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
"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
"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
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
"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