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Post-'American Idol,' Kansas City Musician Feels More Herself At Folk Alliance

C.J. Janovy
KCUR 89.3

Three songs into her official Folk Alliance showcase on Thursday night, Kansas City musician Jessica Paige had words for the music industry.

“Recently I was on ‘American Idol’ and they sent me home for a bunch of younger girls, which I’m OK with,” Paige told an audience of about forty other musicians, industry professionals and folk enthusiasts in the Brookside room on the first floor of the Westin Hotel.

“But I wrote this song about the pop music industry, which is always telling you to be younger, prettier, thinner and play major scales in 'one, four, five' chords and all of the redundancy in that," Paige said. "This is after I got an email from a manager telling me to pretty much stop being who I am and be something else because that would sell better. And I’m not down for that.”

At 27, Paige has a ways to go before catching up to many of the other 3,500 musicians, agents, promoters and industry representatives at the Folk Alliance International Conference, where one of the many panels is titled “Wisdom of the Elders.”

But finding one's niche in the folk music world is more complicated than it might seem.

At the back of the room taking notes during Paige's set was Jason Bouchard of community station CHUO 89.1 FM in Ottawa, Canada. He was among more than 200 folk DJs scouting talent at the conference. He hadn’t come to the Brookside room specifically to see Paige — he was there to see the next two performers — but stayed for her set anyway.

“She’s got some skills. Her style and how she writes is a little pop-ish for me,” said Bouchard, who explained that he aired more traditional folk. “But she’s got an amazing voice, though. Wow.”

On the strength of that voice, Paige made it on to “American Idol” three times. Earlier this year she advanced to Hollywood but did not make the final 24.

Performing at Folk Alliance was much more enjoyable, she said in the hallway after her set.

“Here I can be my weird folky self and it’s a little more celebrated.”

This was Paige’s second year attending the conference. Last year she played private hotel room showcases. (The Westin devotes three floors to such concerts, which last until the early morning hours.) But this year she earned a 45-minute set in one of the higher profile official banquet-room showcases.

“It’s an honor, it’s a little feather in your cap to be able to perform here,” Paige said. “You’re playing with some legendary musicians, and I get a little green sticker on my conference badge that says I’m an official showcase artist. That feels like a decent pat on the back.”

Paige moved to Kansas City from Manhattan, Kansas, after caring for her ailing grandmother for several years.

“After she passed away, I started doing music full time, recorded my album and started touring,” Paige said.

She spent a year on the road, then needed to settle down and try to build a music following in one place. Besides Kansas City, she considered New York and Nashville.

“Kansas City has been great,” Paige said. “Kansas City wants people to succeed. It champions for people – like the Royals – as opposed to a different city where it’s like, ‘You can make it if you can hack it.’ In Kansas City it’s, ‘Oh, you’re good? We want to support you.’”

Paige had no strategy for navigating the remaining two days of the conference.

“I’m going to just wander the halls for hours into the late morning hours,” she said, “and see all the other performers and listen to some wisdom from industry professionals on how to be a better musician and market myself and all the other stuff that goes along with the job.”

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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