Rock on the Wilde side

Kitchener artist is bold and ‘real’ – just like the music that fuels her success.

By Joel Rubinoff | Photography by Alisha Townsend

In person, Kitchener’s JJ Wilde — you can call her Jill — is exactly what you might expect after listening to her music: bold, confident, with an earthy laugh that makes it clear you’re encountering an artist who is, as they say, on the cusp.

Of what? Of everything.

“I want to go as far as I can and see new places and new cultures and live and breathe them,” she notes from her chair in a Kitchener hair salon while her hands and feet stab the air for emphasis.

“I want to tour the world and see everything to the fullest!”

Pandemic, shmandemic. In September, between lockdowns in France that would have made a trip impossible, she jetted off with her band to promote her smash single “The Rush” on a Paris TV show.

“It was better than I thought,” she says of her 12-day adventure, followed by a Toronto drive-in concert that saw fans honking horns and flashing lights.

“I decided to take the risk and it really did pay off.”

She visited radio stations, did interviews, used the French she learned in public school (finally!) and, after the TV taping, found herself with four hours to kill before the flight home, “so me and the boys got bottles of French wine and stayed up all night.”

This is how she talks: “Me and the boys.”

No diva qualities here, no airs, no sense of ‘better than.’

Just responsible, hard-working Jill, a Kitchener scrapper who once tended bar at Waterloo concert club Maxwell’s and — if this music thing hadn’t panned out — might have become an auto mechanic or woodworker.

“The response has been insane since that show aired (in Paris),” she confides, citing the digital analytics that indicated a JJ support bubble erupting in the City of Light.

“My (Instagram) followers went up by 2,000!”

She laughs. “I’m really just learning how to do social media. Before I was doing this, I had a flip phone.”

It’s always fascinating to interview someone at the precise moment they come into their own, discover their gifts, ginned up on ambition, brimming with untapped potential.

Ten years from now — by virtue of her talent — Wilde could be the biggest rock star on the planet, cavorting with celebrities, ruling awards shows.

Or she could be back at her old job bartending at Maxwell’s.

It’s the choices she makes now that will determine her future.

There’s luck involved, certainly, and timing, but more than anything, you have to want it.

JJ Wilde wants it.

“There’s always gonna be the artist that makes the new sound and those that follow the new sounds,” she points out with a determined glint.

“You really have to strike while the iron’s hot. You can’t wait — or someone else will come along.”

When the news release hit my desk last June announcing that Wilde had made history as the first female artist 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? Charity Brown’s “Take Me in Your Arms” in 1975? Helix’s “Rock You” in 1984?

In the years since, 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 leotards and videos with half-dressed supermodels writhing on expensive sports cars in Whitesnake videos.

Yet there was Wilde: the former Frederick Cinemas candy counter attendant, photographed in a Who T-shirt and bikini bottom, gazing defiantly from the bottom of a news release.

Queen of the Rock Charts.

Not only that, but “The Rush” — the riff-heavy rock anthem that put her there — was inspired by Wilde’s time tending bar at 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 both 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 — somewhere between Stevie Nicks and Adele — 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 recalls with a laugh. “I had three part-time jobs at the time.”

When it broke chart records last 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 FaceTimed 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.

JJ who?

When I looked her up and realized that not only does she hail from Kitchener but also continues to live here rather than established music centres such as Los Angeles or Toronto, the no-nonsense vibe of her music suddenly made sense.

“The allure of Toronto is there,” concedes the personable maverick. “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 in the phone interview that precedes our in-person meeting, 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,” laughs the former Jillian Dowding, whose spirited stage moniker lends itself to breathless promotional headlines (“a Wilde ride!”)

“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 self-assured, 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 Collegiate 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 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 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 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 last 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 of the days before her Paris trip broke the logjam.

“So to me, it didn’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 super positive.”

Citing influences from Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones to Kings of Leon and Canadian rockers Hey Rosetta!, she has a solid grounding in music history as she charts her own course.

“As an artist, I always struggle,” notes Wilde, who unlike many rock acts, writes her own songs.

“Not necessarily with self-esteem but being my own worst critic. It’s part of being a creative mind. I’ve always found song writing therapeutic. I do it for myself, an honest expression of how I see the world.”

Through smart marketing and a series of provocative videos, she’s also gone one step further, becoming a heady archetype everyone thought extinct: a Woman Who Rocks.

“I find it’s still a male-dominated industry,” notes the former high school wallflower, 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,” she muses. “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.”

The solution?

“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 backup 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.”