From Martha’s Vineyard to LA: A star on the rise

Jill Zadeh, third from right, performing as a backup singer for Joss Stone. She performs at the Harbor View Hotel this Saturday night. — Photo courtesy of Jill Zadeh

Update March 6, 3 pm: Last Saturday’s show at the Harbor View Hotel was a sell out so they have added an encore performance this Friday, March 9. Doors open at 8 pm. All ages. $20 in advance; $25 at the door. Call the Harbor View Hotel at 508-627-7000.

The scene at Seasons on a recent karaoke night was pretty typical for a Tuesday in February. A handful of regulars were drinking, socializing, and occasionally paying a little more attention to the entertainment when their favorites were on stage.

Towards the end of the evening, an attractive brunette stepped up to the mike dressed casually in leggings and an oversized cardigan. She proceeded to wow the small crowd with a pitch perfect rendition of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.” By the time the karaoke neophyte followed up her opener with Aretha Franklin’s “A Natural Woman,” the crowd was riveted.

The mystery woman was professional singer Jill Zadeh (pronounced za-day), who was doing karaoke at the urging of her friends. The small crowd that night was treated to a rare appearance by a burgeoning star vocalist who has been here for the past four months following a tour where she was a background singer for Janet Jackson. She will soon move to Los Angeles where she will embark on a career as half an R&B/rock duo, SoulCrush.

A Vineyard native and 1994 graduate of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, Ms. Zadeh’s innate talent, coupled with dedication to her craft, has catapulted her from a shy little girl to a young woman whose resumé includes a recording contract with a big name in the music biz, and various recordings, live performances, and tours with A-list artists.

Ms. Zadeh comes from a family with musical roots. Her grandfather played with a quartet and her aunt was once a Vegas singer. Her abilities were apparent to others early on, but Ms. Zadeh said, “I didn’t realize that everyone couldn’t sing like people on the radio. I was very, very shy. I didn’t want to sing. I was so self-conscious.”

Finally, at 15, she plucked up the courage to perform with three other girls at the high school’s annual Pops Concert. The act received a standing ovation.

After high school, the still shy singer attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. It was there that she started to gain confidence. After an audition during which she recalls her knees were shaking the entire time, one of the judges asked her, “What do they put in the water down there in Martha’s Vineyard?” At Berklee, Ms. Zadeh joined the gospel choir. “I surrounded myself with the best of the best and that was the people in the gospel choir.”

After graduation, Ms. Zadeh taught singing for a year in Boston before making the move to Los Angeles in 2000 to jump-start her career. The move paid off quickly as she was soon getting work as a studio artist, thanks to connections from Berklee.

“Being shy was hard,” she said of her early days in L.A. “Once I opened my mouth to sing I always got the gig, but I can’t tell you I’m a great singer. Let me show you.”

She scored a tour with Javier Colon, the future first season winner of the hit NBC show “The Voice.” Now on the L.A. circuit of musicians, with a reputation as a solid talent with an ability to mimic anyone, Ms. Zadeh was able to keep herself employed recording demos to pitch new songs to artists, and doing studio work for established acts.

In 2005 Ms. Zadeh took part in an aborted tour with Lindsay Lohan. When the latter appeared on MTV’s TRL Awards, Ms. Zadeh, a slated back-up singer, was recruited at the last minute to supply the movie star’s vocals. The telecast occurred right after singer Ashlee Simpson was lambasted for lip-synching to a recording on “Saturday Night Live” and Ms. Lohan wanted to avoid a similar embarrassment.

“Just before the show they pulled me into the media room and said, ‘We need you to shadow for her,'” Ms. Zadah said. She recalls the thrill of taking a star turn during sound check with the likes of Annie Lennox, Cyndi Lauper, and Sarah McLaughlin.

Among the artists she has sung background vocals for are Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Jennifer Lopez, Diana Ross, Oleta Adams, Patti LaBelle, and Natalie Cole. She has performed live with Mya, Christina Aguilera, Maroon 5, and Brandy. Her vocals are featured on recordings by Chris Botti (alongside Sting and Paula Cole), The Pussycat Dolls, and on three Hollywood movie soundtracks. She has contributed to a number of television performances including the American Music Awards and “Good Morning America.”

In a story right out of Hollywood legend, while working as a bartender Ms. Zadeh was discovered by Bobby Colomby, the original drummer for Blood, Sweat & Tears who, along with singer Richard Marx, had recently formed a record label. Mr. Colomby approached Ms. Zadeh after he overheard her talking music with a customer. She was signed by Signal 21 Records to a two-year publishing contract, which gave her the financial stability to focus on her writing. However, the co-producers were determined to have her do a Christian album and Ms. Zadeh didn’t want to be restricted to one genre. “I had more to say. It was a part of me, but I had more inspiration than just what would fit into the Christian music box.”

In 2006, Ms. Zadeh was selected as the alto among three background singers for Janet Jackson. She completed an abbreviated tour with the star and sang for some spot dates before returning briefly to Martha’s Vineyard in 2008. “I needed to be around some real people,” she said. She worked at the Harbor View, Lure, and David Ryan’s, and enjoyed a break from the fast lane.

Despite her successes, Ms. Zadeh had also discovered the down side of the music business. “It’s a hard career,” she said. “It’s definitely feast or famine. I was in L.A. for eight years and there were a lot of broke times.” She found herself victim, in a few instances, to unscrupulous members of the music industry — not getting credited or compensated for work on recordings. “There’s a lot of shadiness in the music business.”

Ms. Zadeh notes that while on the Vineyard, she eventually “got the itch” and, when she was invited to tour with Joss Stone, she jumped at the opportunity.

She knows firsthand the fickle nature of the star-making machine and can sympathize with the plight of the late Whitney Houston, whom she refers to as “the greatest influence, vocally, in my life.” Ms. Zadeh was greatly affected by the singer’s decline and death. “I really felt for her struggle,” she said. “She started off with this untouched, pure voice that was limitless. Losing her range and her magic and having it all over the news must have been devastating. People started referring to Jennifer Hudson and others as the next Whitney. Nobody ever calls anyone the next Aretha Franklin.”

Last year Ms. Zadeh travelled with Jackson’s year-long Number Ones: Up Close and Personal world tour. Of the pop superstar, Ms. Zadeh said, “She is very quiet, very soft-spoken, extremely professional, and very generous and sweet.”

Still, Ms. Zadeh notes that her favorite gig was performing with Joss Stone because, as she said, “It was more of a live experience. Sort of like a jam band, spontaneous.”


During the long stretches on the Janet Jackson tour bus, Ms. Zadeh bonded with fellow background singer Erin Stevenson.

The two women are both songwriters who had pursued solo efforts, but neither had ever entertained the idea of joining a band because, as Ms. Zadeh said, “You don’t know if they want it as bad as you do.” However, the two shared a drive and a vision of striking out on their own.

The two have been writing songs together for the last couple of years. During breaks in the tour, Ms. Zadeh travelled to Ms. Stevenson’s hometown of Houston to record and Ms. Stevenson visited the Vineyard twice — recording three tracks at the new Print Shop Studio. The duo played a critically acclaimed debut at the famed SOB’s in New York City last year.

Said Ms. Zadeh of Ms. Stevenson, “She’s this bouncy, bubbly girl who had a pink mohawk when I first met her. I’m this shy girl from Martha’s Vineyard, but we really connect.” Next month the two will move to L.A. and launch their act – a high energy combination of soulful vocal harmonizing and electrifying guitar-heavy rock.

Ms. Zadeh notes that the Vineyard will always be her home base, and that she will miss her friends and family. “It was great coming back to the people and the realness. I didn’t know if I was going to go back to L.A. There’s a lot of normalcy here that I won’t find in L.A., but I want this. I have to do music. I’d have a life half-lived if I go out with a song still in me.”

An Evening with Jill Zadeh, Saturday, March 3, 8–11 pm, Harbor View Hotel, Edgartown. $25; $20 in advance, are available at the Harbor View. All ages. 508-627-7000;