It’s not every local songwriter-singer who gets her first big break in the music business touring with Aretha Franklin.
As a dancer.
“I used to call myself a ‘backup artist,’ ” Jess Domain describes from her Times Square apartment in New York. “There were some times when I would sing, but it wasn’t like I was a backup singer. Officially, I would say I was a dancer.”
And what a dancer. Trained in classical ballet since the age of 3, the multitalented Dearborn native and Mercy High School grad performed The Nutcracker annually in her teens with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at the Fox Theatre.
“I always had music at home, but that’s where I really started loving working with musicians,” Domain says. “We would work with [former assistant conductor] Leslie Dunner and all the DSO people, rehearsing The Nutcracker from August through December and then doing all the shows at the Fox. I loved it, and it was just wonderful to work with a live orchestra. So that’s really how I started.”
That’s also how the Queen of Soul spotted her, plucking Domain out of the pack of pirouetting princesses. “She would see The Nutcracker and select a few of us to audition at her house, I think just to kind of check out our personalities and see what we were like,” she says. “Then she would pick anywhere from two to four of us to go on the road. … We rehearsed at her home, we were on tour buses with her, we would meet her in different cities, and she was really cool. I did that for about three years. I have some funny photos I can send you, as long as you promise not to print them.”
The professional shelf life of a ballerina is relatively brief, but a songwriter can compose and perform original music for a lifetime. Clearly, watching the audience’s respect for Franklin’s timeless classics night after night had a profound impact. After completing her first full-length CD in Detroit, Domain made the move to NYC six and a half years ago and has seen her life as a solo musician steadily flourish.
Winner of the ASCAPlus Songwriter Award and now signed with Fieldhouse/BMG, Domain has already released two EPs and is completing a third, as well as “a ton of singles, because the music world has changed so much,” she says.
And while she has yet to score any Top 10 hits, her songs may sound familiar. Her career has expanded into licensing and writing music for film and television. Original tracks have been heard on more than 30 TV shows, including Damages, Katie, NCIS, Two and a Half Men, and Law & Order. Seven of her songs were featured during the first season of the Cinemax “After Dark” series The Girl’s Guide to Depravity, including “Found My Soul,” the title of her last EP.
She may be proudest at the moment, however, of the placement of her original song behind the end credits of the 2013 film Pokémon the Movie: Genesect and the Legend Awakened, which required her vocals to be translated into dozens of languages.
“It was the first time I had ever written for a kids project,” Domain says. “I just basically thought about hanging out with my little niece and wrote a song about us, because she’s great. The Pokémon song is called ‘We’re Coming Home,’ and I’m calling this tour my ‘We’re Coming Home Tour.’ ”
That tour stops at Domain’s “home” on June 21; she’ll be performing at The Bosco in Ferndale. She’s also scheduled to be a featured vocalist at this year’s Concert of Colors with Don Was on July 12.
Domain had one of her songs, “Soldier,” recorded by Joana Zimmer, the blind German pop megastar often compared to Celine Dion and is working with one Norwegian producer who has been on that country’s version of American Idol for the past year. Despite her international exposures as both dancer and songwriter and her desire to be closer to the re-cording industry, when it came time to leave Detroit only one city was on her list.
“I came to New York a lot when I was young for different dance scholarships and competitions, and I’m a city girl at heart,” she says. “New York was closer than LA and it’s in the same time zone, so I could call my family and stay in touch without being three hours different. I knew I was a New Yorker the first time I ever visited here, but it was confirmed the second day after I moved when somebody stopped me and asked for directions on 14th Street. I was like, ‘A-ha! I knew I belonged here!’ ”
It was about that time Domain officially changed her professional name from Jessica to Jess. “I thought, ‘Wow, everybody that knows me and loves me calls me Jess, and that’s really how I want everybody who listens to my music to feel, personally connected to me.’ Besides, I usually only heard ‘Jessica’ when I was in trouble with my mom.”
While Domain by no means feels her career is in trouble, the young artist with more than 100 songs to her credit harbors the same dreams as most blossoming performers.
“Oh, my gosh, I would lo-o-ve to be able to do huge shows with beautiful inspirational images and visuals, and just be able to tell people wonderful stories that open themselves up to how amazing they are,” Domain says. “I think that’s why I love writing all different kinds of songs. I’m a chameleon, and I always like surprising people. Showing them the power and the beauty and the love they have inside. That’s why I write.”