By Chuck Taylor
While the music world has been listening to Jessica Simpson since the late '90s, never has it had the chance to truly hear her.
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The pop songbird seeks to change that with the release of her third Columbia album, "In This Skin."
The new set, which showcases Simpson's lyrical skills for the first time, offers a crystal-ball gaze inside her marriage to fellow pop idol Nick Lachey and the emotions behind finding the love of a lifetime.
"When I'm in love, I want to go to the top of a mountain and scream it out to the world," Simpson says. "I was always shy about expressing my own point of view, but now, I think I have things figured out as a woman, and I want to give fans a piece of my heart and soul. Making this record was a great experience -- not to mention wonderful therapy."
"Skin" also gives Simpson the opportunity to reorient her career path. She admits struggling with decisions made by Sony executives about her previous album, 2001's "Irresistible."
"I didn't want to do half of the songs on the album, but I figured they knew what they were doing. I was trying to please everybody and be someone I wasn't," she says.
After the title track peaked at No. 15 on The Billboard Hot 100, "they just dropped the whole thing."
Simpson's first album, 1999's "Sweet Kisses" -- led by the No. 3 debut single, "I Wanna Love You Forever" -- sold 1.8 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "Irresistible" lagged, with sales of 630,000.
"It was a painful ordeal," Simpson says. "I came to the realization that I needed to show the world who I am, to be a true artist."
With changes at the top level at Sony -- and just as important, Simpson's relinking with Teresa LaBarbera Whites, her "artist and repertoire" executive for "Kisses" -- she says, "I had the best experience of my life. This album really represents who I am."
Like the first effort, Simpson's soaring vocals give "Skin" a smooth touch, as it sways between spirited midtempo melodies and her signature ballads.
"I wanted to make a romantic, organic album," she says. "These are songs that say something that I hope will move or inspire people."
Simpson collaborated with songwriter Diane Warren and producer Ric Wake for the sensuous first single, "Sweetest Sin." The song (whose videoclip casts Simpson and Lachey in a number of provocative scenarios) "truly represents my album; nothing negative, it's all about love," she says.
Most of the project's tracks came together through sessions in Nashville and Los Angeles, where Simpson sat down with songwriting tastemakers and pretty much spilled her heart.
She says, "Teresa had the incredible idea of creating a songwriting camp. I would go from room to room with one songwriter after another," including Andy Marvel, Billy Mann, Holly Lamar, Denise Rich, Trina Harmon and Damon Elliott. "We would sit there for two or three hours -- write an entire song -- and then go in and record it in 90 minutes. It was so refreshing."
Among the most expressive tracks on "Skin" are the reverent love song and quintessential Simpson ballad "I Have Loved You"; the confessional "Underneath," which recalls a four-month period where Simpson and Lachey called it quits, then -- in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001 -- realized the value of making a relationship work; and the title track, a plucky pop anthem about self-acceptance.
"'In This Skin' was so important for me to share with my fans," Simpson says of the title track. "I was 102 pounds, and people at the record label were telling me that I needed to lose weight. The song is saying that I am worthy to feel beautiful in my skin. It's something that every woman experiences in one way or another."
However heartfelt, getting the message of any pop artist to the masses without the aid of a guest rapper or a lifted hook is a tall order these days. Simpson and Columbia have paved the way with a hefty helping of multi-media exposure.
Foremost, Simpson and Lachey launched "Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica" on MTV Aug. 19, the release date for "In This Skin." The weekly reality series showcases all sides of the couple's lives together, from the recording of their albums (Lachey's "SoulO" will be released on Universal Sept. 19) to glam industry parties to the ups and downs of married life at home in Los Angeles.
"You'll see us at a Hollywood premiere in one scene and then eating tuna fish on the sofa in the next," Simpson says. "The cameras have been with us for three months now, from 8 a.m. until we go to sleep. We have all the fights all newlyweds have, and yet the whole celebrity existence is a funny lifestyle to see."
Simpson has also issued a hardcover wedding guide, "I Do: Achieving Your Dream Wedding," which offers prospective brides a step-by-step primer through the process. It also features dozens of photos and a bonus DVD of her own wedding. The 174-page coffee-table keepsake is published by NVU Editions.
In addition, according to her manager and father Joe Simpson, the singer has been cast in an upcoming Marvel Comics-based action adventure film, due for summer 2004 release. She is also in discussions for lead roles in movie versions of "Bye Bye Birdie" and "I Dream of Jeannie."
Simpson readily admits that the additional vehicles for media attention are a handy tool to stir interest in the new project: "C'mon, I know what it's like out there. The whole pop thing is not really huge right now. Nick and I need the extra push. Of course this is great for our records."
Even so, Simpson says she has never been more confident in her work. "I am more ready than I've ever been. It's a beautiful thing this time around. For the first time, I really have something to give and the power to impact."
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