Singer Jill Jack wages uphill battle for her music - 11/17/04
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News from Royal Oak, Ferndale, Pleasant Ridge, Madison Heights, Berkley, Huntington Woods, Hazel Park, Clawson

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Marvin Shaouni / Special to The Detroit News

"I do everything by ear," says singer Jill Jack, a Huntington Woods native who now lives in Ferndale. "It's nice in a sense because you're not limited by what theory says you can't do."

Singer Jill Jack wages uphill battle for her music

Ferndale resident releases own label

Marvin Shaouni / Special to The Detroit News

Jill Jack talks with her manager, Nolan Mendenhall, as they listen to and discuss guitar compositions performed by local musician Bobby Lewis at Roscoe's Recording Studio in Detroit.

Upcoming performances

* Memphis Smoke, 100 S. Main, corner of 11 Mile, Royal Oak.

When: 10 p.m. Nov. 19

Call: (248) 543-4300.

* Dino's, 22740 Woodward, Ferndale.

When: 9 p.m. Nov. 20

Call: (248) 591-3466.

* Diamond Back Saloon, 49345 S. I-94 Service Drive, Belleville.

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 21

Call: (734) 699-7899

Jill Jack's CD releases:

1997: "Watch Over Me"

1998: "Too Close to the Sun"

1999: "Live from Billy's Basement"

2001: "The Love Hotel"

2004: "Live and Unplugged"

Available at

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FERNDALE -- Jill Jack's philosophy is to play it by ear.

The singer and songwriter, who has earned 12 Detroit Music Awards, is embarking on a new venture: a studio album on her own label, Uphill Productions. The album's working title is "Moon and the Morning After."

Jack, 41, a Huntington Woods native who now lives in Ferndale, was the middle of five children born to Barry and Judy Szczesny. She credits her family, and especially her older sister, Lisa, for encouraging her musical interests.

"In our family, when one kid got something, we all got something," Jack said recently at Starbucks Coffee in downtown Royal Oak. Lisa wanted a guitar. "It became a tradition that at 9 years old you got a guitar. We did a lot of play acting to records by Doris Day. I remember being in the living room when I was little and we were all singing 'Swinging on a Star' and 'Inch Worm.' As we got older, we continued that. Then we started playing guitar ourselves."

At 13, she joined the church guitar group at Our Lady of LaSalette Parish in Berkley. By 19, she started singing professionally with Norm and Bill, a group that performed at the Sir Charles Pub near 11 Mile and Woodward.

"My older sister has a great ear for music. She taught herself and hung out with other people who would show her chords. So we all learned that way. I do everything by ear. It's nice in a sense," she said, because you're not limited by what theory says you can't do.

"If my ear says you can, then I do it."

Jack first released a live album on her new label in February. "That was my trial run to see if I could do this," she said. For this studio album, "I tossed around a lot of ideas. I prayed a lot. I interviewed a lot of producers." She chose Nolan Mendenhall of Royal Oak.

"Jill's a peach to work with. She's decisive. Her song-writing is more mature than ever," Mendenhall said. "She's evocative and has a one-two punch" when she sings, which he attributes to her live performances.

Mendenhall describes Jack's new songs as alt-country, but with flavors of gospel, rhythm and blues, and Detroit roots. He said Robert Jones, keyboard player for the Funk Brothers, is working with Jack.

When she started her new album, Jack was looking for some reassurance. On her first day at Roscoe's Recording Studio, on Mack Avenue in Detroit, Jack said she saw two good omens: a lunar eclipse, and a picture of Elvis Presley.

"A lot of things have happened to me on the full moon. The first session I had (for this CD) was on the full moon, the lunar eclipse," Jack said. "And I was born on Elvis' birthday. I've known that all my life, but before a studio session, when I'm changing guitar strings and have to be ready, I'm writing a song about Elvis when I'm supposed to be on my way to the studio. Weird thing is, I walked in the studio, where I've never been before, and there's a print of Elvis." Jack said that night she successfully laid down rhythm tracks for six new songs.

Another night at Roscoe's, she came in to work on the vocal tracks. During a session break, Jack confided that at Berkley High School, she had wanted to join Bill DeMaria's a cappella choir, but didn't have the courage to audition until halfway through her senior year -- and only with three other friends singing with her for moral support.

The quartet began, she said, and soon DeMaria pointed at Jack and beckoned her to come forward. She was scared, thinking he'd say her auditioning was a mistake. But instead, he asked her: "Why did you wait to audition until your senior year?" Those words of encouragement, she said, "changed my life."

Besides the six new songs already recorded, Jack plans to include her new Elvis Presley song and "Restless Soul," a song she wrote after watching "The Passion of the Christ." She's also hoping that her 13-year-old daughter, Emma, will co-write a song for the album.

"She's an incredible writer," Jack said. Emma also sings, and has done backup vocals on earlier albums. Jack also co-writes with Emma's dad, David Jack, a drummer and musician. The couple are divorced.

Jack keeps close friends from high school. She recently vacationed with them in Florida -- a break she hasn't often allowed herself since forming her own band. In 1995, she left a well-paying job at an accounting firm, working as an executive assistant to a vice president, to take up music full time.

That meant cutting albums and working gigs night and day while staying an active and involved mom. But Jack said that as her daughter is getting older, she wants to keep more regular hours at home. So she's working again at the accounting firm, part time.

"I felt at this point in my life, I did my ground work and I raised my fan base. So now I could step back and play maybe five shows a month instead of five a week," said Jack, who added that slowing down did affect her.

"I'd wake up in the middle of the night twitching from being away," she said, "but I didn't have health insurance, either, and that's really Russian roulette, so I decided to go back to the (accounting) firm I had worked for for 12 years.

"They're like family. They took me back as I am. They know my music and they're willing to work with my schedule. So now it's nice to take the shows I want to take and not just because I have to."

Cindy Hampel is a Metro Detroit free-lance writer.

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  • Singer Jill Jack wages uphill battle for her music
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