When Michelle Feaster and her band, both known as II Juicy, entered last May's Cincinnati Blues Challenge, they had been together for just over a year. Feaster was apprehensive about signing up for the Challenge, primarily because it required the band to perform three original songs. They had none.
"We couldn't come up with any songs," says Feaster with a laugh. "So I was like, 'I'm not gonna get up there and sound like a jerk. We're not doing it.' "
Despite Feaster's hesitance, guitarist/vocalist Bob Herrmann submitted the application and announced that the band would compete ... two weeks before they were to perform three unwritten songs. With a short, firm deadline looming, II Juicy got down to business.
"In two weeks we had to write and learn the material, and get it done," says Feaster. "And we won!
I about lost my mind."
In an almost storybook turn of events, II Juicy outscored a couple dozen talented competitors representing the cream of Cincinnati's Blues crop, earning them the right to advance to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tenn., early next month.
"There's gonna be 157 bands this year from all over the world," says Feaster. "As I understand, the scoring is the same as they used here. Originality counts, appearance on stage, how you appeal to the audience. The way it works is you have a 30-minute set in one bar. You compete in that bar on Thursday and Friday, and if you make it through both of those, on Saturday you're in the finals."
II Juicy's entry into the Cincinnati Blues Challenge is a familiar scenario for Feaster who, in spite of a voice that can melt hearts and bring down walls simultaneously, has had to be convinced to advance her music career on more than one occasion. In fact, she has required convincing nearly all of her life.
"I think I've always had self-esteem issues," says Feaster. "I was in the performing arts and when my baby sister arrived I sort of backed down and didn't sing for a long time because I thought she was the better singer. The thing that I have found is that the only person who's stopping me from singing is me."
Feaster's musical upbringing began naturally in church where she built a solid Gospel foundation, gaining exposure to other genres as she got older. She also attended the School for Creative and Performing Arts, where she received professional vocal training, which included Broadway and operatic instruction.
"I was always in the kids' choir and then they started having me do solos when I got older," says Feaster. "But I didn't take it seriously. It took me years to decide, 'OK, girl, you can sing a little bit, maybe you should be doing something.' "
Eventually, Feaster began performing with small Pop/Soft Rock bands. Encouraged by her older sister, drummer Shorty Starr (one of Feaster's eight siblings), she joined Richie and the Students, doing a blend of originals and covers throughout the city's bar scene.
About two years ago, Starr convinced Feaster to join her at a Northern Kentucky Blues jam. Feaster was reluctant, particularly since she wasn't really enamored of the Blues.
"Shorty kept trying to get me to go to these jam sessions and I would say, 'No, I don't like the Blues, I don't want to cry and I'm not that sad,' " says Feaster. "One night, she talked me into it. People who didn't even know each other were getting up and having a good time and jamming together and it looked like fun. Finally, Shorty was like, 'I'm not going anymore,' so I started going by myself. Next thing I know, I'm standing at the microphone going, 'You guys might know me, my name's Michelle, I'm Shorty Starr's sister and I'm going to try to sing a Blues song.' From there it just took off. People were like, 'God, you sound great!' and I loved the feeling I got when I sang the Blues. It's that real good feeling like when I sing Gospel."
Energized by her introduction to the Blues and wanting to front her own band, Feaster left the Students and pursued the possibility of assembling a Blues band. Within weeks, the first iteration of II Juicy was a reality.
The first order of business was for Feaster to school herself on a genre she was beginning to love but about which she knew next to nothing. She devoured every bit of Blues information she could find, discovering new favorites like B.B. King and Etta James along the way.
"I had to do a lot of homework," says Feaster. "My sister would offer me up music and introduced me to different Blues artists that I hadn't listened to before. I'd sit down at her computer and listen to these songs and I'd be like, 'God, that sounds good, I think I could do that.' "
After a rhythm section shift last year, II Juicy — Feaster, Herrmann, guitarist/vocalist Dave Engel, bassist Dave Sageser, drummer/vocalist Tim Klee — began making a name for themselves on the local Blues scene.
"I have the most dedicated crew," says Feaster. "It's nice when you can be a part of an organization and not bicker and fight. There's none of that, and I like that. Everybody gets to sing in my band. I try not to sleight anybody because I don't feel like it's a matter of stealing attention from me."
Since solidifying the lineup, it's been a whirlwind year for II Juicy. The band recorded a full-length self-titled CD and has begun to explore out of town bookings. Although still playing just weekends, Feaster looks forward to a time when band activities provide more of their livelihood.
"I have to get my face and name around more than just Cincinnati, we need an original CD where we're not doing any covers, and promotion," says Feaster of the things required to take II Juicy to the next level. "I think it's getting ready to happen. The stars are lined up."
Clearly, the International Blues Challenge could jump start that process. II Juicy will be in front of an audience that will include industry movers and shakers within the worldwide Blues community. It's the kind of exposure that could alter the course of II Juicy's path even if they don't win.
The future seems shades-bright for II Juicy, band and vocalist, which leads to a natural question: Where did II Juicy come from?
"My boyfriend calls me Juicy," says Feaster with a laugh. "I wanted to get 'Juicy' on my license plate, but it was already taken. I wanted to be creative and I didn't want to use 'Juicy 2'; it looked lame when I put it in the computer at the BMV. So I wondered if anyone had the Roman numeral II, and I put that in and it stuck like glue."
II JUICY (IIjuicy.com) performs Saturday at Latitudes in Anderson and next weekend at the Winter Blues Fest in Covington's Mainstrasse district.