April 30, 2010 at 10:24 am , by Ron Kelly
I first became a grateful “Red Head”—that is, a Jo Dee Messina fan—back in the late 80s. It was during Nashville’s Fan Fair, the CMA Music Festival’s former incarnation. Jo Dee was a rising country music star and I was in the TNN booth as a guest of the now defunct music channel. After sneaking up behind an up-and-coming male artist (who shall remain nameless) Jo Dee playfully jabbed his backside with her pen, turned to me, caught my eye and let out her awesomely raspy, trademark laugh. Good times! I knew back then she was one to look out for—both literally and figuratively—and nearly 12 years later, she’s still turning heads.
This Tuesday marked the release of Unmistakable: Love, the first of three Jo Dee Trilogy EPs set to drop this year, with Drive and Inspiration to follow. Love offers seven new tracks and two live acoustic favorites (“Because You Love Me” and “Stand Beside Me”). It’s great to have Jo Dee’s distinctive vocals (and laugh) back on the scene after a frustratingly long six-year absence, and I’m particularly digging the slow-build on “Think About Us” and the buoyant and fresh-sounding waltz, “Unmistakable.”
I sat down to chat with Jo Dee before a recent show during a weeklong gig at New York’s Feinstein’s at Loews Regency club in March. We talked about her marriage, her baby boy Noah, her pregnancy ritual of watching Live! With Regis and Kelly and even her desire to run this year’s NYC marathon. But in the end, we kept coming back to the music. Now, Jo Dee isn’t shy about her struggles with the “business” side of the music business. And it’s a shame that a talent like hers has been lost in the shuffle for the better part of the past six years. When she hit the stage that night, though—man, did she sound good. Plus, she’s funny, able to laugh at herself and clearly dedicated to her music and her fans, both on and off the stage. (Check out her frequent Make Something of It call-in video podcasts.)
Let’s hope Trilogy puts the music industry on red (head) alert that Jo Dee is back and sounding as strong as ever. Highlights from our interview, after the jump.
I read that you did more writing for the Trilogy CDs than on your other CDs?
Well, it’s been six years, so … yeah. The law of averages. I’ve done more for this record than most, but I’ve done a lot of writing. I’m getting braver. I’ve always been very intimidated. And for me, the best song always makes the record, so it isn’t always mine. But this one, we kind of did a little more experimenting in putting my stuff on the record.
And is there a different side of you that listeners will get to hear in the new songs?
I think there’s definitely been a softer side exposed, since I met my husband. I’m doing straightforward love songs, and since I had my son, we wrote “That’s God,” with him in mind.
What will diehard fans like about these new releases?
They’re gonna like the fact that there are three albums that will be released this year, and they’ll contain 18 new songs and 6 acoustic songs. It’s just a lot of material. They’ve waited six years for a record. They should get this amount of material, and so I’m excited for them to hear it. Some of it they might like, some of it they won’t like, but they’ll get to hear the experiments too. You know, the songs that weren’t going to make an 11-track record. They get to hear those as well.
Will anything surprise them?
There’s a song called “Hard Life” that’s not my typical style. It sounds more like a 50s song. It’s got the “mmm, ah-ah-ahs.” I don’t know how to write that! But they get to hear different styles of music. Stuff that we experiment with before we actually package a record. I’m excited about that.
Your Music Room tour is such a great concept, with its intimate, interactive Q&A format. What gave you the inspiration?
I knew the fans had known the music but they didn’t really know me as a person. I had a girl in Florida come up to me and tell me some story and I said, “That would totally hurt my feelings.” And she was, like, what do you mean? I said, “Well, that would hurt my feelings.” And she said, “You have your feelings hurt?” Yeah, I get my feelings hurt! And then she said she figured with songs like “Lessons in Leaving” and “Bye-Bye,” that I’d just let stuff roll off my back. And I said no, no, no. I definitely relate to those songs and I lean on them for empowerment and encouragement, but I get my feelings hurt. And it clicked. They know the music, but they don’t know the person.
And how have the shows been going?
The show takes on a life of its own. It’s a lot of fun. At first, I went out there and I stumbled over the first couple shows. I had to work out the quirks and the first few were a little bumpy. But then it was just—lay down the pride. This isn’t about me; it’s about the audience. What do they want to hear? What do they want to know? What do they have to say? How did they relate to the song—and then it just starts flowing.
Be honest: Are there any songs you dread getting requests for?
Sometimes I’ll dread “Burn” if my voice is really thrashed. If it’s hoarse, I dread that one. It’s just a rough song to sing if your voice isn’t in 100% condition.
On the flip side—any songs you’re kind of hoping do get requested?
“That’s God.” I wish more people got a chance to hear it. It was out for about two weeks and then my label changed its mind and decided it shouldn’t be a single … after they decided it should be a single. The first single for this album came out in March 2007, so that’s been happening.
How about your husband [Chris Deffenbaugh]? Are there any songs he’s partial to?
No, none of them. He’s a jazz guy.
Is your son musical?
Oh, he plays the piano and the guitar and the stand-up bass. Of course he beats on things, but he will make a conscious effort to go play the guitar or the piano. And he strums the guitar with his thumb. Pretty cool. He’s getting there. I’ll have him in lessons by the time he’s two-and-a-half. He’ll be sitting down every day after day care!
Will you be doing “You Were Just Here” tonight?
If we do it—and you’ll have to be brave enough to request it—but, if we do it, it’s always dead last. Because it is the most emotionally draining song. I heard it right after September 11. It’ll be last. And there will be no encore. [calling off to her band nearby] You should practice “You Were Just Here” just in case we get a request!
Well, I wasn’t brave enough to request it during the show. Jo Dee did it anyway, citing our earlier conversation and I soon realized why it drains her so much. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a singer throw herself so fully into a song like that. Exhausted as she exited the stage, she walked by and shot me a good-natured “I’m gonna kill you” look. Even if she does, it was worth it.
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