By Kierstin Casella (2006)
The first thing you notice about JJ Heller is a wide grin that stretches across her face and welcomes you in as a friend, whether you’ve known her for years or are shaking her hand for the very first time. These days especially, the twenty-five year old west coast native has a lot to be happy about.
In March 2006, she independantly released her third record (scheduled for national release in November 2006), Only Love Remains, showcasing her pure, penetrating voice, and opening the door to a bold new range of songs. JJ, along with her husband Dave (who serves as guitarist, manager, and co-writer) recorded the distinctive album at Nashville’s Sputnik Sound with Grammy-winning producer Mitch Dane (Jars of Clay, Bebo Norman.)
“I found that JJ has an unadulterated approach to song writing. Her songs actually spoke to me, where a lot of Christian music is the same message with different words,” explains Dane. “[JJ and Dave] live their art, and I never felt like they were trying too hard to be something they weren't.”
In addition to JJ and Dave’s prominent talents, Only Love Remains features Bryan Sutton (Dixie Chicks, The Chieftains) on mandolin, guitar and banjo; David Henry (Over the Rhine) on cello; Ben Shive (Andrew Peterson) on piano; Andy Hubbard (Little Big Town, Fernando Ortega) on drums, Aaron Sands (Jars of Clay) on bass; with Jeremy Casella (singer/songwriter) and Andrew Osenga (Caedmon’s Call) on guitars/backing vocals.
Only Love Remains follows Heller’s 2005 EP, Collection of Thoughts, and her debut release, Songs That I Know (2004.)
JJ began her career nearly six years ago at San Jose Christian College where she dabbled in songwriting and performed at local coffeehouses. After graduating, JJ and Dave got married and relocated to Phoenix to pursue music full time. In August of 2006, they moved to Nashville, TN where they currently reside. The combination of Dave’s business sense and creative input, and JJ’s loose artistic style drives their success.
“We’re definitely two halves of a whole,” she explains. “I write the bulk of the lyrics and Dave is the editor and arranger, making the songs more effective. He also does everything on the business side, which is great because it frees me up to be creative.”
For Only Love Remains, the pair focused on a braver songwriting style, departing slightly from JJ’s prior introspective lyrics and exploring story-songs about the lives around them. Musically, they pulled influence from artists like Damien Rice and Over the Rhine, with a lyrical intricacy akin to Patty Griffin. The result is an exceptional collection of songs that is warm and engaging with a little bit of edge.
In writing material for the new release, JJ poured her every day observations into her songbook: stories she heard while traveling, and those nearer to her heart. “This album is all about redemption,” observes JJ. “ Looking back on the songs, there’s a lot of struggle written into them because that’s life. Everyone has different problems to face, but in the end, the outcome hinges on how you deal with those struggles-- if you allow them to destroy you or make you stronger.”
Perhaps it’s her insight and sensitivity that consistently draw a female audience to JJ’s music. She touches on issues of self-image and worry, questions of faith, and feelings of loneliness; her songs resonate with women and offer encouragement. But JJ’s music connects with people from all walks of life. Whether performing in a quaint coffeehouse, at a weekend retreat, or a Sunday morning church service for 1000 people, the Hellers aim to be themselves wherever they go. They maintain a balance of light-hearted humor and poignant dialogue with their listeners.
As an artist, JJ Heller is a mix of eclectic and down-to-earth: from her jeans and t-shirt style to the way she pushes her own boundaries. When it comes to her music, she never settles.
"Music has a way of speaking to my heart like nothing else can," JJ says. "It is my hope and prayer that my songs will somehow speak to my listeners and bring them hope, peace and inspiration."