Even though she topped the Canadian rock charts with her very first single, JJ Wilde doesn’t see herself as an overnight sensation.
Instead, her accomplishments in 2020 were the culmination of over a decade of hard work and touring for the 28-year-old Kitchener rocker. Now she’s reaping the rewards, having become the first woman to top all three of Canada’s rock charts when she released The Rush last year.
Since then, she’s seen a slew of success, having racked up multiple top 10 hits while her album Ruthless earned a nomination for Best Rock Album at the Juno Awards later this year. She’s even had a beer can designed in her honour by Collective Arts Brewing. As ‘Wilde’ as the ride has been, it didn’t just start in 2020.
“It’s funny because there’s this misconception of an overnight success, because really I’ve been trying to pursue music for over 10 years,” Wilde said. “And even with The Rush, that song was written I think a year, if not two, before it ever made any success.”
That success hasn’t changed her location though. Wilde – née Jillian Dowding – still calls Waterloo Region home, with her big move seeing her go from Kitchener to Waterloo. While she would spend time in Los Angeles to write and record prior to the pandemic, she’d still come home.
For her, there’s something special about Waterloo Region. Wilde said she likes being able to take a 10-minute drive to head off the grid and go hiking. It’s also where her family and friends still are.
“There’s something nice about coming home. And actually coming home, not an empty apartment in Toronto. Although, hey, that might be nice too,” she said. “I just think family is really important to me, so I think as long as my family’s here I think I’ll just end up coming back.”
Waterloo Region’s also where her career first started.
While she’s played at open mic nights at Boathouse, the Whale and Ale, Rhapsody and other venues within the region, her first show was at a much different location.
It was back when she was a high school student at Grand River Collegiate that Wilde made her first performance at a coffeehouse event hosted by one of the school’s teachers, Duncan Nicholls.
“All the kids could come and they could read poetry and play their songs,” she said. “It was really just a free expression. You could do an acting skit, but it was pretty much anything you wanted to do, it was just a safe space to show people your work or sing or do whatever.”
It wasn’t an easy path to that performance though. Wilde went to several of the concerts just to watch and listen, but thanks to her stage fright, she’d never gone up on stage herself.
That’s where Nicholls came in. The teacher struck a deal with Wilde, if she went up and sang, he’d go up with her. He learned the guitar parts for Sigh No More by Mumford & Sons and the two performed it. As Wilde put it, she was “absolutely shaking terrified.”
“But I don’t think I would have done it if he hadn’t given me that push to say that I’ll go up there with you so you’re not so scared,” she said. “He just had such a positive influence on me creatively and gaining confidence and performing. He was a very special teacher, one of those ones that you hear about.”
Nicholls isn’t the only person Wilde gives credit to for their help along her path. She also cited Paul Maxwell, her former boss at Maxwell’s in Waterloo as somebody who had major influence on her. According to Wilde, he understood the situation she was in as a musician and was willing to give her time off to go on tour as well as slots for her band to play at the bar.
For her, it was special, having a boss putting her career over the workplace. The support is something Wilde said she’s still grateful for.
“It’s hard when you’re trying to juggle jobs and play gigs every night and then you have to take two or three weeks off to tour, well no employers going to say ‘okay just have three weeks off,’” she said. “That’s not a very common thing, so for him to be that generous it really meant a lot.”
After all the years of toiling at part-time jobs – Wilde said besides Maxwell’s she’s also worked at almost every restaurant in Kitchener – to see the success she’s having now is “pretty crazy.” After all, a few years ago Wilde was working three jobs and now she’s up for an award against Canadian rock legends like Neil Young.
Couple that with how her success has coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s created a surreal experience for her.
“It’s not how I envisioned it at all. You have this radio success and you go play a show and you can see the numbers increase in the crowd and you can actually watch it happen,” Wilde said. “It’s happening and our lives are all put on hold right now so it’s a very interesting kind of feeling.”
Though the pandemic has had its highs and lows for her, Wilde’s able to look back on the past year with some perspective. When the COVID-19 first hit, she said she didn’t write any songs for three months.
Eventually though a switch flipped and Wilde started writing again. With time off from touring, it gave her time to reflect leaving her with the chance to “look back and say [she] created something out of this.”
At the same time, she started performing cover songs on her social media – Coffee and a Cover, as she called it – as a way to help deal with the uncertainty people were facing. Wilde said it gave people a chance to tune out the world and just enjoy some music.
“I got a lot of positive feedback kind of saying thank you for doing that because it was a nice distraction.”
The pandemic led to the cancellation of her return to Kitchener last year, when her tour with Jimmy Eat World was cancelled. Post-pandemic she’ll be back on the road, but she’ll still look at Waterloo Region as home.
“I’ll always leave again, but I’ll always come back.”
“It’s the rush:” Five quick questions with JJ Wilde
What was the first album you ever bought?
I think it was Johnny Cash. I’m thinking of four different ones, because it was like grade six or seven that I got my first CD. It was either Johnny Cash, the Ramones, Green Day or the Distillers. I can’t remember which one. I think it was Johnny Cash. I went through a big Johnny Cash phase when I was in middle school and I played Ring of Fire on tuba for one of my band exams.
What is the greatest song ever written?
Oh, come on. I don’t have one, there’s so many. I don’t know. I can’t just pick one. That’s such an unfair trick question, there’s too many songs. I was listening to Bohemian Rhapsody the other day, I just had this old-school rock playlist going. I don’t want to say that’s the best song ever written but the closest answer I could give to that is I was listening to it and all the different parts in there, it was like how does somebody come up with that. Every little melodic thing, all the instrumentation that goes with every part, all the directions it goes. I definitely had that feeling of this has got to be up there. I’m not going to say that’s the best one because I don’t think there’s just one best song ever written. That’s the closest answer I can give you.
What’s your favourite place in Waterloo Region?
I’d say my parent’s backyard. It’s where I write a lot of my songs in the summer. All the childhood memories. They’ve lived in the same house since I was born, so that is still old-school home to me.
What’s the best concert you ever attended?
I’d have to say the first time I saw Mumford & Sons. It was their first time they came to Canada. It was before they had really exploded. I was front row and I could literally feel their sweat and they put on I’d have to say one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t believe it. The energy, just everything about that show was incredible. I can see why they blew up the way they did because I’m sure anyone who was in that audience was completely blown away.
If you could perform a duet with any singer, dead or alive, who would it be?
That’s a tough one too. These are all trick questions. Dead or alive duet. Oh man, there’s so many. Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin. Kings of Leon. I’m giving you more than one answer.