work had even begun, Jem knew what the title of the
follow-up to her acclaimed 2004 debut, Finally Woken,
would be. "Even around the making of the first
album, I wanted to call this one Down To Earth,"
she recalls. Although the title song incorporates
the reflections of an extraterrestrial, those three
little words suit Jem and her aesthetic for myriad
the four years since Finally Woken dropped, Jem has
spanned the globe. Born in Wales, she now resides
in Los Angeles. On the same day that a family friend
sends a text about hearing Jem's music in a café
in China, an e-mail arrives from a fan listening to
her in Bahrain. Taste-maker Nic Harcourt, Music Director
of KCRW 89.9 FM Los Angeles, was one of her earliest
supporters. And thanks to exposure via TV shows including
The O.C., Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, CSI
Miami and Six Feet Under, literally millions of listeners
worldwide have heard her music.
all this gone to her head? Hardly. Like that title,
Down To Earth, also implies, Jem remains grounded.
Perhaps that has something to do with her early experiences
behind-the-scenes, working with electronic acts such
as Adam Freeland and Fatboy Slim, co-writing the Madonna
single "Nothing Fails" with producer Guy
Sigsworth (Björk, Alanis Morissette). But mostly,
it stems from the fact that her prime motivation remains
the joy of writing, recording, and performing music.
Everything else is gravy.
To Earth was recorded in Detroit and Los Angeles,
with production and writing duties shared with cohorts
both old and new. In the Motor City, she worked with
Jeff Bass, one of the two brothers credited with discovering
Eminem. Not that either party was preoccupied with
crafting straight-up hip-hop tracks. "Jeff actually
loves making all types of music, which is awesome,
we really clicked." Los Angeles found her in
the studio with Lester Mendez. His impressive résumé
includes Shakira, Santana, and Nelly Furtado, but
it was his arrangements for The Love Album by Chris
de Burgh, one of her mother's favorites, that clinched
it. ("It was a sign," she chuckles. "I
thought, I have to meet this man!")
three other selections, she joined forces with Mike
Bradford, who has played bass with Kid Rock, and counts
Uncle Kracker and Deep Purple among his production
credits. "He's an old friend, and he has a great
musical sensibility, so I thought it would be great
to do some tracks with him." Finally, to keep
things good and lively, the leading expert in the
field of smart dance-pop was enlisted for the club
cut "Aciiid!": Greg Kurstin (Kylie Minogue,
Beck, The Bird And The Bee) "I was thinking along
the lines of 'Edge 1' for any hardcore fans still
out there (1991 UK dance movement led by the Prodigy,
preceded drum-n-bass) and Greg's electronic skills
To Earth reflects the far-ranging influences of the
singer-songwriter. The sensuous "I Want You To…"
kicks off with rapid-fire Spanish chatter. Produced
by Mendez, this tempestuous, Latin-flavored track
was initially a collaboration earmarked for a solo
album by turntable whiz Cut Chemist (Ozomatli, Jurassic
5). "My first version of that song was so sexy,
it was ridiculous," laughs Jem. "We really
had to reel it in." The inspiration, she admits,
was a bit salacious, but not autobiographical. "I
just had this vision of two people meeting on the
dance floor, and basically wanting to ravish each
other right there." In the end, the co-creators
decided that, to paraphrase pop psychology, Jem needed
to own these feelings herself. "We decided to
put it on my album instead."
the other end of the spectrum, the contemplative "And
So I Pray" interpolates a sample of "A Summer
Long Since Past," a bucolic 1983 piece by British
cult artist Virginia Astley. Co-writer Kevin Beber
(electronic producer/artist who was signed to the
breakbeat label she used to run out of Brighton) plucked
the sample from a CD his mother listened to whilst
gardening. Her response was immediate. "I had
never heard of [Astley], but the song was so beautiful,
it just hit my heart."
experimentation continued throughout the making of
Down To Earth. Which is how the hip-shaking "Crazy"
came to feature one of the album's more surprising
timbres: "Yes, that is a funky banjo," she
laughs. "Part of what I love about music is,
because I'm not trained in a certain way, I don't
have worries about can you do this or that,"
she admits. "I just go for sounds." Most
elements, such as the Brazilian percussion on "Down
To Earth," evolved spontaneously, while others
simply started life on a rough mix and never went
away. Through it all, an unerring sense of structural
minimalism ensures the arrangements never feel busy
had no preconceived notions for Down To Earth, save
for a decision to limit the ballads to a few choice
specimens ("You Will Make It," written with
her brother Justin - aka the artist Glass Pear - who
collaborates on three songs on the album, is a song
about loss and 9/11, featuring the soaring vocals
of Vusi Mahlasela). Hence, when it came time to spice
up "Aciiid!," she did not shy away from
the nagging voice in her head suggesting singing in…Japanese.
A colleague sent around two Japanese-American music
fans to help translate the lyric and tutor Jem in
phonetic pronunciation. "It was just about having
a different texture and flavor on the chorus,"
she explains. "Why not? I remember listening
to French hip-hop, and having no idea what they were
saying, but really loving the melody and the tracks."
last thought on that album title: No matter how rapturous
a reception she receives, Jem shows no interest in
the fame game. "Ever since watching There Will
Be Blood, I've been thinking about Daniel Day Lewis.
He's such a wonderful reference. He does his own thing,
comes out of the woodwork, is absolutely incredible…"
and then discretely steps out of the public eye. Point
taken. Down To Earth will surely push Jem even further
into the stratosphere, but she intends to remain securely
rooted on terra firma.