She leaves a bowl of baked cookies on a merchandise table at her concerts and asks, “how are you feeling today” on a mailing list form. She relishes any opportunity to comfort a teenager dealing with adolescence.
“In this day and age, being cynical is in vogue and I’m so tired of it,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be great if being nice was cool?”
Don’t mistaken niceness for timidness. Godwin’s voice is distinctive and commanding whether she’s reveling in her playful side on “Katy’s Side” or powering through “Be a Light” and “Santa Monica.”
Godwin chatted with Pop ’stache a few days after her January show at Mayne Stage in Chicago, discussing the maturation of her music, how it helps to have a theater background and the challenge of presenting the right image.
Pop ’stache: You’ve moved to five states and attended 10 different schools as a child. How did that affect your writing?
Jess Godwin: I would definitely have to say that moving impacted my earlier music. I was the shy new girl and would over think everything. I spent most of grade school looking at other girls and wishing I was more like them. With “Katy’s Side,” I thought, “oh that girl is cooler than me.” I still feel like that new girl sometime – what’s great is the older I get, the less that feeling pops up.
P’s: Your mom was a singer and teacher. How did that influence you? Was that your entry point into music?
JG: Mom was a piano teacher when I was really young. I picked up piano just by listening to the lessons. When I lived in Virginia, my mom used to gig at clubs and bars, like the Marriott in Roanoke, VA. Dad would pretend to be her “roadie” and carry all of her gear for her. She played a keyboard and sang pop, jazz and soul songs to all of these pre-recorded tracks that she programmed herself. (Gently sings a line from The Main Ingredient’s “Everybody Plays the Fool”). So much of the music in her set stuck with me!
P’s: What did you learn from her?
JG: Mom has always stressed the importance of being a good musician first. I have a solid foundation of music theory, sight reading, and ear training under my belt, and that has helped me so much in getting gigs, keeping gigs, writing songs and communicating with other musicians. I definitely have my mom to thank for that.
P’s: I’m curious about some of the great music you must have listened to from your parents’ music collection.
JG: Growing up I listed to a lot of James Taylor, Ella Fitzgerald, and because we just came back from Christmas break – Bing Crosby and “Mannheim Steamroller Christmas.”
P’s: You told me “the minute I realized acting is communicating, it made sense for me.” At your concert at the Mayne Stage, I was struck at how your theater background influenced your performance. You shook your hips and made grand gestures with your arms. You even maintained eye contact with folks in the balcony.
JG: The connecting has been easy for me. I have performed in Chicago storefront theaters where the audience is right here (holds hand to face), and you can’t fake it, because people can tell when you’re lying. I’ve also done a lot of cabaret where you are forced to make eye contact with the audience.
P’s: You’ve performed mostly behind the piano during your shows. Did you tinker with your performance a bit during your Double Door concert in November?
JG: We’ve been changing around our stage show a great deal in the past year. Up until the beginning of 2012, I was always behind the piano. I decided to try something new and get out front. It’s definitely been a progression this year. I went from being terrified and not knowing what to do with my hands to pointing at everyone. It was all I could think of to do!
P’s: Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley have made millions of dollars doing just that with KISS.
JG: (laughs) The reason I did it was because I kept seeing people I knew. I got some comments that I needed to make my shows more visual.
P’s: Any fear your appearance will overshadow your voice and music?
JG: That has been a humungous fear for me. I went through image consulting for about a year in Atlanta. A studio said they wanted to work with me, but said, “You need to worry about your image first.” It was all about selling sex. And it broke me down. I said, “What about the music?”
“Katy’s Side” came out of it. I was so down on myself and down on the way I looked. I had to practice photo shoots, for example. I’d be holding this record against my topless body – not me at ALL.
P’s: Did you settle into a more comfortable version of yourself when you returned to Chicago?
JG: I went back to Chicago frustrated and said, “I’m going to be a nerd and do the pigtail thing.” I had a good time, but I was pairing the hair with little skirts. It took me a while to realize that I was still inadvertently selling sex. That changed this year. I don’t want to walk on stage and have my legs be the first thing that people see. I want them to hear my voice.
P’s: Let’s discuss your EPs. Tell me where you were creatively with each one.
JG: The first CD (To the Heart of It) was me trying to sound as soulful as possible, but it really didn’t sound like me. The second one (Quiet the Room) was sad singer-songwriter without the soul. The third one, Klutz was quirky. Definitely the nerdiest side of me. The last EP, (Jess Godwin) is the one that’s closest to how I sound live. It’s a combination of all of those voices. It says, “Here I am.”
P’s: Is your new single, “Santa Monica” a good snapshot of where you see yourself going musically?
JG: I think so. The reason the direction is more driving is because of the influence of the band I have now. I’m surrounded by people who are so good at what they do.
P’s: Are you working your way to an LP next?
JG: I think right now I’ll release singles, because recording is so expensive. If I do an LP, I’ll probably use Kickstarter. I’d love to get to a point where I can do a campaign and people are excited to help out.
P’s: You have some gigs set for later this winter and some festival shows around Chicago lined up for this summer. You even get to perform at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, which must mean free roller coaster rides. What’s next?
JG: I want to keep working on connecting with more people. I just love to move people, and that comes from writing more and better music. At the (Mayne Stage) show I read some responses to the question on my mailing list which asked, “How are you feeling?” And people wrote “great!” and “I feel fantastic!” and this light bulb went off. I have an opportunity to put on shows that people will walk away from smiling. This is new for me. I can’t wait for the next one.
Jess Godwin will perform an acoustic set Feb. 23 at the Music Theatre Company in Highland Park, IL. She’ll release a new single this spring.