Powerhouse vocalist shifts gears Though we look for great singers these days, they seem harder to find. Be it the wannabes on American Idol or teen pop stars using guide vocals to get through performances, we’re subjected to artists who fall short of being great singers. Vocalist Jessica Benge performs both as a solo artist and with the Matt Mays Band.Jessica Benge doesn’t have that problem. The 25-year-old Indianapolis native can flat out sing. She has one of those “How did that big voice get in that young woman?” voices that can handle soul, rock and pop standards with equal command.
Her biggest problem is that you may never have heard of her. And she’s trying to change that.
Though Benge has worked in music for several years, she’s been regulated to being a featured performer with club bands or an anonymous vocalist with wedding bands. Now, however, she’s making plans to move permanently into the spotlight. She sums up her ambition by saying, “I don’t want to end up stuck singing a stranger’s words and music.
“I think that after four and a half years of trying to get in professionally wherever I can, I’m sort of ready to take a new step,” she said.
Benge has been surrounded by music for most of her life. Her father, Doug Benge, is a professional musician who used his daughter to do voiceover work when she was a child. She still cites her father as an important influence on her career.
“I grew up with 500 record albums in the house and musical inspiration from many, many genres and eras. My dad’s tastes have definitely affected a lot of mine. I just find so many times that I’m listening to a singer or a song or a band and I have him in mind,” she said.
Benge’s earliest work was in musical theater. She gained roles in productions at Footlight Musicals, Theatre on the Square, American Cabaret Theatre and the Phoenix Theatre. She also attended the Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. While away at school, she realized that musical theater was not a path she wanted to follow.
“For a period of time, I really enjoyed doing musical theater. I got to do a lot of fun parts in fun shows and it’s always a good time. But after attending college I realized that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to do a lot more than just limit myself to that. So once I was old enough and once my voice matured, I tried to ‘break into the business’ a little bit by finding bands and party and wedding bands,” Benge said.
A fluke audition led to her most recent theater role in the 2003 Phoenix Theatre production of the rock musical Hedwig & the Angry Inch. That experience helped guide the singer toward a new goal.
“After doing Hedwig, I met a lot of people on the local independent music scene and that opened a lot of doors for me. Now I’m working on some of my own stuff in collaboration with Matt Mays and we’re trying to work on a demo for me as a solo project,” Benge said.
Her musical resume also includes stints with the Spin, Matt Mays Band, Steve Allee Orchestra and The Bob & Tom Band. Benge has also added songwriting to her talents. She describes her music as written “with a lot of soul, a lot of passion.”
“I like to write music that means something to me. I’m not just going to write empty lyrics. But I’m also going to write songs that feel good when I sing them, that fit well in my range and that might showcase things that I do well vocally,” Benge said.
It’s tougher to get her to ’fess up to her vocal influences, though some are obvious when you hear her sing. She cites Aretha Franklin, Bonnie Raitt and especially Susan Tedeschi as artists she looks up to.
“Hearing [Tedeschi’s] voice was a pretty big turning point in my life because I was just old enough to know that my voice had matured and I could start doing things professionally. Then I heard her voice and thought, ‘That’s what I want to do and that’s how I want to sing,’” Benge said.
Though excited about the possibilities of doing her own music, Benge is cautious about setting goals too high right away.
“I’m really just hoping to see what kind of reaction I get and what kind of crowds I can bring in,” she said. “I just want to see audience reaction and see if I can sell some of these CDs or find some sort of an engine to get me to the next step.”
The singer acknowledges the challenges she faces as she tries to kick her music career into gear. Like most local artists, Benge holds down a full-time job. She tried to leave her job and take a crack at music full-time, but found herself “broke and uninspired” before returning to her job. She also acknowledges the deficit of female artists on the local scene as a hurdle to overcome.
“Female artists are under-recognized in town and I couldn’t say why. I’ve seen plenty of female talent here that I think is great. I could say that for a lot of women that are trying to do this, they are working full-time jobs and some of them are supporting children or families. They don’t have the opportunity to quit their jobs and leave it all behind to become a full-time musician,” Benge said.
Though she doesn’t have the pressures of supporting a family, Benge feels a different sort of pressure as a female artist.
“Because I’m female, I know I’m being judged harder and sometimes I feel inhibited and I may not let loose the way I want to. I know that’s going to come out as lack of security, but it’s just the truth. We are judged harder, by women and men.”
As she starts on her new adventure in search of her musical dreams, Benge vows she’s not going to turn her back on the work that’s gotten her this far. She admits she will keep up her paying gigs and people might see her “singing at Ruth’s Chris one night doing a standards set and then rocking out at the Patio the next.” Meanwhile, recording a demo and playing shows under her own name are steps toward achieving her artistic fulfillment, though she is leery to say what will ultimately deliver that.
“I’m still learning what makes me happy and what feels right and what feels good. The one thing I can honestly say is that the one thing I know would make me happy would be to know I could survive just doing music. I don’t know how, but that I could do music full-time and support myself on that.”