Dig it! This Jem wants to shine
April 22nd, 2004
By COURTENEY STUART STUART@READTHEHOOK.COM
As reigning king of rock, Dave Matthews has often knighted unknown princes. The Gin Blossoms, Ben Harper, and David Gray all benefited from Dave's magic touch. Now, an unknown Welsh woman-- and at 28, nobody's calling her a girl-- will test whether Dave's magic can work for women, too.
Was it signing with Matthews' label, ATO Records, that propelled Jem's freshman effort, Finally Woken, into the hands of critics across the country? Or her own talent and drive?
Either way, there's no doubt that Jem has scored high marks in national reviews.
Tom Moon in the Philadelphia Inquirer says Jem fits neatly between Dido and Liz Phair thanks to her "sharp hook instincts, an ear for looped rhythm programming, and a slightly optimistic outlook."
Kind words, no doubt. But good reviews don't always correlate to soaring sales.
For Jem they do, says Jem's publicist Allison Elbl, noting that sales of the new album have been "extremely strong"-- earning it a spot on Billboard's Heatseekers chart. That's a list of best-selling titles by "new and developing artists"-- those who have never appeared in the top 100 of The Billboard 200 chart.
According to Elbl, Jem's album sold 6,000 copies its first week and was up to 11,000 by the end of week two, especially impressive, she says, "for an independent record that doesn't have major airplay yet."
If critics are to be believed, major airplay may be right around the corner.
"Jem's first full-length CD shows why she has the buzz to go along with her celestial vocals and cool trip-hop beats," writes People's Chuck Arnold, who in addition to awarding it three out of four stars, gave the album the "critic's choice" stamp of approval.
While a DMB release is typically measured in hundreds of thousands, Jonathan Cohen, news and reviews editor at Billboard.com, says Jem's early sales are strong.
"Eleven thousand copies in two weeks," he says, "to me is a pretty great start for a project like this."
Although early sales figures for DMB's first album, 1993's Remember Two Things, are not available, Cohen notes that album never made the Heatseekers chart on its first release. (It was the band's second album, 1994's Under the Table and Dreaming, that skipped Heatseekers and went straight to the Billboard 200, says Cohen.)
So Jem's already a step ahead of DMB in some ways. How does it feel to have fame knocking at the door?
"Bizarre, actually," says Jem from her Los Angeles hotel room in early April. "I've been so busy I started staying up until 3 or 4am just to have time for myself," she says.
A day before this interview, the L.A. Times heralded her arrival by claiming "the city has already adopted Jem as if she were one of its own." A good thing, since she left her best friends and even her sister/manager back in the U.K. to follow her dream.
Jem-- who also co-wrote "Nothing Fails" on Madonna's latest album, American Life-- says she "can't quite comprehend" all the attention.
Perhaps that's because it's all so new.
Unlike stars such as Britney, Christina, or Jessica, who made singing debuts while still in their single-digits, Jem's star potential wasn't always obvious.
Born and raised in Cardiff, Wales (a city known for another famous singer, Charlotte Church), Jem, born Jemma Griffiths, says her parents were always supportive of their four children's musical interests but never pushed them.
"We were not a prodigy family," she laughs-- although her mother sang in a choir, and her father frequently strummed "American Pie."
Still, her dad's rendition of the Don McLean classic must have done something to his brood. Jem's younger brother and sister are also in a band, the punk-rock/rap group Weapons of Mass Belief, which played recently at the South By Southwest festival in Austin.
In 1996, after earning a law degree from University of Sussex in Brighton, a popular holiday resort about 60 miles south of London, Jem began working as a DJ, making friends-- and a name for herself-- in Brighton's lively music scene. She soon left club promotions to start a hip-hop label, Marine Parade, but it wasn't long before the urge to make her own music became too strong to ignore.
"I always knew I'd be a singer," she explains.
In 2000, Jem set out to make that dream happen. She spent the next three years writing and dropping off demos. She even sent a letter in Braille to Stevie Wonder, asking if he would produce her album. She got no response.
During a 2002 trip to Los Angeles to visit friends, Jem stopped by independent radio station KCRW to leave a demo of her song "Finally Woken." The stars, it seems, aligned that day.
Nic Harcourt-- the DJ credited with being the first American to play such huge names as Coldplay, Norah Jones, and Dido--was on vacation, but when he returned, he listened to the demo and quickly began playing it on-air.
"I'm always somebody who is attracted to something that sounds different from the other stuff I'm listening to," says Harcourt, whose show, "Morning Becomes Eclectic," has become must-listening for big names in the music business.
Several of those big names paid attention, among them Bruce Flohr, who first signed the Dave Matthews Band back in 1993.
Jem says she initially put off meeting with Flohr because of his "rock focus." But after a variety of meetings with other labels, none of which felt quite right, she reconsidered. "Maybe," she thought, "I should go meet that rock'n'roll guy."
Flohr, then a top-level A&R (artist and repertoire) rep for RCA, was also having second thoughts about that meeting. He was in the middle of packing to move east from L.A. to Charlottesville to take the A&R reigns at the record company founded by Matthews.
ATO Records, best known for introducing America to David Gray, officially stands for According to Our Records. The company was formed in 1999 by Matthews, DMB manager Coran Capshaw, Michael McDonald, and Chris Tetzeli.
With offices in Charlottesville and New York, ATO considers itself an RCA "incubator," says Flohr. He explains that ATO handles records until sales figures reach "the next level." At that point, he says, ATO and RCA get together for joint releases.
Flohr says after working for years with DMB under the RCA label, "it was an easy segue for me to be adopted into their family."
Thinking more about finishing his move and less about the musician sitting in his office, Flohr says his meeting with Jem could have gone nowhere. Instead, it became a pivotal moment in a young artist's career.
After listening to a few songs, Flohr says, he "immediately panicked" and forgot all about packing.
"I thought, 'How do I not let this girl out the door without signing her?'" he recalls.
He quickly got ATO top brass to listen to her demos, and the feeling was unanimous.
"Everyone absolutely adored the music," says Flohr.
Capshaw, a man of few public pronouncements, agrees.
"Jem," he says, "is one of those artists, and Finally Woken is one of those
records, that no matter who you are or where you are the music touches you."
The warm fuzzies are mutual. Jem says signing with ATO is like "working with friends."
A big part of that, she says, is ATO's "artist friendly" attitude, something she attributes in large part to Matthews.
"He's such a funny guy," says Jem, who reportedly hadn't heard of DMB when she first arrived in the U.S. "He's wicked," she says. "I really like him a lot."
And he's been a mentor for her as well.
"If I wanted to ask him a question," she explains, "he'd call back immediately.
The Hook was not so lucky; messages left for Matthews were not returned.
Flohr says he, like Jem, was attracted to ATO for its unusual take on the music industry. After well over a dozen years at RCA-- and signing big names including the Foo Fighters and Lit, in addition to DMB-- Flohr says working for ATO is a welcome change.
Instead of worrying about making a buck, ATO, Flohr says, is built around the artists' careers.
"The difference in the schools of thought is mind boggling," he says. "No one at ATO is scared of failing."
And there have been failures. Consider Chris Whitley, critically acclaimed singer whose third album, Rocket House, was released by ATO in June 2001. A month later, according to the DMB fansite, nancies.org, Whitley "had to be escorted from the stage" after allegedly singing inaudibly and asking the audience for marijuana.
He was removed as opening act from the DMB tour that summer, and the November posting on nancies.org reports that Whitley's name had been removed from the ATO artists' listing, and that he had presumably been dropped.
Fortunately for ATO, another artist, David Gray, had stepped into the spotlight. After four previous albums, which did well in the U.K. but never took off in America, Gray re-released his fourth album, White Ladder, on ATO in 2000. The single "Babylon" made a steady climb up college and alternative charts, and the album eventually went double platinum in the U.S.
Since then, ATO has welcomed a variety of other artists: Ben Kweller, Patty Griffin, South African Vusi Mahlasela, and of course, Jem, who says ATO's slow-burn approach makes sense. [See sidebar on ATO artists.]
Unlike other labels, ATO officials say they do not believe in the quick media blitz-- radio and MTV video-- for a single song, which Flohr says too often results in a one-hit wonder. (Who can forget Toni Basil singing "Oh Mickey" while leaping around in her cheerleader uniform?)
With Jem, says Flohr, "we've taken a much longer route."
Last fall, in preparation for the March 23 release of the full length album, ATO released a Jem EP, It All Starts Here. To celebrate, ATO held a reception at Starr Hill where Jem charmed members of the local media.
"She's a sweetheart," says WNRN's Mike Friend. "Very nice, very talented. If Courtney Love is at one end of the spectrum," he laughs, "Jem is at the other."
The warm reception to the music-- and to the spritely singer/songwriter-- was encouraging, says Flohr, demonstrating "how Charlottesville as a town has embraced this girl from Wales, musically and as a person."
Jem says she's trying to take it all in stride.
"The fame thing," she says, "is very strange." While she can still go out freely without being recognized, she says various things are happening that may change that. For instance, while talking to a saleswoman on a recent shopping trip to Nordstrom, she realized that the music coming over the loudspeaker was hers.
"I went bright red," she says, "and started laughing my head off."
Apparently there's something about Jem's music that goes well with shopping, as two Charlottesville boutiques, Eloise and Dot2Dot, both on Water Street, have been playing the EP and the full-length album.
"It's upbeat and reminds me of a summer day," says Dot2Dot employee Suellen Leonard.
"Customers have asked who's playing and then run next door to Spencer's to buy the CD," says Amy Kolbrenner, co-owner of Eloise.
Eloise manager Alexandra Webb says she and her coworkers play Jem and DMB on a regular basis. Jem's music, she says, "keeps the momentum going in the store," while DMB is "more soothing and mellow. We enjoy both of them very much."
Indeed, Jem may benefit from a crossover market.
"I love it," gushes Waldo Jaquith, creator of the award-winning nancies.org site, referring to Jem. "I am, as I tend to do with music, obsessing over it, listening to 'Save Me' and 'Wish I' over and over again until, inevitably, I will get sick of it, through nobody's fault but my own."
But despite the tidal wave of praise, there are those who find Finally Woken, well, snooze-worthy.
"It's boring," says Jacob Kinnard, a JMU professor and fan of lesser-known singers such as Vic Chesnutt. "She has no pathos," he explains.
Pathos or no, it's nice to feel like Jem somehow belongs to Charlottesville. But she's now actually an L.A. girl. Since moving to California, Jem says she's relying on ATO's support and her age, 28, relatively advanced for a female newcomer to the pop world. But though some might say it'll be hard to compete against the crop of teen stars, Jem says her years are actually an advantage.
"I'm not someone who needs a babysitter," she explains.
While the recent cross-Atlantic move was "stressful," she says, "there's something really nice about getting here. It should be calming for me."
"Calming" may be optimistic, considering Jem's schedule over the next six months.
She'll be seen (and heard) performing her own version of Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed" on the May 5 season finale of Fox's ber-popular teen-show The O.C. (Her song "They" has already been featured on the show, says ATO's Elbl.)
She's currently auditioning band members, and as soon as they're hired, she'll need to start rehearsing in preparation for the touring she plans to start in June. She'll open several shows for DMB this summer (dates TBA), and she'll also play at Bonnaroo, a massive three-day throw-down in Manchester, Tennessee (June 11-13) with huge names like The Dead, Bob Dylan, Ani DiFranco and, of course, DMB. Another Charlottesville band, The Hackensaw Boys, will appear as will ATO band, My Morning Jacket.
All this action may come as a shock to Jem, considering her first U.S. performance happened just a few months ago, at the holiday party L.A. radio station KCRW threw last December.
But in the midst of criss-crossing the country, Jem will likely fly east sometime this summer, Flohr says, for a CD release party at Starr Hill-- a way to recognize the role Charlottesville has played in her budding career.
"Charlottesville's become a test market for Jem," says Flohr. "It's helped us realize we have something special here."
While Charlottesvillians watch to see where Jem's career takes her, Jem says she'll continue working a grueling schedule-- 16 to 18 hours many days. But she doesn't mind the hard work.
"I'm so happy and grateful," she says, "that I'm able to be in a different country, really enjoying myself, and doing what I want."
Flohr says it's that positive attitude, along with her drive and her "confidence without being arrogant" that will take her to the top.
"She has the type of vision," he says, "that usually develops into a career."
We'll just have to wait and see.