JJ and the Pillars are a folk-rock band from Peterborough, Ontario. Earlier this year, the band released their sophomore album, Daisy. We caught up with lead singer JJ Thompson to talk about the woman who inspired the title track and the challenges of being an independent artist.
Could you tell me about your background in music and how you got started?
I started playing music with my uncles around the campfire when I was a kid. But my studies were mostly focussed on musical theatre in high school and college. Once I graduated theatre school, I landed a gig in one of the most musical places in Canada: St. John’s, Newfoundland. When I played some of my tunes for my new east coast friends and local musicians, they wondered why I wasn’t doing music for a living and said I should record some stuff. I took it to heart and came back to the mainland to record my first record Wolves.
Congratulations on your new album, Daisy. What kinds of themes, ideas, or stories does Daisy explore?
It’s all pretty personal. I’ve learned that love is not an easy thing to be in: as rewarding as it is, it can be extremely hard to navigate this life with a co-pilot. I am evidently vulnerable (and tired) in songs like “Love you again”, but then I am cheeky and almost ironic in “Knuckles” where I tease myself for my own masculinity. I tried to take a fresh approach on a few different ways to look at a relationship. Every song has a story behind it and, for the most part, they all kind of fell out of me onto the page (or iphone recorder).
Could you tell me about the person or situation that inspired the song, “Daisy”?
“Daisy” is by far my favorite story about the record. I was working at a shitty restaurant in Toronto that let these old dudes come in and celebrate the 20th anniversary of their fraternity.
Naturally, they brought strippers. I was pretty peeved that I had to bartend in a basement full of old boners all night, but I was absolutely fascinated by this one duo: married, overweight, balding middle-aged man with a 20-ish-old stripper playing him hard. He was looking at her with such adoration that I imagined him thinking about leaving his wife, kids, suburban life, and giving up everything for this beautiful and very convincing half-naked young woman. But it was just another night at work for her (and me) – and he went home wondering if any of it was authentic.
Anyways, I went home after drinking at work all night, for good reason, and I started to write about “Daisy” – the fictional name for the girl. I think that song gave me the confidence as a songwriter and heavily influenced the style/genre that the record ended up being.
JJ and the Pillars won the Edge’s Next Big Thing competition in 2014. How did that impact your career?
Like most competitions, it helps a lot for a short amount of time and then it’s back to the grind. The Edge was good to us and I’m thankful for the mainstream radio success, but I think any situation where music is a competition is toxic for this industry. That’s a huge part of my ethos as an artist: help elevate your fellow artists (actors, musicians, dancers, etc.), don’t treat them like your competition. We need more people going out to LIVE shows again, not going out to bob your head to the same Drake songs.
“Howl” is a great track. Could you tell me about it and how Alyssa Morrissey got involved?
I’ve known Alyssa since I was a kid as the country girl in Peterborough – which I was always like “fuck country” (as I painted my nails listening to Three Days Grace). Ten-plus years later, I started to see her name pop up quite a bit in the music scene, and also noticed how beautiful she was, and I asked if we could do a cover together (Matt Epp/Serena Ryder’s “When You Know”). I’m pretty sure she fell in Love with me right then and there. We started dating shortly after and her country influence rubbed off on me a bit. Writing “Howl” was great for me because I hadn’t really dabbled in country-rock yet and thought I could break the boundaries between my scene and Alyssa’s. Now it’s one of my favorite tunes I’ve written. Alyssa is a part of the line up now. I don’t want to ever do a show without her again. That’s how I know she’s the one for me.
As an independent artist, what challenges do you face?
Being a musician keeps getting more expensive every day. Beyond the normal expenses (recording, gear, touring, content, travel, manufacturing etc.), there’s also a whole new financial hurdle created by social media. Now Facebook and Instagram don’t want your fans to see any posts about new music, shows, or even pictures of my dog if I don’t promote the post. I find that the more we all talk about that, the more shifts we will see in the online artist platforms. I’m hoping to just achieve a living with my music. So, if you’re reading this, please buy our record!
What’s next for you?
We’re noticing an influx of plays in the US and really hope to get down there in the coming year. Possibly Germany as well. Fantastic music scene there. And of course – I am always writing, so we plan on making new music sooner than later.