The club in the photograph is filled with laughing Taiwanese, their eyes riveted on the Latina woman with the microphone dancing on the tiny stage, dressed in a gold minidress with black boots. Jessi James Campo is on tour in Taipei, teaching an eager audience how to dance merengue. The audience is thrilled to hear the Latin beat. The names Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez recently have made their way into the Chinese vocabulary. Now James is trying to add a few more phrases in both Spanish and English. "Patacon pisao," she sings, describing both a banana dish and a Latin dance. "Go down, go down, go down," she sings, adding the English command to the Spanish-language song. Then she throws in two of the very few words she knows in Chinese: "Clap hands."
"This is in Hong Kong," says James, flipping through a thick photo album at a restaurant in Miami Beach last November. "I've been home for three months," she adds, referring to her latest jaunt in a series of tours through Asia that also has taken her to Singapore, Bangkok, and Guam. "We go out for three months then come back for one month," she explains of the gigs booked through a U.S. agency. "Last year I was out for nine months. The year before for six months." James has enjoyed a much bigger response in Asia than she has yet to receive in South Florida, where the singer grew up.
"I was in the island of Guam in 1995," she says of one of the high points of her time abroad. "I wrote a song called Rhythm Island.' I sold 3000 copies, and it was in the stores. I got so much recognition for this song that I just wrote because the island inspired me." The Asian media has covered her career there generously, leading to newspaper articles and appearances on television. All the attention makes James wonder what's wrong with her homeland. "If I'm getting this kind of response in Asia," she muses about why the major labels here have not yet signed her on, "it's not me."
After fruitlessly shopping her material at the major labels, James decided three years ago to put out a CD herself, investing $10,000 in the production of the ten-track How Can I .... Last fall she marked the CD's release by organizing her own showcase at Power Studios. "I just want someone here from the industry to take notice," she says of her investment. "I want them to see: This is a self-contained artist. We've got nothing to lose here. Let's put it out.'" The proximity of the industry in Miami is especially frustrating. "It's like you're dangling the carrot in front of us," she laments, "but you're saying, You can't have us.'"
The daughter of a Cuban vaudeville performer and a Chilean singer who were married on television in Latin America in the 1960s, James has been scrapping as a singer since she was a high school student in the Miami Edison class of 1986. There her guidance counselor encouraged her to pursue the music business rather than a pre-med scholarship at the University of Miami. "He told me: Follow your heart. Do whatever you want. Go do it. Get it out of your system. And then I got pre-med out of my system," she laughs. "Originally I wanted to heal people by being a doctor. I think I ended up doing it with music. People feel my energy, and I think I make people happy."
At first her Latin background was a drawback, but the recent boom encouraged the singer to add her mother's stage name to her original performance moniker, Jessi James. "My first band gig was with a rock and roll band," she remembers. "The agent told the band to get rid of me because I was too Latin looking. Now it's okay to be Latin and have a big butt and they say, Okay, she's Latin. It's cool.' This is great for anybody who has Latin heritage."
What she perceives as her connection with the audience is what has kept her in the business since then. "Every time I do Get into the Feeling' at a nightclub," she says of a catchy dance number, "people are singing at the end of the song. I play at clubs from South Beach to Delray and Coral Springs. I play to a wide range of cultural backgrounds. I don't have distribution. That's why I did the showcase. I'm hoping a major label will give me the international distribution I need. I sell CDs at my gigs that you would not believe. I think if people can hear it, they'll say, Oh, I want that.' I've tried them. I've tested them out."
The South Florida gigs, which can be as frequent as six times per week during the season, have both served James as a test market and as a hindrance to hitting it big. "Personally my biggest setback has been managing myself," she complains. "I've been around for years, so basically I've been my own manager, my own booking agent. I put together my own showcase. I'm running the business, getting the gigs. I have never been able to focus on myself."
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Despite the stress she does not want to give up her hope of making it. "My gigging with the band is my nine-to-five. That's how I pay my bills," she explains. "I know people who make a great living doing club dates, and that's what they want. That's what they're happy with. But if you're gonna live your life to the fullest, you might as well go for it. This is a very hard lifestyle, working all hours of the night. It's hard on relationships. It's hard on family. I love this business -- behind the scenes, in front of the scenes. You have really big highs and really big lows."
The highs keep the busy show woman riding what she calls "a rollercoaster." She keeps looking back on three moments when she felt closest to fame. There was the record deal with Polygram that led to a recording but little else. There was the producer from Chile who flew her down to record a video and song that came to nothing. Then there was her triumphant appearance at the Winter Music Conference two years ago, when she tried her luck with dance music. "After the show all kinds of people approached me," she recounts. "Labels. Dance Music magazine. I started meeting people who wanted to do things with me, but I had already committed to go abroad."
More recently James has tried selling her songs. "I sent [Desmond Child's company, Deston] three songs: Se Acabó' (It's Over'), I Lose My Mind,' and How Can I?'" Although the company expressed interest, it was not what the songwriter had in mind. "They e-mailed me a songwriter's contract," she says, "but the contract was not necessarily the kind of contract I was looking for. I let them know what would be good for me and what my lawyer suggested. I haven't heard from them again."
Keeping a careful watch out for industry shifts, James has launched her most concerted effort yet, promoting the CD on local radio and participating even more furiously in festivals. And if all that doesn't pay off? "My heart tells me that I'm always going to stay in some aspect of this business," she sighs. "I'm a good singer. I'm a better songwriter. And I'm a great entertainer. I know this because I touch people, so it's not like me tooting my own horn. I've tested it. I've tried to study the market, not just as an artist but as a business person. My heart will always be in some aspect of the business. Maybe if I can't make it work for me, maybe I can help someone else."