You are beautiful and you are enough. It took me a long time to really feel at one with who I was. I grew up with a few set-backs that can shake the foundation of confidence in most people. I did the best I could to rise above and push through. The line from the first single “Stronger Now” — “I’ve got to learn to let it go, it’s something I should know” — is really a message to myself. I feel stronger now. My goal is to give others the permission to feel the strength within themselves despite the set-backs they may have endured.
As a part of our series about stars who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jan James.
Jan James is a Chicago-based singer and songwriter who has performed on stages across the world, with legends from James Brown to Jeff Beck. Her bluesy and rhythmic music, emotionally-charged lyrics, and unforgettable voice are showcased in her latest (and twelfth) album, Time Bomb.
Thank you so much for joining us on this interview series. Can you share with us the backstory that led you to this career path?
Sure! I was introduced to music by my mom who played all of the country artists on our console record player. The sweet sounds of swingin’ guitar and country crooners drew me right in. Stories of heartache and redemption triggered my imagination. I used to play those records over and over and over again until the grooves were ingrained in my soul. Then, when I was about twelve years old I met a guy named “Catfish” (that’s a whole other story) who taught me how to play guitar so I could play/sing my own songs. Writing simple melodies over the strumming of the acoustic guitar really felt great so I kept at it finally morphing into a band in college. Then came the connection with the audience. Performing live became my medicine. I used to say I felt an ache in my bones until I was able to sing on stage. I’m still taking my medicine.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Okay, so there are couple of hilarious things that happened early on. The first when we decided to put together a promo piece for my first original band called “Jewel Fetish” (I know…strange name…but it was the ‘80s). We had written a pitch to attract a manager. In the text, we made a typo calling the band “Jewish Fetish” Ha! Anyway, the guy we sent it to happened to think it was hilarious and signed us anyway. Unfortunately, he was not a great at being a manager, but I did learn a LOT about the music business (the hard way). The biggest lesson was to check your text for typos! Another really silly thing happened when we were playing at our favorite club in front of an enthusiastic crowd. We had purchased a fog machine and thought it would be a good idea to try it out during the performance. The stage hand that pushed the lever apparently pushed it too hard and as the music played the band slowly disappeared into a very thick fog. The audience had to evacuate! Thankfully no one was injured. We learned a lesson about practicing stage antics before the performance.
What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?
Enjoy the gifts you have. Share them with the world and take care to be true to your heart. Be open and flexible. Being successful does not always mean making a ton of money. Sometimes success is realizing that you are connecting the dots every day, giving love to yourself and those in need. Success can be that feeling of contentment and dare I say happiness. One of my favorite lines from my new song “Stronger Now” is “you found out what happiness brings.” The feeling of strength is addictive so find strength in what you do every day. Oh…and don’t forget to practice those scales. 😀
Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?
It is really hard for me to pinpoint one person. I feel that I am impacted by so many people over time. Teachers and choir directors, band leaders and chefs, friends and lovers. I am honored to have had so many profound connections. Finding love and healing in the company of others is the best way to live. That said, with all of the people I have known, I would say that nature has had the biggest impact on me overall. Perhaps growing up in the country formed my deep connection to the natural world and animals. Being one with nature is the truest sense of being you can have. I know that sounds a bit whacky, but I truly believe we are all part of the same vibration in this Universe.
How are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you’re working on right now?
I have not been formally involved in one cause. I would say that I do support many causes from animals to environment to art and beyond. My resources are my talents so writing songs that inspire and connect people is really my forte. The songs I write and perform are intended to engage, inspire and promote love. It is really the most important commodity on this planet. Isolation is an epidemic and my intention is to engage people through my music.
Can you share with us a story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?
This may sound strange to say but feel a magic spark every time I sing to people. Maybe it is only I that can feel, but it is intense. It’s no wonder I am drawn to the stage. It is an intense addiction. The spark of connection between myself and the listener is a tiny flash of light. It is truly my goal to keep that spark lit.
Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
I was honored to have a young woman write to me during COVID. She mentioned she was a nurse aide during the early pandemic in Italy. Her job was to comfort those patients who would pass on from this world without family or friends near. The experience made her heart so heavy. She thanked me for my music stating it was the only thing that helped her through the dark period: “your music, you made me the strength to keep fighting.” This feedback was just a full circle moment for me. When I write my music my intention is to hold someone, to connect, share the burden. to lift the spirit. Lighten the soul. It was wonderful to hear the real application of my intention in practice.
Are there three things or are there things that individuals, society, or the government can do to support you in this effort?
I believe the more we connect with each other the more we heal ourselves. Not everyone can write and perform music but everyone CAN make an effort to reach out to someone who is on their own. Make a call, write a note, give a smile as you pass by. Be conscious while you engage with others. Words and actions can make a difference. So use your life to raise the vibration.
Why do you think music in particular has the power to create social change and create a positive impact on humanity?
Music is the vibration that is our common thread to the Universe. We are all energy. A combination of particles and patterns that combine to create life. We are all connected. When you share music, you highlight this connection. You can choose to create a vibration that lifts people up or tears them down. I of course choose to lift the spirit, raise the love and hope to create healing along the way. The song “Don’t It Feel Good” is that expression.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started”?
- You are beautiful and you are enough. It took me a long time to really feel at one with who I was. I grew up with a few set-backs that can shake the foundation of confidence in most people. I did the best I could to rise above and push through. The line from the first single “Stronger Now” — “I’ve got to learn to let it go, it’s something I should know” — is really a message to myself. I feel stronger now. My goal is to give others the permission to feel the strength within themselves despite the set-backs they may have endured.
- Don’t wait for someone else to start your engine. Grab the key and rev that motor! Early on in my career it seemed that I was always waiting for someone to come along and make things happen — a manager or record label or anyone that had the “power” to make things go. I know that success in the entertainment field is usually based on who you know or basic luck but I really wish I had taken the reins earlier and had a stronger belief in what I could accomplish without waiting. As Tom Petty said “The waiting is the hardest part.”
- Your heart knows what is real. The “gut” feeling is the right thing every time.
- Your time is valuable make sure you are spending it with the people that lift you up, not tear you down.
- Don’t give up. Keep reaching out for help. You can do anything if you try. One of my favorite animations is the Harry Kane: Resilience piece. His message is “We go again.” I am inspired by this.
You’re a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I believe we need to find a solution to the epidemic of loneliness. Isolation is debilitating for so many. If we could find a way to connect the lonely people, we could alleviate their pain. The movement I would start if I had support would be called “One Heart At a Time.” We often feel overwhelmed by the number of those in need but if we just help one person at a time, we can make a start. The goal would be to encourage people to make a “heart connection” every day with someone that is on their own. That “heart connection” could look like any number of things. The main focus would be taking time to connect with ONE person every day that is not in your immediate circle, someone outside your comfort zone that is in need of a connection. This idea might not be a natural fit for some people but the reward for starting this practice would be extraordinary. Making a call to a senior, making a plan for lunch with the student that is always on their own, having a conversation with a stranger all count as “heart connections.” I think we need to have a real conversation about this idea. Our society is chock full of lonely people, everyone scrolling on their phones looking for something to fill the void. If we could all make our circles a little bigger we could heal some of the pain of isolation.
Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote? And can you explain how that was relevant in your life?
“Raise the vibration of the conversation.” Give something to this world. Maybe it’s just a kind word to a stranger or standing up for someone who needs a seat or practically ANYTHING that involves thinking about someone other than yourself. In the early part of my career, I faced a massive disappointment. I lost a career making record deal that was supposedly a done deal. It nearly CRUSHED me. While I spent time trying to pick up the pieces of what was left of my life, I decided to stop everything and organize a benefit concert for the AIDS Foundation. The process of making this event happen completely took me out of my “feeling sorry for myself” vibe and gave critical “healing” to my soul. Giving something to someone else was the key to getting through this.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Hmmmm…I would like to have two please. Arianna Huffington and Dolly Parton. I know that is a bit greedy but these women are super heroes. Arianna has lifted the Globe with her brand of intelligence, love and POWER. I have followed her from the beginning watching her on the talk shows. I was stunned by her ability to spar with the men. She as one of the FIRST women to dominate the conversation and she did with the integrity. Dolly has opened the WORLD to a new generation of young minds with her Imagination Library. Reading at a young age was my escape…my imagination, my WORLD. She has been a shining light in the music industry for so many years. I am impressed by her in so many ways. I mean, the wig-wear alone…plus all the sparkles and heartfelt songs with such brilliant story telling. She has really blown my mind. Lunch with these two ladies would really be incredible. XOXO Jan
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!
Music Stars Making a Social Impact: Why & How Jan James Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.