Suffering to sing the blues. Pulling strength from adversity.
You've heard all the clichés.
But it's stories like Jude's that lend truth to those overused
phrases. Born Michael Jude Christodal, the 28-year-old singer was
an Easterner who moved to Los Angeles and toiled in a series of
menial jobs before winding up with his major-label debut, No One Is Really Beautiful, on Madonna's Maverick Records.
"I f---ing hated my life," he recalled. "I was really poor, slept on my friend's floor. I worked for a messenger service, drove a shuttle, washed dishes. I worked in a computer store and did telemarketing. Washing dishes is the worst: you're cleaning people's dirt. It's really bad."
But all that turmoil, it turned out, had its benefits. "I found I had something much more important to do than socializing: writing," Jude said.
And the results -- which can be heard on Jude's debut, released this past week -- have an extra layer of sardonic intensity, no doubt pulled from his time spent hidden in the shadows of Hollywood's gleaming lights.
The title track, for instance, comes from a period when Jude worked as a janitor at a casting agency -- a uniquely L.A. experience that provided insight into the skewed value system of the show-biz capital.
"A lot of what's terrible in America is extremely well-honed in Los Angeles," he said from the safe distance of the road. "The focus on aesthetic beauty over character and quality. The equation is so whacked in Los Angeles -- the illusion that beauty is goodness."
Liza Richardson has been playing tracks from the Jude's CD on her radio show, "Que Sera Sera," on KCRW 89.9-FM in Los Angeles. "He's a great lyricist," she said. "I love the album because it's a mix of folk and hip-hop. Very groovy."
The first single, "Rick James" (RealAudio excerpt), combines funky and folk elements in a single song. "The verses all come from a poem," Jude explains. "I was banging it out on the piano and I got through the chorus. As I kept rolling over the chords I was trying to get funkier and funkier. It occurred to me that I was trying to sound like Rick James."
With its rollicking, funky-beat chorus and verses that combine acoustic and wah-wah guitar, "Rick James" is a rousing dance song at first listen. But paying close attention to the lyrics reveals a biting edge -- while it sounds happy, it's got a vicious undercurrent.
In "Rick James," there's a reference to a friend's suicide that Jude declines to discuss -- a reluctance that's a bit paradoxical, given the intimacy of his musical approach and the personal nature of some of his songs.
"I always try to stay to the truth in my writing," he said, in lieu of discussing specifics.
Between Jude's poverty and his major-label deal, there was an interim of playing at L.A. clubs with his acoustic guitar. It was during this period that Michael Andelman, scout for independent Fish of Death Records, stumbled across Jude while checking out another artist.
"You know when you're at a show and the opening band is playing but you're not really watching them, you're waiting for the band that you're there to see," Andelman explained. "Then you catch something through the corner of your ear. That happened immediately when I heard Jude's falsetto voice."
Jude's high vocal-register, which evokes late New York City singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley in songs such as "Prophet" and "I Know," is one of his most distinctive assets. Other vocal-powered tunes on the 13-track effort include "Out of L.A." (RealAudio excerpt) and "George."
"I've always listened to a lot of singers, people who use their voice a lot," Jude said. "I took classes once with a guy who tried to get me not to sing in my falsetto at all." He paused. "So I quit."
Fish of Death Records released Jude's first CD, 430 N. Harper Ave., in May.
With plans to play across the U.S. this fall and into next year, Jude said he is looking forward to getting into the life of an artist on the road.
"I love touring," he says. "Are you kidding? Who wouldn't? You get up in the morning and all you have to do is be someplace to play music. And then people clap."