Nancy Miller
April 02, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

It’s midnight in London, and like any pop singer worth her salt (and squeeze of lime), Jem is enjoying an evening cocktail. ”That doesn’t sound good — a girl alone in her apartment drinking gin,” she jokes in a cawl-thick Welsh accent. But the wispy-voiced singer-songwriter-producer has good reason to raise her glass: Her debut album, Finally Woken, is a lively mix of hip-bumping beats, eclectic samples, and ethereal vocals.

Oh yeah, and you’ll probably hear a lot of Dido comparisons. And Beth Orton. And Sarah McLachlan. But as Woken amply proves, Jem has her own breathy charm, at once joyful and soothing. The disc, released March 23 on Dave Matthews’ ATO label, is a fast-growing favorite on such trendy radio stations as L.A.’s Indie 103.1 and Boston’s WFNX. Perhaps more significantly, her songs have gotten the O.C. stamp of approval. As the latest de rigueur launching pad for new music, the Fox TV show has featured her on the show and its just-released soundtrack.

Born Jemma Griffiths in Cardiff, Wales, the 28-year-old ex — law student did time as a a drum-‘n-‘bass party promoter and dance-music-label cofounder. Then in 1999, tired of pushing other people’s music, she decided to give her own tunes a try. ”For some reason, 25 was the magic number,” she says. ”To me that’s the year you become an adult, and I thought, It’s now or never.” Jem assumed her contacts would snag her a swift record deal. ”I thought it would take six months,” she says. ”It took over three years. Sleeping on people’s sofas and floors. But my motto was ‘Never give up.”’

That stubborn streak paid off in 2002. While visiting friends in L.A., Jem decided to take a chance: The totally unknown singer showed up unannounced at influential radio station KCRW and left her demo at the front desk. Miraculously, music director Nic Harcourt actually listened to the CD…and loved it. ”I started playing the song ‘Finally Woken,’ and it got an instant reaction,” says Harcourt, whose Morning Becomes Eclectic program helped launch the careers of Norah Jones and Coldplay. ”There was something very fresh about what she was doing. I liked her voice, and there was a sense of fun. It really stood out.” Calls started pouring in from intrigued listeners desperate to get their hands on a copy of the track.

Jem recalls thinking ”Oh my God, at last!” But she still hadn’t scored a record deal. Instead, she found herself back in London, totally broke. ”I was dragging my suitcase on the [subway] and the handle snapped off,” she remembers. ”I was on the train, my bag was outside the doors and I was like, F — -ing hell! Why won’t somebody give me a break?”

That chance finally came when she collaborated with British producer Guy Sigsworth on the song ”Nothing Fails,” which eventually landed on Madonna’s 2003 release American Life. Meanwhile, back in L.A., her demo caught the attention of Bruce Flohr, a veteran A&R rep who heard ”Finally Woken” on KCRW and officially signed her to ATO in March 2003. ”I just thought if I was patient and worked really hard I would make it,” Jem says. ”Sometimes I felt like giving up, but I didn’t.”

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