It has happened countless times during Jill Jack’s remarkable 25-year career as one of the best-known local female folk-rock melodists — usually after one of her exhilarating, funny, intimate, achingly revealing live performances.
“So many artists, these young whippersnappers, will come up and say, ‘Hey, Jill Jack, I’m coming for you … I just put my first song out,’ ” she says with a wry smile.
“I’ll say, ‘That’s great! See you in five years, sister.’ And if I do see them years later, they’re like, ‘How the hell do you do this?’ They’re beat to a pulp.”
On the occasion of Jack’s 12th album, These Days, which will be celebrated alongside her birthday during her annual concert party at The Ark in January, the acclaimed singer-songwriter has been beaten up a bit herself these days, emotionally speaking.
These Days, named for her cover version of the Jackson Browne ballad, is the first release for her new label, the independent Michigan-based Smokin’ Sleddog Records. After such a long and fiercely independent career, “I’m not used to asking people’s opinion, or dealing with people giving it to me,” she concedes.
That has been the least of her recent challenges. Jack says a dear friend was murdered in Haiti, where she has traveled for years helping to build churches and performing at orphanages. She tore her rotator cuff. She tripped on the sidewalk and snapped the ring finger on her right hand — her guitar strummin’ hand — forcing a separation from her beloved instrument for two months.
“I told the universe I needed a break, and it took me literally,” she says, laughing.
She also contracted a MRSA infection (type of staph bacteria that is resistant to several antibiotics) that she believes came from frequent hospital stays to be with her ill father.
And the biggest blow of all: her dad, retired Huntington Woods osteopath Barry Szczesny, died.
“He was the doctor for the high school football team, and he embarrassed the hell out of me as a kid,” she recalls. “I was a nurse’s aide and worked under him, then I went to college and realized I hated all the classes. I know he was disappointed. Then when I told him I was going to do music for a living, quitting my day job when my daughter was 3, he said, ‘What the hell are you thinking? I’ll never pay your rent!’ I said, ‘I’ll never ask you for it!’
“I knew it was going to be rough — I didn’t know how rough — but I also knew my soul was dying, doing what everyone else told me life was supposed to be,” Jack says. “Six months later, I opened for Jethro Tull at DTE.”
She got her father front row tickets and backstage passes. “Revenge is nice.”
Jack, who derives her stage name from her first marriage to drummer Dave Jack, devoted her previous release, a collection of pop-vocal standards like “Moon River” and “All of Me” called Pure Imagination, to her father. “He died six months after it came out,” she says. “I was really glad he got to hear it.”
The disc led to the latest of her incredible 41 Detroit Music Awards, her first ever in the jazz category.
Rejuvenated by her second marriage, to medical sales professional Roger Andree, Jack is sharing her recording and performance wisdom with young musical whippersnappers through a new artist development company called Dream Big Incorporated.
“No one can tell you how to have a music career,” Jack says. “You have to figure out what’s right for you. I have this one client, a boy band, whose lead singer asked, ‘When can we stop doing the business and just do our music?’ I just smiled and said, ‘Honey, I could lie to you, but if you want to sustain a career, it’s 80-20. Eighty percent is the business and 20 percent is those two orgasmic hours on stage.’
“If it was super easy and fun all the time, everybody would be doing it.”
Her management firm seems like a possible nod toward retirement from performing someday.
For a quarter-century, Jill Jack has been the musical version of the Spirit of Detroit: solid, uniquely ours, and sometimes taken for granted.
“I never thought I’d maintain this long,” she admits. “Sometimes after a gig my knees hurt, my back hurts, and I’m like, ‘How much longer can I do this?’
“But once you’re up there on stage, with your adrenalin, it’s like magic. So I’m going to keep enjoying it — until it becomes a problem.”
The Jill Jack Birthday Bash is Jan. 13, at The Ark in Ann Arbor. Call 734-761-1800 for info. Cake for everyone!