Jj Thames is Travelin’ Behind the Blues
(This originally appeared in the August 2017 Bluesletter – wablues.org)
“Have Blues, Will Travel,” might be the first major US tour for soul-blues belter Jj Thames, but she has been on this road since she was 17-years-old, and singing from the age of nine. A classically-trained musician with years of jazz under her belt, Thames (pronounced Timms) on the cusp of turning 35, is a veteran performer of many genres and styles, having shared the stage with everyone from Bobby Blue Bland and Marvin Sease on the Chitlin’ Circuit to Reggae’s Outlaw Nation and Fishbone. It’s a pretty impressive resume for someone who was told time and again that she wasn’t a very good or very soulful singer. Thames is philosophical. “I think you have a choice,” she says. “You can take that and use it as motivation or you can allow it to dash your dreams.” The choice she made is pretty clear.
A radiantly beautiful woman with a quick smile and sometimes deep purple hair, the “Mississippi Blues Diva” from Detroit, as she has been called, started her journey in the same city as Motown, and was a seasoned chanteuse at 17. Asked about early blues influences or singing in the church, Thames says neither initially drew her interest. Hearing her powerful instrument, recalling the passion of Koko or Etta, it’s hard to believe. Both her debut recording, Tell You What I Know, and her second album, Raw Sugar, recently nominated for a 2017 Blues Blast Music Award for Best Soul-Blues Album, open with soulful gospel-inspired tunes. The latter, Oh Lord, is an original (as they all are on Raw Sugar,) an old-timey-sounding, sparse composition with guitar, mandolin and vocals artfully added by Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons, the WBS-sponsored winners of the 2016 International Blues Competition in Memphis.
The song pleads for divine assistance on the bumpy journey we all take while we’re here. Thames is no stranger to struggle, and you can feel this from the beginning of the record. She has no qualms about putting her life in her songs, proclaiming, “All my music is personal.” Indeed, in the span of two albums you will hear the full spectrum of life’s ups and downs, tragic events and intimate moments. Raw Sugar includes a song about a woman in a questionable relationship considering an abortion; not a topic you hear in song too often. Lyrics on both albums are direct and surprising, vocals nuanced and wrenching, as she lets you behind the curtain where many of us hide our most personal lives.
She recently shared on social media pictures from the photo shoot for the album cover she shot a year and a half ago. At the time, she was struggling to just get out of bed and not cry her makeup off. Deeply depressed and dealing with anxiety and PTSD after a recent separation, she audaciously wore the white silk wedding gown she had worn full of hope less than a year before, to an abandoned warehouse with the photographer. She explained the range of emotions she was dealing with and wanted the CD to reflect. She says as she tromped through the filthy location, the dress began to resemble the marriage, and she was able to throw it away, and with that, start a new, more empowered chapter.
Her writing and her music seem to be a similar catharsis for her, and for her listeners. “You listen to my records, you know me personally,” she says, explaining that people come up to her at events and tell her all the time how they connect with her music and feel like they know her. They share how something they heard got them through a tough time: homelessness, a divorce or even the death of a child. They identify with her, and she with them, because the music is autobiographical, and all these things have come to pass.
A mother at 17, it was not always easy to make ends meet. Her second son, Zion Paul, was diagnosed with lymphoma and died just days from his second birthday. Thames mother, a psychiatrist, also passed from cancer at age 44. With each tragedy, Thames has diagramed her pain and her process and worked through to the other side. It is exorcised again and again in the songs and the performances. Not coincidentally, she says her lowest times brought her some of the most growth. She has always had the same dream, but because of circumstances, it periodically took a back seat to business school or the ministry, to survive or revive.
The church is in Thames’ blood, and most certainly in her voice. Her father retired from General Motors and became an ordained minister as Thames was reaching adulthood. She too, became fully ordained and licensed and worked in the church for two years, leaving music behind. Then one day, the minister that had guided her, brought her into his office for a heart-to-heart. “He told me, hey, I think you need to go back to the music industry. And I was like, wait, what?” She says he told her that he really felt like that’s where she was supposed to be. “That’s your pulpit. That’s where you’ll make the biggest impact and the biggest difference. “ She knew he was right and tried to make another go. “I said, You don’t have to tell me twice.”
But success only came in spurts, and in between, more heartache and trying times. Just when it looked like the very worst thing had happened and her dream might die right along with those closest to her, she found the strength to scratch her way up again.
She said she’s had people chastise her for her single-mindedness and honesty in this. She explains that the loss of her son was the worst thing that ever happened to her, but it was also, simultaneously, a positive force for change. “It was the thing that shook me,” she says. “It made me look at life and say, you know what, you’ve just got to go for it. Life’s too short.”
She dropped everything, including an engagement. She moved back to Detroit again to pursue her dreams and then to New York. As she describes her drive, you can see her resolve. “It was a trying time but it was also a time where I was writing so honestly. And I became this transparent individual where, you know, I have no secrets. And I feel like my story is supposed to be told. I feel like everything that I’ve gone through is just motivation for other people, so I don’t regret it.”
She felt like she was on the right path but there were still a few detours. The brief “very bad marriage” may have set her into a dark place, but it also gave her a lot of writing material. ”I get to sing songs about it and people understand. I honestly think that had a lot to do with the healing process. Writing that record and getting it off my chest. It put me in a position to where I was open to love again,” she says. And she is in love again, with her best friend, again. A longtime companion, member of the band and a strong guiding force who helps keep her affairs in order, is never far from her side. “We’re very different,” she says. “I’m a free spirit and he is not.” She smiles a beatific smile. “We balance each other out. He loves me well.”
Thames seems to exhibit an openness and a rare self-confidence and ease with herself that is unusual for someone her age, or for anyone, really. She seems incapable of having a shallow exchange; direct and forthcoming, curious and observant. Her experience and upbringing explain some of this, and growing up on the stage. But there is something else.
“Actually I have Asperger’s. I’m an “Aspi” and proud of it. I was diagnosed as an adult,” she says about learning she carried aspects of the syndrome classified as a mild form on the autism spectrum marked by social anxiety. “It explains my superpowers,” she says. She smiles and shows me the Wonder Woman tattoo on her arm. “I got the Wonder Woman tattoo when I was diagnosed.” For her, it explained a lot and she could finally own those parts of herself that were special and different.
“When I sing, I actually see notes,” she explains. “I smell colors. I hear colors. You know, the color pink has a smell: it smells like…sunshine.” She says a lot of people call these “auras.” She just knows that when she meets people, she sees certain colors with them. She says she didn’t always understand that most people don’t experience the world like that. “I can walk into a room and I can feel the heaviness or the happiness or discord,” she says. “I’ve made a lot of people uncomfortable over the years. I’ve learned not to stare. I’ve learned how to make eye contact.” She now accepts and acknowledges her sensitivities and celebrates them. She says she just tells people if she does something quirky or weird, that she has Asperger’s, which seems to make things less awkward.
“I’m unapologetically me and I’m OK with that,” she says. This attitude makes her a perfect match for United by Music North America, the non-profit that supports professional growth and performances by and for musicians with physical and intellectual challenges and barriers to the music industry. UBMNA pairs their members with professional working musician mentors. Thames spent a week as a mentor in Portland last month, performing with the group at the Hotel Rose as part of the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival. “I’m just honored to be a part of it,” she says. “Watching all of these artists use their super powers. They’re absolutely amazing.”
Thames has definitely traveled with the blues and come through them, not looking back except maybe to reflect on lessons learned and to write those cut-straight-to-the-bone lyrics. She says she continues to make peace with the past and practices forgiveness. She seems to have shed her skin, looking all bright and shiny and stepping out into the light. “That’s what I preach,” she says. “Follow your dreams. Follow your heart. Live authentically. You know, live out loud. Even when you get it wrong, get it wrong loud,” she laughs. “It’s okay. Nobody has it all figured out.” And of course, with the ease and grace with which she utters these wise words, she does indeed sound like she’s figured out quite a bit. You want to travel along and see where the road takes her. At this point, she says she’s staying present, appreciating every minute and has no regrets.
“Someone asked me, what would I tell her if I could go back and talk to my 17-year-old self,” she offers. “I sat there and thought about it, and I said, You know what? You’re right. All of your dreams are right. It turns out good in the end.”
Before heading off to Europe, Jj Thames & The Violet Revolt finish up their US tour performing at Seattle’s Highway 99 Blues Club on Wed, August 30. iamjjthames.com