Q&A: Work ethic pays off for former auto dealership porter JJ Wilde

JJ Wilde

JJ Wilde performs at BottleRock Napa Valley at the Napa Valley Expo on Sept. 4, 2021. Adam Pardee/STAFF.

NAPA — Building momentum off a tremendous run of success, including three No. 1s in her native Canada and a JUNO Award for Rock Album of the Year (becoming the first woman to win the award since Alanis Morissette in 1996), Ontario singer-songwriter JJ Wilde at BottleRock Napa Valley kicked off what’s sure to be busy 12 months.

The Record Company, JJ Wilde
8 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 20
The Fillmore
Tickets: $28.50.

The festival appearance preceded a U.S. tour with The Record Company, a short overseas headlining jaunt and an opening slot on The Glorious Sons’ Canadian arena trek.

“And then, festival season is basically right around the corner. From October on, it’s go-time,” said JJ Wilde, whose real name is Jillian Dowding.

Throughout it all, she’s trying not to take any of her not-so-sudden success for granted. While she’s best known for becoming the first woman to win the best rock album JUNO since Jagged Little Pill—beating Neil Young and Crazyhorse’s Colorado in the process—she’s tried for more than a decade to make her music career stick while working numerous side jobs at bars, a salon, movie theater—even a car dealership.

“The Rush,” the initial hit from her 2020 debut album, Ruthless, simultaneously reached No. 1 on Canada’s modern rock, active rock and mainstream rock charts—also a first for a woman.

“I’ve watched the JUNOS growing up with my family … It’s always been a huge thing in my life, even before I could play,” Wilde said. “I never really thought that [I would win], so it was surprising, shocking. I was filled with gratefulness. I was trying to be present in the moment. It’s funny; the next day you wake up and you don’t feel any different. It’s like that insane thing happened… now what? I have such a bad habit of doing that and not being able to stay in the present moment. But I’m learning to do that.”

Earlier this year, JJ Wilde also released an EP (Wilde) that expands her artistic voice and style—somewhere on the spectrum near fellow rockers Lzzy Hale and DOROTHY. The record includes kiss-off anthem “Best Boy,” bluesy revenge tale “Mercy,” stoner celebration “Bushweed” and even a hard rock cover of Stevie Nicks’ and Tom Petty’s classic, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” with The Glorious Sons’ Brett Emmons.

RIFF: Who is JJ Wilde, and how is she different from Jillian?

JJ Wilde: My name is Jill, and my sister’s name is Jenny. She’s my best friend, but she’s got three little kids and can’t really travel to come on the road and see my shows. So, it’s a little sentimental way of keeping her around with me when I’m touring. I don’t consider [JJ Wilde] a major persona or anything. I’m pretty true to myself through my music and art. I like to let that be the focus. I’ve never been a great actor, so there’s not much separation. There’s definitely something that happens when I get on stage, and that kind of takes over, but it’s me.

You released your first EP in 2019 but were working on music and gigging around for a decade before that. What sorts of challenges have you faced?

JJ Wilde: I’ve been doing this, in one way or another, since I was 16. That’s when I started playing and writing songs. I started with open mics, and when I was old enough to get into bars, I started playing bars. One of the biggest challenges was trying to hold down three jobs and also do music on the side. Music doesn’t pay well, especially when you’re starting out! It takes a long time to build up. I went through a lot of getting fired from multiple jobs and having to quit because they wouldn’t give me time off to tour. It felt like a constant struggle of trying to pay rent, trying to do what I love and being constantly exhausted. Pushing through that was definitely a huge obstacle for me. … And then getting up at 7 the next morning to make it to my job.

JJ Wilde

JJ Wilde performs at BottleRock Napa Valley at the Napa Valley Expo on Sept. 4, 2021.

Let’s talk about those jobs. “The Rush” was literally about you rushing in to work as a receptionist as a salon the morning after being out late after working at a bar. There was the movie theater, too. What did you do at the car dealership?

JJ Wilde: I worked at Mercedes, and that was a fun job. I was the porter. In the service industry, when people take the cars in, I would take their car, park it, bring it back, which is fun because you’re moving around these beautiful sports cars. But it was terrifying because there were sports cars parked right beside Sprinter vans, and you had to reverse park into all of these spots. I’d be reverse parking a giant Sprinter beside a CLS or something. The best part of that job: After the mechanics were done with the cars, you have to drive them for a certain amount of time, you have to go a certain speed— which is fast—and you have to do all these certain things, which they have to check off. So, part of my job was just ripping around the back country roads of Kitchener in these gorgeous cars and just having a time.

You could drive your own tour van now if you wanted to.

JJ Wilde: Oh yeah, I do!

What was your first sign that your music career might pay off?

JJ Wilde: I’ve had multiple, but they were always just feelings. The first time my now-manager was going to come to one of my shows, I remember feeling, “This is it… this is my chance!” And he didn’t show up. He didn’t come to the show. But it was all right, ‘cause I’m working with him now. These feelings happened all along the way, and then a huge obstacle would get thrown in the way. I’d have another “this is it!” [moment]. But I would say the first tour I went on, back in 2019 with The Glorious Sons, across the States—I had one song out, we just got in the van and drove across America—that, to me, was one of the first times I was, “Holy shit, I’m doing this.” Before that, I was never signed. I was always independent. [Touring] was a very different thing. That was the first taste that this could be a life; this could be my foreseeable future.

Did you feel pressure after becoming the first woman to win the JUNO Award for Rock Album of the Year since Alanis Morisette did it in 2016?

JJ Wilde: I don’t see that as pressure. I see it as a success for all women in music. I don’t think it’s just my success. I think that it’s possible and a good sign. There’s a lot of up-and-coming, amazing women in rock music right now. This is just the beginning.

JJ Wilde

JJ Wilde performs at BottleRock Napa Valley at the Napa Valley Expo on Sept. 4, 2021.

Were there any songs on the Wilde EP that were either difficult to write or difficult to share with others?

JJ Wilde: On the album, there was a couple I struggled to even write. But for this EP, it was more about an escape. Writing was my escape through the pandemic and music was the escape for a lot of people. I really wanted to focus on something that could be an escape for people and have it be not quite as heavy. There was enough heaviness going on in the world. All of them I was happy to share, and it was very therapeutic to write.

Whose idea was it to cover the Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks classic?

JJ Wilde: My manager and I had this conversation of [doing] a cover. I’ve always been hesitant to do a cover, especially a classic. You don’t want to change it too much and ruin a good thing, but you also don’t want to play it the way it is. … My producer and I had the conversation of the build-out and what it would sound like. How it would be different, putting a bit more of a rock spin on it, I guess.

What’s your best existing song that people haven’t heard yet?

JJ Wilde: I just came off a five-week writing trip in Los Angeles, and I wrote 13 of some of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. I would pick one from that but they’re just demos right now.

JJ Wilde

JJ Wilde at BottleRock Napa Valley at the Napa Valley Expo on Sept. 4, 2021.

Thirteen sounds like an album.

JJ Wilde: Yeah! That’s what I’m working on. Thirteen and maybe a couple more. I want it to be 15 or 16 songs. … “Crowded Room” is one of my demos that I’m really excited about.

What does that sound like?

JJ Wilde: I don’t know [laughs]. You’ll have to find out!

I read that you used to play the tuba. If I handed you one right now…

JJ Wilde: I did; I played tuba in grade 7. I could play “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash. That was my year-end project. They really liked the contemporary spin I put on it [laughs and mimics the iconic riff as a brass instrument]. I could fit inside the case as well.

Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter

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