Friday, July 4, 2014

Ten Questions With......J.J. Thames

Singer J.J. Thames is only in her early 30's, but she has been performing since she was 9 and has performed all over the world as a backing vocalist for blues/R&B stars like Marvin Sease, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Peggy Scott Adams, Willie Clayton, and Denise LaSalle. 

The lovely singer has also backed reggae-rockers Outlaw Nation, Fishbone, Bad Brains, 311, and Slightly Stoopid. She owns a stunning voice comfortable singing deep Southern soul or traditional blues, and you can hear just how great she is on her wonderful debut recording, Tell You What I Know, on Grady Champion's brand new label, DeChamp Records.  The disc contains 11 tracks, ten originals written by Thames, producers Champion and Sam Brady, Eddie Cotton (who also plays guitar on several tracks), Frederick Knight, Jon and Sally Tiven, and Jim McCormick

I think you are going to be hearing a lot more from this talented vocalist over the next few years.  She's definitely on the fast track for greater things.  Ms. Thames graciously agreed to sit down with Friday Blues Fix for Ten Questions, so now's your chance to learn more about this up-and-coming artist.  We at FBF thank Ms. Thames for participating:

Ten Questions With......J.J. Thames 

Friday Blues Fix:  What singers have influenced your style?  Certainly there have to be some blues and soul singers in there, but are there any singers from other genres that you learned from?   

J.J. Thames:  Being classically, and Jazz trained...My early influences came from those genres...They include
Billie Holiday, Rachelle Ferrell, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughan, and Nancy Wilson. A classical voice that I emulated for a long time (and still do) is lyric and coloratura soprano Kathleen Battle. I used her songs to work on my range and improvemy tone, as hers is very pure.

When it comes to blues and soul, there’s Phyllis Hyman, Ruth Brown, Etta James, Esther
Phillips, Angela Bofill, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner (During her Ike and Tina years), Whitney
Houston, Gladys Knight, Ann Peebles, Marvin Gaye, John Lee Hooker, Otis Redding, James
Brown, Ben E. King, and Al Green.

In my preteen/teenaged years, I was submerged in Rock, Reggae, PunkRock, Grunge and
Alternative Rock Music. I even had a garage band by the name of “Psychedelic Freedom”, we
played covers and originals with the sounds of all the above. I now realize that many of the bands
that I listened to had blues foundations and had covered many blues songs. Those bands included: Nirvana, The Police, U2, Coldplay, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Rolling Stones, Bad Brains, Green Day, The Ramones, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, Silverchair, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Yabby You, The Israel Vibrations, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Pink Floyd, and Aerosmith..

In my late teens and early twenties, I was a rapper, and spoken word artist. I listened to a lot of old school hip-hop, and copied their rhythms...everything from, Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest, Run DMC, Camp Lo, Pharcyde, Guru, Queen Latifah, Outkast, Most Def, Common, Lauryn Hill and the Fugees.

On the other side of the coin, I listened to and am still influenced by a lot of sounds from trip hop.
Nuances from artists like Portishead and Moorcheba can be found in my music...especially my live shows, where my band and I blend all the aforementioned genres together. At a Live JJ Thames show, you never know what you’re going to get...I’d like to think that it’s magical. The thing that remains constant is the blues foundation underlying all of the music.

I just love music overall, I listen to EVERYTHING, I learn from EVERYTHING. Even sounds in nature...I find myself trying to mimic all kinds of sounds with my voice, ranging from muted trumpets. and a wahwah muted trombone, to a train whistle or birds chirping...they all are beautiful sounds and can be used in voicing a song.

FBF:  You started performing at a very young age…..did you ever want to do anything besides being a singer?

JJT:  I know that most people have the story of wanting to be a singer or musician all of their lives. I,
unfortunately, as cool as it would sound, would be pontificating if I said that was the case. I really
didn't have any direction growing up, or one particular dream or destination. My father just used to tell me I could do anything that I set my mind to. So, I went from wanting to be a novel writer, to a plastic surgeon, to a bio-medical engineer, to a restaurateur, to a psychiatrist, to a financial adviser...I don’t think that I really embraced being a professional singer until I was maybe 13 or 14.  I was competing classically, and I felt that I had found something that I was naturally pretty okay at. I enjoyed the applause and the accolades. I had always sung myself to sleep every night since I was itty bitty, and would make up songs all the time...but, for the longest time I just thought that my voice was mediocre, and I didn't see what all the big fuss was about. There were just as many of people around to affirm my “lack of talent” as those who were “blown away” by my voice, and convinced that I was the next big Icon. So it took me awhile to find my way, and develop my own confidence in my gift.

Interestingly enough, since the age of 14, I have had over 50 jobs (No exaggeration), and I did go to college for psychology premed (although I figured out halfway, much to my mother’s chagrin, that it was NOT what I wanted to do with my life). I did work, and was quite successful as a financial advisor for about 3 years. I have had numerous poems and short stories to be published, and am currently working on a novel now; and I still have plans to be a restaurateur.  Now that I am the recording artist that I am, I realized that every job that I have ever had prepared me for my career as a singer and business woman. I am a firm believer in the saying, NOTHING happens by accident, EVERYTHING happens for a reason, just keep livin’.

FBF:  You’ve backed a wide variety of musicians over the years.  How did you find your way into the blues?

JJT:  The last band that I did backup vocals for was reggae rockers, Outlaw Nation. I learned SO much from those guys. I realized that I was aging out of the genre. (not by being forced out, but just when I would come to the show and look out at the crowd, I started to feel old, no woman wants that) So, I went on a journey to find my niche. The way that I decided to go about this was in the studio. I started writing and recording Pop, R&B, Reggae, Alternative Rock, Singer/Songwriter, Gospel, Neo­Soul, Traditional Soul and Blues. You can hear samples of that journey at

Once I listened back to everything, I determined that the music that moved me the most was the Reggae, Traditional Soul and Blues. So I focused more on those genres. I did my research, I listened extensively to as much music as I could get my hands on. I went into the studio and recorded cover versions of blues standards. During this process, the “blues diva” was born.

Now, I can’t take away from my mentors over the years planting seeds of the blues. They always encouraged me to listen to Etta James, Ruth Brown, Bessie Smith, Koko Taylor, and Big Mama Thornton. I would half­hearted listen, not really ready to commit to “just” singing the blues. However, looking back on it now, I didn’t realize that I was singing the blues all along, after all, it is the foundation to popular music as a whole.

FBF:  What kind of music do you listen to around the house?

JJT:  Everything...I listen according to my mood. One minute I could be headbanging to Metallica, and right after vibing to Enya or Sade……a few minutes later, bobbin’ my head to Young Jeezy or Kanye West, and then skanking to Bob Marley or Outlaw Nation. You never know what you’re gonna get when you get in the car with me. Only thing that is ever going to be consistent is that the music will be LOUD!

FBF:  What has been the hardest thing about your job?  What is the best thing about your job?

JJT:  The hardest thing, hands down, about being a recording artist is being away from my children. I have a 14 year old son, Elijah, who lives in Arizona with his father, and a 4 year old son, Israel, who lives with his godparents in Mississippi. I don’t get to be a full­time mom, my job requires me to travel non­stop. At certain points, I am over­seas for 4 to 5 months at a time. We skype and run up phone bills a lot, but it’s not the same. It took a long time for me to get over the guilt of leaving them,­ no matter how well taken care of they are. I used to cry all the time after hanging up the phone. People also feel very comfortable and entitled to judge me at times, questioning my parenting and career choices. I had to learn to be free from the opinions of others. I have a WONDERFUL support system, and am thankful that they all support my career, and are helping to raise my boys to be well-rounded, happy, functional, and complete men. I know that celebrities do it all the time, but I personally feel that constant life on the road is no place for a child. They need stability, and consistency; the road definitely does not offer that in any capacity. Yet, the road calls me incessantly, and I must go.

The best thing about my career is seeing the pride on my children’s faces, and listening to them brag to their friends about their mom. My youngest sings along whenever my song comes on the radio, and demands that everybody be quiet, because his mommy’s singing. He’s just the sweetest thing. My oldest constantly shows his friends my videos and Facebook page. He recently told me that having seen me go through all of the ups and downs, hurts and disappointments­ seeing me living out my dream, lets him know that he too can do anything that he sets his mind to. He believes now that dreams do come true. He is 14 years old, 6 feet 4 inches, 200 pounds, and has a size 17 shoe. He’s a basketball star and a 4.0 student. He already has scouts interested in him and paying attention to his growth. He’s well-rounded, down to earth, funny, sensitive to the needs of others, confident, and most importantly, happy. I am ecstatic and honored to be his proud mom. I know that his dreams are right within his reach and am dedicated to encouraging and helping him in any way possible.

The financial reward of being a recording artist also is really cool. It allows me to invest in my children’s future, and make sure that they have the best education, healthcare, and living conditions. I also have many plans to invest in the dreams of others, and set up companies and grants that assist the disadvantaged. I have been in a homeless shelter with my children while on the journey to here, I understand how hard and cruel life can be. I have a heart for women with children trying to form a stable life for their family, and want to set up programs to assist them to do just that. My job will allow me the finances and influence to see these desires of my heart to come to pass.

FBF:  You have a lot of original compositions on Tell You What I Know.  Do you mostly write from your own life experiences?  Can you describe your songwriting process?

JJT:  I do mostly write from my personal experiences, every once in a while I will take a look around me and see something else that may not have directly occurred in my life, but it will move me to write a song about it, however, I would say that 95% of what I write about, I have experienced in some shape or another.

Normally, I hear the drum and bass line of the song first, and start humming a melody while mimicking the beat with my mouth, or as some refer to it as beatboxing. This usually occurs in the shower, for some odd reason. Then the words just start to come, so I sing out whatever I hear……­even if it seems like gibberish. Many times, the words only have to be tweaked a little bit after I finish the composition in my head. I often sing the song, and dig deeper into the lyrics for days on end, free­styling, until I’m in love with it, and only then I will commit it to paper.

There are other times when I am smack dab in the middle of going through a circumstance, and start singing whatever comes to mind to make myself feel better. That’s actually how the single, “Tell You What I Know” came about. I had fallen on really tough times, and was living in a homeless shelter in Jackson, Mississippi with my children. While in the shower, I began singing “Tell you what I know, One day yeah, that’s right, my name up in lights...tell you what I know.” I sang the song every day for a month until we left the shelter, hiding the song in my heart for later, whenever I would get my recording contract that I just knew was coming. That contract came about 4 months later in the form of DeChamp Records. We built the music around the lyrics and melody that I came up with in the shower, during one of the lowest points of my life. A song that was created to make ME feel better now is being played all over the world, and encouraging people in their own journey towards their dreams. I’m still amazed by that every day.

FBF:  What are some of your favorite songs on Tell You What I Know, and can you tell us a little bit about each one?

JJT:  Honestly, I love every song on the record for different reasons. But the one’s that I listen to most often and have the deepest connection to are:

“Souled Out”­ “Souled Out” is another autobiographical track. I originally recorded it for another project that I self-­released in 2008. I went in the studio, told my producer at the time that I wanted to build a song from nothing. We began by stomping on a trunk that he kept vinyl records in for the beat. Then, we both clapped into the mic. I then layered harmonized humming in a Negro spiritual fashion. Once all of that was complete, I stood at the microphone, closed my eyes, and began to sing whatever came to mind, and that was my story at the time. I had moved from house to house, couch to couch, and state to state for years……one time moving 24 times in a year and a half. My 2 year old son had died in late 2006 from a rare form of lymphoma. I had a broken wedding engagement and deep heartbreak shortly after that in 2007. I was sleeping on a futon in my producer and his wife’s house in Detroit Michigan. All I had was my life and my music. I was sold out to my dream, and my soul, and my heart was on my sleeve…….thus the play on words. This song was another example of me singing to make myself feel better. We re­-recorded it for “Tell You What I Know”, because I felt that I could sing it with even more conviction “tell my story one ‘mo' 'gin.”

“My Kinda Man” is one of my favorite songs, because it was written about the man that I am in love with. The chorus and melody was Grady Champion, Sam Brady, and Eddie Cotton’s creation. Grady presented it to me as a hit song, as we were driving to Indianola Mississippi to perform at the BB King Homecoming Festival in 2013. I wrote and completed the lyrics on the hour and a half drive from Jackson to Indianola. While writing I just described my man and how much I really don’t care what other people think about him. He’s my man, not theirs. I love that other people feel the same way about their own relationships, and can identify with the song.

“No Turning Back” was originally the brain­child of my producer, Sam Brady. He had written the melody and a verse. When I came into the writing session, I thought about my past relationships, and how I wouldn’t go back to them if someone paid me. I then started singing “No Turning Back” and envisioned myself driving away from the bad relationships. I often envision a “movie” in my mind as I’m writing songs. The song just kinda flowed easily after that. The last part of the song, where the chorus is chanted, in a gospel tinged call-and-response manner, was suggested by none other than the juke joint king himself, Eddie Cotton. I love the song because it feels good. It feels empowering.

“I Believe” is a Ray Charles cover song. I had been performing it live for years, and said to myself that whenever my chance came to record the song correctly, and try to do it justice, I would. I was very nervous about recording this song. I am a big fan of Ray Charles and his ingenious body of work, and wanted to make sure that I paid honor to it. I am amazed at every review of the record that I read (and I read them all).  Everyone states that Mr. Charles is smiling down from heaven, or would be pleased with our rendition. One review even said it was one of the top renditions that the reviewer has ever heard. I’m proud of that song. I’m a firm believer that if you can’t do a cover song justice, leave it alone, it was perfect the first time.

Of course, “Tell You What I Know” hits home for me, considering it is my story. My motivation now, and what I hold dear in my mind’s eye, is performing it from the Grammy or the Blues Music Award stages. That is what will make that song and story complete.

FBF:  Your release is one of the first on Grady Champion’s new label, DeChamp Records…….what attracted you to the label and what do you like most about working with them?

JJT:  I met Grady while performing at the Central Mississippi Blues Society’s Blue Monday in Jackson, Mississippi. The day we met, he invited me to do a set with him at Underground 119 the following weekend. I came, performed, and the wheels began to move very fast after that. Grady shared his vision of DeChamp Records with me at that time, and quickly signed me on as his second artist. 

What attracted me to DeChamp was its small size, which allows the focus to be more on my career right now, than sharing time, energy, and resources with a full roster of artists. I was also impressed by what Grady had already accomplished for himself with his own career. Grady’s excitement, integrity and tenacity were also very instrumental in my decision to sign. DeChamp has become my family, and they have worked very hard and diligently to help my career to reach the heights that it has thus far. The amazing thing is that they continue to push.  They won’t give up until they make J.J Thames a household name. They listened to my goals, and dreams, they embraced my story, style and personality…..never asking me to change. They “get” me, and they are perfectly ecstatic with me just being J.J. I like scratch that...I LOVE that.

FBF:  When you are not performing or recording, what do you like to do in your spare time?

JJT:  I love performing, and am usually on stage almost every day of the week. However, on the rare occasion that I'm not...I like to read books mostly autobiographies of musicians and singers. I love spending quality time with my loved ones. Although I don't necessarily LIKE to work out, I try to everyday. I watch movies, typically period pieces, action thrillers and romantic comedies. I spend a lot of time listening to different genres of music, cooking new recipes, and entertaining close friends.

FBF:  What does the future hold for J.J. Thames?  Where do you see your career in ten years?

JJT:  I'm no psychic, but I am a dreamer. American feminist, journalist, and social and political activist Gloria Steinem said, "Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning." I plan in the next 10 years to open a blues supper club kind of in the likes of the historical Cotton Club in New York City, and intend to franchise it in key places all over the world.

I also plan to reopen my music school, Eagle Eye Music Academy, which focuses on artist development, and identifying the dreams and goals of up and coming musicians, singers, producers, and tour support individuals, giving them instruction, resources and mentorship to be successful in the music industry. The motto of the school is "Seeing and Believing in YOUR dreams."

Socially, I have a heart for the homeless, in particular women and children, and plan to implement programs to help identify dreams and provide financial, life skill, and physical resources to individuals in order to help them get on their feet and fulfill their life goals and dreams.

In essence, I feel that my purpose in life is to finance the dreams of others...I completely intend to do just that. Eventually, I want to finish the three books that I am writing, publish those, and break into the film/television industry, and also to become a motivational speaker. I feel that my music career is only the beginning, and it will open up doors and provide the necessary resources to fulfill my life's goals. Tell You What I know...God ain't done with me yet.

Upcoming Shows for J.J. Thames

  • July 11th - Underground 119, 9:00 PM (119 S. President St., Jackson, MS)
  • July 28th - The 35th Annual Jackson Music Awards, 7:00 PM (nominated for Best Female Vocalist, 200 E. Amite St., Jackson, MS)
  • August 15th - Duling Hall, 8:00 PM (622 Duling Avenue, Jackson, MS)

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