard her voice, at the end of her time on the show, she didn’t have a record deal. After all, the record industry is generally very fickle, and often concerned more with the hot trend than with artists who can win over fans in perpetuity. As timeless as the Supremes are, would you hear something like that on modern commercial radio? Probably not. 

But I digress. Earlier this year, Childress released her debut EP, Don’t Forget My Name, and the EP’s four songs reveal an artist and backing band whose sound is heavily inspired by old school soul, radio-friendly pop and modern R&B. And much like her influences, the EP’s lyrics concern themselves with autobiographical detail – the sort of detail that’s both personal and yet universal. Backed by an old school soul horn line, “I Quit,” tells the satisfying story of quitting from a job that is both mind-numbing for something you love – sounds familiar doesn’t it? “Broken” “Walk Away” “Don’t Forget My Name” and “Room to Breathe” all deal with relationships that are on the verge of ending or at the moment, where you realize it can make or break the relationship for good. And throughout the album, and in her live show, Childress has an “around the way girl” vibe that’s refreshing in an age where pop stars feel unapproachable and unreal – and it gives the songs a grounded authenticity. 

After catching Childress at Rockwood Music Hall, I got a chance to chat with her via email for this edition of the Q&A. And in this Q&A, the charming, and almost self-depricatingly honest Childress talks about her run on The Voice; how much old-school soul has influenced her sound; the autobiographical nature of the songs on Don’t Forget My Name; and she gives some great advice for artists trying to make a name for themselves, based on her own experiences. 

Check it out below.

Photo Credit: T. Ferguson

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WRH: How did you get into music and when did you know that it was your calling?

Jessica Childress: I was raised in a musical family – my mom, dad and sister all sing – so I was “into” music from the get go. I didn’t really know it was my calling until about a year and a half ago. I think I always knew in my heart of hearts that music was what I was born to do, but I convinced myself otherwise for years because it seemed like such a pipe dream. 

WRH: Who are your influences?

JC: I am influenced quite a lot by the Motown sound. I love Diana Ross and the Marvelettes and Stevie Wonder. But, I draw so much of my stylistic inspiration from old jazz singers from Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters to Anita O’Day and Dinah Washington. I have such a deep love for jazz music because it’s just so free. 

WRH: Who are you listening to right now?

JC: I have Rachel Ann Weiss’s album on repeat right now. Her voice is just everything to me. Ray Lamontagne’s new album is so good. I always have a variety. 

WRH: You were on NBC’s The Voice. How was the experience of being on a show like that, performing for millions on a weekly basis? And in front of famous musicians and personalities? How has being linked to the show helped your career? 

JC: It was a surreal experience to say the least. For me, though, I was performing for the audience in the room and for the four coaches in front of us. I couldn’t think about the millions on the other side of the tv. that would certainly have given me an anxiety attack. Of course performing in front of celebrities is nerve-wracking because these are people that have done what you’re trying to do…successfully. And, they could give you the shot that you need to succeed. Being on the show really helped solidify in my mind that music should be my career path. I have had so much love and support from fans of the show and that support has helped me quite a lot.

WRH: I recently caught you at Rockwood Music Hall and within a few bars of your first song, I noticed that you and your backing band are incredibly tight. How did you and your backing band meet? 

JC: Thank you! We met very organically. I’ve known and been friends with some of them for years and years in other non-musical contexts and when the time came to put my band together, they were my first call. Then someone knew a great bass player and a great guitar player and it came together in a really cool way. We’re all friends of friends.  

WRH: Also, I noticed that during your set, you and your band paid proper homage to old school show with a couple of covers of well-known soul classics. How much has old school soul influence your sound, your vocal style, etc.?

JC: Significantly. We listened to a lot of that classic soul music when I was growing up. My dad used to sing in a Temptations-type of group when he was young, so that music has always been in my head. 

WRH: All the songs on Don’t Forget My Name feel and sound as though they come from lived in experiences – my favorite song on the album “I Quit” is probably one of the better take this job and shove it anthems I’ve heard this year. Anyone who’s had a terrible job or is currently working at a terrible job will know exactly what you mean. I know that in a past relationship, I’ve had the sort of argument at the crux of a song like “Broken” where both sides realize that it’s a “significant moment” in their relationship. How much of the material on the EP is inspired by your own personal experiences?

JC: Every song I’ve written is fiercely autobiographical – for better or worse. Writing songs is the way that I process the things going on in my life, so each song is a piece of my story. 

WRH: When do you and your band know that you have a finished song?

JC: I don’t think there’s ever such a thing. I take these songs that I write to my band and I have a pretty good sense of what I want the arrangement to be and we all contribute to what the song ultimately looks and feels like onstage. But that changes! I’m always re-writing and a re-considering songs. “Slow Down” was originally a mid-tempo groove, and now it’s a dance song. I feel like I have to let the songs evolve and live and breathe. That’s what keeps it fresh. 

WRH: You’re touring to support the release of the Don’t Forget My Name EP. How has the response been to you and your music while on tour so far? 

JC: People have been so incredibly kind and supportive! We’re having a blast and it’s only getting better! 

WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves? What advice would you give to women artists, especially women of color? 

JC: Identify your objectives and what you’re willing to do to achieve them from the outset. Be fierce with your boundaries. It’s so easy to be influenced in a particular direction and make small compromises to please this person or that person, because success – at least in the beginning – is hard to measure. But you have to be careful with that. Don’t wake up one day a million miles from where you wanted to be. Having the courage to stand in your integrity as an artist and take the, at times, longer path to success can be a struggle. But, I think it’s the path to longevity.

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