This is a tale of two Canadian pop rock success stories that, while similar in some respects, remain significantly different enough to stand very much on their own.
In one corner, you have JJ Wilde, whose 2020 debut album brought her a Juno Award in 2021 just two years after she launched her music career. Opposite her stands Suzie McNeil, a 2008 Juno Award nominee for Best New Artist of the Year whose work as both a solo artist and collaborator has held our collective attention for close to 20 years.
On their own, each is a musical force to be reckoned with. But bring them together on one stage for one night, well, now you’re onto something really special.
On Wednesday, August 3 at Del Crary Park, the latter will be the case as Wilde and McNeil co-headline another chapter of Peterborough Musicfest’s milestone 35th season. Admission to the 8 p.m. concert, as always, is free.
Kitchener-born JJ Wilde — Jillian Dowding in another life — made quite the first impression in 2019 with the release of her debut EP Wilde Eyes, Steady Hands and the single “The Rush,” which, in May 2020, simultaneously attained the top spot on Canada’s modern rock, active rock, and mainstream rock charts — one of a handful of songs to achieve that feat.
Any doubts about Wilde’s rock prowess after that remarkable debut were put to rest when her 2020 debut studio album Ruthless followed a similar trajectory. Nominated for a 2021 Juno award as Rock Album of the Year, Ruthless brought Wilde her first statue. Not since 1996, when Alanis Morissette took home a Juno for Jagged Little Pill, had a female performer won in that category.
Wilde arrives in Peterborough with new material courtesy of her second EP Wilde, released just last year. The six-song collection includes her powerful cover of the Stevie Nicks/Tom Petty classic “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” featuring Brett Emmons of The Glorious Sons, who Wilde has recently been touring with in Canada — she opened for them at the Peterborough Memorial Centre this past April — along with The Scorpions in Europe.
VIDEO: “The Rush” – JJ Wilde
“This EP (Wilde) was created during the pandemic so there is definitely some frustration that leaked into this project from not being able to play shows,” reflected Wilde during a June 2021 interview with Rob Laing of MusicRadar.
“But having the time off to do more writing influenced this record in a very positive way as well. I had more time to sit with the songs than I usually do; to refine and make changes. I also had more time to write just for me. I think there’s a real honesty that comes from that.”
Asked to describe her sound, which has resonated with so many so very fast, Wilde admits to being stumped.
“It’s always hard for me as a musician to describe my sound because music means so many different things to different people,” Wilde said. “It’s all up for interpretation. I would say my music is raw, emotional and from the heart. My songs are all very personal to me. The sound is rock … heavy guitars, big booming drums, and a rumbling bass line.”
While a quickly growing legion of fans eagerly awaits what’s next from Wilde, her commitment is to “keep evolving and growing.”
“I just want my songs to continue to come from a genuine place. The sound will naturally evolve with the songwriting. As I grow as a person, my interests in sounds will change.”
VIDEO: “Wired” – JJ Wilde
Post-Musicfest, Wilde will headline August 5 at the Kitchener Blues Festival and then take a breather before undertaking a busy fall of performances across Canada.
Wilde is walking a path not unlike one well travelled by Suzie McNeil since 2005 when the Mississauga native placed fourth on Rock Star: INXS, subsequently reaping the benefits of a successful and diversified careers as a solo artist and as a collaborator with the likes of INXS, Clay Aiken, Foreigner, and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith.
McNeil has recorded three studio albums, with her 2007 debut album Broken & Beautiful featuring the singles “Hung Up” and 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics anthem “Believe” and earning her a 2008 Juno Award nomination as Best New Artist of the Year.
Subsequent albums Rock-n-Roller (2008) and Dear Love (2012) followed, the former spawning her top charting hit “Supergirl” and the latter bringing McNeil more commercial success via the singles “Drama Queen” and “Merry Go Round.”
In addition to her Juno Award nomination, McNeil won a 2008 Independent Music Award as Favourite Pop Artist and, in the same year, was shortlisted for two Canadian Radio Music Awards.
Diversity has been the name of the game for McNeil, her varied musical pursuits including using her multi-instrumental talents as a member of her own Nashville-based country-rock band, forays into the Broadway-level musical theatre realm, and commercial jingle recording work.
VIDEO: “Supergirl” – Suzie McNeil
Rarely standing still, she has dipped her toe into a number of new musical waters, ranging from singing backing vocals for Pink on her North American tour to entertaining troops in Afghanistan to performing at the 2010 Winter Olympics closing ceremonies.
“I love doing this so much,” she told Jim Barber in a November 2018 interview with Music Life Magazine, adding “I love getting paid for it. I love being able to support myself doing something that I love. To me, that was always the goal.”
“I do kind of get bored and like to have new challenges and different experiences. I love musical theatre, so I loved being able to do that with We Will Rock You (in 2007 at Toronto’s Canon Theatre). I love 1970s music, so I loved doing that show. When I look back at my life, I am very proud, and very proud of all the different experiences I have had and people I have been able to meet and work with.”
One of those new challenges manifested itself in 2014 when McNeil teamed up with Elisha Hoffman, Rebecca Lynn Howard, and Marti Fredericksen to form the country rock quartet Loving Mary. That union brought forth the EP Loving Mary – Live in 2015, and a stint with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler as the backup band on his debut country solo studio album We’re All Somebody from Somewhere and its supporting “Out On A Limb” tour in the U.S. and Japan.
Unsurprisingly, working with Tyler remains a career highlight for McNeil.
“He is a very, very generous man,” she said. “He loves music; he is like a little kid with music. He has more energy than I do. He is just a beautiful soul.”
VIDEO: “Hung Up” – Suzie McNeil
“He cares a lot about the small stuff, like people’s birthdays, and I don’t know if that’s because he has been famous for so long that he probably appreciates all those little things more than we do because they feel mundane for us. I do think people who have had fabulousness for so long appreciate the simpler things in life.”
Ahead for McNeil is a fourth solo album that, as indicated on her Twitter feed, “is already written.”
Bet on her fans chomping at the bit to hear what’s next from the singer who has done nothing but surprise over the course of her career.
Peterborough Musicfest is presenting 16 free-admission concerts during its milestone 35th anniversary season, each staged Wednesday and Saturday nights at Del Crary Park in downtown Peterborough.
Overseen by general manager Tracey Randall and staff, a board of directors, and numerous volunteers, Peterborough Musicfest’s stated mission remains “to provide diverse, affordable live music to enrich cultural and economic prosperity in our community.”
For more information on this concert or the entire 2022 season, visit www.ptbomusicfest.ca or phone the Peterborough Musicfest office at 705-755-1111.