Faith and footwork

Jill Jack is all smiles, but the cold Ann Arbor day is doing its work as her teeth chatter involuntarily. We haven't begun the interview yet, but just before Bruce Giffin starts snapping pictures, she imparts a story. It alerts me to the connection between her cheerful endurance in these difficult circumstances and the depth and transcendence in the voice that soars throughout Watch Over Me, her stunning debut album, and in her live shows.

"My girlfriends and I were hanging out for a weekend in Saugatuck," Jack relates, "where in the off-season everything closes early. So here we are, driving around in this little town called Douglas, and every bar is closed. I tell them that the first bar I see I'm pulling into. I suddenly see this little roadside joint full of pickup trucks and motorcycles ... and we do it.

"Inside are cowboys and bikers and a country band up on the stand. After a couple of drinks, I decide I want to sing on that stage and go up and ask the bartender if I can sing with the band for a number. In fact, I offer to pay her because she is wary, to say the least. She's wondering, 'Who are you, little girl? These folks will eat you alive.' But she decides to let me have my date with death anyway. As I go up to the stage to approach the band, I get all shaky and my friends are saying, 'You better be good or we're dead.' The locals were eyeing me with suspicion and dread and a certain skeptical amusement.

"So anyway, I get up on the stage and teach the band my song 'Rosie' which has only four chords and is about a truck stop waitress. We play the song together and, by the end, everybody in the place was screaming and banging on tables and yelling for more 'Rosie.' Now they want to me to shoot a video there! My whole life seems to work like that these days. I know I'm doing the right thing, what I'm supposed to do," Jack says.

Given the rocking country and folk of Watch Over Me, the things that are happening for her musically (two Detroit Music Awards, opening for nationally known acts at Pine Knob and the State Theatre, solid bookings week in and week out, in and out of town) and the humility and surrender-to-the-gods attitude that beams forth from her small, wiry frame, I don't just believe her, I believe in her.

At 34, Jack is entering a phase when most have already given up. A wife (her husband, David Jack, is also a musician) and mother (her young daughter Emma graces the album cover dressed as an angel), Jack is pursuing a dream to unknown ends and balancing it all with grace and a rough-hewn elegance.

After 10 years of slogging it out singing in bars and folk clubs as a backup singer and later fronting a band, Jack has begun to try things on her own, surrounding herself with musical collaborators who encourage and challenge her vision of what music and songwriting should be. She works constantly -- singing on commercial jingles, playing gigs, promoting her album, being a mom full-time and maintaining a marital partnership. She's in the middle of life as a whirlwind, but there is a calm here, even when she talks about the edges that get frayed from time to time.

"I made up my mind, when I started writing my own songs, that the only thing I had to give up was my resistance," Jack says.

"And when I surrendered to what I needed to do, despite the hard stuff, it all fell into place. I knew I had to surrender when I first started writing my own songs about 4 1/2 years ago. I just get out of the way and do the footwork; the rest is taken care of."

Jack's songs grew out of journals that she had been keeping since she was 9. The journals bore fruit as poems and, finally, as songs. Some of these later found their way, in various guises, onto Watch Over Me, an album that's ambitious, full of a passion that burns brighter, longer and more dangerously than perhaps it should.

Her country sound is rooted in Detroit rock 'n' roll. She grew up here, has collaborated with many of the area's finest musicians and many of them show up on her album.

Jack addresses themes of redemption, loss, erotic passion, love and restlessness in songs that sally forth with guitars ringing and drums punching through the mix to hold her up and let the voice soar from her slight frame.

"I sing as a way of making sense of things, as a way of dealing with things. It's healing for me; it erases doubt and uncertainty about what it is I'm doing," Jack explains.

"People weren't always this supportive. When all my friends were growing out of this whole phase of restlessness and the pursuit of dreams, I was committing my life to them -- without giving up certain other things, like being a good mother and wife. I live in a nice enough house, but I live there by hard work and faith that all of it is going to turn out all right, if I am true to what it is I am supposed to do. And what I am supposed to do is sing."

In a live setting, it's easy to see that Jack acts on her beliefs. With her crack band, which is as edgy and restless as she is -- Billy Brandt on guitar, mandolin and banjo; bass legend Gary Rasmussen, and Cary Gluckman on drums -- Jack turns stages into melting pots of her, the band and the audience's emotions.

"I do feed from the crowd and the band. The longer I do this, the safer I feel at putting myself completely out there and letting them see it all, even if it's something uncomfortable or scary. I need it to feel like I am part of them and their experience."

And it works. Jack brings down the curtain of the soul in performance. She wrings so much truth out of a song, it's almost uncomfortable. You wonder if you should be embarrassed for her until you realize it's your own sense of shame and guilt and reserve talking. She knows that the only real safety is in rigorous honesty, whether expressed in music, an embrace or a conversation that's needed to take place for a long, long time.

"I am in this for the long haul and that's what comes out in shows and on record. I do it to stay alive. Once, I quit for a while and all I could do was to sit in my yard and cry, because I was denying my vocation."

In the 1980s, the words "redemptive art" seemed to lose their meaning in the glittering images of music, rather than represent the stuff from which music itself is made. From Jack's vantage point, those words have regained their sheen as the kind of ideal that only the most determined and impure artists -- those who truly give in to the muse -- ever get to encounter, let alone impart. Thom Jurek is a music writer living and working in Ann Arbor. E-mail [email protected]

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