Rising country musician Jessie Chris — known for songs like “Rome” and “Burn” — has plenty of talent as a singer-songwriter, but it’s her compassion for others that is going to help further her career and fulfill her life. The 21-year-old, who was named one of Billboard‘s Artists to Watch in 2018, is using her celebrity platform to help young people affected by bullying. She wants kids to know that they are not alone, that things will get better, and that there is always someone — or something — out there who can help them get through the darkest of days.
New Kids on the Block member Danny Wood found out about Chris’ efforts — she goes to schools across the country to speak to students, and has also penned a book, Dreams, about overcoming bullying — and was inspired to write a song for them to record as a duet. That song is, perhaps appropriately, titled “Bodyguard.”
The pretty piano ballad, which centers around having a protector during troubling times, sends out a message of hope. The composition also showcases both of their beautiful voices.
The song is quite different from the work Wood has done for more than 30 years with NKOTB, but it just exhibits the versatility the 49-year-old artist has.
I caught up with Chris and Wood, who were both born in Massachusetts, just as the single and video for “Bodyguard” were released. Soon, Wood will head out on the massive “Mixtape Tour” with New Kids on the Block and other artists from the group’s past. Here’s what they had to say…
Cheryl A. Hoahing: How did your collaboration on the song ‘Bodyguard’ come about?
Danny Wood: I know Jessie’s manager, Jeff [Gulko], and I watched some of her speeches at the schools she goes to. I watched a bunch of her talking to the kids about bullying, and I started to get inspired. I kind of wrote down some notes, and wrote the song, and then turned it into a duet — and a video. I went up to Boston, and we recorded together. I now kind of have a new perspective on what bullying means, especially to kids these days. ‘Cause my kids are a bit older, 19 and 20, and my son is 26. Kids are getting it from both angles — they’re getting it at school and they’re getting it on social media, and that’s a lot. That’s something I didn’t have to deal with growing up. Jessie, basically, inspired the song, and I’m really proud of it.
CAH: What kind of bullying did you face growing up?
DW: Four of the New Kids, we went into first grade or kindergarten when busing started — we were the white kids bused to the all-black school. There was plenty of stuff. But, in general, most of the noise was outside of the school. Eventually, everyone just adapted to what was going on, but there was plenty of bullying. It was just different for me growing up because I was an inner-city kid. Basically, I would do anything to be out of the house and on the street. Stuff happened all the time. Bullying happened all the time. I’ll never forget my first day in high school, as a freshman, the seniors were gonna try to initiate us, and me, Donnie [Wahlberg], and a bunch of our friends just weren’t having it. It was pretty intense. But there was no social media then. So, whatever happened didn’t end up on social media [with] everyone talking about it after the fact — that’s what kids have to deal with these days.
Jessie Chris: Growing up in Massachusetts, I knew when I was a little girl that I wanted to sing country music when I grew up — and that wasn’t cool or popular. That was a big reason why I got bullied. And I wish growing up that someone told me, ‘School doesn’t last forever. Someday you’ll be out of there and you probably won’t see the kids who bullied you ever again.’ I struggled with it on social media and at school. That’s why, now, I have a children’s book [Dreams] that I wrote about my story, and I go into schools and I read my book, and I sing some songs, and just kind of be a bigger sister to these kids — and say the things I wish somebody said to me when I was their age.
That’s why bullying is so personal to me — it’s something that really has shaped me into the person I am today. I definitely would be a totally different person if I hadn’t experienced that growing up. I definitely learned a lot from it, and I’m glad for that, but not everybody can learn from it. That’s why it’s important for me to visit schools.
CAH: Do you think the kids believe and trust you when you talk to them and tell them that things do get better?
JC: I think so. I hear a lot of positive feedback. But I think also for them to see somebody who was bullied — and to come out feeling confident and finding success in what they love to do, even though they were bullied for it — I think that really inspires them to be themselves and not be afraid to be different. I know that if I was a kid and I had somebody come in and talk to me that way, it would have changed so much for me. So, it means a lot to me to be able to even help in some small way, even if it’s just for a couple of the kids.
CAH: How did you feel when you found out that Danny wanted to do a duet with you?
JC: I was like, ‘Me?! He could record with anyone he wants to record with. Why me?’ Jeff explained that he saw some of my videos and used that as inspiration for the song, and I was like, ‘That’s so cool!’ Going to schools and talking to kids is something that I’ve never done for recognition or anything like that. It’s just something I like to do in my free time. So, I was never expecting someone like Danny to be inspired by it, let alone write a duet about it and ask me to sing it with him. That was just a really cool moment, and I almost didn’t believe it was real until I showed up in the studio. It was really cool.
CAH: How did you know who Danny was? You are too young to be a NKOTB fan.
JC: I’ve known who the New Kids were my whole life because my cousin is, like, their biggest fan. She has cystic fibrosis, so her lungs only work about 30 percent of how our lungs work. She has been wanting to meet them her whole life. So, when this song came to be, I was like, ‘Oh my God, can I please bring my cousin Christy/Kristie who just would love this.’ And Danny was so nice about it, he was like, ‘Absolutely bring her to the studio.’ So, she got to meet him and spend the day with us in the studio. It was a really special moment because, growing up, all she would talk about is New Kids on the Block. So, I definitely knew who they were my whole life.
CAH: Danny, I know you’ve done some solo stuff outside of NKOTB, but is this the first time you’ve dabbled in country music?
DW: Yeah, but a lot of my songwriting is singer-songwriter stuff, so it translates kinda either way to me. Country music is so huge now anyway. For me, it wasn’t a stretch. I mean, I’m not gonna start singing with a twang or anything. My voice is what it is, you know what I mean? It was nice. Obviously, I’m a fan of certain country music songs and artists. I listened to some stuff when I was producing the song to kind of… Little touches here and there on the production side of things to give it a little bit of that flavor, but not overdo it — to have the song sound like it was being forced into the country genre.
CAH: You’ve obviously sung with four other guys before, but was this your first time doing a duet?
DW: This was the first time. It was great. Jessie’s really easy to work with, so it was a lot of fun. We just sang and did our thing. It got done in one day. It was easy. There’s maybe a possibility we’ll do it again.
CAH: And, Jessie, how did you feel singing a duet?
JC: I have been wanting to sing a duet with somebody forever. It was just something that I never really found the right person to do a duet with, and I never had the right song, and it just wasn’t the right time.
When this came to be, I was like, ‘OK! I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time anyway.’ It was really cool and exciting, and I can’t think of a better person to sing your first duet with than Danny. It was a great experience.
CAH: Any chance you might bring Jessie up onstage with the New Kids to sing this song live in concert this summer?
DW: I gotta run that by four other dudes, so I don’t know. What I do with the group is completely different from what I do with my own music.
CAH: You guys usually each have a solo spotlight.
DW: We’ve done that on some tours, but our last tour we didn’t do it. I think the tour before we did. We have, but this tour we won’t be able to — there’s too much music to be heard between all of the groups that are on the tour. I try not to get into those kinds of things. Once we rehearse and set the show — I mean, a lot goes into planning the show — it’s difficult to add something in or change something unless we have some kind of freeform part of the show, which we have had in the past. I’ll probably wait to see what’s happening when we put the show together, and see what happens.
CAH: Jessie, will you be touring this year?
JC: Absolutely. I’m gonna keep performing, and keep visiting schools in my free time, and keep writing and recording more music. But the focus right now is on ‘Bodyguard,’ and I’m really excited to see where the song goes and what we get to do with it.
CAH: Has it been picked up by radio yet?
JC: It’s just starting to. It just came out.
CAH: You have a tie to another boy band — you performed an acoustic version of ‘I Do (Cherish You)’ with Jeff Timmons of 98 Degrees that’s on YouTube.
JC: That was one of the first things I did when I started working with Jeff [Gulko]. It was just an acoustic performance.
Jeff Gulko: It was just a YouTube video. It wasn’t recorded.
JC: This [‘Bodyguard’] was a whole new experience, a way different experience, and something that definitely means a lot more than just a YouTube cover video. It was still very cool, but this is way more meaningful and just a lot more exciting.
CAH: Do you worry that ‘Bodyguard’ might make some people feel worse if they don’t have a bodyguard/protector-type in their lives?
DW: Really? I don’t think that’s accurate. I think you have to seek them out. I think you have to… When you’re being bullied, you have to ask for help. Every kid has someone, a teacher, a counselor, whatever it is. I know who I turned to, it wasn’t my parents. It was mostly friends. You have to seek that person out, you have to ask for help. That’s probably the first thing you have to do, but there’s always positive people in everyone’s lives, you just have to recognize them. I think when you’re younger, it’s a lot more difficult. We’re not trying to make anyone feel bad, we’re trying to let people know they exist, they’re out there. Maybe you’re not looking in the right places to find them.
JC: And a bodyguard can also be not a person. For me, music was a bodyguard as well. It was something that really, I did after school every day on my own to really make myself feel better — and cheer myself up when I was dealing with bullies at school.
So, whether it’s an outlet like music, or art, or dance, or sports — or it’s a person, a parent, or someone who just really helps you — a bodyguard can be all sorts of different things that help you and make you feel safe.
CAH: Do you have any plans to write another book?
JC: I do. I don’t know how soon, but I do want to actually write a children’s book series in the future. I definitely am working on that.
CAH: Do you also have plans to get into acting?
JC: I actually am a little bit. I did acting a lot when I was a kid, and I recently, last week, had my first acting audition in six years. It went really well, so we’ll see what happens, and, hopefully, something comes out of it. I just love being in entertainment all around.
CAH: Who would be your ideal person to tour with?
JC: In country music, I love Keith Urban. It would be a dream come true to tour with him, because his music really was something I listened to every day after school when I was struggling with bullying. It would just mean a lot. My favorite country artist.
CAH: Would you consider doing other music as well — maybe crossing over to pop like Taylor Swift?
JC: Absolutely. I’m open to all sorts of genres. Before I got into country music, I was into acting in musical theater. Again, I just love entertainment all around. Right now, my focus is country music and, especially, ‘Bodyguard.’ But I’m never gonna say no to the possibility of doing songs in different genres.
CAH: Danny, what are you looking forward to on the New Kids tour?
DW: I’m looking forward to the amount of hit records we’re gonna hear that night between Salt-N-Pepa, Naughty By Nature, Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, and us. We’re gonna put together a great night of entertainment and have people leave the arenas very, very happy.
CAH: Is there a chance that the other artists will join you guys onstage?
DW: That’s always the wish list. Donnie is really the creative guy in the group. He has a wish list of what he wants to happen. Hopefully, but you never know. You have to get all of them to agree to do it. Right now, it’s in the planning stages. Hopefully, it happens because I think that would be really, really awesome. Plus, we have a song that we all recorded together that we could do [’80s Baby’].
CAH: It’s been 30 years since you released your breakthrough album, Hangin’ Tough. What can you tell someone like Jessie about how to have longevity in the music business?
DW: Nothing. We broke up, and we were apart for 15 years. We really didn’t have that longevity until we got back together in 2008, and we were grown up with families, and all with different mentalities. Still the same guys, but a different approach. The petty things you let go. You don’t end up fighting over little [things like] ‘Who’s singing what? Who’s doing this? Who’s doing that?’ There’s none of that anymore.
We don’t argue, we don’t fight. We stay focused on what our goal is for the next thing we’re doing. The only advice… I really don’t need to tell Jessie much because she is already way ahead of the game. She’s already doing things for other people, which a lot of people in the business don’t do. And, if your inspiration comes from doing things like that, you’re ahead of the game because then, eventually, the success, and the money, and all the other stuff will come.
CAH: Do you think the New Kids needed that break?
DW: Fifteen years, I don’t know if that’s rejuvenation, retirement, I don’t know what it was. When we got back together, I didn’t think anything. I was like, ‘OK, I’ll do it, and I’ll see what happens.’ I had no expectations, no nothing. It does show, though, the impact we had the first time around — because these women now come to our concerts and they get to re-live the first time around, but as adults. They’re buying tickets with their own money and going on cruises with us with their own money. It’s a completely different thing. I get it. In the beginning, I was like, ‘Wow! This is incredible.’ They’re re-living those years, but now we’re creating all these new memories.
CAH: What do you think about the future of boy bands? Right now, it’s all about the K-Pop groups?
DW: It goes in cycles. People can say whatever they want, but there’s always some new boy band. There’s always something new coming around. It’s definitely a part of the music industry that’s not gonna go away. There’s always young girls out there that when you put four or five guys together and they’re half-decent looking, it works. Hopefully, they’ve got some talent too — that helps.