Polished Jem: ATO's new star takes off
With six-figure sales of her first album, stadium performances, and appearances on T.V. shows including the popular Fox teen-soap The O.C., Welsh born singer/songwriter Jem is prompting smiles at her Charlottesville-based record label.
"This project is what the entire staff of ATO has been living and breathing," says ATO exec Bruce Flohr.
Jem's first full length CD, Finally Woken, reached #27 on Billboard's "Heat Seekers" chart in August, and sales have topped 150,000, says Flohr, noting that the November release of the album in the U.K. could push those numbers far higher. "There's big buzz building there," he says.
Flohr, the man who signed Dave Matthews Band to RCA back in 1993, says that for a record to "make it," sales should hit 190,000 in the first year. Six months into release, "We're way above that projection," he says.
Here in Charlottesville, where selling a dozen discs can count as an accomplishment, Finally Woken has done a relatively brisk business.
"We sold almost 160 copies here in town," says Plan 9 manager Ruth Wilson, noting that another 40 have sold at the store's locations in Richmond, Williamsburg, and Harrisonburg. Although big acts like DMB can move 500 to 1,000 copies from the Plan 9 stores, Wilson says Jem's success shouldn't be underestimated: "Her numbers are pretty excellent for word of mouth."
So far, only one single– the catchy loop-filled "They"– has been released.
"It has been a constant battle with the industry to embrace Jem completely," says Flohr. "We're literally having to convince people station by station, city by city."
One power player that has embraced the 29-year-old artist is DMX, a national music distributor that's put several of her songs into rotation at hundreds of Old Navy, Banana Republic, and Gap stores.
But it's the live performances that may have been the greatest challenge for the newly minted pop star. Jem first performed live with her new backup band in June– to hundreds at the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee, alongside seasoned rockers Bob Dylan, Ani DiFranco, and DMB.
After a small club show in Boston later that month, Boston Globe reviewer Christopher Muther showered the spritely songstress with praise.
"No one, aside from Stevie Wonder," Muther wrote, "should be able to make 'Master Blaster (Jammin')' sound so authentic. Even on her first tour of the States, it's clear that Jem's talent and following have already outgrown the walls of small clubs."
Those words proved prescient, as Jem soon moved on to stadium shows, opening for DMB at the Seattle-area Gorge and at the Home Depot stadium in Carson, California. In October, she'll make guest appearances on the Ellen DeGeneres Show (October 12) and The Jimmy Kimmel Show (October 13).
Jem loves every minute of it. "This summer has been amazing," she gushes from the road. "The enthusiasm and support we've received at every venue around the country have been incredible, and the highlight has been supporting the Dave Matthews Band at the most beautiful outdoor settings I've ever seen."
Flohr says he and his ATO cronies are also enjoying the ride.
"It's all happened really fast," he says, "and it's been a bit scary for us at the label, but she's been fearless and has been pulling it off and enjoying the process. Audiences are so supportive because when you go see her live, you can see an artist who's growing right in front of your eyes."
A Charlottesville audience will likely have that opportunity in November, says Flohr, when Jem returns to perform at Starr Hill for a homecoming of sorts.
Jem, subject of the Hook 's April 22 cover story, recently played Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed" on The O.C .
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO