SANTA MONICA, California — Mention the name Jem to music fans in their 20s and images of glam-rock cartoon heroes Jem and the Holograms instantly come to mind.
Well, Welsh singer Jemma "Jem" Griffiths is out to claim the name as her own, and she's just as truly, truly, truly outrageous.
Jem wrote her first song when she was 13, and although it's taken 15 years and the assistance of a few superstars, her debut full-length album finally arrives Tuesday.
"I knew then one day I'd be doing this, but I didn't ever want to be a star," Jem said while taking a break from apartment hunting on a recent sunlit afternoon. "So I just went on with my life. I went to college. Actually, I did a law degree, which is really funny."
While at Sussex University, sort of — "I hardly went, to be honest," she admitted — Jem started DJing and promoting clubs and turntablists, including Fatboy Slim. She eventually launched the breakbeat label Marine Parade with DJ Adam Freeland.
After graduating, however, she decided to shine the spotlight on her own singing career.
"All my friends were like, 'What?,' " Jem recalled. "I knew it'd be fine, but a lot of people were quite concerned, 'cause it's not normal to suddenly run off and be a singer. But then I did this demo around that time and I played it to them and they were like, 'Sh--, this actually might work,' which is quite funny because they were like, 'We were really worried it was going to be rubbish.' "
That demo landed a recording session with longtime Björk producer Guy Sigsworth. On their second day together, she finished a song he had been writing, which the producer later submitted to another artist. Titled "Nothing Fails," it became the third single on Madonna's American Life.
"When I actually heard it I was so shocked, 'cause it was the first time I believed it was actually going to happen," Jem said. "And to hear Madonna singing it was like, oh my gosh, so bizarre. My mom keeps calling me whenever it's on. She'll go to shops in the U.K. and hold the phone up to the thing and I'm like, 'They're going to arrest you.' "
From there, Jem moved to New York and recorded more demos with hip-hop producer Ge-Ology (Mos Def, Talib Kweli).
"The funny thing was that we started doing this song called 'Come on Closer,' which is actually the only one kinda sexy song," she recalled. "And I didn't know him at all and literally within 10 minutes I'm writing this porn song. And I'm thinking, 'What does this guy think of me?' "
Months later, Jem went to visit friends in Los Angeles. While home alone one afternoon, she decided to scrub the dishes and turned on KCRW-FM's "Morning Becomes Eclectic," the radio show that launched Coldplay and Norah Jones.
"I was just, like, doing this housework, thinking, 'This is amazing,' " Jem said. "I have to take my CD there. And my friend came home from work and I just said, 'Take me to this radio station now, we have to go!' "
Host Nic Harcourt was actually broadcasting live from South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, but she left her demo in his mailbox. The next week he played it on air.
"I immediately responded to the music because it just sounded fresh and it sounded different," Harcourt said. "When we started playing 'Finally Woken,' which is the first song that she gave me, our listeners were calling in and asking, 'What is this? Can I get this?' "
One of those callers was A&R veteran Bruce Flohr, who runs ATO Records with Dave Matthews. He tracked her down and requested more music. Jem took her time, but once she passed along her latest material, Flohr introduced her to Matthews. Jem didn't recognize him at first.
"She's English, so that's her first excuse," Matthews joked. "Nobody in England really knows me from a bar of soap."
Still, the two hit it off and ATO signed her.
"There's that quality to her music, it's got a celebration to it," Matthews said. "Leave-your-worries-behind kind of thing."
Jem then returned to London and hit the studio with Yoad Nevo (Ronan Keating, Dandy Warhols). She wrote new material and touched up some older tracks, including the infectious first single, "They," a showcase of both Jem's singer/songwriter and dance-music influences. She's about to shoot a video for the song, and she's putting together a band and planning a tour. And as it turns out, that law degree wasn't entirely a waste.
"I tell you what, by the end of my contract, I was sitting there, my manager was on the floor, my lawyer was literally lying on the floor, everyone was so bored, and I was the only one sitting there going, 'C'mon we have to get through it,' " Jem said. "I've definitely been through every page of all contracts."