Jessica Rae is no stranger to the music scene. She started playing violin at the age of four, but it wasn’t until recently that Jessica decided to throw her voice out into the world letting everyone know her talent didn’t stop at the violin strings. With her unique voice and infectious laugh, the Chicago native is charming audiences across the country. Country Music Chicago recently chatted with Jessica to discuss her music, where she finds her inspiration and what she does when she is not on the road.
I read that you didn’t always showcase your voice, so tell me about the moment you decided to move to Nashville and pursue your dream of becoming a singer and songwriter.
I started playing music at a really young age, so I actually did the Suzuki Method when I started when I was 4 years old. The Suzuki Method was on violin, so I was classically trained and I joined a traveling group at 11 years old with the violin and was really fortunate to tour the world. I toured some really unique, wonderful places and I was just really kind of an introvert and I never sang. I was just really too shy and I continued my violin journey and continued with that in college and majored in Violin Performance.
After college I was like I have no idea what I’m going to do with this major and I started following my dad’s footsteps. So I went back to Chicago and started working in advertising a little bit on the sales side.
My Grandmother, who used to be a big band singer in the 1940’s, passed away and my parents were like it is just going to be family and it is going to be such an intimate memorial service. I know that she would really appreciate it and I know the family would if you would be able to sing for her memorial service. I was like, well okay. I started picking out songs and I picked Ava Maria. She was Italian, so I thought this is going to be in honor of her and her life. So I picked that song and practiced it in a corridor in the condo that I was living at. The day of the memorial service I prayed and said just get me through it and don’t let me break down until the end of it. And when the timing was right, I just sang it and my world at that point changed. I was able to get through it and I just disappeared.
I’m a big believer that there are certain times in your life when you are just brought to it for another purpose and that was one of those moments for me. I pretty much just disappeared and I sang it and I came to afterward and I literally broke down and it hit me that my grandmother had passed and the world pretty much changed because my singing for me was even more comfortable then I had ever had playing violin. If that makes any sense?
I’m a big believer that there are certain times in your life when you are just brought to it for another purpose and that was one of those moments for me.
It kind of hit me at a later game because I was 22 when I started singing, but it hit me and said this is my purpose and this is what I’m supposed to be doing. That was a really cool realization and once that hit me the journey began after that.
Wow. That is such a powerful moment of realization.
It was surreal. I always talk to people who are like I really wish I would have something like that happen to me and I tell them it could happen any day. I’m down here in Nashville where people have been singing since they were eight years old like I have been doing with violin. I kind of had a late start, but at he same time I don’t know if I would have been mentally ready and prepared for all of what I’ve gone through and all of this journey if it didn’t hit me when I was older. So the timing happens for a reason.
You write a lot of your own music as well, right?
Yes, I actually write all of it, but the thing about Nashville is that a lot of people co-write. So I got into the scene of co-writing with a lot of the writers down here and I absolutely love it. It is such a cool way of having a different perspective on the same idea. So going into a writing session and saying I’ve got this idea and you bounce it off of another person who has lived a similar story and you come up with this really great universal song that can affect a lot of people.
Where do you find a lot of inspiration for your songs?
I find it from a lot of places. I find it most often from the people around me and their stores. Just living life. It is funny when you are friends with or are dating a songwriter, a lot of those life moments come into play when you are a songwriter. The way that you live your life, the pain and the hurt, you just kind of grab it. And you have to be a good listener and you are a story teller.
Earlier this year you traveled around the country to promote your album. Tell me about that experience and what it was like to be out on the road.
In one word, it was amazing. It was a learning experience. I manage myself and I book myself, so I’m pretty much a one-woman show. Actually, the prep work for the tour was a lot of work and it took a lot of my energy, so by the time the actual tour came about it was so nice just to be on the road by myself. I didn’t care if I got lost. I would be in this really beautiful town, so I would just sit there and have some lunch or a cup of coffee. I would really enjoy it and live in the moment. Being on tour and meeting so many people from different cities that I have never been to before was an amazing experience.
And you also recently opened for Josh Kelley here at Joe’s Bar in Chicago?
That was so much fun!
How great was it to play in front of your hometown audience?
I come back to Chicago fairly often and I play some of the smaller venues, but I was at Joe’s last year as well and I opened for Brantley Gilbert. That was such a fantastic experience, so I just stayed in touch with Joe’s and said any time you see an opportunity fit that I would be a good opening act, I would love to play again. They called me and said I think you would be a good fit with Josh Kelley, so I was like oh my gosh, I’m in! I love Josh Kelley and I think that’s a perfect fit.
It’s awesome coming back to a hometown for any artist is just so warm and welcoming. You’ve got all your friends and family there. It’s just a beautiful thing. It was great meeting Josh and the band and his music is fabulous. It was awesome.
I love Joe’s!
I know you’ve had a lot of great moments in your career the last few years, but what has been one of the most memorable moments?
Memorable moments? I have a lot. I did this PBS television show in 2009 and that was an amazing and very intimidating experience. It was prerecorded, but it was a circle stage, so you had audience members pretty much on every side of you. That was definitely intimidating and it was probably the largest audience and the largest thing I had done in my career up to that point. That was really a memorable moment for my career and for me. Just the level of achievement was really great.
And I played Milwaukee Summerfest which was another really exciting moment because, over the years, I’ve gone up to Summerfest and never would I have known that I would actually be performing on that very stage. Mainly, because at the time, I had never sung and secondly it was exciting to have the world’s biggest festival invite me to play. It was unbelievable and really exciting!
That is a great accomplishment.
Yeah! And the tour when I was preparing for it, I gained Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka as sponsor, which is rare for an independent and something that will always be memorable. It was really great to have a brand, such as Firefly Sweet Tea, jump on board and believe in me, and support my career. It was fantastic over the course of the tour because they were able to help out with promotion and all of that kind of stuff. That was memorable for sure.
If you could work with any artist, who would it be?
That changes all of the time. Some of my favorite artists are Patty Griffin…she is so poetic with her lyrics…she would be incredible to meet and work with some day.
When you are not busy working, what do you spend your time doing?
(laughs) That is a good question! I have definitely become a workaholic with my singer/songwriter career. I’m mainly just working, but I do like to hike and I like to run and I read, I read a lot of books. So that is kind of the escape for me.
I saw on your blog that you had a few posts about cooking and food. Are you a big cook?
Yes, I like to cook! Sometimes I just feel like that is just part of maintaining and survival, but I really do enjoy it.
Do you miss home cooked meals or what do you miss when you are traveling and on the road so much?
I love traveling. Really. But I don’t love unpacking and packing. So living out of a suitcase is probably the only thing I really can’t stand about being on the road. I guess, I miss the convenience of being at home where you’ve got everything right at your fingertips. Otherwise, it is out of a bag and that is just going to drive you crazy after a while.
Especially when you are on the road for weeks at a time.
Yeah, but really being on the road…I love meeting new people and sharing my music. With going out and meeting people and they are like ‘I’ve been listening to your music and that song changed my life.’ That’s the biggest thrill as a songwriter, to change somebody – or to affect somebody – in such a way that is positive, is moving and can get them out of a situation. It is really why we do what we do, so when you go out on the road and you meet these kind of people, not through social media, you actually meet them face-to-face and they give you a hug and they say it is so great to meet you and I’ve been listening to your stuff for a while now… That is like the coolest thrill. You know?
I can only imagine. It is rewarding, I would assume.
Yeah, it is really rewarding to know that you are doing something to make a difference even if it is in a small way.
And speaking of making a difference and stories that affect people’s life. I read that you are going to be filming a video for “24 Hour Church (In Memphis)”. What is the story behind that song?
Gosh, I was working down here in Nashville. It was kind of those strange odd jobs that you take just to make money and the job itself was not all that great, but the people working there were incredible. I have two songs on the album that came out of that one job. The first one was “24 Hour Church (In Memphis)” and it was a gentleman I was working with. He would always come up to me and he was always talking about his relationship with God. He got into this story about how his world was completely turned around by this 24 church in Memphis that he found. He found it one night when he was stumbling drunk and he was just lost. He had just lost his wife because of his alcohol problem and earlier in his life he also had drug problems and all these major, major issues that I’ve never actually personally had to deal with. And it was just such a powerful story and the way he spoke about it, it was just passionate and it was raw and real.
I love real stories where even if it is not personally my direct story, I can take his passion of just that greatness of being able to turn your life around and make it into the story. So pretty much verbatim of what he was telling me that day, I took it down on my phone and I brought it to my co-writer and said, I’ve got to write this story down and he was like alright lets do it. We kind of just came up with the rest of it and it just flew out and I think we finished it in like two hours and it was done.
It’s been one of those songs that on the road people just really feel it and they want to go there. Even if it is a place they will never attend, they just want to go there. And you know, I think a 24 hour church can be anywhere if you need it to be. It can be around people, it can be around family, it can be around just your apartment if you make it that way.
Are you going to be filming the video for “24 Hour Church (In Memphis)” in Memphis?
We are going to stay in Nashville. To actually try and do it three hours away would be a little tricky just to get everyone on board, so we are going to do here. But I did visit that 24 hour church in Memphis. After I wrote that song I made a trip down there and I found it after asking a bunch of people, so that was a wonderful thing. I had a bunch of pictures taken at it. I was actually down in Florida for the month of October and I sang that song one time and coincidentally there was a women in the audience who came up to me afterward and she was like I’ve been to that church. I was like wow, that is unbelievable. I was happy that someone knew that it did exist.
What else do you have coming up in your near future?
That is pretty much going to be the biggest thing right now, is the music video. I’m to take a writing retreat in the winter and try and start working on another album. I’m just going to really focus in and dive deep for writing and try to release something new for next year.
Make sure to catch one of Jessica’s shows when she is in town during the holidays. Her show schedule is listed below.
December 21 – Christmas Show @ Inovasi (28 E. Center Drive, Lake Bluff, IL)
December 22 – O’Neil’s (1003 Green Bay Road, Winnetka, IL 60093)
And checkout Jessica’s new video for “Keep On”.