Questing for female pop stardom? It's not so hard, really.
First, make sure you can sing decently well. Don't sweat it too much — though it's now mostly thought of by the masses as a gimmick, Auto-Tune is actually a useful tool for fixing anything Randy might describe as "pitchy." Next, get to work on the image: zero body fat, big breasts, perfect hair, and gorgeous makeup. You're gonna want to get yourself looking as good as possible, because you'll be pretty exposed. A willingness to take off your clothes is almost as important as strong pipes — that's why someone made up the term "slutwave" to describe artists such as Ke$ha, Katy Perry, and any other female singer who relies more on sex appeal than on vocal talent.
Enter a local girl, Dawn Jameson. Performing at a fashion show at Barrett-Jackson in North Scottsdale, she seems to fit right in. The dance moves are bouncy, the skirts are short, the belly is bare, the cleavage is ample. Heck, she even does Britney Spears covers to match the runway's theme.
Dawn Jameson has no performances scheduled as she forms a new band. To see a video of her performing, visit Up on the Sun, the New Times music blog, at www.PHXmusic.com.
After the show, Jameson is whisked away to a booth, where adoring girls tell her they want to be singers just like her. She happily signs albums for the fans, and though she's signed to a small local label, Fervor Records, she exudes the sort of glamour that'd make her a nice fit for red carpets in Hollywood.
As Jameson takes her place behind a piano at Phoenix's WilloDisc recording studio, the studio where she laid down her debut album, Elegant Mess, there are no bright lights or flashy costumes to hide behind. No Auto-Tune, either. It's just her and her instrument, and now is the time to show whether or not she needs all the superficial stuff. She might make a fool of out of herself in front of a reporter — to be honest, the reporter half-expects it.
Stripping it down is new to Jameson. The 28-year-old Phoenix native has been singing and playing piano since she was 4, and much of her success came in the looks-conscious North Scottsdale bar scene. In 2004, she landed a gig singing for a cover band at Eli's American Grille, and in 2006, she started three-year stints with two cover bands, Envy and Generation, at the now-closed Barcelona.
She was able to have intimate moments like these with Barcelona's dinner crowd, when it was kosher to play some of her original songs at the piano. But once the upscale restaurant transitioned into a nightclub, things got raunchy. There were provocative outfits and dance moves, fueled, she says, by the type of audience she performed for.
"Everything was about outward appearance there," Jameson says. "Especially in North Scottsdale. It was about having everything on the outside — the clothes, the cars, the plastic surgery. I felt like, 'Okay, that's all they want me here is for just looks.'"
Though she says she had fun singing raucous renditions of hits along with bandmate David Hernandez, an American Idol alum, it was the more intimate moments of her singing originals that she enjoyed the most.
"To get the reaction from the crowd from doing that, it was so different from doing a cover song," Jameson says. "It felt amazing to have that kind of applause."
Jameson continued to hone her songwriting at Barcelona, but when it closed, she struggled to find her identity as an artist. She helped form country rock band Daisy Train, in which she continued to play the part of scantily clad songstress. Meanwhile, in a conflicting role, she started singing at her church.
"The pastor sat down with me with his wife and was like, 'Is this what you want to do? Is this how you want to portray yourself?'" Jameson says. "I guess them, along with my husband, started getting me into thinking that I didn't need to be all about sexing it up to sell myself."
Country rock really wasn't her style, either. Jameson says her idols are more in the Alicia Keys/Christina Aguilera vein, and stepping out as a solo artist meant re-evaluating her image and sound. And while her performance that night at Barrett-Jackson may have seemed pop-tartish, Jameson says she has toned down her old routines.
"When I got out of Barcelona, I decided to just focus on my music and my voice," Jameson says. "I've never felt better about myself than when I stopped looking at the outward appearance of things."
Focusing more on the music meant crafting a sound that stands apart from her that of her peers, while still staying true to herself. For her 10-song album, she aimed to infuse soul and funk into modern pop beats, which meant employing horns and strings on several tracks.
Listeners will hear relationship-based tracks that fit right in with those of her contemporaries, but one standout is "Pink Umbrella," which Jameson says is an anthem for breast cancer survivors, including her grandmother. The rest of her family was also influential on the record, including her 9-year-old daughter, who reminds her of the type of role model she'd like to be. Her mother, who passed away from cancer last year, is one of the biggest reasons Jameson has stuck with her music career despite the challenges.
"It put everything into perspective that you really don't have another day," Jameson says. "That really pushed me to go after what I want and to encourage other people to do the same thing."
Jameson has already had a taste of larger spotlights, having performed in Las Vegas and Canada. A song she sang was recently featured on Lifetime, and she flew to New York City last year to meet with record label heads at Universal Music Group, having already met with A&R reps from Island Def Jam. They told her they wanted to hear an album, and when Elegant Mess came out last month, they received copies right away.
Now Jameson is focusing on putting together a live band for a show she wants to be just as polished as the disc — she says her concerts will include a horns section and dancers. She also is taking guitar lessons, and she plans on performing again with Hernandez and is already writing a second record.
Jack Howell, a local producer with roots in Nashville, has worked with big names such as Reba McEntire and George Strait, in addition to Jameson. He sings Jameson's praises, saying she "lives the lyrics in every song" and insists minimal Auto-Tune effects were used on her album.
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"Dawn has true singing talent," Howell says. "A lot of the pop stars today are computer-aided, even on their live shows. She's legit, and a lot of them aren't."
And though she may look like a pop princess in front of big crowds, Jameson doesn't forget her roots. You can still find her every Sunday singing in the church choir, and she might even release a worship album someday.
Back at the piano in the studio, as she starts to sing an original, "So Beautiful," it is clear her ability stands on its own. She emotes as she's singing, closing her eyes while deftly moving between keys. She could totally hold her own at a bluesy piano bar, no airbrushed makeup required. In this type of setting, there is no notion of slutwave — just a talented singer and piano player whose passion for music is obvious.
Would that there were more like her.