“I had a rough couple of years, man,” JJ Wilde tells Apple Music. But the Kitchener, Ontario-based singer has gotten enough distance from her darkest days and demons to channel them into a fearless debut album brimming with heavy-duty blues-rock riffs and equally weighty subject matter. “This album is telling the story of what has led me up to this moment,” she says. Ruthless pulls no punches when it comes to detailing the broken relationships, soul-crushing jobs, substance abuse, crippling hangovers, and existential crises she’s experienced along the way. But as she demonstrates with the Black Keys-styled stomper “The Rush” (which, in May 2020, made her the first woman ever to top three Canadian rock-radio formats simultaneously with her debut single), Wilde is willing to relive the more unsavory chapters of her past without shame or apology, while sobering piano ballads like “Funeral for a Lover” reveal the empathy behind her swagger. “There's that old quote: ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result,’” she says. “That's what I was doing for so many years.” Here, she provides her track-by-track guide to coming out the other side.
Knees “When my producer [Frederik Thaae] and I wrote this, we had the live show in mind—to me, an album is like the ultimate set list of a live show. This is definitely a breakup song, but it wasn't just about the other person. It's about me realizing that person isn't good for me anymore, and being in that in-between phase where you understand why the relationship is ending, but you still have feelings for them, and you have to convince yourself to move on...and then you do and it feels really good. So this song is like the final door closing on a bad relationship.”
The Rush “Whenever I get inspired by something—even if it's a line or two, or just a melody—I always grab my phone and press record on a voice note and see what comes out. And I remember on one of my writing trips, Frederick and I were going through the crop of voice notes that I sent over, and he picked out this one, which was literally just the opening line: 'I woke up this morning in a panic/I had my red dress on again.' I came up with that one morning when I was in my old apartment and I woke up hung over. I used to bartend and I was a server, so I'm sure our crew from the restaurant went out after closing, and I woke up and mumbled that line into the phone. And Frederik was like, 'There's something here!' So we sat down and started writing the guitar riffs, and then before we knew it, the song came to life.”
Wired “I wrote this in that same apartment as 'The Rush,' in the middle of a really dark two-year period. I was working four dead-end jobs at once, trying to play music on the side, and I remember at one point I came home and I sat in the shower and just cried. I was just like, ‘This is not the life that I had pictured for myself.’ It was that moment of thinking, ‘There has to be something more—I don't know what road I'm going down, but I don't want to be on it anymore.’ So that kind of spurred this song, and then it goes into a lot of different things—like what I was doing to keep awake.”
Breakfast in Bed “This one goes back to my coffeehouse roots. I always wrote folk songs and then turned them into rock songs, but 'Breakfast in Bed' kind of went back to what I was more comfortable with writing. I was on a writing trip and I was actually just in my Airbnb in the morning, and I ended up writing that song. It literally was me eating breakfast in bed with no shirt on, like the opening line says, and I was like, ‘Well, this is hilarious.’ But that folky acoustic guitar sound kind of pays homage to where I came from. It looks like a new direction for me, but it actually was probably the most familiar-sounding song that I had written so far.”
Gave It All “I actually wrote this when I was 16, and it carried through my solo career of folk songs before I actually had played many gigs. I'm happy that we kept it to its original form—it is very true to where I came from. The song is about entering a relationship that has everything you think you want, but then you get there and realize that you've given up a lot of the things that have made you happy and made you you.”
State of Mind “The album on the whole is very reflective, and 'State of Mind' is definitely the turning point of accepting that I'm human, everybody makes mistakes, and nobody's perfect in the sense that they can learn from their mistakes right away. I'm so bad at that. So 'State of Mind' was the song that would instill hope in myself: I'm admitting I make mistakes, I'm aware of it, so now it's up to me to change it...and, you know, if I screw up a few more times, that's okay, because that's what people do.”
Home “This song is a little bit about my hometown and my family, but it's also about touring and realizing that my home for the foreseeable future is going to be in many different places on the road, and I have to do what I can to make that feel like home. So it kind of starts out saying, ‘Here's my hometown, and obviously everybody has their baggage that comes with growing up in the same place your whole life,' and then it goes into the more empowering subject matter of ‘Well, this is the life I chose,’ and you just go with it. Some people miss their family on the road; some people really thrive on that. You have to find the balance between both.”
Funeral for a Lover “This was a hard one to write and a hard one to sing. My ex-boyfriend struggled terribly with mental health issues—bipolar disorder, manic depression, anxiety. He had it pretty bad, and he was his own worst enemy where he would self-medicate with drugs and drinking, and then he would go on and off the medication. And after multiple suicide attempts where I would talk him off the ledge, I realized that I couldn't fix him and make him see the light in the world. So eventually I had to walk away. It was a very difficult song—I wrote most of it in my kitchen and then just cried for quite a while. But at the end, I'm so happy that we pushed through and created it, because me walking away convinced him to go to rehab and get help and now he's doing a lot better. As hard as it was to put this out and sing it live, it's started a conversation that shouldn't be something that we hide or shove under the rug. It should be something that we can talk about, because that's the only way anything's going to get better.”
Cold Shoulder “This one started as a kind of '90s grunge-sounding song. The tempo was way slower, and it was more of a desperate cry. And then we toyed around with it and set it aside for a bit and then came back to it and Frederik said, 'Well, what if we sped up the tempo?' I was really attached to the original version, so I was like, 'No, that's gonna ruin the song!' But he went and did it anyway, and put this funky drum beat on it, and I was like, 'Okay, this is cool!' Once we kind of shook it up a little bit, the rest came out pretty easily. Instead of it being a desperate cry for wanting this and wanting that, it became more of an empowering statement: 'I want to be reckless, I want to be ready, I want to be in control of my own life'—which I feel like is a recurring theme on this entire album.”
Trouble “This one was really fun to write. I wrote it during my first time ever going to LA. I was working with this couple, one is a producer and one's the writer. That was my first time doing a co-write, so there were a lot of new experiences and a lot of inspiration to be had. And this one just kind of came out so organically—we were just vibing off each other. We wanted a song that was unapologetic about being a woman and being completely open and taking control of your sexuality and your image. It's not a typical thing for a woman to say, and I wanted to play on that and kind of flip it and be like, ‘Well, we can, and we will!’”
Feelings “Before we were all quarantining, I had quarantined myself for two weeks. I didn't leave the house and I didn't talk to anybody or see anybody, because I wanted to just write and see what happens if I did that for two weeks straight. It was all day, all night, every day, just writing—which drove me a little insane, because I would have these bursts of creativity followed by ‘Everything is shit!’ I remember I was sitting on the floor, just staring into the fireplace, and it felt like I was on the brink of insanity. I was just strumming this drudgy chord and didn't even care how it sounded, and I started whispering into my phone—and it was the creepiest, weirdest thing I've written. And I remember my producer pulled it up and was like, ‘What the hell was going on with this one?’ We had a lot of fun with the production—there's like clocks ticking in it, there's different weird noises like cups and spoons. Honestly, it’s my favorite song on the album.”


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