Why can’t I get my record released? After selling more than 4,000,000 copies of her first four studio albums (each of which soared at least Gold status) and racking up 12 Top-10 singles, that’s a question Jo Dee Messina just doesn’t know exactly how to answer.
Messina, a Massachusetts native who was a mainstay on country radio throughout the second half of the previous decade (and well into this one), finished her latest album, Unmistakable, ages ago. It’s been ready, sitting on a shelf in the Curb Records building in Nashville, unheard by her fans. Originally scheduled for early 2008 release, the album was pushed back to fall. Fall came and went. And Messina is still waiting.
In this exclusive and revealing interview with the genuinely cheerful, fiery redhead, Messina talks about Unmistakable, the reasons for its delayed release, and about finding inner balance in the midst of a sometimes frustrating career.
JIM MALEC: What’s the status of Unmistakable?
JO DEE MESSINA: They kinda pushed it back again. The single comes out in March, and the album will come out, gosh, in April, May, June, July. August? September? Maybe next year.
JM: Where are you right now, as far as your career? I know you’ve been working hard, but we haven’t heard much from you in a while.
MESSINA: No, you haven’t. Everything’s been caught up in a lot of turmoil trying to get this record released. It’s funny, because people will say things like, “So you took some time off,” and I’m like, absolutely not! I’ve been working every single day. We’ve been touring really hard. We’ve had this record together for over a year now. I mean, it’s like, “I’m not taking any time off, what are you, crazy?”
JM: How frustrating has it been having the record pushed back so many times?
MESSINA: Honestly, it is a bit frustrating. It affects my ability to make a living. If you don’t have an album to tour with then you don’t have a way to make a living. It is a little frustrating on that front. But you’ve just got to hope and pray that the fans stick with you and that they’re there when the record does come out.
JM: In a recent radio interview, you mentioned that Curb called Unmistakable the best record you had ever turned in. Do you remember saying that?
MESSINA: Mike Curb called me after I passed it in and he said it was the best album I had ever turned in.
JM: Do you agree? And why do you think he said that?
MESSINA: The material on the record is very strong. It’s really a solid record. There’s something on there for everybody, no matter what kind of day you’re having. It’s really clean production, not a big wall of sound with all this fancy stuff going on. It’s pretty focused on the vocals and the music. It’s hard to explain, but you definitely hear it. When you listen to the record you can hear that it’s not overproduced. It’s not a massive conglomeration of noise. It’s pretty simplified.
MESSINA: No, because people take “organic” as “acoustic.” We simplified the production so that it sounds more like a live band, verses, you know, everything you could feasibly do in the studio, like stack up mounds of orchestra and guitar and other stuff, you know what I mean? We wanted to try to capture that live sound and bring it to a record.
JM: You worked with four different producers—
MESSINA: —Oh my God! I think I worked with every producer in Nashville on this record.
JM: Did that make it harder to keep the sound consistent? Because you were working with so many different people, was it difficult to get them all on board with the same artistic vision?
MESSINA: Not really, because the guys that I ended up working with really have thought, “Wow, your vocal has been so missed on a lot of these mixes.” And so they all kinda had the same goal, as far as trying to keep the vocal real, trying to keep from burying it in a mix of sound, and simplifying it. Everybody shared those goals going in. I could see where you would ask that question, but the guys I worked with all had the same vision.
JM: In 2005, you told BBC Radio, when discussing Delicious Surprise, that you made no compromises on that record. Would you say the same thing about Unmistakable?
MESSINA: What had happened with Delicious Surprise was that Mike Curb just said, “Hey, you decide what goes on the record. You’ve cut all these sides, we’re down to selecting the songs for the album, you go ahead and decide.” And that was like, wow, what a blessing. I had some creative freedom with that record in what made the record and what didn’t.
Same thing though with Unmistakable. I mean, I never go in and do something without the approval of Mike Curb, as far as recording songs. Everything is run past him. But he didn’t make me record anything for this album that I didn’t like. He didn’t say, “Record this song, it has to go on the album.” I was very fortunate to have a decent amount of creative freedom in making the album. That’s gratifying. When you’re an artist and you like to create things, for someone to give you an easel and a pallet, every color in the world and some brushes, you ‘re like, “Yeah, this is great.” He didn’t stand in the way and say you can’t do this, you can’t do that. My relationship with Mike is on really good terms. It is a blessing to have somebody who lets you be creative.
JM: Tell me about a song on the album.
MESSINA: “Unmistakable” is definitely one of my favorites. It’s a straightforward love song that talks about finding love, in a world that is so uncertain, about finding a love that you’re sure of and which is unmistakable. Lyrically it’s rock solid, and I’ve been told that it’s a pretty phenomenal vocal performance.
JM: You’ve never had an album sell less than Gold. Even Delicious Surprise, which only charted one Top-20 hit, managed to sell Gold. Given your record of success, and Mike Curb’s own enthusiasm for the project, why has it been so hard to get this record out?
MESSINA: I don’t know. I think a lot of times people tend to over think things. It’s not just this record. I mean, it took four years to get the Delicious Surprise album out. It took three years to go from my first record to the I’m Alright record. So it just seems to be consistent in my career, the fact that there’s been a lot of lag time between records. If you look at several successful artists, every 18 months to two years, they’ve got a new record coming out. And for some reason, in my career—just look at the history. It’s not that the records weren’t done. They were done and passed in, and they sat around. My records sit around for a while before the label gets a chance to release them.
I’m not really sure what the deal is. Which has led to a lot of frustration on my behalf, because I’d love to get on a roll and stay on a roll, instead of getting on a roll and then all of the sudden it’s like you can’t get the label’s attention and everything comes to a screeching halt. Which, you know, I don’t mean that in a badmouthing sense, but look at my career. Look at how things were released. I mean, we started on Burn before I’m Alright was done releasing singles. That thing [Burn] was done and it sat there and was over thought. What should be the first single? What do we do, come with a ballad or come with a tempo?
After I make the record I pass it in and I have no say. So I’ve just been at the mercy of the label and the decision makers and that’s been the history. I mean, it’s frustrating, but that’s just the way it’s been.
JM: You’re laughing about it now—
MESSINA: —I’m not laughing. It’s just because I have no answer. You know what I mean? It’s because I don’t know how to explain it. It’s sad because we’ve never been able to keep a roll going. Even the I’m Alright record…we had like four #1s off that record. And then they had to over think the next album. What do we come with? What should be the first single? What do we do? They spent four years spinning their wheels, and we lost all the momentum from I’m Alright.
And then with the Burn record, it was the same thing. We had phenomenal success with the Burn record, sort of as a comeback record. And all of the sudden it’s like, what do we do after “Bring on the Rain?” What do we do? What do we do? Uh uh uh uh uh uh…
And then it became four years for Delicious Surprise. ‘Cause they didn’t know what to do next. And so, I think there’s a lot of over thinking that has stalled stuff down over the years. And it does take a toll, creatively, economically, career wise. It’s like start-stop, start-stop. So I laugh because it’s like, “isn’t it ridiculous?” It’s like, oh my God, it’s so obvious—but everyone’s so busy they don’t realize what’s going on every time they decide to over think something. And I believe that’s what happened with Unmistakableas well.
JM: Have you learned how to handle that? Do you expect it now?
MESSINA: I don’t want it to happen, because it just kills momentum every time. But at this point I have other outlets that I’m trying to explore because I can’t rely on my record company as much. Because God knows when they’re going to release a record. So I just try to…
I’ve gotten upset, it gets me nowhere. The only person it affects is me, because I’m sitting here upset and everyone else is off doing their own thing. They’re not even aware of what’s going on in my world. So, I think to get too upset is only damaging to myself. If that makes any sense.
JM: That makes perfect sense. And I hate to bring up something that might be a bit agitating. But these are important questions, because every time I look at your career I think, hey, here’s an artist who just really busted out of the gate, who just had a lot of good stuff going for her, and then disappeared for a while. And you’ve always been able to come back from those stints when you’re out of the public eye. I just hope, for your sake, that you’re going to be able to keep doing that.
MESSINA: Who knows? I mean, with every record there is such anxiety upon the release. Because it’s a rebuild every time you release it. You can’t just cruise up and throw a record out there, because every time they release it there’s been such a long time between albums that it’s a rebuild. So it takes a lot of work. It’s three times the amount of work that it should take.
I mean, for example, I got married in October—
MESSINA: Thanks. I said, for the last 13 years I’ve been married to my career. I’ve been going around the country doing radio stuff, I’ve been going around the country touring, I’ve been doing appearances and working on records and these things have always come first. It’s all come before my family, it’s all come before my relationships—all of my relationships. My relationships with my siblings, my nieces and nephews, everyone. And then all of the sudden I’m in between records and I’m sitting at my house at Christmas going, “Wait a minute. I think my priorities are a little wacked.”
So I had to learn how to balance this out and take care of me as well as take care of my career. But with that restarting of the career over and over and over again, it was full time. And don’t get me wrong—I’m a workhorse. But we’re talking 260 days a year away from my house. I lived in Nashville over ten years and couldn’t tell you how to get around downtown. I’ve spent so much time on the road, working.
JM: What is country music?
MESSINA: Real. Well, it’s supposed to be. To me it is. I fell in love with country music because it was real, it was relatable. It talked about my life. And I think that’s still true today. It talks about real issues and real people.
This content originally appeared in the country music blog The 9513, which ceased publication in 2011. It was added to American Noise in 2017.