By Kierstin Casella
It’s just an ordinary afternoon in Nashville, Tennessee. Singer/songwriter JJ Heller sits, hair tied back in a ponytail, at the shabby painted writing desk she found at a flea market. On the walls hang her husband Dave’s photographs, beautiful images from their travels around the country.
Out the large picture window before her she sees both the reflection of a tufted-velvet ottoman in her living room, and the timeworn wooden panels of the house next door. She puts her pen to the paper and writes a lyric: “I know you came for the pretty and the plain…”
There must be some sort of magic in that beat-up little desk, as Heller managed to write nearly forty songs in the two months prior to recording her fourth studio album. The Pretty & The Plain, which she describes as “nostalgic with hints of modern quirkiness,” marks the second project she has created with accomplished producer Mitch Dane (Jars of Clay) at Nashville’s Sputnik Sound.
“We wanted it to be something that would insight curiosity,” she explains of the title. “We’re hoping that people will search for the meaning a little bit, and find it in the songs. The main theme of the record is freedom and redemption. While he was on the earth, Christ always went out of his way spend time with the unlovely and the broken, and not just the beautiful and successful. It is only when we realize this all-encompassing love, that we can truly be free.”
All of Heller’s songs dig deep, grappling with issues from her own life and offering insight into universal struggles. While writing for this record, in fact, Heller and her husband (who serves as co-writer, guitarist, and manager) called upon fellow songwriter Andrew Osenga (Caedmon’s Call) to offer his take on their new material.
“He asked if I had written any songs about the panic attacks I had been experiencing,” JJ recalls. “I hadn’t, so he challenged me to give it a shot and to be really detailed in my description. It was a tough assignment but I ended up with the song, “Have Mercy,” which is hands down the most vulnerable song I’ve ever written.”
It is this vulnerability and connection with listeners that helps explain how Heller’s 2006 release, Only Love Remains, has already sold over 10,000 copies – impressive numbers for an independent artist from the west coast. Word of Heller’s music, from her beautifully articulate voice to her soul-searching lyrics, has certainly been spreading.
Heller’s success gave her confidence to push the envelope with her acoustic-folk sound when creating The Pretty & The Plain. She sourced inspiration from artists like Feist, Patty Griffin, and David Gray, and also challenged herself to be less of an observer in the studio.
“Mitch encouraged us to experiment with a lot of bell sounds to give the record a bit of whimsy,” Heller reveals. “We also used various items found around the studio – a toy spaceship, a plastic CD jewel case, and a small cardboard box – to create some interesting percussion sounds. The result is an overall different vibe from Only Love Remains, and I love it!”
Heller also took a few days in the studio to complete a short Christmas project, Wake Up The World. The five-song EP features “Christmastime,” a jazz-influenced, original co-write with Canadian artist Jill Paquette that exhibits Heller’s playful side. Classics like “Silent Night” reveal her love of things cherished and authentic.
Heller’s songs, as well as her easy, unpretentious nature, give her resonance especially with young women. In addition to churches and concert halls, she also leans toward often-overlooked venues like counseling centers and retreats to share her songs.
Both of the Hellers attribute their growing fan base, which has expanded throughout the Southeast and Midwest, in part to their use of the Internet. Sites like myspace.com, and Dave’s homemade video journals posted on jjheller.com, offer fans a behind-the-scenes look at the artists’ life while providing a chance to stay in touch with those they meet on the road.
“The Internet continues to be a invaluable means to connect our music with new listeners,” explains Heller. “We’re constantly amazed as friends of friends stumble across my profile on a daily basis. Word of mouth is our greatest tool to let new listeners find our music.”
When not touring, the Hellers can usually be found at their house in a historic area of Nashville. Since relocating from Phoenix in 2006, the couple has found the city’s burgeoning music community to be a good fit, and benefit from the high bar that is set by their fellow songwriters.
“We’ve been exposed to a tremendous level of talent. This city is saturated with it,” Heller observes. “We’ve met some wonderful people here, been able to hear great music, and have been fortunate to play our songs for other artists. We feel more at home in this town than any place we’ve ever been.”
That’s saying a lot when you consider the number of towns the Hellers have seen. Their rigorous touring schedule totals some 90 concerts a year, all self-booked. And while Nashville may be a city flooded with singer/songwriters, JJ Heller has managed, in her short time here, to carve out her own place of distinction. With two exciting recordings to promote and the rapidly growing fan-base she aspires to know personally, even an “ordinary” day in this artist’s life is one that’s filled with promise.