Four years after placing fourth on season 13 of American Idol, Slapout, Alabama’s Jessica Meuse has released her debut album, Halfhearted, on the independent Warrior Records label. Billboard caught up with Meuse somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean to talk about recording the album in a legendary studio, how she feels about Idol today, and teaching vocal workshops on the high seas.
This is the first interview I’ve conducted while sailing on a cruise ship. Why are you on board and why do you have a lot of children following you around?
I have successfully completed my first vocal workshop aboard a cruise ship in the Atlantic Ocean, sailing to the Bahamas through the Bermuda Triangle and I survived. I didn’t really know in the beginning how to structure when I was going to do and I was a little bit nervous, but honestly the parents and the kids are so nice and the children are so talented. It’s good to see parents nurturing the creativity in their children and that is a breath of fresh air for me. I was happy that I got to play a role in that and when I was in the workshop, I felt like I knew what I was doing and I felt like I was very informative. I worked with the kids and heard them sing and helped them do a little bit with their voices. A lot of them were very young and you never want to tear down a young child. So my goal was to help build them up and get them to a point where they can figure out their sound and run with it. A lot of them are between eight and 10 years old and they are still finding their voices. It’s been such a fun time and I’m so thankful to Todd Etelson and his school, Actor’s Technique New York, and now I have another thing to add to my resume. I can teach vocal workshops.
Thinking back to when you were the same age as these children, do you see yourself in them?
I absolutely do. I see the spunkiness. I see the youth and the innocence and that pure joy for what they do. They’re doing it because they love it. They’re not thinking about money. They’re not thinking about sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. They’re thinking, “Oh my gosh, I love this. This is fun.” It’s pure, and I love that. It’s inspiring for me to be here because it reminds me of why I do what I do as well. So it’s been awesome.
Your debut album, Halfhearted, has just been released. When did you first think about recording an album?
After American Idol, I knew that I wanted to have an album, because I wanted to show people what kind of a musician, vocalist and writer I had evolved into after that entire experience. Before Idol, I only knew what I knew by teaching myself and now that I’ve been to Hollywood and been through a lot of the industry craziness, I learned so much about myself and that’s going to translate into my songs and I wanted people to hear that maturity. I’ve always had the idea of recording an album. I have an album that was very poorly and cheaply made back in 2010, when I had a different manager. He had a tin ear. He decided it would be a good idea to make the album without a click track. I have definitely come a long way and I’m very happy with how Halfhearted turned out as far as showing who I am as a person and how I’ve grown as a musician.
How did this new album come about?
I got a [new] manager in 2017 and that led to a one-off album deal with Warrior Records out of Los Angeles and I immediately got into the studio at Capitol Records and recorded it. I had all these songs that I’ve accumulated from my time on Idol, because I was writing. I write almost every day, at least a word or a hook or an idea. But all of the songs kind of threw themselves at me. And as I wrote new ones, there were new experiences coming my way as well, because I was living by myself in Houston and 2017 was a very, very tough year for me. I had a “real” job for a little while and it ended up being a clash of values and I walked out.
You mentioned recording at the studios in the Capitol building in Hollywood. That is a hallowed place. How did that feel?
Recording at Capitol Studios was pretty mind-blowing for me, because I remember being a little girl and all I wanted to do was sing and I knew I wanted to be a famous singer, but I guess I never really envisioned myself recording at Capitol Studios in Studio B where Frank Sinatra once stood. Being there was surreal. It was like a dream. I look back now and I can’t believe how fast it went by and that I really was there. I was in the same studio as Frank Sinatra. There’s a definite vibe at Capitol Studios. You hear music as you walk down the hall from other people recording in different studios. You’ll see people come in for string parts for orchestral pieces and you’ll hear people making movie soundtracks. It was very enlightening and very inspiring. I left knowing in my heart that I want to go back and do it all over again and again and again.
How long did it take to create the songs on Halfhearted?
“I’ll Find My Way” was one of the first songs that I’d ever written in my life, which is really crazy because it’s on the album here in 2018. I sent it to my manager and he said, “I really like it. I see potential. I see all these things we can do.” And I thought, “Really? I hate that song.” It’s very catchy and it has that choir vibe where you could see a big group of people just getting into it with soul and singing along and clapping. We actually did clap in the studio, and it was pretty cool. So “I’ll Find My Way” was one of the very first songs I ever wrote in my life, like probably in the first 30 [songs]. And then most of the songs were written during American Idol and right after I was on the show, when I was regrouping and figuring out what I was going to do. I hit the ground running and you know me, I just write all the time anyway. Like I wrote two songs this week on the ship, so I’m still writing. I have enough songs now for the next album.
Now that “I’ll Find My Way” is on the album, do you still hate it?
I had this idea that I didn’t like the song, that it wasn’t good enough. I have a lot of songs that I’ve written and think are crap and I want to put them in a vault and leave them there, but the truth is that no matter what song you write, no matter how good or bad you think it is, there’s always an idea to work with. So I always tell aspiring songwriters, “Even if you write a poem that makes no sense, there could be a word or a line in there that just triggers another idea or a hook or anything, so don’t ever throw your scribbles away. Your next hit might spring from that.” So I’m glad I showed it to my manager and I’m glad that he saw the potential, because now that it’s fully produced, it sounds pretty good. A lot of people like it and the truth is not everyone listens to lyrics. I do. I pick lyrics apart, because I write lyrics. I think people are going to feel the vibe. They’re going to feel the swing and the soul in that music and it does have a cool message. It’s about figuring stuff out for yourself and if somebody does you wrong, whether it’s a relationship or a friendship, whatever it may be, you figure it out on your own and if you’re not going to stand with me, you can get out of the way.
With so many songs to choose from, how did you decide which ones to include?
It’s funny how easy it was to pick the songs for the album. I was writing so many songs, there did come a point where my manager said, “Stop writing for a while.” The song “Halfhearted” was one of the last-minute ones, and I remember when I wrote it, I was in my apartment in Texas and I thought of the chorus first and I loved “Halfhearted.” I love the duality of that, because some people are going to interpret it as not putting your heart into something, but my actual interpretation and my intent for what it means is actually the duality of good and evil like the angel and the devil on your shoulder and making that decision for yourself.
Tell me more about the title track, “Halfhearted.”
I wrote it while I was living in my apartment in Houston in 2017. It was right before I had to fly out to the studio for the first session when we did all the instruments and locked in which songs we were doing. I had the chorus down and I had the whole “Halfhearted” concept and I couldn’t think of anything for the verse, so I thought, “What if I rap it?” I guess it’s more like talk/singing. I wouldn’t call it rap, but it’s rhythmic. It’s the first song that I’ve ever done like that. I sent it to my manager and he said we have to put it on the album. I told him I liked how it has my entire life story in it, about how I went through an eating disorder and overcame a lot of adversity and people just being mean in the world. I think it prepared me for what I was meant for and I’m meant for something so much bigger, but I needed to go through that. At the time it sucked but it drove me to be who I am today and to do what I do today. So that’s what “Halfhearted” is about and it just became the title track, just like that. Everything just clicked perfectly.
One of the tracks on the album is “Without You,” a duet with another American Idol alum, Bo Bice. How did that come about?
I knew Bo and we’ve chatted a lot. He’s a nice guy, and he’s very easy to befriend and talk to and he always replies. He’s just a cool dude, super chill, super humble and so down to earth. I wrote “Without You” about somebody I dated. I was sitting in his apartment and I just felt discouraged. You know how when you have a big dream and it feels impossible, you have bad days sometimes. It’s tough to make it in music or any part of the entertainment industry. I asked my boyfriend at the time, “Do you believe in me?” And he went on this 45-minute rant about “I don’t know if the music industry is right for you. I don’t think you can handle it.” He told me that I should get a real job while I still can or else I’ll be too old to get one. That was when I knew this is the wrong person for me. Somebody who truly loves you no matter what your flaws are, no matter your bad days, your good days, your best, your worst, would never say that to you. When I asked, “Do you believe in me?” all I needed was a “yes” but instead he put me down. That crushed me because I loved this person and I couldn’t believe he had said that and then I wrote “Without You.” My manager said we should make it a duet and I immediately said “Bo Bice.” We didn’t really have anyone else in mind. We flew Bo out to Capitol Studios and we knocked out his vocals in a day. It was really easy. I couldn’t stop laughing. That guy is so funny. It was the best day because Bo is so much fun and we were all cracking up and having a good time. It didn’t feel like work.
You are currently on a tour of radio stations to promote your album – something you interrupted to coach the kids on this cruise. How is the radio tour going?
I play a handful of the songs, including “Thank God It Didn’t Work,” because that’s the song we’re really pushing from the album right now. And I’ll sing “Love Her Better” and “High” and sometimes “California Dream.” I mingle with the radio people and the program directors. It’s really been fun. I get to see all these new places. It’s rewarding because I grew up listening to WLWI down in Montgomery (Alabama), where I’m from, and now they’re playing my song on the radio. I think in this age of social media and technology, shaking hands and seeing each other face-to-face means so much more. They’re not just program directors. They’re not just people working at a radio station. You get to know them as human beings. They take time out of their day and they really listen and I think that’s absolutely amazing.
You mentioned “Thank God It Didn’t Work,” which is the track getting the most airplay. What is the story behind that song?
“Thank God It Didn’t Work” is a song about looking back on things that didn’t work out and realizing there was a bigger picture falling together while some things were falling apart. I was driving up to Nashville for the co-write session and I had four hours to think about what I wanted to write about. I reminisced about my time on reality television — from The Voice to American Idol. When I turned 21, I thought I had “made it.” The Voice called me and set up a private audition and I was elated. I made it all the way to the blind auditions and was out in California for a month, filming and rehearsing. I was so naive and innocent, and I truly thought that was my break. And then none of the judges turned around and I took their feedback to heart. I can’t express how heartbroken I was when I failed doing the one thing I love doing the most. I went back home and went back to college, playing shows just about every night of the week. Little did I know, that very next year was when I would make it onto American Idol. “Thank God It Didn’t Work” is about unanswered prayers being a good thing sometimes and understanding that sometimes things that disappoint or hurt us the most are leading us toward what we’re meant to do — something much bigger.
“Thank God It Didn’t Work” was one of the last songs I recorded at Capitol Studios. There is a lot of power behind the notes in that song, and I didn’t want to push my voice too much in the beginning of the week for vocals. It was the icing on the cake to record it at the end of the session because some of those sustained power notes were born in the studio and were not in the original arrangement.
It’s been four years since you were on American Idol. How do you look back on your experience and do people still talk to you about the show?
People talk about American Idol all the time, especially if somebody saw me on the show or heard through the grapevine that I was on four years ago. They still ask questions and that’s fine, even though I’ve graduated from that chapter of life. It’s still fun to talk about. And then the feeling I get when I look back on it, it’s a lot like when I went through at Capitol Studios. It’s a dream, and I never take one moment for granted. I often find myself being introspective and I look back at these amazing opportunities and I’m so grateful.
Most Idol alumni embrace the show after leaving but some choose not to talk about it. Where are you on that spectrum?
American Idol is not who I am. It’s just a part of my story, and that’s how I look at. But I’ve met so many amazing people that work on that show like Patrick Lynn and Kate Tucci and I love these people. There’s no way I could ever act like it didn’t happen, because it was such a big part of my career and such a big part of me figuring out who I am as a person and as a musician. It was an education. I’ve moved on and I’m continuing to move onward and upward, but that’s a very critical part of my story.