Hundreds of hopefuls make their way to Nashville every year, looking to stake their own claim to fame in country music. Some arrive with nothing more than a guitar and lyric-filled notebook under their arm, everything they own packed in the bed of a rundown truck. Some, discovered in a honky-tonk or roadhouse in their home town, ride in on the promise of a publishing deal or recording contract, visions of gold records and tricked-out tour busses dancing in their heads.
Very few however arrive in Music City with as much baggage as Jessica Simpson. Not since 1970 when Hank Williams, Jr. signed the biggest recording contract in MGM history has so much doubt and criticism faced a young artist. Unlike Williams who was burdened by the ghost of his legendary father, the shadow Simpson is trying to escape is largely her own. Preconceptions based on her tremendously successful career as a pop singer, a brief marriage on display in a reality program, the subsequent post-marital tumult, headline generating relationships and awkward professional stumbles have woven a tapestry of misconceptions around her.
The news last year that Simpson planned to come to Nashville to make a country record was met with a resounding scoff by a chorus of naysayers, many of them members of the very industry she was hoping to join. And that was the polite response.
The quietest voice amid all the din has been that of Jessica Simpson herself. But with the release of Do You Know, her first album on Epic/Columbia Nashville, the doe-eyed Texas beauty makes it perfectly clear she not only has a voice, but a point of view colored by life experience beyond her years, and plenty to say. She hopes to not only quiet her critics, but give the country music industry and audience something else to talk about---her undeniable talent and gift as a country singer/songwriter.
“There is a perception of who I am out there that has little to do with me,” she says quietly but with conviction. “I appreciate the fact that there are skeptics out there, that people may be doubtful and may not trust this effort. But what I want people to know and understand is I don’t have one foot in pop and one foot in country. I have made the commitment to country music. I look forward to reviews, no matter what they are. I look at it as constructive criticism. If anything, it just pushes me to do better the next time.”
Simpson has been pushing herself her entire life, frequently through devastating disappointment and heartbreak. While it is clichéd to tag failure as the starting point for success, the public would be surprised to know how many times the girl who seems to have it all was left empty-handed. Through it all, her family and faith have provided a rock solid base from which she draws strength and inspiration.
Like many country singers, her first musical exposure and singing experience was in church. “My father was a minister and evangelist, so growing up, I was surrounded by gospel music. Living in Texas, we also had a lot of country music. In our home, there were records by Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson, and records by CeCe Winans and Amy Grant. When I was little, I would sing at the places where my dad spoke, we were a duo!”
As time went on, she found herself seeking the spotlight. “As I got older, I started to feel like I didn’t want to be in the choir, I wanted to sing louder than everyone else. If I was in a musical, I hogged the microphone!”
Her early focus was on dance and she was on the competition circuit, which also included vocal contests. When her dance instructor noticed that her pupil had an affinity for singing, she encouraged her to enter a competition, and in her first stab at it, she won. When word came of a chance to audition for the new Mickey Mouse Club, the 12-year-old jumped at it. “I did a dance to ‘Ice Ice Baby’ and an a cappella version of ‘Amazing Grace.’ There were 50,000 kids who auditioned and I got to go to Florida with the final eight.”
She was crushed when she received a letter from Disney saying she hadn’t made it, particularly when so many people she knew did: Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Ryan Gosling and Keri Russell. “My mom told me not to worry, that I would see those kids again somewhere down the road. Even though I didn’t make the show, I think it was then that my parents realized maybe they weren’t being just proud parents, that maybe there was something there within me.”
Not long afterwards, Simpson was invited to contribute to an album recorded with a gospel choir in New Jersey, which led to recording her first solo album—also gospel, in Nashville. Like her Mickey Mouse Club rejection, it was another setback for the 15-year-old. “I was telling my friends and people at my school that I was making a record that would be on the radio. But the label folded right before the record was to be pressed. When you’re that young and someone promises you something, you believe them. I was so disappointed.”
Her grandmother ended up paying for the record to be pressed, and the Simpsons sold it as they toured the Christian music circuit. It was one of those recordings that eventually caught the ear of mega music biz mogul Tommy Mottola who signed her to a pop music deal with Columbia Records and released her label debut, Sweet Kisses, in 1999.
Fast forward through a lightning-fast rise to the top of the pop charts: double-platinum certification for Sweet Kisses, its breakthrough hit “I Wanna Love You Forever”; the 2002 follow-up CD Irresistible which crossed over to four different charts.
It was in making her third album that she was first introduced to the Nashville songwriting community. “I wanted to do some writing for the record and my A&R person at the time pointed me to Nashville, where some of her favorite writers were. I loved it, but the label thought what I was writing with them was too country, and they had signed me to sing pop. I would listen to those demos over the years and knew I would go back to Nashville one day.”
But meanwhile, the whirlwind of her increasingly successful professional life and increasingly public personal life took on a virtual life of its own, with the line between the two becoming nearly indistinguishable. Almost simultaneous with the release of In This Skin in 2003 was the launch of the massively successful reality show documenting every moment of her marriage to new husband Nick Lachey, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica. Though the program—which ran for 41 episodes until March 30, 2005—ratcheted up both album sales and Simpson’s star quotient, it also contributed to the public’s perception of the blonde bombshell as ditzy and dimwitted, an assessment that family and friends knew to be inaccurate and hurtful.
Far more hurtful was the unhappiness within the marriage that led to its disintegration and very public dissolution. It was during that period that the label was pressing her to make and release another record. Barely two months after her divorce was finalized on June 30, 2006, A Public Affair was released. “It was incredibly hard to promote that record. I wasn’t in a place where I could be honest, and I wasn’t able to be strong enough for the world.”
Though it would be a year before Joe Simpson told People magazine that his daughter was thinking of “returning to her roots” and recording a country record, the journey back to Nashville had begun well before that.
“I took the long way around to get back to where I came from,” she says. “Back where I belong. I think to be able to sing country music honestly, you have to experience life. There is so much honesty in the music, and if you are not honest, the fans will know it. Fans are the absolute lifeblood of country music, and they won’t respond to you unless they believe you.”
The first step was believing in herself and trusting her co-writers. She went to Nashville in 2007 to begin. “The process started with sitting down with these amazing songwriters and forcing myself to be vulnerable. I was so paranoid at the time, so overwhelmed by the tabloids. I wasn’t even living my own life. The first time I sat down to write was with Brett James and Hillary Lindsey. I write things in my Blackberry, and I was telling them some of my thoughts and ideas and they were writing them down. They were respectful of what I was sharing. At that moment, it felt right. I knew that we were partners and I didn’t have to be afraid that they would pick up the phone, call the tabloids and say, ‘Guess what Jessica Simpson is going through?’ I shared so much with my writers. They know me so well now; they know my sadness and my joy, my hurt and my happiness, my disappointments and my hopes. They are some of my closest friends.
“In order to do this record, I had to be vulnerable and I had to trust. After writing sessions, Cacee [Cobb, who did A&R for the album] and I would go back to the house we were renting and I would be so emotionally drained. Writing sessions were like therapy. It was hard to go through, but afterwards, you’ve let it go, and you feel so much lighter. The weight of denial is very hard to live with. Writing this record was so freeing to me.”
If the writing—which resulted in her name on eight of eleven cuts—was freeing, the time spent in studios with producers Brett James and John Shanks recording those songs was exhilarating.
“The first day in the studio we cut three songs: ‘Come On Over,’ ‘Might As Well Be Making Love’ and ‘Sipping On History.’ I had been living with the demos for so long, it just happened. With music, when it’s right, it happens so quickly and so easily. It felt so good! I felt like I was back to who I really am.”
Perhaps the last song cut for the record was the most meaningful to Simpson, representing a remarkable gift of grace and redemption from one of her most humiliating public moments. In December 2006, while participating in a tribute to one of her all-time idols Dolly Parton at the Kennedy Center Awards, Simpson botched the lyrics to the song, in front of an audience that included President Bush, and of course Parton herself. “I should never have been on that stage at that time. I had gone through a break-up the night before and I had not been on stage in a year and a half. My heart was there, and I so much wanted to honor Dolly. But my mind was not with it. That night was really the lowest of the low. I apologized to Dolly and she was so kind to me. She said, ‘I wrote the song and I forget the words! Don’t you worry about it.’ In the months after, she would send me little notes of encouragement; she reminded me that we are who we are born to be. She took me under her wing and brought me to another level of faith.
“When we were recording this record I knew I wanted one of her songs. She gave me a batch of 12 songs to listen to, then called and said she didn’t think any of them were right and was sending over some more. ‘Do You Know’ was the first song of that bunch and I knew it was right. I loved it. We cut it and sent it to her and she was so supportive and flattering. Then she offered to sing on it and ‘Dollyize it.’ I just couldn’t believe it. Our voices blended so well together. Listening to that song now just makes me smile. The experience at the Kennedy Center ended up being one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
After a lengthy absence, Simpson is back where she feels happy and comfortable, on stage in front of a live audience. Each performance, she previews each of the songs with a story, sharing with the audience the truth behind the song. “It’s like a live listening party every night. What is so great about this record and these songs is that I don’t have to embellish them. They don’t need a pyro display to get the point across and I don’t have to learn a bunch of choreography. I can just get up there and sing my music, and the songs speak for themselves.
“Coming to Nashville and to country music was both a test and a leap of faith for me. But in this place of honesty and trust and hope, I’ve discovered so many things I left behind along the way. I’ve come back to who I was growing up. I believe if you follow your heart and be quiet, you will find the answers, you will find yourself. I found myself in this record. ‘Do You Know’ is a song and a metaphor for my life right now. Do you know who I really am?”
With the release of Do You Know, the world will receive the most honest understanding yet of who Jessica Simpson really is.