By Joel Rubinoff
Tue., Oct. 13, 2020
When the press release hit my desk announcing that Kitchener’s JJ Wilde had made history as the first female artist in history to hit No. 1 on three Canadian rock charts at the same time, I remember thinking “JJ Who?”
I can’t remember the last time a Waterloo Region artist scored a hit on a commercial music chart or gained airplay on any station that wasn’t CBC radio.
Was it Copperpenny’s “Sitting On A Poor Man’s Throne” in 1973? Or Helix’s “Rock You” in 1984? Or Major Hoople’s Boarding House’s “I’m Running After You” in 1975?
In the years since 1990, there have been critically acclaimed indie stars who garnered Juno nominations — Alysha Brilla and Danny Michel come to mind.
But for a bona fide hitmaker, you have to go back to the era of big hair, spandex and half-dressed supermodels writhing on expensive sports cars.
But there she was: the former Frederick Cinemas candy counter attendant, gazing defiantly from the press release in a Who T-shirt and bikini bottom.
Not only that, but “The Rush” — the riff heavy rock anthem that put her there — was inspired by Wilde’s time tending bar at Waterloo concert club Maxwell’s in the years before success came calling.
“I woke up this morning, in a panic,” croons the 28-year-old singer-songwriter with a jaded majesty that recalls Janis Joplin and Joan Jett.
“I had my red dress on again/ Last night I came out I was so damn manic/ I don’t even know where I went wrong/ But I went wrong.”
It’s well trod territory, the all-nighter that leads to the morning after.
But it’s catchy. With a chunky guitar hook and Wilde’s appealingly husky rasp, no wonder it made its mark.
“I wrote it one morning as I was stumbling late to work from being out all night with my work friends at the bar,” she relates over the phone from a Kitchener hair salon two days before she leaves for Paris for a whirlwind publicity tour.
“I had three part-time jobs at the time.”
When it broke chart records in June — with almost five million hits on Spotify — the promise of her once struggling career zoomed decisively into focus.
“I screamed,” recalls Wilde of the moment she learned she made Canadian rock history.
“I was at my cottage with my parents and my manager face-timed me. We had gone into the weekend realizing this might be a thing, but weren’t holding our breath. Sunday night he calls and says ‘Guess what? It happened!’”
It surprises me, but probably shouldn’t, that I had no idea Wilde existed until I wrote a story about local musicians who achieved commercial success and someone tossed her name out as a talent on the rise.
When I looked her up and realized that not only does she hail from Kitchener but continues to live here, rather than established music centres like Los Angeles or Toronto, the no nonsense vibe of her music suddenly made sense.
“The allure of Toronto is there,” concedes the former Jillian Dowding, whose spirited stage moniker lends itself to breathless promotional headlines (“a Wilde ride!”)
“There’s lots more to do, and I like living and breathing music. And when I’m on tour it’s busy and chaotic and hectic and fun.
“But as one day goes into another and you don’t sleep, it’s just nice to come home to a quiet little town. And I get to go under the radar and have my off time really be off time, to see the people I’m closest to — my family and close circle of friends — and then go back out and do it again.”
It’s this connection with her roots — and the low key vibe of the community that spawned her — that endears her to people.
“I love when somebody reaches a level of status and success,” notes Paul Maxwell, the friend and former boss who describes her as “very sweet, bubbly, easygoing . . . the whole package.”
“The fact she hasn’t changed is a true testament to her character. There’s not a phoney bone in her body. She’s just herself.”
Even on the phone I get this sense of Wilde as “just herself,” especially when she talks about the formative Kitchener experiences that moulded her.
“You don’t know how many people I’ve told off at the bar,” she laughs, recalling her days slinging drinks.
“If someone was doing something I didn’t like . . . well, I was the only one there, so it was up to me to put them in their place and get them kicked out. It lets you know that it’s OK to stand up for yourself.”
She pauses, focused on lessons learned. “I think everybody should have at least one job in the service industry. It teaches you how to treat people. Being at Maxwell’s, I was getting paid to bartend but I was watching live music every night, which was so inspiring to me.
She’s personable but tough, modest but plain-speaking, qualities that have defined her since her days at Kitchener’s Grand River Collegiate, where she was targeted by a slew of Hollywood-style mean girls.
“I used to get bullied so bad,” she recalls with typical candour. “They were all my friends, but they were crushing on a boyfriend I was dating at the time. They flipped it around and spread rumours about me.
“There was a burn book leaked to the whole school and I was the most talked about person in it. They would spit in my latte, put tampons in my locker.”
She sighs. “I think it was jealousy.”
But if navigating high school social mores was tough, there was always the drama room, where a monthly open mike coffee house helped spark her interest in music.
“From 2004 to 2010 something magical happened,” notes Duncan Nicholls, the Grand River English teacher who was instrumental in getting Wilde up on stage.
“The time was right. Kids were starting to perform together and bounce ideas and jam around. They got to play in front of an audience. It was a safe place.”
JJ — Jill to her friends — was a regular, talented but hesitant, someone who “seemed like she needed a small shove.”
“Everybody encouraged her,” says Nicholls, who recalls Wilde as “a strong, charismatic character” with an intense work ethic and “an energy about her.”
“She was shy and coy and got out her guitar and played a cover of something. It was clear it was a win for her.”
Wilde recalls the moment with affection: “As shy as I was, I was also the kid who — if I felt comfortable with someone — would go ‘I just learned how to sing this song, can I show you?”
It solidified her decision to study performing arts at Sheridan College and, realizing she had no voice for musical theatre, inspired her to play solo gigs in and around Toronto.
In 2012, it was back to Kitchener to join The Royal Streets, a Lumineers-styled folk rock band that released a couple of indie albums to critical raves.
But when they broke up four years later, still unsigned, after a series of cross-Canada van tours, she found herself back at ground zero.
“It got to a point where I was exhausted all the time and was very discouraged,” notes Wilde, who attempted to launch her solo career while juggling a series of low-paying McJobs.
“It was a hamster wheel. Nothing was happening.”
Her career counsellor told her to get a real job — woodworker? mechanic? — which would have been the end of her story but for one thing: she’s incredibly stubborn.
“I realized I wouldn’t be happy and left there thinking ‘Even though it’s not working, this is what I’m gonna do!”
Two weeks later she met her manager, signed a record deal with the indie label Black Box Music and, in early 2019, embarked on a series of tours that saw her opening for The Struts, Glorious Sons and Incubus.
“I feel like over the years I’ve known a lot of really talented people,” confides Nicholls, summing up his former student’s surprising breakthrough. “And none have had hit records.
“This is a confluence of things lining up at the right time. On the strength of her work with the Royal Streets, she was able to get attention from this label and that was a huge, huge step. It almost feels like a ’70s or ’80s story. I mean, who has this happened to?”
Things heated up in June when her debut album, “Ruthless,” was released and sparked the chart success that has eluded Waterloo Region musicians for most of the past 35 years.
But by then, of course, COVID had hit.
“Because of the pandemic, I didn’t get a chance to tour or really see the success of it,” notes Wilde, regretful but undeterred.
“So to me, it doesn’t really seem real, or like it happened yet. But I’m definitely getting more attention from fans on social media, with people freaking out and saying “I heard this! Oh man — congrats. It’s all superpositive.”
With a series of provocative videos that signal her transformation from high school wallflower to cheeky nonconformist, Wilde has cornered a market niche everyone thought extinct: woman who rock.
“I find it’s still a male-dominated industry,” she notes, finding inspiration in a tattoo based on a Bob Marley lyric: “My fear is my only courage.”
“Why can’t girls rock?”
It’s a rhetorical question, but one that, 65 years after rock became a musical force, still comes up in every interview.
“I just think it’s a societal thing,” muses the determined singer-songwriter. “As generation after generation of parents tell their kids how to act and what ladies are supposed to do.
“When I went to hire my band, I was trying to get a female drummer, guitar player, whatever. And you’d be surprised — there wasn’t a lot available, because I don’t think a lot of women are putting themselves out there like that.”
“I think it’s getting over that stereotype and realizing we can do it.”
And so she carries on, breaking new ground with her bold, confident swagger, embracing challenges, her ambition unsullied.
And if it all goes bust tomorrow, hey, it’s not as if she doesn’t have a back up plan.
“She’s still on the payroll if she wanted to come back,” laughs Paul Maxwell of the woman who once rid his bar of troublemakers.
“We never really had an exit.”