Q-and-A: Juno-nominated rocker JJ Wilde on rising above pandemic setbacks

·5 min read

TORONTO — JJ Wilde isn't so crazy about these pandemic times.

Being trapped indoors and away from concert stages has been frustrating for any musician, but the sting was especially sharp for the Waterloo, Ont., rock singer who was gearing up for her breakout moment in 2020.

All the pieces were in place: an appearance at esteemed industry gathering South By Southwest was supposed to kick off a year of touring, laying the groundwork for her roaring debut full-length album.

And then in an instant, COVID-19 ground everything to a halt.

"There were some pretty down days where I didn’t want to get out of bed," the 28-year-old musician remembered.

"It took a lot of mindfulness and really focusing on the positive."

But she's learned that one major setback can lead to other pleasant surprises.

Her 2020 album "Ruthless" saw the light of day after all and earned her a career-first Juno Award nomination ahead of this weekend's virtual festivities.

She’s up for rock album of the year, alongside releases from Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Crown Lands, Sam Roberts Band and Silverstein.

She also made history as the first female artist to top all three Canadian rock radio charts monitored by Mediabase with her smash hit "The Rush." The single was the most played song on Canadian rock radio last year.

JJ Wilde, born Jillian Dowding, spoke to The Canadian Press about navigating the twists and turns of the past year and a half.


CP: Long before you were topping Canadian radio charts, you wound your way through many of the stages of a struggling artist. Where did it all begin?

Dowding: I started playing open mics when I was 16 in Kitchener, Toronto, Cambridge. Anywhere in my surrounding area that would let me play. I always had at least two part-time jobs that I could juggle to make enough money to get to my shows. Bartending jobs were good because a lot of times they'd let me play in the bar. There were breweries I worked at that I'd be like, “If you need music for three hours, I'll play. You know, give me some money and some beers."

CP: Were most of your jobs at local bars? Did you take on any other side hustles to support your music?

Dowding: I started working a full-time job at Mercedes. They wanted me to move up in the company — but I quit cold turkey. I had no time to pursue music. My parents were furious. They were like, “This is a good job.” (I also worked as a spa receptionist) but eventually I was exhausted and at the end of my rope. I went to see a career counsellor at one of the local colleges. She was giving me all these career options and I was sitting there just thinking, "I don’t want to do anything else (but music)." It was that deciding moment for me. There was no more second-guessing. And it was a matter of a few weeks before I met my manager for the first time. It was a crazy coincidence. We didn't start working together for quite a while after that, but it was the glimmer of hope I needed.

CP: Historically, the Canadian rock scene hasn't fostered a lot of female artists, at least solo female rock artists. Did you ever consider the challenges of having the odds stacked against you?

Dowding: You know it's funny, when I set out to make music the idea didn't even cross my mind. My songs usually start as folk songs, they're very singer-songwriter in the beginning stages, with acoustic guitar and pretty melodies. When I got into the production phase (of the album “Ruthless”) with my producer, we started to build the songs out together. I gravitated towards bashing drums and loud guitars. I didn't even give it a thought. It was kind of like "Here I am. Deal with it."

CP: You recently unleashed "Wilde," a new EP recorded mostly in isolation and entirely in the pandemic. Some of the vocals were laid down in your bedroom closet. What was it like taking such a big rock sound and shrinking it down to fit your apartment walls?

Dowding: It was a very different way of recording. My normal way of working was going to L.A. with my producer and having in-studio time together with the instruments. This year was a lot more back-and-forth — phone calls, FaceTime, Zoom. It was a way different experience. But I think this opens up so many doors in the sense of creating the first draft of music. You literally have the world at your fingertips. Now you don't have to fly to L.A. to work with one producer or writer. But for me, when it comes down to actually figuring out the bones of the song and what tone we're going to use, I still like to be in person.

CP: The Junos are fast approaching and without the usual festivities this year I imagine you'll be at home. Without the option to gather with Canada’s music community, what does getting a nomination mean to you?

Dowding: Me and my mom used to watch awards shows – and we still do. The Junos, the Grammys, the Oscars. That’s just something we’ve always done together. And so, that’s been a huge part of my life. So, it means a lot. I mean, it still doesn’t really feel real, to be honest. But it means a lot.

- This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Follow @dfriend on Twitter.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2021.

David Friend, The Canadian Press

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