It’s Jo Dee Messina Calling

One thing is clear when Jo Dee Messina calls you on the phone: the country star’s down-home friendliness makes you feel like you’re her best friend.

Messina’s up-close-and-personal nature has helped build her career and resulted in a fan base so devoted to her that one fan who won front-row seats for her show at a not-so-nearby fair, after receiving a ride to the gig, walked home after the performance even though the trek lasted seven hours.

Messina talked with Pollstar about her fifth studio album, Me, which includes her new single, “He’s Messed Up.”  The songstress also described her early years, her first paying gigs and the times she used to mix her own sound while performing.

She also sang to us over the phone.  How cool is that?!

What’s different about your new album, Me, compared to past releases?

This album is totally selected by the people  All the songs, the album title, the singles, all that stuff was chosen by the fans [and] the public as opposed to having a guy at the record label trying to find out what people like to hear. … That’s why the album differs so much from beginning to end, because no two people have the same tastes in music. So there’s a little bit of everything on there. We involved a half million people in selecting all these things.

It’s funny because someone had once asked me, “Is it easier making an album with the public or with a record label?” and I said, “It’s actually easier dealing with a half-million people because everybody had an opinion as opposed to a record guy.  If he makes a wrong choice he loses his job.”  It was a really interesting thing.  They didn’t like everything.  They weren’t nasty about it.  They were more like, “I like this song better.” It was a real eye-opening experience.

How did they know which songs to pick?

When I started writing I didn’t know I was writing for this album.  I was just at home, writing, and I’d post something on YouTube or I’d post something on Facebook.  Or I’d get a new song and we’d perform it live, work it up with the band and put it on YouTube.  And people started commenting, “Oh, you’ve got to put this on a record.”

So it’s neat to be able to have that interaction. I posted [the songs] on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube,, all the social outlets.  It was quite the process.

Do you think you got to know more about your fans  through this process?

I do. There’s no gatekeeper. I got to hear them say, “I’m sick of hearing this,” or “Another song about such-and-such.”  I’d be like, “Whoops.  Sorry. OK.  That one’s out.” 

If you pay attention to trends, you’ll think everybody likes just this kind of music.  But they don’t.  Everybody is different.  I don’t mean that in a vicious way, I’m just like, “Oh, really?  There are still people out there that love stone cold country music?” It’s not the most dominantly played thing on the air these days, but … there’s still a fan base for that.

The album was funded via KickStarter campaign?

It didn’t start off that way.  It started off with me posting songs and there were enough songs to make a record.  I had just got out of my label deal and was really bruised and wasn’t ready to jump into something else.  My cousin [Alex Preson], who lived with me at that time, who was one of the top three on “American Idol” this year, he said, “Why don’t you do a KickStarter campaign?” That’s when I walked into the KickStarter campaign [and told fans], “OK.  You chose the songs.  Let’s make the record together.”

Were the fans involved with picking the order of the songs as they appear on the album?

No.  That’s such a lengthy process and if you multiply that by a half-million, it would have taken forever.  That was something I did on my own.  They are picking the singles, what they’re favorite songs are, they’re still involved.

How do you pick the order of the songs on your albums?

For me, I usually listen to it as if it’s a live show.  We start off rarin’ to go and when we slow it down we start working our way back up, again.  … Because live shows are what I’ve done my whole life.  I’m actually more comfortable onstage then I am in a studio.

Is that because of the instant feedback from the audience?

No.  I just meant the comfort, the noise and the feel of the room.  When you’re in that booth, it’s so intimidating.  I actually have an easier time live.  People have said that, too.  “You sound so much better live than on your album.”  There are not a lot of effects that go on in my live show.  It’s not compressed, it doesn’t have to meet a certain standard.  In a studio you don’t work the microphone like you do on a live show.  If you step too far away from the mic, you get the sound of the room as opposed to if you pull back live.  [Because] it’s a very directional microphone.

The audience hears your voice amplified, but how loud do you actually sing?

I sing really loud.  I don’t mean to.  I have blown out capsules in my microphones like there’s no other.  It’s just the way I sing.

So if the power goes out in a middle of show, your voice will still fill up the room?

We’ve done that.  We did the Turning Stone Casino in upstate New York, we performed in the lobby.  We’ve had a couple of rainouts, not rainouts but there was lightning.  Our gear was trashed so we went to the beer tent and did an acoustic thing for 2,000 people.  Even my laugh is really loud.  I have a two-year-old and at times when I bust out laughing, he gets startled and shakes.

Did you sing to your kids when they were infants?

My youngest is 2, so I’m still singing to them. (sings) “The wheels on the bus go round and round.”  We’re moving on from “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to that.

Do you sing a lot at home just for fun?

I sing a lot and don’t realize it. Yesterday … I walked into the doctor’s office singing a [Hot Chelle Rae] song … they live right down the street.  I took my boys in for their immunization shots yesterday, and I was sitting there singing “Na na na na…” and there’s one of the Follesé boys and I’m like,
“Oh, shoot.”

But I’ve always been that way, even before I got a record deal.  I had a day job, working in an accounting department at a record label.  They would always tell me, “This is a workstation.  It’s no place to be singing.” And I didn’t even realize it.  I was just singing along with the radio.

How early in your life did you realize you wanted to be a singer?

I was 13 when I started performing professionally. I’d go sit in with a house band someplace, wait all night to sing two songs, and I just loved it. It was so much fun.  But singing in general?  I have pictures of me at 18 months sitting at the piano.

When did you first hear a recording of yourself singing?

It had to be some cassette tape.  It was one of those, “Ewwww … I hate the sound of my voice” [moments].  My talking voice? If I do liners or something, I have someone else listen to them because it’s very uncomfortable hearing your voice come back at you.  My singing voice is a little different and I’ve learned to love how the singing goes with the backgrounds, the rhythm sections and the music.  I’ve learned to listen to music a different way.  Of course, I’ve always been that way.  I’d always sing the drum solos or the guitar solos or the harmony parts.  I would dissect songs while I listened to them.  That’s really fun when you listen to something like Queen because they have 50,000 things going on. 

My first live show [I attended] was a Rush concert.  I think I was 14, my mother made my brother take me.  I must have had huge eyeballs just watching.  “What’s this making this sound?  What’s making that sound?” and it all comes together.

What’s a Jo Dee Messina recording session like?  Do you start off with vocals and light instrumentation and build from there?

Yeah. We sit down, listen to the demo, and chart the song.  Then we listen to it a couple of more times.  It’s like, “Why don’t you come in on the front end of the song?  Let’s try this. How about if I do B3 on this?” Everybody comes up with their ideas and then you try it.  “Instead of this fellow here, can we just leave that open for a … dub,” or “I’d love to put some slide on that part.” It kind of comes together.

How do you realize when a song is finished?

It’s never finished.  Everything is a work in progress.  Somebody says, “We should pull this for a single,” and I’m, “Wait.  I want to go back and change this.”

And performing live gives you chances to tweak the songs?

That’s why I bring them out live before we record them.

While writing, what’s that first spark of an idea like?

It’s always different.  It’s either a thought or else I think of a melody, a groove … I’m very groove-oriented. It’s hard to describe.  It’s never the same.

Does songwriting come easier for you now compared to when you were beginning your career?

Maybe the same to a little bit easier in the sense that you’re so frightened to let people hear your stuff. You’re so scared.  I was on a label that barely let me cut the stuff I wrote. They’re like, “This doesn’t sound like you.”

The early days … with my producers Byron Gallimore and Tim McGraw, at that time it had more of a rock ’n’ roll kind of edge as opposed to straight down the line country.  I remember we came out with Heads Carolina with those dual guitars at the beginning and people were like, “Oh, my god. That’s so cool.” Now we have stacks of guitars. 

When did you first get paid for singing?

Maybe 15, 16 years old in the sense of [getting] $50 a night for a five-hour set.  But I had to pay for the gear, rent the van, pay for gas.

Were you lugging your own equipment?

Yes , I was and I was mixing my own sound from the stage.

And today?  How many people does it take to move you and the band from city to city?

About 13.

When you moved from Massachusetts to Nashville and took that job keeping the books for a label – how did it feel to suddenly live in a community where you see the stars you’ve been listening to all your live going about their daily routines, such as shopping or spending time out with their families?

I was such a chicken shit and I’m still mad that I am.  Here I am in a city with so many people that I admire and I’ve never asked to have their picture taken with them.  I’ve met Dolly Parton, I’ve met Reba McEntire, I’ve met Carrie Underwood, but I don’t have anything to show for it because I’d be too embarrassed to ask?

Does your husband and family help you keep yourself grounded and not get too caught up in show biz glitz?

I’ve always kind of been grounded.  But what’s humbling is having kids – you’re dressed up and about to walk on stage and you have someone wiping their nose on your new shirt.  They don’t care if you’re No. 50, No. 1 or No. 5,000 on the record charts.  You’re still going to be covered with poop at the end of the day.

Your kids are pretty young right now but how would you feel if, in a few years,  they showed some interest in pursuing a music career?

Oh, my god.  My 5-year-old has a drum kit. We just went out, Sunday, and got him a new symbol. He wants to play on stage. I said, “If he wants to play on stage, he actually has to learn the song.” We let him go up there at one point and bang around out of time and whatever. I’m like, “OK.  Next time you go up, if you want to go up, you have to practice.”  Right now it’s fun. It’s good for him, it’s an outlet, it gives him something to focus on.  Let’s do another interview in 10 years.

Do you read much?

I’m reading “The Power Of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment” (by Eckhart Tolle) right now.  I read a lot of those books. Then, of course, I get lost in goofy teen novels like “Twilight.” It’s across the board.

Looking back over your career, is there anything you would have done differently?

No.  Because I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t take the path I took.

So you’re in a good place?

You know, spiritually, personally, yeah, I really am.  The industry itself is fascinating at this point.  I realize you can sit in a room with people and they’ll tell you that numbers are down, sales are down, this is wrong and this is that. Everyone is so ready and quick to pounce on the negative.  But when you actually sit back and look at it, it’s like aRubik’s Cube.  It’s fascinating and once you solve it, it’s pretty awesome. The fascination of a Rubik’s Cube – we would sit there for hours and hours playing with that thing.  And that’s kind of it now. Maybe that’s the way my mind thinks. I’m a very mechanical – how does this work? –  kind of person. So now it’s fascinating.

Sometimes I’m upset by the “woe is me, aren’t we in a downswing” people  Actually, the whole world is out there right now.  Your perspective is all the ways you look at things.

How much are you locked into a setlist when performing?

I always tell my guys, “Heads up.” We have a basic skeleton but if we’re playing a theatre where it’s a smaller crowd and you’re hearing a guy in the back of the room, “Hey.  ‘Because You Love Me’” – I’ll change it.  My guys always know the setlist is kind of a skeleton, but always pay attention to me.  I might end a song in the middle, I’ll see a guy on a cell phone and I’ll give him a hard time.  “Oh my gosh.  I’m sorry.  I’m trying to put on a show here.  Am I bothering you?”  Just kind of kidding around.

When you bring back a song from the early albums that you may not have played for a while, do you have to re-familiarize yourself with the song, or is it like stepping into an old pair of shoes?

I’d say it’s like stepping into an old pair of shoes.

What do you see for the future?

I have so much that I want to do.  So much I want to write as far as songs, then books.  I’m doing a book that’s coming out on Mother’s Day next year. There are shows I’ve yet to do. I’d love to get together with James Taylor and do a “Christmas From Boston” thing as we’re both from the ’hood.

Are there artists outside of country music that have influenced you?

Tons.  There’s the James Taylors, the Bonnie Raitts, the Michael Jacksons.  Even now, Katy Perry, Gwen Stefani, Pink, the Hot Chelle Rae boys, Maroon 5.  All over the place. I think that’s across the board. Everybody is that way.

When Hollywood makes the Jo Dee Messina story, who should play you?

Oh, gee.  When that happens let me know.  I’ll help you pick.

“When I started writing I didn’t know I was writing for this album.  I was just at home, writing, and I’d post something on YouTube or I’d post something on Facebook.”

Jo Dee Messina’s upcoming gigs:

Sept. 12 – Grand Junction, Colo., Lincoln Park (Colorado Pork & Hops)
Sept. 19 – Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Disney World
Sept. 20 – Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Disney World
Sept. 21 – Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Disney World
Sept. 24 – Marietta, Ga., Jim Miller Park (North Georgia State Fair)
Sept. 26 – West Point, N.Y., Eisenhower Hall Theatre
Sept. 27 – Atlantic City, N.J.,  Mark G. Etess Arena
Sept. 28 – Durham, Conn., Durham Fairgrounds (Durham Fair)
Oct. 3 – Malden, Mass., Mixx 360
Oct. 4 – Woonsocket, R.I., Stadium Theatre
Oct. 5 – Annapolis, Md., Rams Head On Stage
Oct. 11 – Easton, Pa., State Theatre Center For The Arts
Oct. 12 – Niagara Falls, N.Y., Rapids Theatre
Oct. 16 – Crystal Lake, Ill., Raue Center For The Arts
Oct. 17 – Mahnomen, Minn., Shooting Star Casino
Nov. 8 – The Colony, Texas,  The Colony Five Star Complex (American Heroes Festival: A Salute To Veterans)
Dec. 10 – Tampa, Fla., The Ritz Ybor
Dec. 11 – Lake Worth, Fla., Duncan Theatre

Please visit Jo Dee Messina’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, Tumblr blog and YouTube channel for more information.