The Scene
This week in local music: Jem

Kate Bredimus
Thursday November 11, 2004

OK, let's just get this out of the way: Jem is truly outrageous. Truly, truly outrageous. In this interview alone, the DJ-turned-singer gamely skips from the subject of incriminating home videos to crack cocaine in her light-hearted, self-deprecating manner. She seems too sweet and goofy to be a rock star, which she is well on her way to becoming. Songs off her debut album, Finally Woken have already appeared on shows like "The O.C.," "Wonderfalls" and "Six Feet Under," and "The Ellen Show," CNN, NPR and MTV have featured the 29-year old songstress in action.

Jem, born Jemma Griffiths, is from Wales, a musically-fertile peninsula in the UK that has produced luminaries like Tom Jones, Charlotte Church and Super Furry Animals. She began pursuing a career in music while studying law at Sussex University in Brighton, co-founding the breaks label Marine Parade with DJ/producer Adam Freeland. Her career path soon led her out of academia and into London, where she hooked up with electronic producer Guy Sigsworth and co-wrote "Nothing Fails." Then Madonna came along and scooped up the track for her American Life album. With her star on the rise, Jem relocated to Brooklyn and teamed up with hip-hop producer Ge-ology and began working on Finally Woken. Mixing hip-hop with classical, pop and rock, Jem's ethereal voice and cunning beats made a favorable impression on critics, who dubbed her the next Dido or Sarah McLachlan.

We caught up with Jem while she was relaxing in bed in her budget hotel room in New York and made her talk about her excellent new album and wicked dance moves.

So, where are you living now?
I'm living in the van. I've got a place in Los Angeles. I moved there in April, it's a new home. But I feel really at home here, it's great.

Do you like touring?
It's like anything, really. I enjoy it; every now and then I think to myself, "This is really weird." I get along really well with the band. I think that's the most important thing. We have such a laugh. I don't think I could tour if I didn't love my band. We all get on really well.

Have they assigned you someone to carry your gear yet?
Oh no. I've got a record deal and I'm still doing the same thing. I think there's a part of me that wants me to pay dues.

What's the downside to success?
I realize I'm really missing writing -- I should say recording. Not having the time to record even a basic demo. It feels weird; it's stifling. My studio fits in my rucksack, but there's no room to set it up. It just sits in the bag. It's the biggest gap I've ever had with writing. I did ask my label if I could do my new album in January and they laughed in my face. They said, "You're smoking crack, right?" I'm not sure if you can print that or not.

Oh, sure. We get that all the time. What was your response, "Of course I smoke crack, but what has that got to do with anything?"
(Laughs) Yes, I might be a crackhead. No, it's fine. They have my best interest at heart.

What was it like to go from working with Guy Sigsworth to Ge-ology?
As long as people are nice people it doesn't matter. I'm very like that. Decent people are decent people. Ge-ology, he is a great hip-hop producer, we had amazing talks about politics and racism. We would talk for hours and hours about music. He loved early dance music and rave music. I was really surprised by that.

Who would you like to work with next?
I have called Stevie Wonder to invite him to our L.A. show. I'll just keep calling until he comes. It would be absolutely incredible. I was doing an interview in the UK with a young magazine, and they asked, "Which Hollywood guy do you fancy?" It's not like that. There's not that many people I would be like "Oh my God." For me it's Bill Hicks, Stevie Wonder, Spike Lee, Eminem.

I've got some songs that I said, if this doesn't fit on my next album then I should give it away. I've been trying to get songs to Whitney Houston for years and I've finally gotten them in the right hands.

Does it bother you at all to give your songs to other people? Is there a possessiveness there?
No, for some of the more soulful songs I've written I'd love for someone else to sing it, because that isn't my voice. It's funny, with the Madonna song, it wasn't really mine, so I didn't feel protective over it. There are songs I've written that I know someone else would sound fantastic singing. Then there are some that I think, I'd like to keep this for myself.

Your album is full of so many different styles and textures. What has really influenced your songwriting?
It's funny. I have the sudden urge recently to listen to "Chess." It's a musical. That's a really random strange thing, and yet I love anything that moves me. So I think I've been really across the board and I really listen to anything. Actually I'm into really old music. I live in the past, I try to listen to the way it's being constructed.

I have so many interests, so I said, I'm just going to chuck it all into the album. I didn't want to have to decide -- should I be a singer/songwriter, or more dark? Sometimes when people try to do that, the songs sound the same way. I've got loads of songs. I made a point of having every song on the album being one I really, really love.

Going back a little, it seems like it would be hard for you to make a name for yourself writing beats in London, as competitive as it is there.
It's funny, recently I thought to myself, I'm glad I wasn't trying to do it in L.A. It's so hard to do that here. I think that everything happens at the right time. It was great for me to know I didn't want to be in London. It was like, great, I've always wanted to go to America. I'll just go overt there. Here, if the A&R people like something they'll sign it.

I think it's destiny. I'm sure I was meant to get my deal here. I went to London for a meeting and it was very strange. America feels like home to me. My sister gets the same feeling in India, and I know another guy in Los Angeles who gets it in Turkey. It was very much like New York or L.A. for me.

Have you always felt comfortable onstage?
When I know the music is good stuff. I was watching my younger brother and older sister, they're in a band together. I've seen them loads of times. I was watching them really smiling onstage. This one time, it was just about them, they were having such a good time. That's infectious. We started the tour on Saturday with two new guys, and at the first show, I introduced them the wrong way around. And I cracked up on stage.

Did you always want to be a singer?
Totally. Probably since I was about 11. It's funny, I used to watch VH1 "Behind The Music." I'd scour it going, "Please let there be someone who didn't jump on the stage and start singing at the age of three." I wasn't that person at all. I think they'd have kicked me out of the family if I did that. Actually, for me it's an important distinction. It has always been about the music, not about me being a big star.

So there won't be any tapes of you competing on "Star Search" mysteriously appearing?
My older sister and I were laughing about a videotape of me dancing and being an asshole. She said, "As soon as you get known I'm going to find it." I said, "You bitch! Why?" and she said "Because it's good for you. It's an ego breaker." Actually, it's true. There's something so healthy about that. Anything that keeps you humble.

For me, I just want to sing and have people hear my music. Now I have to do photo shoots. There is something funny about it -- I don't get to approve the photos. I know they're gonna pick some photo and I'll hate it. You get to the point where it's like, whatever. This career, it's actually doing wonders for me, breaking down barriers for me. I saw a photo of myself the other day and I said to my publicist, "God I look disgusting." She said, "Yeah, you do." I shut the magazine and that was it. How great is that?

Does that carry over to your live performances, you know, letting go and not caring?
Yes, it's important. The performance thing is about letting go. To perform you need to not give a shit what you look like doing it. That could only be good for me, the ego breaking.

So if something went wrong you won't have an Ashlee Simpson meltdown?
Like "Pete, you're playing the wrong song!" It would be half amazing and half scary. Well, that's life, isn't it?



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