Now, James, born Jessica James, has gone from being the new girl in town to the new "it" girl in music, as her lead single, appropriately titled "Wanted," enters the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 87 this week. Her self-titled debut album is slated for a July 28th release via Mercury Records/Island Def Jam.
James, who eventually settled in Warner Robins, Georgia, with her family as a teenager, learned how to play the guitar at nine and was penning her own songs shortly after. At age 15, she began traveling from her hometown to Nashville, Tennessee, to further hone her skills by working with a string of songwriters.
But it was at the age of 17 that James was introduced to Karla Wallace of Yellow Dog records in Nashville, who would help catapult her career. While no contract or album came out of the relationship, Wallace helped further develop James' writing and singing skills, ultimately resulting in James penning the song that propelled her to stardom.
"I wrote ‘Gipsy Girl' with two writers at Yellow Dog," James tells Billboard.com. "They pitched it to Carrie Underwood, who put it on hold. Then one of the writers at Yellow Dog sent it over to David Grey, an A&R who said he was looking for a big voice for Mercury Records. He played it for David Massey at Mercury and I was immediately called."
Upon hearing the demo, Massey set up an audition for James with record executive Antonio "L.A." Reid at New York's Island Def Jam headquarters. "I sang my song ‘My Cowboy' for L.A. and he loved it," she says.
Now signed to Mercury Records/Island Def Jam Music Group, the 20-year-old says while she welcomes comparisons to Shania Twain, she isn't just another feisty Southern brunette who makes country-pop records.
Although she describes her music as "pop with a little bit of twang," a few of the songs branch out into other genres. The sexy, hip-hop swaggered, tribal percussion and stepping-beat infused "Blue Jeans," featured on the soundtrack to the flick "Confessions of a Shopaholic," is a prime example. "I was on the step team in high school my 10th grade year," explains James. "Once I was in the vocal booth, and just started stepping. My producer Julian was like, ‘What is that? Let's record it' and I immediately started singing, ‘I hang in my blue jeans, I swing in my blue jeans'."
Like "Wanted," co-written with American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi, "My Cowboy" is yet another naughty track which finds James belting sizzling lyrics like, "Saddle up and take me for a little ride." There are also a handful of soulful ballads like "Burning Bridges" and "Guilty," on which James further impresses with her vocal range.
The next single off her debut is "Bullet," a pop-rock tune co-written with Katy Perry, someone James lauds as being "proof that you can stay yourself and be successful." In addition, James will be the opening act for the Jonas Brothers on their upcoming world tour which kicks off on June 20.
Although moving around for most of her youth, James says she's finally found a home now. "Moving around has given me a lot of heartache. It made me a bit stronger, though, and influenced me to write strong as well as sad songs," she says. "It definitely made me want to write – it was like therapy. Now, I've finally found my home, it seems, in music."