It took years, maybe decades, but soul and Southern-rock singer JJ Grey is finally happy.
"I spent a lot of years complaining in my head, resentful," he says. "I was angry about a lot of things. After a while, I realized all my soul and reggae heroes were positive. I needed to stop crying, bitching, and complaining and start living."
The Jacksonville-based singer he says he took much of his anger out on his voice. "I started out singing at local dive bars where people didn't come to see you. I felt I had to push and push and push. I thought if you want an audience to hear you, you have to be loud," he recalls. "I eventually learned that loud is tedious — tedious to the audience and the body. Listen to Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett; they don't shout the whole time. I was being real mean to my voice. It got real raspy, which was cool for a Joe Cocker effect, but not if you want to have any range."
Grey got his start in his band Mofro at a later age than most others. He'd been singing since he was 17 but only seriously picked up the guitar and later the keyboard and harmonica at the age of 30. "I was lazy. I never practiced. I figured my shows would be baptism by fire; one show would be worth ten rehearsals. I didn't want to be a world-class musician; I just wanted to play my own songs." Through extensive touring, Mofro found an audience.
Throughout the climb, Grey says, he took his unhappiness out on himself. Seven or eight years ago, he reckons, is when both his voice and his attitude toward it hit rock bottom. He sought out Mark Baxter, the author of The Rock-n-roll Singer's Survival Manual.
"I had pneumonia and had a bad coughing fit. I felt something pop in my throat and kept singing for a year. Mark did voice therapy for me. We figured out it was a muscle problem that I kept re-injuring. The way I was singing was tearing it up. We changed my technique, which gave me a bigger range."
The happier voice has led to happier songs. "The funny thing is, I was writing songs for years telling myself not to be angry anymore — I just didn't realize it. I was writing songs about transcending the rut I was in to the shallow parts of me like a mantra. I describe it like I was a scientist looking for a mathematical equation to explain the meaning of life. Nothing works. Failure in every notebook, failure on all the chalkboards. Then you leave your office and you get the idea in your head. You figure it all out. You run back to the lab to write it all down. You pick up the chalk, and then you see you've been writing down the right formula for years. You just never realized it."
JJ Grey & Mofro. 6 p.m. Sunday, February 25, at Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-7300; fillmoremb.com. Tickets cost $29.50 to $45 via livenation.com.