The morning after

Oct 12, 2005 at 12:00 am

“You come to realize that you don’t need a lot materialistically when you’re doing what you love,” Jill Jack says, on a beautiful fall afternoon. She’s seated on the front porch of her cozy blue house — the one with the cozy picket fence just off the highway in the cozy suburban neighborhood. There’s a level of comfort here that’s telling. “Right now, I love what I’m doing.”

Loving what you do is certainly a definition of success, one this local singer-songwriter didn’t easily find. There was, for example, the stint at nursing school. Then there was the 12-year job at an accounting firm, where she worked her way up the company’s ladder. She understands firsthand the inherent struggle of single motherhood; her daughter, Emma, is 13.

And much has happened since Jack quit that accounting gig back in 1996 for music. She has six solo albums under her belt; her just-released Moon and the Morning After, is the first on her own UpHill Productions label. The mantel above her fireplace displays 12 Detroit Music Awards. Over the years she’s done countless shows in and out of Michigan and opened many large-venue concerts. Her local fan base is large and loyal. She’s sold more than 10,000 CDs.

But what’s strange is that the singer didn’t begin her music career until she was into her 30s — a time when others are either successful or, more likely, stashing their musical gear away for good. And talk about a cultural hurdle — here’s a woman over 30 starting anew in music.

Jack was once quoted saying that people are horrified when they find out how old she is: “They say, ‘You should have gotten started when you were 17.’ But I believe I wasn’t supposed to do it until I did it.” She might have been making up for lost time when she issued her first four albums (Watch Over Me, Too Close to the Sun, Live From Billy’s Basement and Love Hotel) in as many years.

She grew up singing in the church choir and listening to “everything from Led Zep to Marvin Gaye.” But her singing career started on a fluke. One night she and a friend were in a bar in western Michigan. “There was an acoustic duo playing there,” Jack says, “and I ended up getting into it and worked my way onstage.”

She was soon backing such Detroit musicians as the Forbes Brothers, Johnny Allen, 3rd Nature and Stewart Francke. She formed Righteous Willy, which then became, simply, Jill Jack.

Her 1997 debut, Watch Over Me, had critics gushing. One wrote that Jack’s voice “can soar like opera and smoke like the blues” and called it one of the “strongest in the country.”

And while Jack’s family supported her efforts and she did become a local success — she’s had some blows.

The biggest came about three years ago when a spat with Jack’s guitarist and mentor, Billy Brandt, led to a band breakup. Her music went on hiatus and she found herself back at the day job. But the group had an itch that needed to be scratched. “We broke up, fought, nearly killed each other, and made up,” she says.

They regrouped in time to record 2004’s Live and Unplugged. “I realized that I wasn’t done,” Jack says.

That disc was funded by an adoring Jill Jack fan. Its success helped her get the financial support together for her own UpHill label, and so, the chance to be in complete control of her music.

Is there any meaning in the label name? It’s a take on the old “Jack and Jill” nursery rhyme, the singer says, but it also represents the climbing she’s done to get where she is. “You’ll notice though, that the girl in the [label’s] logo isn’t struggling,” Jack says. “She’s climbing, but she’s doing all right.”

If the logo’s live inspiration isn’t struggling, she’s swamped with work. Between the accounting firm, raising her daughter, writing songs and performing and promoting the new album, she appears content, with a hopeful eye to the future.

“It’s insane,” she says, “but I can handle it. Sometimes I think about someone who didn’t have my life getting into my shoes, and how they’d react. But I enjoy doing what I do.”

Future plans for UpHill include signing area acts. “I’ve always had an interest in working with other local artists,” Jack says.

She describes Moon and the Morning After as “combining the vintage feel of the Patsy Cline era with rough guitars.” The disc, she says, is her “most focused to date.” She’s not far from the truth.

Her vocals sometimes recall Natalie Merchant, and she’s been compared to contemporaries Sheryl Crow and Lucinda Williams, as well as country icon Emmylou Harris.

The album takes many turns, from the swooning country lilt of “Do I Dare?” to the Motown-influenced bass of “Drink the Dust.” At times it rolls along the gravel roads of folk and Detroit rock ’n’ roll.

Produced by Nolan Mendenhall, Moon is colored with bits of upright bass, pedal steel guitars and mandolins — a departure from the pure guitar-driven sounds that marked Jack’s prior work. The album shows Jack’s progression as a songwriter.

And she’s done so many shows in the Detroit area over the years that her name is ubiquitous and easy to gloss over. But don’t. Moon and the Morning After is worth seeking out.

Jack and band — which includes Brandt, bassist Nolan Mendenhall and drummer Ron Pangborn — have a handful of area performances in coming weeks. They’ll be taking their show on the road, heading to Memphis to play high-profile gigs and, they hope, connect with worthwhile labels for distribution.

Even from the comfortable porch of Jack’s home, securing better distribution for her label can seem an insurmountable task, much less having a career. Particularly in the shadow of those who’ve blasted out of here.

“It’s hard,” she says. “I mean I was right there with the White Stripes and Kid Rock, and they made it while I didn’t. But I still have hope for the future.”


Thursday and Friday, Oct. 20-21, at Robusto’s Martini Lounge & Wine Bar, 19271 Mack Ave., Grosse Pointe Woods; 313-881-0100.

Luke Allen Hackney is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]