Singer/songwriter Jess Godwin’s career so far has been a journey. When constructed images, genre-jumping and people-pleasing failed to fulfill her, she turned her focus inward, writing from the heart, opening up about fighting her own demons, and working with kids to combat bullying. Now the singer/songwriter who cites both Erykah Badu and Stephen Sondheim as influences spoke with Our Town about self-acceptance, labels and role models.
Our Town How would you describe your current sound?
Jess Godwin I'm in transition. The last year pushed me in the pop/rock direction. I'm currently working on bringing my two great loves, jazz and R&B, back into the mix.
OT What's your writing process like?
JG I get stuck in a strong emotion or lyrical idea (with Be a Light, I was fixated on the Eleanor Roosevelt quote about lighting a candle to pierce the dark). For the most part, I go through a dozen revisions or so until I am finally able to let go and move on to the next song. Every once in a while, usually on a particularly emotional day, an entire song will appear out of thin air. Those gems make the more difficult writing days worth it!
OT What's your favorite Chicago venue?
JG Definitely the Mayne Stage. If you haven't seen a show there, I highly recommend it. I keep going back because the staff is wonderful, the sound is great, and there is a beautiful grand piano on stage. I'm actually playing a (insert shameless plug here) show there December 13th!
OT What are the best/worst parts of the Chicago music scene?
JG Best: There is so much talent out there. Worst: Chicago is not as supportive of local music as it could be. Go see live music! (insert shameless plug here)
OT You’ve spent some of your career trying to please others rather than staying true to yourself. Do you think this journey is specific to being a woman in the music industry?
JG No. I have many male musician friends who have gone through the same struggles. The majority of songwriters I meet are not in it for approval. As artists, we feel, create, and share. We get in trouble when we realize the mere act of creating does not necessarily put food on the table. I'm learning that it's ok to try to write the hooky hit, do a radio jingle, be in a commercial, etc. to support yourself. Just make sure you still have that grounded connection to your own art underneath.
OT You mention the negative impact of labels. Unfortunately, for someone working in music and theater, they seem sort of unavoidable. How do you balance a healthy suspicion for labels with the need to brand yourself in order to get roles?
JG I think you need to be aware of how people perceive you without losing yourself. Don't let it define you. Wipe the slate clean and start fresh every morning. The word "brand" implies that I am a product. After years of unsuccessfully trying to brand myself, I'm now more interested in focusing on what I care about and what I have to say.
OT You talk to young women about body image and the music industry. What impact do people like Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift have?
JG Miley Cyrus is free to make her own choices. But as a public figure and role model, millions of impressionable young girls are watching her every move. Think about the wonderful things she could do with that power by setting a better example. What if every instagram selfie was instead a photo of her feeding the homeless/volunteering at a hospital/saving the rainforest etc etc etc! Think about the ripple effect that would have! I still think she has a chance to turn it around. I believe Taylor Swift is doing a good job with her power. For the sake of my young students who absolutely worship her, I hope she stays the course!
OT What sort of pressure have you faced?
JG The music industry is an industry. Individuals in positions of power are looking to make the most money possible off an artist. Unfortunately for women, the easy answer [is] selling the sex. Whenever I was close to getting signed for my voice or music, somebody was standing at the door saying, "but what about your look?" I can't fault them for this - they were trying to run a business. I was the one at fault, because at the end of the day, I succumbed. I always thought, "If I can get past this one last image hump, then I will finally be able to sing, connect, and focus on the things that really matter to me." But while I was trying to build up that outer shell, I failed to value and further develop myself as a thinking, breathing, creative human being. I don't think this struggle is specific to performers. Our society teaches us that if we buy the right makeup, sport the right hair style, lose weight, gain weight, change this, wear that, we will be loved. I don't want young women to ever experience this loss of control. I now travel to schools to share my experiences and music with kids in hopes that they will walk away really thinking about what it means to have substance.
Jess Godwin plays the Annual Human Rights Campaign Gala Saturday, November 16 at 5 p.m.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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