If the name Jennifer Paige sounds familiar to pop fans, it’s likely due to her 1998 debut single “Crush,” a breezy, guitar-laced mid-tempo jam that seduced by pulling back: “It’s just a little crush / Not like I faint every time we touch,” she teases on the breathy chorus. The song briefly took over the world in the final moments before TRL heavy-hitters like Britney Spears and *NSYNC rose to mega-power, hitting the top five on both sides of the Atlantic and topping the charts in Canada and Australia.
But despite the single’s promise, the single marked the only Hot 100 entry from her self-titled debut album, and tragedy (both global and personal) overwhelmed the release of her next two albums. But on March 31st, Paige will finally return with the Kickstarter-financed Starflower — an album of towering synth-pop and gorgeously personal songwriting — which will mark her first LP of new material since 2008, and her essential rebirth as an indie artist.
“I totally feel like I’m starting over,” Paige says of Starflower — which Billboard is premiering the second single from today, the storming relationship lament “Forget Me Not.” “So far the response has been really great, and I think it’s just a matter of letting people hear it and to be able to decipher it themselves.”
Though Paige’s recording career dates back nearly two decades to 1998, the now-43-year-old has been in music even longer, singing in a duo with her brother since she was a kid and performing in a touring top 40 covers act as a teen. After teaming up with producer Andy Gallmark and signing to German indie label Edel records, Paige recorded “Crush,” which she describes as originally being “a slow, Motown-type thing” called “Just.”
“It was such a work in progress,” she recalls. “By the time it made it to the mixing room, I just remembered dancing around and singing it and thinking… I didn’t know what it took to make a hit. All I knew [was] I loved it, and I played it for some friends at a party and they loved it, and wanted to play it over and over again. So I thought, ‘This is a really good sign.'”
The song became a smash and Jennifer Paige was an instant sensation, touring the world and meeting heroes like Mariah Carey. Though the experience was a whirlwind, Paige doesn’t recall being particularly surprised by the success. “I think I always imagined some version of that would happen, so it was almost like, ‘Oh yeah, this is supposed to happen,'” she explains. “Which now, I look back and I’m like, ‘Okay, that was a little bit over-confident there…'”
Paige did a little songwriting on her first album, co-penning impressively thoughtful pop/rock numbers like “Questions” and “Get to Me.” But none of her songs were picked as singles, and the album peaked at No. 139 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. Her next effort, 2001’s Positively Somewhere, failed to chart at all in the United States as it had the extreme misfortune of debuting the week after the 9/11 attacks — ruining any chance of it capturing much attention.
“That was really heart-breaking in a way, because I had put so much of my heart in the second album,” Paige remembers of the album’s ignored release. “By then I kind of had learned the ropes a bit more, and I worked really hard to get to that place, and it was just unfortunate timing.”
The upside of Paige’s experience was that it allowed her to sharpen her songwriting skills, which she would then begin to offer to other artists. “By then I had gained so much more confidence, I was really just writing to write,” she explains. “Then some of those songs were finding to other artists. I enjoyed the process of working with younger artists at that point… I enjoyed that mentorship role, in a way, even though I was still really young too.”
She returned to recording for 2008’s Best Kept Secret, even scoring a duet with fellow late-’90s pop paragon Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys for the single “Beautiful Lie.” But for Paige, the experience was again underlined by calamity, as her parents both died in 2008 within weeks of each other — her mother suddenly from a pulmonary embolism, and then her father from a heart attack.
“In a weird way that album, that deal was such a blessing because it gave me so much to focus on during that time period,” she relates of the Best Kept Secret recording. But the experience sapped her of her enthusiasm for music: “After that I just felt empty. I didn’t have it in me to figure out what to do for fourth album or whatever. I still wanted to, but I couldn’t find the passion to do it. Took a little while to get that back.”
In the years following Secret, Paige subsided mostly on writing and recording for advertising campaigns — she says she’s one of two voices that sing Nationwide’s ubiquitous, Peyton Manning-bewitching “Nationwide is on your side” jingle. She rediscovered her love for recording by getting back to her roots with the 2012 Christmas album Holiday. “I called my best friends and my brother, and we suddenly all got together and it was really fun,” she raves of that period. “It kind of reawakened me, and I thought, ‘This is totally what I was meant to do, this feels right. I don’t feel like I’m done.'”
That feeling culminated in Starflower, Paige’s triumphant return, and one of the early year’s best pop full-lengths. Paige cites Swedish grand-pop mavens Erik Hassle and Tove Lo as her two favorite artists right now, and that influence certainly makes sense, given the album’s thick synth sound — dramatic and stormy, but still lithe and buoyant. “Forget Me Not,” which you can hear below, is an obvious highlight, a throbbing production with a heart-rending vocal, inspired by one of the great dance singles of the mid-’90s.
“I have always been a big fan of that song ‘Missing’ by Everything But the Girl,” Paige explains. “It’s such a great song, and it’s just one of those songs that I could never forget — especially the remixed version. I was driving to the studio and I started hearing the lines in the chorus, ‘Years and years have come between…’ The thought behind it really reminded me of that track. And I loved [how that track was] very in-your-face pop music, but it was totally not like anything else on the radio, and it stood out because of that. I just thought, ‘I would love to have a song that’s like that.'”
Whether “Forget Me Not” becomes as ubiquitous as “Missing” or not, Paige’s reintroduction to the pop mainstream has already begun thanks to viral Australian star William Singe, whose new single “Rush” — which has already racked up over four million YouTube views — heavily interpolates the chorus to Paige’s “Crush.” Paige says she’s even recorded a sort of mash-up version of his “Rush” with her own signature hit, and calls Singe’s rendition “the only version I heard [of “Crush”] that I actually am all on board for.”
But then again, 2017 also brings with it a more direct cover of “Crush,” this time re-recorded by Paige herself, for Starflower‘s closing track. Much slower, more stripped-down and haunting than the original “Crush,” the new “Acoustic Version” features a Paige who’s long made peace with her recording past.
“I’ve been asked to re-record it many times through the different deals that I’ve done and I’ve never wanted to do it because the original is the original,” she says. “But for whatever reason, it was an experiment that found its way on the album, and I liked it. So I was like, well this is actually kind of cool, and it’s so different than the original and it’s really just a little bonus… it was really an afterthought, but I liked how it turned out.”
She laughs. “I mean, I can’t believe it’s been so many years. It’s almost 20 years. It’s insane.”