Considering that she knew she wanted to be a professional singer from the time she was a toddler, Jessica Shepherd took her sweet time before getting around to releasing her debut solo album. But as the title of said debut – Travellingirl – suggests, she had some serious soul searching to do before she knew the time was right. After years of honing her craft on the theatrical stage, singing in rock bands, teaching thousands of other young hopefuls the finer points of singing and literally traveling the world, Jessica’s time is now.
Despite her early dreams of singing, Jessica actually spent the better part of her youth exploring different avenues of the entertainment industry, specifically, modeling and acting. Born and raised on the Gulf Coast in Texas, she couldn’t wait to escape to the nearest big city, which happened to be Houston. “I always had bigger dreams about where I should be,” she says, allowing that at first she got a little more than she bargained for. “When I first began professional modeling in Houston, I had a great many dreams about it and idealisms. But modeling showed me the seedier side of life. Being exposed to that as a teenager can change your opinion of the world really quickly. So I moved on. I didn’t really fit in there and I knew it – I like to eat!! Acting was kind of the same thing, but it was singing in musicals that made me go, ‘ah hah!’ THIS is really what I love to do!”
So she jumped into the Houston music scene by singing in a handful of cover bands and then forming a few original bands while pursuing degrees in both audio engineering and business management at community college. It was through her tenure at Houston’s Singers’ Workshop under the tutelage of the renowned voice coach Debbie Beinhorn that Jessica’s versatile vocal chops truly took shape. “If it wasn’t for Debbie, I wouldn’t have the skills that I have today,” says Jessica. “She really helped me learn how to express my voice in a way that I’ll never forget.”
Jessica was such a good student, Beinhorn (who played an instrumental role in launching the career of country superstar Clint Black) ended up hiring her as her Senior Voice Instructor – a gig she held for five years, until the Houston based Singers’ Workshop shut its doors for good. “Teaching was one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had,” says Jessica, “but after my band broke up and I was working solely as a voice instructor for about a year, I realized that the stage was calling me and I just had to get back into live performance.”
In need of a fresh start, she left Houston in and moved to Austin, the self-styled “Live Music Capital of the World.” But first she took a little time to see the world outside of her native Texas, taking advantage of a recently acquired inheritance to travel around Europe for several months, followed by a stint in Australia to visit a half-sister. Fittingly, it was during this period of walkabout that many of the songs on Travellingirl were born. “That’s how I came up with the theme, because I was traveling while I was writing a large portion of the songs,” says Jessica. The CD was recorded in Austin with producers Yoggie Musgrove and David Valley and an impressive list of Lone Star guests - including guitarist Stephen Bruton, harpist Rob Roy Parnell and her close friend, award-winning singer-songwriter and Official Texas State Musician of 2008, Shelley King. “It was between Europe and Australia, while I was back in Austin, that I started recording. I got my pre-release together, then went to Australia to see my sister for a month and a half, and I thought, ‘While I’m 'down under', I might as well try and make the most of this trip and see if Australia likes my music.”
As it turned out, Australia liked her music a lot. So much so that in a matter of weeks, Jessica found herself with a song – “Fool” -- in the Top 30. “Every city that was in my path, I called ahead of time and talked to the radio people, and they said, ‘Come on in, bring it on!,’” laughs Jessica. “”I thought, ‘This is just too easy!’ It was incredible – like a Loretta Lynn thing. I had several impromptu performances and radio interviews while I was over there. Australia really opened up, welcomed me with open arms and treated me like royalty.” She has since made many more trips to the Land Down Under, releasing two more singles that received national airplay, performing at the 2002 Tamworth Music Festival and presenting the Female Country Singer of the Year award at the People’s Choice Awards. “I went there a completely unknown artist, and stepped into immediate success,” she marvels. “I’m ready to go back!”
But first, she’s determined to make a name for herself back home in Texas, where as the title indicates home base is anywhere from Dallas, to San Antonio, to Houston to Austin given the amount of time she spends driving to and from gigs. It’s a fiercely competitive market, but the eclectic range of styles on Travellingirl gives Jessica a formidable edge that allows her to reach audiences across radio formats and play venues ranging from honky-tonks to upscale wine bars. “Before I came to Austin, I was writing some country inspired music, but I still had all these other influences, like rock and jazz,” she explains. “I think that’s what this CD is – a smattering of all my influences.” To wit, Travellingirl, released on Jessica’s own Skylark Records label, features not only stone-cold country (“Save Me From Me”) and sparkling Americana (“One Way Ticket to Austin,”) but also ultra-smooth adult contemporary fare (“Journey to the Soul” and the already chart-tested “Fool”), torch song (“Never Seems to Be Enough”) and pure, unadulterated sass (“Man Enough.”) It’s a veritable road map of everywhere she’s been and everywhere she still hopes to go. As befits such an important personal achievement, Jessica dedicated the album in the memory of her beloved younger sister Rachel, who succumbed to liver failure at the age of 17 in 1995.
And this is only the beginning. It may have taken Jessica a long time to get to where she is now, but having arrived, she’s determined to keep on moving in the right direction.
“I really do feel like I’m on a mission given to me by a higher power. It's all consuming, I have something to say,” says Jessica, reflecting on the long road to Travellingirl and the road still ahead of her. “Maybe I’ll take a lifetime articulating it, but I feel like I do have something to offer that’s important. Maybe it’s just a song about how to love your fellow man. We have a lot of those already, but maybe I’ll say it in a way that will get through to more people. I don’t think it’s been revealed to me yet, honestly. But what has been revealed to me at this point is, I’m here. I’m supposed to be here – and it's not a sprint, it's a marathon.”