The award-winning Canadian singer, musician and songwriter on her writing process, working in Nashville, and her love of playing live
JJ Wilde is a songwriter, musician and powerhouse vocalist from Kitchener, Ontario. Having won a JUNO Award for Rock Album Of The Year for her debut album, 2020’s Ruthless, she followed that success with a pair of EPs in 2021. First was a self-titled collection of six songs that continued what Ruthless started, with tracks such as Bushweed and Best Boy adroitly balancing influences from heavy rock to hip hop. The second EP, Born To Die, was a collaboration with fellow Ontarian Billy Raffoul that allowed the songcraft at the centre of Wilde’s music to shine through.
Though these are songs that can be blasted out from a stereo or cherished under headphones, the live setting is the perfect home for Wilde’s music. With her energetic stage presence, the chemistry with her band and vocals that could go tonsil-to-tonsil with the likes of Pat Benatar, her gigs embolden and enliven every audience while running the full gamut of human emotion. That’s also down to the strength of her catalogue, from the anthemic The Rush to the heart-breaking Funeral For A Lover, there’s something for everyone in her set.
Having seen COVID decimate the live scene for a couple of years, taking a large part of Wilde’s identity with it, she made up for lost time in 2022 with a series of headline and support tours. We were lucky enough to chat with Wilde during the Canadian leg of her tour with The Glorious Sons…
Your music feels like it belongs on stage; it must have been tough to have that part of your life taken away for so long during the pandemic?
“Absolutely, it was tough. At the beginning, it felt like you didn’t really know what was going on. Nobody really knew, so there was a little bit of hope that it was just gonna blow over. And then, you know, as the years progressed, it was like, ‘Holy shit, what do I do with myself?’ My main focus in life was taken away. It was pretty intense. I cut my hair, I dyed my hair, cut up all my clothes… I did a lot of weird shit.”
Did you also channel that into your songwriting?
“Oh, absolutely, but I don’t think I wrote anything for three months because I was in shock. It took a while to be able to put that into words. I think a lot of the frustration and the not knowing, a lot of that came out in the music. But as well, there was a lot of hopefulness to it, you have to keep going somehow. Unfortunately, it turned into: every musician needs to be a TikTok artist now, which I think is bullshit.
“It was just a tough two years, a rollercoaster of emotions. It was highs and lows and feeling completely defeated, feeling like you don’t know what’s gonna come next. Then, all of a sudden, you’d feel this great high of, ‘I’m not gonna let this control what’s going on.’ But you’d then feel like shit the next day, and then feel great. It was so many highs and lows.”
Do you have a very strict process where you have to write every day?
“No, I don’t write every day. I have to be inspired in some way and that could honestly be anything. Sometimes I’ll take my phone out and start humming something. There’s no one way of doing it. Whenever I feel inspired, I get this certain feeling and then I have to grab my guitar or sit down at a piano and just get it out. This has been an interesting little bit because I’ve been on the road now for about four months, on and off. I don’t typically write that much on the road, because you’re going constantly and then on my days off I’m resting my voice.
“So it’s one good day of rest and it’s right back out there, so I don’t typically write a lot on the road. So this has been weird because I’ve been on the road so much. But I’ve been recording in Nashville. So it’ll be a chunk of the tour and then I go down and I start recording. And everything that I wanted to write about, just comes out in like two weeks. It’s been a very intense period of writing, where usually – at least in the pandemic when there wasn’t that much going on – I had all the time in the world. I’d go out and sit in the backyard and just write for three hours. Maybe a song came out of it, maybe it didn’t.”
It sounds like, without always knowing it, when you’re not writing you’re storing up ideas and inspiration which then pour out of you when the time is right…
“Yeah, honestly, that’s kind of what it is. I feel like that happens with my writing in general anyways. Whenever I’m going through something, personally, I never write about it when I’m going through it. Then two weeks later, I’ll write five songs about it. It’s my way of processing after the fact. I remember, when I was younger, writing about a breakup before it happened. Then two weeks later, we broke up and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what that was about.’”
How does the Nashville experience compare with what you’ve done previously?
“I’ve actually loved it. I’ve been very particular with who I’m writing with on this one. The first trip was getting to know people. I think the biggest room I was in was just me and two other people – I like to keep things pretty small. I don’t care for too many cooks in the kitchen. But yeah, it’s been great. I’ve been working with my producer, Austin Goodloe, and he’s been co-writing everything with me. I’ve also brought songs that I’ve written previously to him.
“He’s got a setup in a studio where it feels like it’s someone’s living room, like it’s part of an old house that they’ve converted into writing rooms and studios and whatnot. It’s very laidback; we hang out, we smoke some weed, and we write some songs. Those aren’t work trips, it’s so much fun being able to do that, and make friends with people, share stories… One session, I think we just talked for three hours and it was like, ‘We might get a song today or we don’t.’ It’s building that kind of relationship where you feel comfortable, being completely vulnerable in front of the person. Talking about your deepest emotions and feelings, that you don’t really want to tell anybody. And yet, you’re putting it out for people to hear.
“It’s been amazing. It’s been very therapeutic. It’s been exciting to write and be in the studio again, and I’m liking that we go really into detail about guitar parts and the drums and writing all of those aspects together.”
Have you always been quite hands-on with production?
“Yeah, always. Before it was my producer Frederick Fay and I doing it all. So it’s similar in a way where it’s the two of us doing a lot of it. But we went into Blackbird Studio this time, in Nashville. We were in Studio A which is like, insane. The people that have recorded there, holy shit. It was a dream to be in that room. I mean, one of my favourite bands, Kings Of Leon recorded one of my favourite albums there. So that was a different experience. Previously, Fred and I would do everything and he would pretty much play every instrument and then get his buddy to do drums.
“In this case, we had Austin’s friends come in, a five-piece band, and work up the record, almost live off the floor. We were all playing it at the same time, doing full takes. That was really cool, to be a part of that was very different from what I’ve done previously.
Did you find it inspiring or overwhelming at first to be in that studio where so many great albums have been made?
“I’d say day one, it was very, business-like, like, ‘Let’s get to work.’ Then day two, we started drinking mimosas at 10am and smoking weed. It was just a fun time and it was very relaxed. The guys are amazing. I was able to communicate with them and they really respect that it’s my vision. They’re not trying to take it away from that. They were very respectful in trying to get the best thing for the song. It was so fun to watch them work and watch Austin work with them, completely in his element.”
Is that a skill that you’ve learned, respecting the people in the room but maintaining ownership of the song?
“I definitely think the more rooms I’m in, the better I get at it. It’s not even maintaining control, it’s maintaining the integrity of myself and my feelings. I dial in more to that, in my own self, and it’s easier to come across as, ‘This is the way it is. These are my songs and I’m very attached to them.’ It doesn’t even need to be a conversation, most musicians respect that. But definitely, you get in certain rooms and you need to remember to put your foot down and stand up for yourself.
“I don’t think it’s ever that somebody’s trying to take the song away. I think it’s them getting excited or doing things the way that they do it. There’s nothing wrong with that but, as the artist, it’s up to you to say, ‘Okay, I love what you’re doing. But this is what I do.’ It’s usually a very easy conversation. Austin and I have been learning that new relationship as well, of working together. As soon as he starts to bring it a little bit too far into say a country zone, or it’s not sounding exactly right, it’s like, ‘Hey, I love that, but can we change this tone a little bit to make it sound more like this?’ Then it becomes a fun collaborative thing.
“There are no egos in the room, and then we start experimenting with tones, and it becomes an hour of fun. It’s not necessarily a competitive thing or trying to put my foot down. It’s just making sure that I maintain the integrity of my artistic vision.”
When does that vision come to you? Is it a journey that you’re happy for the song to lead you on?
“I think it’s a journey. I can always picture it, constantly, but I don’t want to get too attached to it. Part of the fun is, is seeing where it can go. If you’re too sold on the idea, you end up losing what it could be. So I have one song that I’m working on and I brought it in as an acoustic demo. We’ve taken it, sped it up and then slowed it down, tried this and tried that, it’s part of the fun. Sometimes I’ll write a ballad that ends up being an awesome rock song, you just had to bump up the BPM a little bit. I never like to get too attached to a demo because I don’t want to lose out on what can be.”
Can you think of any examples where a song started in one place and went somewhere completely different?
“Oh my gosh, well, The Rush for example. When I was writing it, it was slow and it was this kind of druggie thing. Also, Cold Shoulders is the same. I wrote that as a very slow, kind of emotive song. Then we tried recording it that way, like a ballad. Deep, deep somewhere, there’s a demo of that song and it sounds completely different. I remember in the studio, I was working with my producer Fred at the time and he was like, ‘I don’t know, I’m not feeling it. Let me try something and tell me if you hate it.’
“He sped it up and put this swing to it. Before, it was very straight ahead, a completely different song. As we sped it up and put this drum swing to it, I was like, ‘Holy shit, that’s completely changed where it’s going, but I like it.’ Then we rewrote the instrumentals to go in that direction. I’m so happy we did because it was supposed to end up like that. If I’d been too stubborn about the way I wrote it, we would have never gotten there and it probably wouldn’t have made the album.”
We were talking about being on tour and how great your music is live – does that ever come into your thinking in the writing process? Are you thinking about whether a song is going to go down well on stage?
“Definitely, I think about the live set. I think about that when I’m building out the song with my producer. What I picture the most is how it’s going to translate live, and make sure that we can achieve everything without having to use tracks. It’s always got to be something that we can recreate on the stage. If anything, we trigger sounds with the drums, but we never use tracks. So that’s always in my head as well, when we’re layering these parts. You want to be sure that you can recreate it, and it’s not going to sound small.
“There’s one song in particular that I’m really excited about. It’s unreleased, from my last Nashville trip. When we were writing, it was just like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait to play this live.’”
And even in terms of the words you’re singing, or the way you’re singing them, is that also influenced by the fact that you’re going to be performing them live?
“Honestly, no, I feel like that comes pretty naturally in the writing process. The way I write, it’s usually improvising over a guitar, or whatever our first instrument is. So I don’t typically write something that I’m not going to want to say or that I’m not comfortable belting out. There’s not too much thought there, it’s mostly intuitive and it just happens in the moment.”
Almost like you’re freestyling?
“Yeah, exactly. Then, as the song takes shape, we’ll fine-tune and go in and change lyrics. There’s definitely a little bit of thinking then, about the cadence of things; what sounds really good or what goes together. But for me, it’s more about the cleverness of the song, or the integrity of the song, it’s not so much about me singing it, I think that just comes naturally.”
Where does that ability to freestyle or improvise come from?
“I honestly have no idea. It’s just been the way I’ve started. How I fell in love with writing was, sitting down, only knowing about five chords on the guitar and singing my heart out. Whatever was coming out was coming out. It was this freedom of expression and emotion and that’s what made me fall in love with music – getting that release. That’s always how I’ve done it, ever since then. The song then takes shape and you fine-tune and you do things, but the initial part always starts the same way, with improvisation.”
We thought it might have come from a hip-hop background, because we can hear elements of that, as well as rock and many other genres, in your music…
“It’s funny, rock is probably the genre I listen to the least. I listen to a lot of singer-songwriter stuff. I love good lyrics and storytelling. I listen to classical music, I listen to country music, I listen to hip-hop, rap… I listen to R&B, absolutely everything. So I don’t really know where I’m pulling from when I’m writing. I’ve tried to expand my musical horizons so that there are many influences and it doesn’t sound like one thing. That’s intentional, but also I just love music and it’s fun to explore different genres.”
Would you say that having fun and feeling relaxed are essential to your creative process?
“Absolutely, it’s a big part of it. As well, it’s trusting who you’re working with and getting that camaraderie and friendship before you let your heart out. I think that’s really important. If you’re not comfortable in the room, you’re won’t let yourself be free to express.”
Is there one song that you’d hold up as an example of where you absolutely nailed it?
“One of my favourite songs is Feelings. It’s not a single, it’s probably one of the weirder songs, but it’s my favourite. It was a day where we had pretty much finished the album, it was the last day and we were like, ‘Let’s just have fun.’ There was no pressure and it wasn’t trying to sound like anything. It wasn’t trying to be on the radio, it wasn’t trying to do anything, and it was one of my favourite days in the studio because it was just so relaxed and it was fun and experimental. We used different things to make sounds, like rain sticks and weird shit like that. That is probably my favourite part of the creation: when it gets down to the weird details. To me, that song has the weirdest detail, so that’s my favourite.”