When Jessica Simpson recorded her first album, 1999’s “Sweet Kisses,” she was just 17 years old. Now, knocking on the door of 21, the singer explains that there have been a few changes.
“When you’re just growing up, you’re trying to be this person and that person,” she says. “It takes a while to find your place. For me, that meant discovering who I am as an artist and as a person.”
“Over the past couple of years,” Simpson continues, “I’ve grown vocally, I’ve grown spiritually, I’ve just plain grown up. The main ingredient, I know now, is confidence. I really feel equipped for what’s going to come.”
Simpson’s sophomore set, “Irresistible,” due for worldwide release June 5 on Columbia, is certainly an assertion of that evolution. Within its 12 tracks, she takes on the seasons of love, from crush through infatuation, contentment, hurt, and disillusionment. While fans will find a number of signature ballads, a la her debut top-10 hit, “I Wanna Love You Forever,” the project is geared more toward an energetic shake, rattle, and roll.
“I feel like everybody is ready for something new and fresh,” Simpson says. “There are some pop sounds out there that people have heard a trillion times now. That’s over. I’d like to be the first to take pop to its next level, with more edge and more attitude.”
The first single is the album’s title track, a sexy, uptempo romp about newfound love that proves Simpson’s pop intuition. The song has entered the top-20 on Billboard?s Top 40 Tracks chart, and it has sped to No. 41 on The Billboard Hot 100 this week. Its high-tech accompanying videoclip is already a top two favorite among the “Total Request Live” crowd — her core audience — on MTV.
Furthering Simpson’s celebrity appears to be a focused mission for Columbia. Label president Don Ienner and Sony Music Entertainment chairman/CEO Thomas D. Mottola participated in the song selection process for “Irresistible” and spent time in the studio with their budding songstress.
“We were all involved in this together,” Simpson says. “It’s a blessing to have such powerful men on board. It just makes me want to be a better artist.”
Will Botwin, GM of Columbia Records and executive VP for Columbia Records Group, affirms Simpson’s priority status at the label. “Our goal with this record is to turn Jessica into a superstar,” he says. “The first album established her as a star in the making. I think her personality comes across more on this record as a real singer’s singer. That makes her different from the rest of the crowd.”
“Sweet Kisses” was certified double-platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America for U.S. shipments of 2 million copies, and sold an additional 1 million copies in other territories. In the coming months, Simpson will work to increase her overseas appeal, with promotion planned in Europe and Asia.
“My goal is to reach more people this time around,” Simpson says. “With the last album, I attracted a certain number with power ballads and my uptempo pop songs, but on the new one, there are more R&B-oriented tracks, which I think have a nice edge to them. And there’s attitude — something that no one has really seen in me before. Believe me, I’m a woman, so hey, I can have attitude.”
Among the highlights of “Irresistible” is Simpson’s favorite, “Hot Like Fire,” a funky midtempo shuffler that she delivers with blazing vocal grit — it’s certainly not kid stuff — while “What’s It Gonna Be” casts the singer in a posturing finger-pointer in which she slyly solicits, “I wanna know where we stand, are you gonna be a dog or a gentleman/Are you coming clean, keep it straight with me/Tell me boy, what’s it gonna be?”
The set also serves up momentously luscious ballads, like the hand-wringing “When You Told Me You Loved Me” and a hit-worthy duet with Marc Anthony, “There You Were.” The latter came about after the labelmates met at the taping of the musical TV special “A Christmas in Washington” last December. They exchanged mutual admiration and proposed recording a song for both of their next albums.
“I’m pretty shy about being in the studio with other people,” Simpson says. “Marc walked in, sat on the couch, and said, ‘Let’s tell each other a secret,’ so we exchanged stupid, little private things. Then he said, ‘For the next six hours, we are going to be completely in love, like we’ve known each other’s lives and secrets for years.'”
The pair sang their duet the old-fashioned way, side by side in the studio. “We sang to each other the whole time,” Simpson says. “So many artists sing duets where they’re in different cities, different countries. Why even bother? I think you can hear our friendship coming through here. We really created it together, and I think it has such passion.”
Two tracks on the set were co-penned by her boyfriend of two and-a-half years, Nick Lachey, lead vocalist for the pop group 98 Degrees. “Forever in Your Eyes” is a hip-swaying love song stamped with a guitar-strumming sensuality, while “To Fall in Love Again” is another classic Simpson ballad that showcases her expressive vocal prowess. That song teamed Lachey with pop production maestro Walter Afanasieff.
“Nick never ceases to amaze me,” Simpson says. “He called me and said he had an idea and started singing to me over the phone, and I just loved it. He’s among the most talented people I know. I predict that 10 years from now, his name will still be huge.”
Another moment on the album with significance to Simpson is its closing number, “His Eye on the Sparrow,” which addresses the singer’s spiritual side.
“I wanted to give my audience a piece of my heart and soul,” she says. “The message is there’s so much in life that can get you discouraged, but if you trust that you’re being watched over, you have a reason to live and a sense of freedom. It’s different for everyone, but for me, my relationship with God is the way I clear out the shadows that hang in our lives.”
In July, Simpson will tour with MTV’s high-profile TRL tour for 15 dates with headliner Destiny’s Child and will then embark on a solo stint through August and September, with stops to be announced next month. In between, her schedule will include overseas trips — a mid-June jaunt to England, Holland, France, Norway, Germany, and then, at the end of the month, a week in Japan.
“We’re expecting Jessica to blossom into a major international presence this time,” Botwin says. “She certainly seems ready — she’s grown up, she’s looking fantastic, and she’s working hard.”
Simpson agrees that she’s up for the task. “I’m really proud of where everything is heading,” she says. “I’m ready for what my career and what life has to offer me.”