Like Dua Lipa backed up by the Black Keys: The rise of JJ Wilde

JJ Wilde
(Image credit: Sandra Lee)

Is there a better rock singer out there right now than JJ Wilde?

The 29-year old Canadian has a full-strength whisky and cigarettes (and weed) low-alto holler that’s part Adele and part Ike-era Tina Turner, a gene-splice of Cat Power, Joan Jett, Stevie Nicks and very early Pat Benatar.

Wilde’s unabashed modus operandi is stretch-leather-trousered capital-R-for-Rock that delivers highly intimate and personal songs about the pleasures, bewilderment and contradictions of being a 20-something trying to get her shit together. And often failing. 

The end result is like Aerosmith covering Sharon Van Etten, or Dua Lipa backed up by the Black Keys: confessional and raw but playful, ultra-confident and self-aware. The records Wilde has released since 2019 – one album and 3 EPs – have been moving, sexy and fun.

Mostly her music is don’t-bore-us-get-to-the-chorus stomping guitar rock bangers with thumping drums and groovy rolling bass. Yet Wilde has also stirred the pot with blues and grunge, hip-hop and pop, even a touch of shoegaze, gospel and country. Any classicism is not remotely musty or heavy-handed.

Naturally, she’s made most headway in her native Canada so far. In 2020, her single The Rush went to number one on all three rock charts in Canada (modern rock, active rock and mainstream rock) – the first time a woman has achieved that – and in 2021 her debut album Ruthless won the Juno award for Canadian Rock Album of the Year – the last woman to do that was Alanis Morrisette in 1996 with Jagged Little Pill

All this is after the best part of a decade getting precisely nowhere: the highest Jillian Dowding (as she was then) climbed was the bottom rung of the Canadian folk rock ladder singing back-up and co-lead in folk band the Royal Streets. The rest was a “hamster wheel” of pub gigs and open mics. At her lowest ebb, she was “stuck here in this shitty apartment/ Working four jobs to make ends meet” as she puts it in Wired. The most obvious escape route was to take a promotion at a Mercedes dealership, one of the jobs she actually liked. To remove the temptation, she quit and stuck with music.

The turning point for Wilde was getting the attention of Jason Murray of Black Box Music, the Ontario company which functions as her label and he as her manager. Murray set Wilde up with Frederik Thaae, a classically trained, multi-instrumentalist Dane, as her co-writer and producer. That creative and business triad rocketed Wilde to her current success.

Murray thinks he signed a ‘superstar’ in the making. Wilde’s second album will a major test of that when it finally arrives.

In the lull before that particular storm and before getting back on the road, Wilde talked to Louder from her home in Kitchener, Ontario.

Louder: You’ve just finished theatre and arena dates as the support for the Glorious Sons in Canada.

JJW: This past tour was actually my first time through Canada, the first time since having some radio success and having people actually know my music. Before that I’d been touring in the States playing smaller venues, so this past tour was a very big change from when there were fifty people in the crowd and they might know the songs, or they might not. Any venue is fun, but when there’s a massive crowd cheering, that’s going to make you feel good.

Your summer shows are again that mix of club dates and other artists’ huge audiences? Does your attitude and approach to gigs and crowds vary accordingly?

I don’t really think so. I try to give them the same kind of show. Sometimes it’s a little more challenging to get the energy up there with fewer people; I almost feel it’s more nerve-racking playing to the smaller crowds than it is to stadiums. Both deserve the same amount of energy and I try to give it out on stage every night no matter what the size of the venue is. The dates with the Scorpions are probably the biggest crowds I’ve played to so far. It just feels good to be playing again.

You’re talking from your home in Kitchener. For those who can’t picture Kitchener, it’s the populated bit of Ontario, not some backwoods place. 

It kind of is and it kind of isn’t. I’ve lived here my whole life. For me it’s just like ‘small town Kitchener’ but it does have a good music scene. There’s a blues scene and there’s a rock scene. If you’re playing bar gigs, there’s a great scene in Kitchener but it’s definitely not as big as Toronto, where you’ve got these legendary venues and so much more going on and the big-city vibe.

Tell me a bit more about those wilderness years in Kitchener before you got signed.

I started doing open mics before I could play bars. I think I started (playing in those) at 18, when I was younger than I should have been to be playing bars. It was always just me and an acoustic guitar and I’d do three-hour cover sets, literally for beer sometimes. And in between I’d try to play my originals that I was working on, just kind of sneak them in there. 

I did that for a few years and then I joined a folk band (the Royal Streets) with my friends from high school in Kitchener. I spent my early 20s touring Canada. I’m so glad I had those years. The band never went anywhere but it taught me so much about touring. We were always unsigned, completely independent so we did everything ourselves. It was literally a bunch of friends jumping in a van; we’d go from Ontario out west – and back. And we did the same thing out east and back, stopping anywhere we could, playing music in these tiny little bars. We must have played over three hundred shows. That ended and I started doing solo stuff again, bar gigs until I found my manager.

That’s when things changed quite suddenly for you in your late 20s: ten years of slog and then you were almost an overnight sensation. Connecting with your manager Jason Murray was absolutely key.

I was working with the Glorious Sons – old buddies of mine – he had signed to his label. He saw a video of us doing a practice of one of their songs. He thought OK, there’s something here. But it wasn’t actually for another couple of years that we ended up working together. We set up the meeting and I put all my eggs in this basket and then I didn’t hear from him for like a year. At the time I’d only sent him five of my songs. I was a little naïve: ‘Oh, these are my five best songs and they’re great.’ They were probably shit and I didn’t hear from him for a long time, so I thought I’d completely messed up this opportunity. 

Then later when I heard from him again, he asked if I had any new music. I thought I’m not making that mistake again and I sent him over 500 songs I had been working on – they weren’t all complete; some were just melodies, some of them we the first verse or the chorus. ‘You want to know what I’ve been working on, well here it is!”

He founded and heads Black Box Music. So there’s some industry power behind you. How does that function?

It is an independent label but when I was doing my first EP (Wilde Eyes, Steady Hands), we partnered with BMG, but that was just a partnership for a certain amount of stuff: one release. I’m not with them any more. For the next album we’re most likely to be partnering with another major label, but that hasn’t been sorted out yet. I’m still writing the album. I’m excited about it but it’s still in the works.

Will it be like Ruthless and the 2021 Wilde EP?

It will be a bit but I’ve really taken my time in trying to evolve the music. It’s been a crazy couple of years and there’s so much inner discovery that’s happened by being forced to be shut in your house and having part of my identity taken away when I couldn’t play shows. There was a lot of confusion: what do you do with yourself when the thing that you’ve dedicated time to isn’t happening?

So there was a lot of inner work and discovery and I want that to translate to the music, evolving the sound and exploring, you know, different things. But it’s still me singing the songs. It’s still me writing the songs. It will still be me and sound like me but I’m hoping in an elevated and different way.

Will you be working with Frederik Thaae again? He did fantastic work on Ruthless and Wilde.

No. This time I’m working with a different producer. I love Fred, he’s amazing, an absolute genius when it comes to music. I’ve released everything I’ve done so far with him and kind of wanted to explore different avenues. I have nothing but good things to say about Fred.

He’s in the BBC documentary Underestimate The Girl about Kate Nash.

Awesome, I have to watch it

He’s one of the good guys in it but most of the documentary is a cautionary tale about how the music business can chew you up and ruin your life, especially if you have success when you are young and a woman. The worst-case scenario for that is Amy Winehouse, who you’re a big fan of. Are you glad you didn’t have the success you have now when you were 19?

I think about that all the time. I’m very happy that the path has been laid out for me the way it has. I was a very, very different person when I was 19 than when I’m 29. I didn’t know who I was yet. For a lot of people that knowing yourself and confidence just comes with time and age and different experiences teaching you things. 

I’ve been very lucky with my label. They don’t pressure me to be in one lane or the other; they’re very supportive. When you’re 19, somebody without as much life experience… I can definitely see how you would get lost in that sea of people trying to push you in directions. At this stage in my life, I know who I am and good luck to anybody who tries to do that to me!

After all those folk years when did you realise: “Hey, you know what, I’m a Rock Singer”?

When I was in a folk band I absolutely loved it. When I write my songs still, they’re still pretty much folk songs. The rock aspect comes later when we’re pulling them apart: ‘Oh maybe the drums can do this’ and working with the producer. I love that aspect but I never really sat down and was like: “Now I’m going to do rock.” It just kinda came out. It was just the way it worked. And it’s a lot of fun on stage.

Also, your voice changed. You had vocal nodes and had to sing stronger and lower because of that.

Even now I’m still discovering my falsetto again; it’s so hit and miss and a little bit nerve-racking when I’m writing and I want my voice to go there. But it’s also exciting because it’s me re-learning how to sing, re-teaching myself to sing in different ways where I can get the note out. It sounds different than it used to.

And rock music gives you the opportunity to play around with a persona more than you would as a folk artist, for Jillian Dowding to be “JJ Wilde”?

I’ve never been big on having a persona. For me, you get what you get. I’m the same person. I might be a little more in my Rock Zone when I’m performing on stage, but it’s still me. It’s all just me. I’m not a good actor. I love it when artists do that but it’s just me on stage. I let everything out there and I don’t hold back. 

Outside of Canada, you’re probably most successful in France.

The first time I went to France was in 2020 and it was a risk when no-one was really travelling but we got in right at the right time and did a small radio circuit and had interviews, trying to get the music out there as best we could. I do speak a little bit of French, so I could attempt my interviews in French, which I think went a long way. And we ended up doing [French music TV show] Taratata. I love the concept of that show. I don’t think we have something like that here; it’s almost like a late night talk show but all music, showcasing different artists. 

It really took off from Taratata. The next time we came through, we did another interview circuit with different radio stations. Starting to make these connections felt amazing. We did our first headlining show in France and the response was insanely overwhelming in the best ways. We were expecting to get maybe 200 people out, that was the goal. It was almost sold out at 400. People were shoulder to shoulder in that room and singing the words to The Rush. It was one of the best experiences and I can’t wait to come back to France. Very loyal music fans.

We went to Classic 21 and that was the first time I’d ever been to Belgium. We sang the songs and had a great chat. I don’t know the rhyme or reason but they are into the music (in Belgium) and I cannot wait to come back.

Belgian radio doesn’t censor English language songs. I first heard Best Boy in the car in Belgium in the daytime. My son was in the back. After about 30 seconds in he goes: “Did that lady use the F-word?” He’s 10, by the way.

(Laughing). Oh my God!

I think the sexual politics were lost on him, but he does know a great rock song when he hears it, bless him. He wants to come to a gig. Is a JJ Wilde show suitable for a 10-year-old?

Yes and no. I guess that’s up to the parents. My nephews are seven, six and four and when I was playing in Canada, they were pretty close to one of the cities and they came to watch the show and were sitting side-stage, so they’re allowed. I did see lots of young women and younger kids. Yes, there is some swearing and all that but as far as the rest: it’s just a good old rock show.

Tell me about your band. They’re clearly important.

Yeah. I hand picked them. My cousin Dan (Bossenberry) plays guitar, obviously I’ve known him since I was born. He was in one of my bands when I was trying to do solo stuff before being signed, so he’s seen the entire journey. My other guitar player – JD (Smigelski) – I’ve known since I was 12. We went to Middle School together and he’s been part of the bar scene and playing in bands for pretty much his whole life. My bass and keys player Steve (Lavery), I’ve known him for five, six years, maybe more, through the Kitchener music scene. The newest member is Mitchell (Milley) and he’s the drummer – he’s the only one I didn’t know previously to the band. He did the auditions. He left music school to join my band!

Is winning the Juno old news for you now and you’re moving on?

I don’t think it’s ever going to be old news. I still can’t believe it myself. It’s brought up a lot of opportunities and I feel very grateful for it, but now I’m working to towards the next thing: the Grammys, you know! (laughs)

But seriously. How ambitious are you? If you play your cards right, you could get really big. 

It’s funny, I’ve never thought of goals like that. For me, it’s working on the music right now. I’m investing a lot into this new album, a lot emotionally and mentally, everything. So that is the short-term goal: ace this album and get it exactly the way I want it. Long term goal is to tour and make music for the rest of my life. If I’m doing that I’m happy. If that looks like 10,000 people I’m happy. If it looks like 500 people, I’m happy. I want to have longevity in my career. So building fans organically through live shows is the way I want to do it.

Your approach has been very old school: playing shows; getting on the radio; meeting fans at the merch table. That still works.

Here’s hopin’!

JJ Wilde plays throughout Canada in June, and comes to the UK and France in July 


Mark Andrews is from Warwickshire and lived and worked in the UK, Egypt and Belgium. His first book, Paint My Name In Black And Gold: The Rise Of The Sisters Of Mercy, is the definitive account of the early years of one of alt.rock's most original and influential bands. Mark has previously written for Louder about the Sisters of Mercy, as well as The Scientists, Gang Of Four (one of the last interviews with Andy Gill), The Mission, the Cramps, the Bad Seeds and more. He has also written for the Middle East Times, Bangkok Metro, Flanders Today and The Quietus.