NOW'S THE TIME

Making serious music and testing the waters of Hollywood, Jessica Andrews is on her own, in love and about to leave her teenage years behind

Dressed in a high school cheerleader's short skirt, Jessica Andrews walks off a Hollywood set toward fellow singer Marcel, a country newcomer. He helps her adjust a small band from her right hand back to the ring finger on her left hand, where it belongs.

A ring? Well, more on that later.

At the moment, Jessica has just finished her first TV acting role, on the WB series Greetings From Tuscon.

"That's just one door that's opened," she says later of her Tuscon debut. "I definitely wanna pursue acting further. I've been passionate about that from the beginning, as much as I have about music. I've always wanted to do movies, so this is a cool way for me to get my feet wet."

It's just one of many new developments for the 19-year-old singer. She's moved into her own apartment for the first time, developed her romance with the one-named rising star Marcel, intensified her songwriting and recorded a new album. It's called Now, appropriate since it reflects exactly where she is in her life at this moment.

"I've had a lot of changes in my life," she notes, "and it was important to me to really work on this album – to be 100 percent focused and dedicated to it."

Now is a more mature effort than her previous two albums, and it finds a young woman assuming more control over her life and career.

"I had a better sense of what I wanted to do on this record," she explains. "I do every time, with each album that I do. I think it's all a part of getting older."

So, of course, is falling in love – her romance with Marcel is the first serious relationship she's experienced. He's encouraged her as a songwriter, and, in fact, they co-wrote her new hit, "There's More to Me Than You." He also helped write another of the album's tunes, "You're the Man (That Brings the Woman Out of Me)."

Neither Marcel nor Jessica had a hand in writing Now's title cut, but it does remind her of him: It's about a woman who's finally found her perfect man.

"We had just met when I recorded that song," she recalls. "He was in the studio when we recorded it, and my producer looked over at him and gave him a nudge and said, 'Yep, she's singin' that about you!'

"And I guess I am, in a way. I didn't write it, but it's everything I would want to say about that. It really hits home."

Marcel has been logging studio time of his own lately, working on his upcoming debut CD. So while Jessica was a newcomer herself not long ago, she's been helping Marcel make his way through the music industry.

"We're doing the same thing, and have the same kind of dream," he says. "I was experiencing all this for the very first time, and Jessica had already gone through what it's like, so I've always had her guidance on my side. She's like my best friend."

A little more than friends, obviously. Speaking of which, what about that ring?

"That's a promise ring he gave me on our six-or-seven month anniversary," she explains. The TV producers "asked me to take it off because it looked like an engagement ring, and they didn't think it fit a high school student. So I put it on my other hand.

"It's not an engagement ring – but it is a promise ring that definitely means a lot to me, so I never take it off."

At first they played down the relationship publicly, wanting to make sure it was serious before sharing it with the rest of the world. "We don't like it to be the main focus of everything," Jessica notes, "but people clearly know that we're dating each other, and we're very happy."

Something else making Jessica happy lately is her independence. Her parents had moved with her to Nashville in 1998, but they returned to Huntingdon, Tenn. – about two hours west of Music City – in January 2002. So Jessica got a two-bedroom apartment of her own, about 15 minutes from downtown Nashville.

"It was scary at first," she admits. "I think I was dreading it more than anything, like, 'Oh, God, how is this gonna be? How am I gonna cook? What if I have a spider in the corner that I can't call Dad in here to kill? What's gonna happen?' But you know what? It was something that came so naturally."

The next step will be buying a house of her own, which she plans to do by the end of the year. "I'm longing for my privacy," she says. "I want to live in the country. I want my own yard and stuff like that. I can't complain about the apartment – it's a great place. Everything about it is really nice, but I'm longing for my own garage."

She's already making decorating plans for the new home. "I don't like really fancy things that look like people don't live there, that make it look like a museum," she ponders. "I like a house with fluffy couches and books and magazines and pictures – not cluttery, but I want it to look like a lived-in home."

It's just one small part of Jessica's ongoing quest to discover her identity. That's why her biggest hit, 2001's "Who I Am," still means so much to her. She sings the song every night when she performs, and they lyrics help her stay focused on her goals.

" 'Who I Am' is a constant reminder of where you come from, and what's important to you," she notes. "I couldn't have asked for a better song for that time in my life, when I was getting ready to move out on my own. Everything was just perfect with that song."

Now more than ever, it seems that Jessica Andrews knows just who she is.

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