Singer/songwriter JJ Heller joins Zibby to discuss her new picture book, Hand to Hold, which was inspired by her hit album I Dream of You. JJ and her husband Dave talk about the collaborative process between both their music and this book, how heartening it is to hear stories from families who have fallen in love with I Dream of You, and share a short song excerpt listeners will love. JJ and Zibby also connect over their thoughts on getting older and the way our society misunderstands women as they age.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, JJ Heller team. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Hand to Hold and also your new single and so much great stuff.

JJ Heller: Thanks. Great to be here. I’m JJ, by the way.

Dave Heller: I’m her husband Dave. I’m a co-laborer. I’m here for moral support.

Zibby: Love it. That’s so cute, oh, my gosh. I don’t think anybody’s ever come on for moral support before, so that’s very, very nice. I guess I could offer that to people. Bring whoever you want.

Dave: Would you like a moral support person?

Zibby: Yes. Bring a friend. Actually, that could be really fun. Maybe I’ll start that in the new year. Who knows? You’re an amazing singer/songwriter, JJ. It’s amazing, your work. I can’t stop listening to your music. It is so soothing. It’s amazing. Now you’ve turned your song into a book. Tell me about this whole process and how this particular song became this particular book, but also even how you got into this whole world.

JJ: Wow, that’s a lot of information. I feel like I’m kind of a reluctant artist. I’m not the kind of person who needs to be on the stage. I’m more of an introvert, so it makes sense that the music I make is very quiet and introspective. Dave and I met in college playing music. One thing led to another. We decided to get married and pursue music as a career just to see, just to give it a shot. We said we’d give it one year and then reassess at the end of that year. It was a really close call. We were barely paying our bills, mostly playing music for tips in Phoenix, Arizona, in the summertime outside for three-hour sets. We were working for it.

Dave: This is about eighteen years ago, so we’ve come a long way.

JJ: Yes. We got married in 2003. Then it was just a series of baby steps trying to figure out what kind of music we wanted to make. At first, we wanted to be a little bit edgy and cool. I had grown up listening to Alanis Morissette and Natalie Merchant. We thought, maybe we can make music like that. That was not a good fit. Then over the years, we discovered that my voice sounds the best when I sing quietly. We just kind of fell into this singer/songwriter thing. Then we had kids and started to write songs for them. Then we made an album called I Dream of You full of lullabies and love songs that we had written for our own two little girls, Lucy and Nora. We put it out into the world thinking, this is just a side project. It’s something that’s on our hearts to sing about, but it’ll probably never go anywhere. Then over the years, it started to become my most popular album that I’d ever released. We started hearing all of these stories from parents all over the world saying that the music had an almost medicinal quality. It would change the atmosphere in the room when they put it on. Their kids would calm down. They would calm. They would play it in hospital rooms when their kids were going in for procedures. We heard from foster parents that it became a part of their routine whenever they brought a new child or baby into their home. They would play our music. It would soothe them.

I read these messages and just cry because I feel so honored that my music could be a part of these sacred moments for people. A few years ago, we decided to sit down with another songwriter friend of ours named Andy Gullahorn and thought, we should write a song of encouragement, of blessing to sing over our children as they fall asleep. As songwriters, we have the privilege of just taking several hours to think about, what do we want our children to know? What are the things that are important to communicate? Our song, “Hand to Hold,” was born. The main theme of the song is, may you never lose the wonder in your soul. We grow up and we forget to notice all of the miraculous things that are happening around us. As parents, if we sit down and think about, what do we want for our children? it’s that no matter how old they get, that they would walk through the world and notice all of the wonders that surround us every day. We put that song out into the world and just couldn’t believe the feedback about it. It quickly became one of my most popular songs. Then one day out of the blue, we got an email from WaterBrook Publishing saying, “Would you be interested in turning that song into a picture book?” We said, “Absolutely.” We started that process.

Zibby: Wow. What a story. That’s amazing. Did you get to pick your illustrator? How did that work?

JJ: We did, yes. That was really important to us. We put a lot of thought into every note, every lyric, and then every visual aspect that goes along with everything that we create. We took a lot of time. We sent our publisher a Pinterest board, basically, saying, “These are the types of illustrations we like.” Then they would do some research. Then they would send us four options. Then we would choose one. They’re like, “Oh, they’re not available.” They would send us a bunch more. It was kind of a long process. We landed on this wonderful illustrator named Alyssa Petersen. We loved her art mostly for the way that she captures the light. Do you want to talk about the illustrations at all? You had a big hand in that.

Dave: Sure. I was a photojournalism major back in another life when we were in college. Paying attention to light was a really big deal for us. Alyssa comes from an animation background. It feels like just about every page of this book is like a still frame from an animated film. It communicates so much about place and emotion. The book works its way through the seasons. You have a beautiful fall image or a wintertime image. One of my favorites is a springtime image of daffodils that are growing. It’s from under looking like A Bug’s Life. It feels like the perfect complement to the lyrics that already are so close to the hearts of literally thousands and thousands of parents who listen to this song every night.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I read it to my son first before I played him the song. I had been listening to your music. I put it on my computer right here when I’m really stressed and working. I have it in the background. I’m like, okay, I’m listening to lullaby myself.

JJ: No, that’s great.

Zibby: So messed up. Anyway, I read it to him. Then we played the song. Then he wanted to read the book again. Then he wanted to listen to the song again. It was really great how you engage people. Now I feel like you’re going to end up doing an animated show or something now that you already have the illustrator. Is that in the works? Yeah? What do you think?

Dave: Wow, that’s very ambitious. I feel like what you were talking about, though, actually really captures the heart of the mission that we have. We really love that children listen to JJ’s music, but what we feel like we’re doing is we’re making music for the child inside everyone. That child wants to be told, everything’s going to be okay. You’re not alone. You can do it.

JJ: There’s beauty in the world.

Dave: That’s a wonderful thing because it doesn’t matter how old you are. You can still listen to a lullaby and find comfort there. We’re very grateful that children listen, but I think a lot of the time, we’re talking to the child in a lot of mothers as well.

Zibby: Speaking of aging and listening when you’re older, your latest single, I know I posted this on Instagram — I put it in my Stories. I forwarded it to my Stories. So many women were like, I needed this right now. Thank you so much. This so hit a chord. It’s all about the beauty of being an older woman, which nobody ever says, talks about, discusses. It’s always the indignities of getting older, which are abundant, yes, but this embraces it. It reframed aging. I was sobbing still on the floor with my son. I was like, oh, my god. I wanted to just play a little bit for listeners here. Then I want to encourage everybody to go watch the video as well because that is awesome. Here, hold on, unmute.

Oh, my gosh, it’s so good. It’s so good.

JJ: Thank you.

Zibby: It’s just beautiful. You play the — you do the whole thing, right, instrumental, or no?

Dave: Yes, I play guitar. I play piano a little bit, enough to write songs together with JJ and normally another cowriter. Then we have wonderful collaborators here in Nashville who we take the song into the studio —

JJ: — We’re like, here, make it sound amazing.

Dave: We work with some super, super talented people who help realize the vision of JJ’s material.

JJ: I think that that’s really been the secret to our success, especially the last five years. Just keep working with people who are more talented than we are. It’s been amazing.

Dave: I think you should say something about growing older, JJ.

JJ: I’m forty-one. When I was approaching my fortieth birthday, I was just contemplating what it means to be getting older and really noticing all of the messaging constantly coming through like billboards and commercials and Instagram ads. It’s all anti-aging. That really struck me. My thirties was my favorite decade. I would not go back to my twenties if you paid me. There’s this pressure to look like you’re in your twenties but then have the maturity of a thirty or forty-year-old. It felt incongruous to me. I just started wondering, maybe aging is not something to be feared, but something to be celebrated, and started thinking about all the women in my life who I love spending time with. So many of them are older than me. They have so much to offer. It started making me sad to think, I wonder if these women spend their emotional energy trying to be twenty years old again. I hope not. It just made me realize still being alive in your forties is a gift that not everybody gets. I really wanted to write a song that conveys that message of — there are so many wonderful memories that I’ve collected over the past forty-one years that I would not trade for anything. I don’t need to pretend that I’m twenty anymore. I love being forty. Just trying to give myself a pep talk, I don’t need to look like I’m in my twenties. I love being forty, and that’s okay.

Zibby: I needed to hear that today. Thank you. I’m forty-five. I have sort of not adopted the whole anti-aging beauty routine. I don’t do any of the stuff. I mean, I put on moisturizer. I think about it a lot because I live in New York City where a lot of people do a lot of things to their faces. I’m constantly confronted by these choices. It’s not like I was making a political statement. It’s just, I don’t feel comfortable trying to mess with my face. Then you’re sending another message, which is, I’m embracing my age. Is it the same thing as not shaving your legs or something? Am I neglecting a beauty thing I’m supposed to be doing to be socially accepted? I don’t know. I think about this stuff, as I’m sure most aging people do.

JJ: I don’t think that there’s something inherently wrong with Botox or whatever. Everybody kind of has their threshold. I just want women to know that they have a choice in the matter. You don’t have to get Botox if you don’t want to. You don’t have to dye your hair. If you want your silver strands to come through, then that’s great. That’s a choice that I’ve made too. When I was about to turn forty, I decided that I was going to stop dyeing my hair. I didn’t, at the time, have a full head of gray hair, but they were coming in, and so I had started dyeing my hair brown. It just got to a point where a couple — my hair grows really fast. I would dye my hair, and then two weeks later, I would start to see these silver roots coming through. I would feel this anxious feeling of, oh, my gosh, I got to get back into the salon. I got to fix this. I hope people aren’t noticing. I didn’t like how it made me feel, just this anxiety. I have a friend in the neighborhood who had already decided to stop dyeing her hair. I took her to coffee. I’m like, tell me everything. What was this like? How scary is it? I got the courage on that day to stop dyeing my hair. I love it. All of the hair dye has grown out. I’m probably only about maybe eight percent gray hair. It’s just a little different, glittery colors. It almost looks like my hair is highlighted. I love it so much. It turned from, oh, my gosh, it’s growing out, I don’t like this, to actually getting excited when I see a new patch of dark gray or light gray coming through. It’s been a really fun process for me. There’s a line in the song that says, “It looks strands of silver, and it feels like being free.”

Zibby: I love that.

JJ: That is exactly my experience. I don’t feel like I’m hiding anymore or watching the clock tick down to when I need to go back to the salon again. It’s just like, no, I’m forty-one. I have gray hair. Take it or leave it. I’m so happy of all of the years I’ve lived up to this point. I don’t need to feel ashamed that I’m forty-one and still alive.

Zibby: I’m not ashamed, but I definitely dye my hair. I can go like three months, so it’s not as much of a management thing. I did stop getting my nails done once the pandemic hit. That was how I felt. As soon as you get them, then they chip. Then you have to go back. I’m like, this is so stupid. I’m just not going to do this at all. Why? All that time.

JJ: Just paying attention to, am I doing this because it’s fun, because it feels like pampering myself, because it feels like a treat, like doing your nails, or does it start feeling like a burden? Oh, I have to go back in because I’m feeling really self-conscious about how my — it’s just, is this fun or is it a burden? Then make your decision from there.

Zibby: Totally. I just love your song. I don’t know if you’re even trying, but it should be with some big Dove ad campaign somewhere. I’d love to introduce you — my husband’s a producer. He has a music arm of his business called Morning Moon Music. They do a lot of original songs for movies and things like that. I played him your songs. He was like, “Oh, my gosh.” They actually have a movie coming out called Wildflower.

Dave: Oh, my goodness.

Zibby: I know. I was like, “Maybe you could use this song for your movie.” I don’t know if you would be interested in talking. They also have these two amazing guys, Dan and Mike, who score anything, like probably the smart people you were referencing who help with your vocals. They do all that too. Anyway, I would love to put you all in touch because I think you could make great stuff together if you’re in the market for that.

JJ: Yeah, it sounds awesome.

Dave: One of the things that I wanted to say following up on the fact that that song is a single of JJ’s — it’s her first song of this year. About five years ago, six years ago, we started this practice of just releasing a new song on the first Friday of every month.

Zibby: I saw that. That’s amazing. That’s so many songs.

JJ: I know. It is.

Dave: It’s sort of the equivalent of making a record, but we just end up stretching it out across an entire year. It’s basically a discipline. We go into the studio. We have material. We consistently let these songs be what they are. “Hand to Hold,” which became the book, was one of those singles early in this process. I think that practice of just releasing new content on a consistent basis kind of dovetails with this conversation about freedom. For most the music industry’s history, it was like, go into some hovel and work on your material for like three years. Keep it top secret. Then bring it out into the world. Either it’s a massive success or it’s a flop. We just don’t believe in that philosophy. Fortunately, the way that streaming and all of that works, it doesn’t have to be that way anymore. We can just make the process of releasing whatever our creativity brought us for the month out into the world. Then if somebody doesn’t like that, they can listen next month and hear something new.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Do your kids judge the songs? Do you play the songs for them and they’re like, yea or nay?

JJ: We don’t normally ask for their opinions. They offer them very willingly. They hear our music all the time. When we’re writing a song, they hear it. When we have a rough mix of the song, we play it in the car or in our living room sound system to hear it in different contexts. They get tired of the songs even before they’re finished and released. It’s all they’ve ever known, and so they’re totally unimpressed. The kind of songs they listen to are more pop or rock, and that’s not the kind of music that we make.

Dave: What I will say, though, is that it’s actually a real compliment to us if the song is playing and we just notice them humming or singing along kind of mindlessly. It’s sort of like, oh, that’s a good sign that the kids are just absorbing the material and enjoying it. So much of JJ’s content is so mellow and reflective. It’s not necessarily stand up and dance on the tabletop or something like that.

Zibby: That’s okay. There’s a time and a place, as I say to my kids all the time. usually not the one you’re doing right now. Thank you, guys, so much. This has been so enjoyable. I am so glad that I’ve discovered all your music and all this stuff by your book, which I bet many, many people will. It’s really awesome you have a children’s book reflecting your song, hopefully one of many to come. I just really want you to do something amazingly big and cool with this song because it should be everywhere. Everybody over a certain age should have to hear it and watch it and feel good. It’s just amazing. Whatever I can do to help that, count me in.

JJ: Thank you so much.

Dave: Appreciate it.

Zibby: Thanks so much.



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