Jessica Rotter has built a singing career backing up artists like Alicia Keys, Daft Punk, and Carole King, as well as lending her voice to music featured in TV shows and movies you’ve probably heard of—including Pitch Perfect and Frozen.
This month, Jessica will be releasing Plains, her first full-length solo record. It features the single, “Let Me Go,” which you can get a first listen to today:
I gave Jessica a call to talk about changing majors, breaking away from your parents’ influence, and realizing that you don’t need anyone’s approval but your own.
ANNE T. DONAHUE: I love this song! What inspired a song that seems so much like it’s written from the perspective of a heart asking for freedom?
JESSICA ROTTER: It WAS written from the perspective of a heart asking for freedom! It pulls from experiences I have had in multiple relationships: feeling stuck, feeling belittled, feeling trapped. And sometimes you want to scream with a laugh. The instrumentation is meant to evoke the chaos I felt in my heart in these moments.
I really like the line, “When did I let you make me feel small?” Have you had a defining moment in recognizing an imbalance of power between you and somebody else?
A constant journey in my life has been releasing my need for approval. I think all performers deal with it. I really don’t want to need approval! Especially not from someone I’m in a relationship with. There’s nothing worse than not feeling free.
What was the turning point for you in realizing you didn’t need anybody’s approval?
Something about being a performer from a young age makes you think about what everyone thinks of you all the time. When I was in college, I decided to drop my music major because I needed to get away from that performer mindset. It ended up being really valuable for me to become more well-rounded and to own my own thing. Constantly thinking about other people or how they will respond to you or your art is exhausting. So a combination of the pressure peaking and [then] releasing the pressure finally allowed me to see my self-worth without anyone else’s opinion involved.
That’s the best! Has songwriting come easily to you?
It has and it hasn’t. I wrote some really terrible songs when I was 15, but they’ve improved with time and a little more thought. Recording my music is what made me grow as a songwriter [and] not just playing the piano by myself in my house. Having a musical family has instilled a lot of confidence in me as a musician.
When did you start recording versus playing only at home?
I started recording in 2012. My boyfriend at the time—now fiancé—used to give me a lot of crap for calling myself a singer-songwriter when I wasn’t playing out or recording my stuff, [which is] fair, so I recorded my first song for his birthday. From there, I realized it was about damn time and recorded a bunch more.
Have you embraced your family’s musical history or have you been driven to create on your own terms? I feel like so many children of people in music tend to go dramatically one way or another.
I agree—music is so tribal and also so personal. I definitely embrace the history, but I do create on my own terms. My family are all in different areas of the musical world so I know everyone has a different opinion of sounds and styles. I am OK having a sound I love and someone else might dislike. It took a while for me to not send my parents a demo and implement all of their notes. But it’s definitely liberating to trust my own voice finally.
When did you stop sending your music to your parents? Was there an a-ha moment where you realized you wanted to do it on your own?
I stopped about halfway through the album! I just bolstered my confidence and realized the only opinion that mattered was my own, and I was able to trust myself and my collaborators to pull it all through to where it was supposed to go.
You also trained in opera! Why did you choose the music you make now over it?
I did! I still sing classically in choirs and practice classical warmups and sing arias for fun, but I knew the life of an opera singer wasn’t for me. I ended up studying directing in college because I really thrive on unbridled creativity. Writing my own music is the perfect way to be incredibly creative and use my voice. It’s really satisfying and feels so right. And as far as the style goes, it’s just what’s coming out of me. Maybe some day I’ll write an opera. Or a rock opera.
Yes! I’d also love to talk about your definition as a “musical storyteller.” What do you think separates this from somebody who simply writes/makes music?
I don’t mean to separate my art from someone else’s—I’m sure all songwriters are storytellers in their own ways. But I do feel like we are naturally inclined as humans to tell stories. That doesn’t necessarily mean a plot-based story. I feel like I am telling aesthetic stories. I like setting a mood in my songs. You can feel like you’re on a journey even without the lyrics.
What was your first musical story?
This album feels like the most developed story I have wrestled with. It’s about love—falling in love and loneliness, [because] even in love you can feel alone. Searching within a relationship and outside of a relationship. And honestly, I was going through a major transitional time in my life and these songs guided me through.
What story do you hope to tell in general? And which stories have you been most proud of?
The most important story is that the search isn’t outward. Through all of the ups and downs in and out of love, the only constant is yourself. There’s something really valuable about learning how to shine your own light because that light inside is what guides us. ♦