We surrender to local pop authority Jag Star
by Leslie Wylie
Sarah Lewis wasn’t kidding when, on the first track of Jag Star’s first album, 2002’s Crazy Place , she announced that her band wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And anybody who had a problem with it, she said, could either suck it up and deal or get punched in the face.
The threat was directed toward one party in particular, a notoriously brutal Metro Pulse local CD reviewer who wrote under the pseudonym of Zippy. Against the backdrop of an addictive melody and sassier-than-thou beats, Lewis’ lyrics raked the critic’s motivations over the coals, her defense mechanisms coalescing in the chorus: Should I ask permission, or am I wrong/ It’s the real world, baby I can sing my song/ Zippy likes to diss/ Wanna throw my fists/ I will never miss your mouth.
Wisely, Zippy liked the album just fine, and the song, “Mouth,” went on to win the country’s most prestigious annual songwriting competition. It received substantial radio airplay throughout the Southeast and garnered Jag Star opening spots for Michelle Branch, Macy Gray and Res.
That was just the beginning. Songs from both Crazy Place and the band’s next album, Cinematic , wound up on soundtracks for popular MTV shows The Real World, Laguna Beach and The Hills. There were national tours, including shows alongside acts like Fountains of Wayne, Dashboard Confessional, Gin Blossoms and Sister Hazel, and USO tours around the world.
But today, at least, three of Jag Star’s four members are in town (bassist Jay Daniels lives in L.A.), gathered round a table at Preservation Pub, a few storefronts down from the venue where they’ll be releasing their new album next week. They’re quick to point out that The Best Impression of Sanity , as it’s called, rocks—in both the physical and metaphorical sense of the word.
“We were ready to put out a rock album,” guitarist J Lewis explains. Whereas Cinematic took a turn toward the sentimental, he says, Best Impression is 100-percent high-energy edge. But its aggressiveness isn’t necessarily synonymous with the come-out-swinging defensiveness that was Crazy Place ’s trademark. It’s an aggressiveness that stems from confidence.
“We’ve been together for five years, and you get stronger and more confident—with my voice, especially,” Sarah Lewis says. “I’ve worked so hard to strengthen it, and I can hit notes now that I couldn’t hit two years ago.”
But Sarah’s stainless-steel vocals comprise only one element of Jag Star’s line of attack. The band’s sound is pop at its smartest and most defiant, and any one of Best Impression ’s 13 bright, polished gems, produced by local recording guru Travis Wyric, could stand on its own as a single. They’re radio-friendly, but miles more lush than the paper-thin pop wafers that are prone to dominating Top 40. Drummer Brad Williams jokingly refers to the album’s pop-rock fusion as “prock.”
“Pop has a bad name, but not all pop is bubble-gum pop,” Sarah says. “We have a rock side, an edgy side and a quirky side. All we can do is do our thing, and you can call it what you want to.”
Sarah stresses the fact that the band writes its own songs—a rarity in the commercial pop world. It’s emerged as a point of contention during discussions with record companies to whom Jag Star has considered, and eventually declined, to sign.
“For a female vocalist, there’s always the issue of, ‘Would you go solo? Would you ever consider singing someone else’s song?’” she says. “A lot of pop artists are not songwriters, but I come from the side of songwriting, and to me, that’s so important. I just think it’s weird when people sing other people’s songs.”
Keeping things D.I.Y. also gives the band the freedom to explore different identities. “I get bored easily,” Sarah says. “We all like so many kinds of things, we don’t want to stay the same. The record labels say, ‘Pick one sound, don’t confuse anybody, keep it the same.’ But we wanted something different.”
So far, at least, steering clear of a label hasn’t hurt the band in the least, serving instead as a source of pride. For instance, there was Jag Star’s recent inclusion on a soundtrack featuring songs by Pink, Nelly Furtado, Arctic Monkeys and Good Charlotte. “I was looking at the list and was like, ‘Look, Jag Star’s the only unsigned band,” J recalls.
“From the outside, it looks so fun and easy, and it is because we’re doing what we love, but behind the scenes what we’re doing to make it look fun and easy is a lot of work,” Sarah says.
On all fronts, though, things look promising. Next week, the band’s music is getting added to more than 300 college radio playlists, and in 2007, Jag Star will receive national exposure and financial support as its frontwoman steps in as the new face of Wet ’n’ Wild cosmetics.
“It’s like, here we are, take it or leave it,” Sarah says. “All we can do is be ourselves.” To which J adds, “…and rock’n’roll.”
What: Jag Star