Detroit native Jj Thames shares her heart’s love and joy through her gift of singing.
Jj Thames has literally and metaphorically come a long way in the last few years. From busking in New York City subway tunnels in 2008 to having the No. 1 Hot Single on the Billboard Charts in March 2014, Thames has arrived. At 31 years old, Thames is a statuesque beauty with the ease and confidence of a natural performer. When she sings, there's no doubt Thames is doing what she's meant to do. With a gospel and blues-inspired voice that stirs the soul, Thames sings her story of perseverance and delivers a message: Have faith in yourself and your dreams.
Born and raised in Detroit, Mich., Thames had evident musical ability and talent from an early age. With her parents' support, she grew up singing and studying music. As a teenager, she took piano lessons and trained in both classical and jazz vocal technique.
For Thames, age 17 was a landmark year in her life. She gave birth to the first of three sons. With baby Elijah in tow, she moved to Mississippi to study business and marketing at Mississippi College.
In 2004, she had her second child, Zion-Paul. Nine days before his second birthday, the toddler passed away from a rare form of lymphoma, prompting Thames to return to Detroit and pursue her singing career in earnest.
"I remember thinking how short life is and how much I needed to sing to give peace to my soul," Thames says. "It was my darkest moment—the only thing that made me feel less numb was singing, sharing my heart's love and grief and joy. The death of my son spurred the blind determination that has kept me singing loud and clear for anyone who would listen."
Back in Detroit, Thames landed her first gig as a headliner at a nightclub called Lola's. She sang at the club every Friday night for a year and a half and began to build a fan base. Her success in Detroit spurred her to move to New York City and make a go of it.
"While I was in New York, I had some hard times," she says. "At first, I was singing in the subway for tips. It was a very humbling experience, but I learned how to pull people, how to get their attention. It wasn't the most glamorous venue but it was empowering. Without instruments to complement your voice—it's just you. I learned to diversify, to take alternative rock songs and make them my own."
Eventually, she had to get a job, and her subway singing took a back seat. Thames worked as an assistant manger in a restaurant, but it was tough to make ends meet. By the time she was able to get back to singing in clubs, she was juggling multiple jobs and—with the birth of Israel, her third son, in 2010—multiple children.
"It was very difficult maintaining a household," she says. "At one point, I had to work four jobs to keep my children in environments conducive to their mental, emotional and physical health."
In 2012, after being unable to pay a $350 weekly rent at an extended-stay hotel, Thames and her two boys spent a month in a homeless shelter. During those difficult weeks, Thames wrote the single, "Tell You What I Know."
With the support of friends and family, Thames and her boys returned to Mississippi, and her luck began to change. She signed with Mississippi-based Dechamp Records in mid-2013. Working with producers Grady Champion and Carole DeAngelis, Thames recorded her debut album in less than five months.
"We develop from the negative," Thames says with certainty. "At this point in time, I have so many positives in my life—I have an excellent record label that says just do you, we support you. This is my career."
JJ Thames performs at 7 p.m. June 5 at Underground 119 (119 S. President St.). The free show is for those over 21. Thames performs with Grady Champion at 8 p.m. June 7 at Duling Hall (622 Duling Ave.). Admission is $12 in advance and $15 at the door. The show is for all ages. Visit ardenland.com, underground119.com and jjthamesmusic.com.