Vocalist Jessie Wagner can make any music soar

Jessie Wagner's vocals have heightened the music of artists like Kid Rock, Lenny Kravitz, Chic, Duran Duran and others. On Wagner's new album, "Shoes Droppin," her vocal talents once again have a chance to truly soar.
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Jessie Wagner, publicity photo.

Jessie Wagner, publicity photo.

By Ray Chelstowski

I recently spoke with Nils Lofgren about his new live album Weathered, a record that captures the best of last year’s tour. It was his first outing with a live band in almost 15 years and he decided to really change things up by adding vocalist Cindy Mizelle to the mix. They had met out on the road through E Street and her resume includes backing everyone from Whitney Houston to Steely Dan. On the new Nils record her contributions add an incredible amount of dimension to the music. We talked about how her impact was similar to Merry Clayton’s vocals on The Rolling Stones track “Gimme Shelter”. They just transform the music and lift it a few stories above what you once knew as the ground floor. Jessie Wagner is an artist whose vocals have done just that and more for artists like Kid Rock and Lenny Kravitz, and bands like Chic and Duran Duran. Her talents transcend the music you’ve come to love and carry it to a place where everything has a chance to truly soar. This isn’t common. It’s rare.

I became aware of Jessie after she joined Steve Van Zandt’s Disciples of Soul. There on a stage riser, with Tania Jones and Sara Devine, she puts on an artistic clinic of visual and sonic brilliance. At a Disciples of Soul show that riser can command your attention throughout the night and quiet even the most scorching sax solo the Miami horns have decided to pack in their holster. So it’s really no surprise that when that tour came to a close Steve Van Zandt would express interest in the solo material she had just recorded. That cleared the way for her to join the roster at his Wicked Cool Records.

The result is Shoes Droppin, a collection of music that is personal and at times remarkably intimate. In those moments the fire storm she is capable of showing at a Kid Rock show are considerably quieted and she begins to channel the tender vocal dexterity of a Phoebe Snow or a Roberta Flack. While the music in these moments is soul tinged it has a form that shares its footing with Laurel Canyon.

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The music doesn’t completely ignore her past and there are some fine retro R&B singles like “End of Time”. These are tight, tuneful, and appropriately playful, much like how she approaches live music. Arguably the finest track on the record is the bold, firm, majestic march “Caretaker”, a song that has reference points to a personal struggle she managed through over the past few years. Those difficult moments inform the balance of a record that should quickly set Jessie on a path that keeps her upfront, leading the band. This is someone born to create music that explores a talent spectrum capable of moving across wide genres with ease. Her range here is as diverse as anything her old boss Lenny Kravitz has taken a swing at. Maybe more…

We caught up with her recently on how the record came about, how her talents were shaped, and what may lie ahead.

GOLDMINE: So congratulations! This is a really interesting record. When you were growing up in Virginia what musical influences helped shape the artist you’ve become?

JESSE WAGNER: I was drawn to so many different kinds of music. In my house my mom made sure that we never just listened to one thing. Growing up I listened to a lot of Nancy Wilson and even Karen Carpenter. She was a big influence of mine and I notice sometimes that I have certain affectations in my voice that connect to Nancy Wilson’s style. As I got older I started to listen to a little more R&B and rock, and then every woman’s go to, Tina Turner. I feel like everyone I listen to I pull a little bit from. There’s even a song on my record that I feel is my homage to Joni Mitchell. You kind of hear all of the different genres that I grew up with in my sound.

GM: Compared to the kind of acts that you’ve supported on tour this record is very different. This is very much a personal singer songwriter kind of outing.

JW: That’s spot on. This record came out of a very difficult time in my life and after a while I decided that I finally had to release these songs. Not all of them were written at that particular time; a few that anchor the record were. It is very personal and is more of a singer songwriter project. I sing songs for other people and get hired to do session work. So I have dance music out there and I have my own rock music because there’s a side that’s very much rock-influenced. This one came from a different side of me, a different place and vulnerability that I haven’t expressed in anything I have ever written before.

GM: What’s your songwriting process like?

JW: I think artists are always kind of tweaking here and there to make sure that the flow sounds the way you want it to. Here I just kind of went with “This is who I am” and I think vocally my sound kind of ties it all together. There wasn’t any preconceived concept that I had to make it all fit.

GM: You really demonstrate a good amount of restraint and control on many of the songs.

JW: The songs are a reflection of where I was and I couldn’t make them something that they weren’t. It was more about vulnerability. I wasn’t here to show off what I can do with my vocal abilities. Instead, I’m bearing my soul, especially on songs like “Caretaker”. That one is about me grappling with this whole industry and wasn’t really about demonstrating how many runs I can add to a song. I also have a Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings type of song in “My Darling My Dear” where I do get to stretch out. But the song lends itself to this.

GM: The real standout song for me here “Caretaker”. It’s written so well that I can see it being recorded in multiple genres including country.

JW: That happens to be my favorite song on the whole record! That one came very organically. Shoes Droppin was the catalyst for me to write more songs about my experience at that time but I think that “Caretaker” came second.

GM: How does Steve Van Zandt approach your career journey when you join his label? Is he hands on, hands off?

JW: The funny thing is that we had just finished our tour and I was finally free to finish up my project. I had the songs that were already written and then I had a few more that were lying around and I kinda put together the package of the record. When I went to Steve I asked “would you listen to this?” I also wanted his advice on how to put together a tour because I had never toured on my own as “Jessie Wagner.” He said “let’s sit down and talk.” So I’m thinking that I should arrive with my notebook, pen and paper, ready to take down all of these notes and he goes “Ya know I like it, I like it a lot.” I was already flabbergasted that he took the time to listen to these songs. It was amazing to me because he was the first artist that I worked with that I decided to share my stuff. He said “I like it, I don’t know what it is but I like it!” (laughs). To me it was a huge compliment and it confirmed that I am a little bit of everything. He said that he thought that I would be an interesting fit at Wicked Cool because I’m not particularly like any other artist he has worked with. I felt a real kinship with him and it all happened within a few weeks.

GM: From what I can see Kid Rock and others gave you some real showcase moments where you could step forward and really show your stuff. Did that give you a different kind of confidence?

JW: It’s actually harder to do a show where you’re fronting your band in a smaller venue. When you’re with someone else and they give you a moment you know you’re in front of hundreds of thousands of people. But when you’re in that more intimate setting it’s all on your shoulders and it’s terrifying. Not that it wasn’t scary to do some of the things that I did with Kid Rock. Right after Michael Jackson’s death we did a tribute because we were in Detroit. So we performed “ABC”. That’s something that you don’t want to screw up. That was very intimidating. But when I came out with Kid (Rock) and when I came out with Chic it was more exhilarating than anything. Having those moments where I could piggy back off the stars is a push to help keep you motivated.

GM: You have performed live covers of songs like Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark". Did you contemplate any covers for the record?

JW: That was suggested when I was putting out my single. I wracked my brain trying to think about what cover I could do and I just couldn’t think of anything that really settled with me. I had such a short moment to get it done. Fortunately I was able to pull from my catalog of songs and I had a demo that was kind of half done. It was a really cool kind of fun break up song that I thought would fit.

GM: Fellow “Disciple” Eddie Manion helped chart the horn lines. You have a wide range of musical relationships so how do you decide who joins you on the record?

JW: I don’t tend to seek new people out. I take suggestions but I tend to stay with the people I trust. That’s why I had Dave Diamond (Bob Weir, Derek Trucks) produce this album. He’s my drummer and he is very intuitive. He’s also great at putting concepts and things together. I stay with the circle I trust and with Eddie that was a no brainer. I’d say “I hear horns on this one. Eddie, whaddya got?!” I love him so much. I sent him four songs in their demo stage and a week later we were on the flight to Australia and he’s like “Jess, look. I’ve got charts!” I had no idea that he would take to it so quickly and do it so brilliantly. So yeah I have my “go to’s” and I trust them.

GM: Is your rock band Envy still an outlet for you or it is on the back burner?

JW: It’s on the backburner but it’s not burnt! We call ourselves Army of the Underdog now. It was a different phase of my life and there was a lot of good stuff that came out of it. I was able to garner a lot of rock fans that fell in love with the band and who still follow me now. I don’t think that part of me is dead; I just had to do this Jessie Wagner project first. I would love to get back to that and maybe do an EP with my guys because when I’m on stage I’m an energetic person. When I’m with Army of the Underdog I can express that side of me in a rock form.

GM: You have been able to support some bands that you really loved growing up. Is there a dream job out there backing someone that would get you to put a solo career on hold?

JW: You know I always wanted to tour with Lenny Kravitz and I got that chance. So aside from the GOAT, the one every female wants to be, Tina Turner and shaking my tail feather with her I got to tour with Lenny Kravitz. He is another artist (like me) who explores many different sounds. He has a core thing but if you listen to “Let Love Rule” to “It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over” – it’s just two very different sounds. I’m just attracted to artists that experiment and to me his is an experiment that still rocks! I always wanted to be the female version of Lenny Kravitz. Working with him, that was a real check mark!

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