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Singer/songwriter Jessica Paige is back in the saddle, pursuing her music dream

Local singer-songwriter Jessica Paige will celebrate the release of her album, “Sweet Nothings,” on Sept. 18.
Local singer-songwriter Jessica Paige will celebrate the release of her album, “Sweet Nothings,” on Sept. 18. tljungblad@kcstar.com

In July, Jessica Paige celebrated an anniversary by wakeboarding on Lake Lotawana.

She called the occasion her “concussiversary” because a year had passed since she’d suffered her fourth concussion in about 10 years. The first three occurred while she was horseback riding, fight training and snowboarding. The fourth occurred in July 2014 while she was … wakeboarding on Lake Lotawana. It was the worst of the four.

“The other three times I struck the back of my head,” she said. “This one was the front of my head. It really messed with my memory and moods. I’m a bookworm, and for about three months I couldn’t even read an email and remember what it said before I was finished, much less a book.”

No time’s a good time for a head injury, but the timing of this one was particularly bad. That winter, Paige had finished recording her debut album, “Sweet Nothings,” and was planning on a summer release and follow-up tour. Her head injury derailed those plans. She continued to do shows but curtailed her schedule because her personality had lost its bearings.

“I’d become introverted,” she said, “and you can’t be like that when you perform. The stage is no place for social anxiety.”

On Sept. 18 Paige will celebrate the release of “Sweet Nothings” at the Living Room, 1818 McGee St. The album comprises eight songs, seven of which chronicle “the evolution and dissolution of a relationship,” Paige said. The other song, “Good Grief,” was written for her maternal grandmother, Edith Hazel McRoberts, who was in Paige’s care for five years until her death in 2013 at the age of 98.

“I wrote it the night of her funeral,” Paige said. “I was alone in her house and really feeling the loss. We were really close. She was a real pillar in my life. I have a hard time playing that song live.”

The songs on “Sweet Dreams” will prompt comparisons to singer-songwriters like Sara Bareilles, Colbie Callait and, on the jazzier songs, Norah Jones. The record showcases Paige’s gift for crafting lovely, indelible melodies and for her expressive, soulful voice, which shifts easily among several styles.

“I think she’s got an incredible vocal instrument, capable of belting or being delicate,” said Vi Tran, a Kansas City actor, writer and musician, and a friend of Paige’s. “But the thing that impresses me most about her is her sense of melody. She’s got an impeccable ear for gorgeous melodies, and when she pairs that with a great story, that’s all you can ask for from a songwriter.”

Paige’s family started noticing her vocal instrument when she was young and growing up in Wamego, Kan. She was in second grade when she performed the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” at a school talent show.

“I wanted to sing ‘American Pie,’ but they wouldn’t let me,” Paige said. “They said it wasn’t age-appropriate. I was not happy.”

That was the year she also started doing community theater.

In the fifth grade she made the Treble Honor Choir, which is open to all fifth- through ninth-grade students in Kansas who are enrolled in a choral program. A year later, at a parent-teacher conference, Paige’s mother got some advice.

“My choir teacher told her, ‘Jessica has a talent for this, but if you really want to pursue it, you should start now,’” she said. “So we did.”

In junior high, Paige started writing her own songs. By then she’d already fallen under the spell and influence of another petite Kansan with a big voice, Martina McBride.

“I’d learned to sing a lot of her songs. Then my mother took me to see her, and after watching her on stage I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” she said. “I’d like to meet her and tell her, ‘I do what I do because of you.’”

In high school she focused her curriculum on music, studying jazz and the blues, and continued writing songs and performing. Right after graduating from high school in 2007, Paige spent a year in Ireland, doing the singer-songwriter thing and learning to play guitar, something she works on every day.

“I was bad for a while,” she said. “Those poor bastards in Dublin. Good thing they had all that Guinness and whiskey. I was so not good.

“But I got some really good advice from a songwriter I met in Dublin, Ryan Sheridan, who played for President (Barack) Obama when he visited Dublin. Ryan told me: ‘Jessica, your singing is what you do. That’s your gift. Focus on that. You don’t need to shred on the guitar.’

“I relearn that every day. But I keep working at it. I want to be a good musician, too, not only a singer.”

Paige returned home from Ireland in 2008, and three months later started caring for her grandmother full-time. She kept her music career going, playing songwriter gigs in Manhattan, Kan., where her grandmother lived.

After her grandmother’s death in 2013, Paige started work on her album. Initially she started recording in Kansas City but wasn’t getting the sound she wanted.

“I needed something different and — it was my fault — I wasn’t able to articulate it,” she said. “Then I sent a track to a friend who works in Nashville, who sent me back (the track) and said, ‘This is the direction I’d take.’ It was spot-on.”

“Sweet Nothings” was recorded at Beech Creek Studios and Ocean Way Recording in Nashville. It’s a collection of pop, soul and folk songs, some tinged with jazz elements. The arrangements are simple but not bare. There are horns, keyboards, piano, organ, percussion. But the music doesn’t overtake the arrangements. Instead it leaves plenty of space for Paige’s voice and lyrics.

“Lyrics are important to me,” she said. “I want the lyrics to be heard, not drowned in overinstrumentation. That was a priority: to stay true to the words and not get lost in the tracking, which I’ve done before.”

As she finished work on the album and began scheduling more shows, Paige started working in earnest on something else that is important to her: charity and giving back.

“I really want to help other people,” she said. “but I have few applicable skills. I could go dig wells somewhere, but what do I know about digging wells?

“I do know music, though, and I know this great music community we have here. So with help from friends who do start-ups and tech stuff, I’m working on a website that will be called ‘wheretheresmusic,’ which will be a place musicians can go to post gigs, sell tickets and decide what percentage of money they receive will go to the charity of their choice. I hope to have something going by the end of the year.”

Tran said she has the right amount of optimism and savvy to succeed at whatever she pursues.

“She’s a kind and optimistic person,” Tran said, “which some cynics might write off in this industry as innocence, but those close to her know that she’s as shrewd as she is cheerful. ... I always love talking shop with her. She’s done her homework.”

Paige has booked two other live performances in Kansas City in addition to her record-release show at the Living Room: at the Crossroads Music Fest on Sept. 12 and at the Plaza Art Fair the weekend of Sept. 25. After that she will head out on a tour to promote “Sweet Nothings.”

She is still feeling some residual effects from her most recent concussion but is finding some silver-lining optimism in that.

“I still have some memory issues,” she said. “I used to be really good at organizing things. Now, multitasking is difficult. And sometimes I’ll forget people’s names — even people I’m close to.

“But because of all the mood swings I went through last year, I was able to write a ton. Going crazy will bring you lots of inspiration. So I kept notebook of lyrics. Some of the best songwriting I’ve ever done happened in the last year.”

Some of the can’t-miss shows this fall. More concert listings on D8.

▪ Catch a Fire Tour with Damian Marley and Stephen Marley, Crossroads KC, Sept. 11: Reggae royalty is coming to Kansas City.

▪ Taylor Swift, Sprint Center, Sept. 21 and 22: She will fill the downtown arena two nights in a row, as she did in her previous Kansas City appearance Aug. 2 and 3, 2013. Swift is touring on her “1989” album, released in October. It has sold more than 8 million copies worldwide, including more than 5 million in the United States.

▪ Mark Knopfler, Midland theater, Sept. 28: The former Dire Straits frontman will perform in Kansas City for the first time since April 2010. In March he released “Tracker,” his eighth solo album.

▪ Ghost, Liberty Hall, Oct. 5: The six-piece Swedish satanic/doom metal band is known for its theatrical performances. Lead singer Papa Emeritus III wears a skull mask and dresses like a demonic pope, accompanied by the Nameless Ghouls, who wear black robes and silver masks with horns.

▪ Kraftwerk, Midland, Oct. 9: Ralf Hütter, co-founder of the profoundly influential German electronic-music band, is bringing Kraftwerk to Kansas City for the first time and an a big, lavish way: a 3-D tour with robots and other visual extras.

▪ Run the Jewels, Midland, Oct. 22: This rap duo comprises rapper/producer El-P and rapper Killer Mike, “two guys with dexterous, booming voices over blaring production that’s percussive, abrasive and dynamic,” wrote a Pitchfork reviewer.

▪ Stevie Wonder, Sprint Center, Oct. 23: His previous performance in Kansas City was in June 2009, one day after the death of Michael Jackson, who was memorialized at the show. This time, Wonder is performing “Songs in the Key of Life” in its entirety, plus other hits, with help from singer-songwriter India.Arie.

▪ Janet Jackson, Sprint Center, Oct. 27: She has a new album on the way and a trove of hits and favorites at her disposal. It’ll be her first show in Kansas City since August 2011, when she performed at Starlight Theatre.

▪ Glen Hansard, Uptown Theater, Nov. 17: Whether solo or as part of the Swell Season, Hansard’s shows have always been spellbinding. From the review of his solo show at Liberty Hall in September 2012: “He is an unrepentant sentimentalist, romantic and heart-on-his-sleeve songwriter, and an uncommonly raw, sincere and emotive live performer. (The) show lasted more than 21/2 hours, time filled with gusts and gales of joy, sorrow, grief, love, anger, pain and spontaneous humor and levity.”

▪ The Who with Joan Jett, Sprint Center, Dec. 8: This show, originally scheduled for May, was one of three shows postponed because Roger Daltrey needed “vocal rest due to swollen vocal cords.” Founding members Daltrey and Pete Townshend are touring with a five-piece band that includes Townshend’s brother Simon Townshend and Zak Starkey, son of Ringo Starr.

Timothy Finn, tfinn@kcstar.com

Here is some of the music scheduled to drop this fall. Release dates subject to change:

SEPTEMBER

▪ Ben Folds, “So There”

▪ Craig Finn, “Faith in the Future”

▪ Gary Clark Jr., “The Story of Sonny Boy Slim”

▪ Jewel, “Picking Up the Pieces”

▪ The Libertines, “Anthems for Doomed Youth”

Prince, “HitNRun”

▪ Peaches, “Rub”

▪ Avicii, “Stories”

▪ Alabama, “Southern Drawl”

▪ Atreyu, “Long Live”

▪ Chris Cornell, “Higher Truth”

▪ Dave Rawlings Machine, “Nashville Obsolete”

▪ Duran Duran, “Paper Gods”

▪ Glen Hansard, “Didn’t He Ramble”

▪ Keith Richards, “Crosseyed Heart”

▪ Lana Del Rey, “Honeymoon”

▪ Lucero, “All a Man Should Do”

▪ Motion City Soundtrack, “Panic Stations”

The Dead Weather, “Dodge & Burn”

▪ Los Lobos, “Gates of Gold”

▪ Chvrches, “Every Open Eye”

▪ Don Henley, “Cass County”

▪ Kurt Vile, “b’lieve i’m goin down”

▪ Silversun Pickups, “Better Nature”

OCTOBER

▪ Blitzen Trapper, “All Across This Land”

▪ Collective Soul, “See What You Started by Continuing”

▪ Eagles of Death Metal, “Zipper Down”

▪ Wavves, “V”

▪ Corb Lund, “Things That Can’t Be Undone”

▪ Coheed and Cambria, “The Color Before the Sun”

▪ Selena Gomez, “Revival”

▪ Trey Anastasio Band, “Paper Wheels”

▪ Toby Keith, “35 MPH Town”

▪ !!!, “As If”

▪ Deerhunter, “Fading Frontier”

▪ Supersuckers, “Holdin’ the Bag”

▪ Joanna Newsom, “Divers”

▪ 5 Seconds of Summer, “Sounds Good Feels Good”

▪ Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, “It’s a Holiday Soul Party”

▪ Cheatahs, “Mythologies”

NOVEMBER

▪ Justin Bieber (Title TBA)

▪ Kanye West (Title TBA)

Sources: Metacritic, Vulture

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