"CAN A Welsh person live the American dream? I guess so."
Jem giggles after she says this. The fruition of her dream -- making a living at crafting appealing trip hop-dusted electro-pop -- seems "so unreal at times, you know?" But it is real. The Cardiff, Wales-born singer-songwriter, 28, has just released her debut, Finally Woken, a fine collection of category-defying songs that blend elements of folk, pop, electronica and shades of hip-hop.
Reviews have been generally positive, and fair comparisons to Dido and Beth Orten abound. Jem's voice has a floating, cool, melodic feel reminiscent of Dido's. And the adventurous soundscapes recall the best of Orten. But please know this: Jem is Jem.
"Oh, I don't think I sound like them, really," the artist says in her sparkly accent. She's calling from her home in Los Angeles. "I think my voice is soft, so I can see the comparisons. But if you put my album on after theirs, I think I would sound completely different."
Finally Woken doesn't break new ground, but it is an appealing album: wondrously eclectic in its production. There's a rock guitar chord here, a classical string sample there. And behind it all, a hip hop-inspired backbeat thumps away as Jem's multi-tracked vocals wind through, glide over and settle on the mix. It's hypnotic in a way, especially the title track and the funk guitar-laced "Save Me."
"I listen to such a broad array of music," Jem says. "And I unlocked my brain and let all the sounds go. I really like dance, hip-hop, love songs, classical. The album is like a mixture of all those things. I think my vocals help keep it all together."
In production, Jem collaborated with B'more "rhythmist" Ge-ology.
"We just sat there and fell into what the music was saying to us," she says. "It was a very free approach."
Making music was something Jem has always wanted to do -- ever since she was a girl. But at her father's insistence, the woman born Jemma Griffiths had to go to school first. She studied law at the University of Sussex.
"I did it to do it, you know," she says. "It wasn't pushed, although my father is a lawyer in Wales. It was a choice between English and law. Law was more interesting, but I knew I'd never be a lawyer. So there was never any pressure in school for me."
As a student, Jem eased into the music field -- but not as a performer. She started as a promoter of drum 'n bass shows in and around London. Working with artists, however, fueled her own ambitions to rock the stage.
"I knew I was gonna be a singer," Jem says. "I didn't know when. I just sort of left it to instinct. I would work with different artists and think, 'I want to do that.' "
After graduation, she moved to L.A., the land of plastic smiles, where virtually everybody wants to be a star. Three years passed. Nothing. A fortuitous meeting with Guy Sigsworth, Madonna's producer, led to the old Material Girl recording Jem's "Nothing Fails," which appeared on the pop superstar's American Life album. But Jem's biggest break came when DJ Nic Harcourt at L.A.'s KCRW radio station added a demo of "Finally Woken" to his playlist. After diggin' on the hip mix of songs Harcourt regularly plays, the artist had boldly gone to the station and dropped off the tape.
The song eventually became one of the station's most requested tunes, piquing the interest of Bruce Flohr, an executive at the newly formed ATO Records who guided the stellar career of the Dave Matthews Band at RCA. When Jem was approached with a deal, her law background certainly came in handy.
"I've been able to use my legal mind with contracts in the industry," she says. "If I hadn't gone to law school, I wouldn't have a clue about what I was about to sign."
With sister Chloe as her manager, Jem's career is off and picking up heat.
"I do what I feel," she says. "There are no compromises with my music. I'll probably fail if I consciously went mainstream."
So we thank you for keeping it deliciously underground.