Musician Jonni Marie Wiltse, 23, who has had two back surgeries, has found inspiration in music. She can be found playing at Dillinger's open mic nights every Thursday night. Photo: Geert Pieters

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Legend has it that Jonni Marie Wiltse has been a vocalist ever since the moment she was born.

“According to my parents, I was singing as an infant coming out,” she said. “My cry was a song.”

The now 23-year-old Cheyenne native didn’t take music lessons as a child, however. As the youngest of three daughters – all of whom had their own particular hobby – she gravitated toward gymnastics. Music was her older sister’s “thing,” and she didn’t want to step on any toes.

But even as she developed her skills as a competitive gymnast, Wiltse never lost her sense of wonder around music. She was particularly enchanted by the piano, which she learned to play in secret.

“I had to teach myself kind of behind her back,” she said. “I’d walk behind her when she was playing piano and memorize where her hands were. And then when she was out of the house, I’d teach myself.”

Fast forward to 2021, and Wiltse can now be seen playing live every Thursday during Dillinger’s open mic night.

Finding beauty in the pain

Wiltse’s gymnastics career took a turn when her body started rejecting the sport, quite literally. Back-to-back injuries became prevalent around the age of 9, and she broke her spine the first time at age 12.

“I didn’t know that I broke it, and I continued to compete on a fractured back for two years,” she said. “We found it when they were x-raying my scoliosis.”

She was 14 by then, and her doctor advised her to quit gymnastics if she didn’t want to end up on a stretcher. Wiltse’s parents divorced the same year, and because her mom was out of town often as a flight attendant, she spent a great deal of time with her dad, an editorial photographer.

This formative period was marked by stretches without internet access or even food because her parents couldn’t afford them during their legal battle. But it was also Wiltse’s first introduction to music as a coping mechanism.

“I was getting tossed back and forth between the two for years and years,” she said. “So through that, music, books and writing really saved me. … I remember lying on the couch at, like, 14 years old in the summertime, listening to my iPod Touch, and ‘Skinny Love’ by Bon Iver came on, and I had a soul reaction, like ‘What is this sound? How did I just find this?’ That launched me.”

She fell into a deep love with indie folk music, especially artists such as The Head and the Heart and Fleet Foxes. Wiltse was so obsessed with consuming as much of this music as possible, she got yelled at for having her headphones in during class. It even led to her first D in math class – but that didn’t slow her down.
The more variety of songs she listened to, the more her interest blossomed. When she branched out into soul music, Wiltse finally found her true sound – a mix of folk and soul that felt entirely unique.

Changing course

Music wasn’t Wiltse’s only interest as a teenager, however. Her father’s job in photography had instilled a love of the camera at a young age, and by the time she was a junior at East High School, she decided to graduate early to pursue a career in modeling.

She took classes through several schools to get enough credits to finish a year early, and by the time junior year was over, she was headed straight for Houston, Texas.

“I was in such a hurry to get out,” Wiltse recalled. “I put in an incredibly challenging year as a junior … just to peace the hell out. I had so little belief that I was going to have any impact here. And still, I can already see how I’m going to outgrow what Cheyenne is going to be able to offer me, but (at 17) I didn’t think there was even going to be a platform.”

Wiltse ended up returning to Cheyenne because she needed to flee a bad relationship, and when she got back, she was lost. She had forgone college to break into the modeling industry, and now she was back in her hometown without a degree or any clue what to do.

So, Wiltse reached out to her old gymnastics coach, Shannon Mitchell, who offered her a coaching job at Cheyenne Gymnastics.

That led to lifeguarding and teaching swim lessons for the city, and helped her regain a sense of purpose, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reports.

“I was able to kind of find myself and realize that it’s OK to have things happen and make mistakes,” she said.

“That plays a big part for me, personally, in being OK with changing what I want to do and finding who I am.”

Getting serious

In January 2020, Wiltse’s doctor informed her she’d broken her spine a second time and would need surgery. The procedure was scheduled for March 31 – but then COVID-19 hit, and everyone went into quarantine.

Nobody would operate on her in the early months of the pandemic because she was considered too high-risk, so Wiltse found herself turning to music yet again to get through the pain.

“I was basically quarantined with a broken spine until June 16 – that’s when I actually had the surgery,” she said. “I’d just play (ukulele) for the birds in my mom’s backyard because it could, just for a minute, distract me from the pain going down my legs.”

There was one moment in May that Wiltse turned to her mom and said she felt like music was about to take off in Cheyenne. She had no evidence, but her intuition told her that something was coming, so she got to work. As soon as she could ditch the post-surgery walker, Wiltse was at the piano, finishing compositions she’d started at the age of 16.

That special something her gut had predicted was actually two things: a new piano and Dillinger’s open mic nights. She came upon a Roland digital piano that was mobile, and then, a month later, she had a free place to play music every week.

Although the stars were aligning, it took Wiltse some time to build up the confidence to play her songs in front of a live audience at the open mic.

“It just got to the point where it’s like, ‘I’m gonna either do this or I’m not, and people might hate me and I don’t care. I have to make moves,’” she said. “It’s an incredible thing to find. It’s definitely brought … us all to a different mental game. Like OK, now there is more possibility, what are we going to do with it?”

The possibilities are endless

Now that she’s a regular at Dillinger’s, Wiltse’s social media following is growing. She’s still working on what kind of presence she wants to have on Instagram and TikTok, but more people are finding her both online and at the open mics, thanks to other artists promoting her work.

The weekly event also led her to Kaius Harrison, her current manager.

“I’ve been blessed knowing many talents, both undiscovered and professional,” Harrison said. “Jonni Marie is the first in a long time I’ve come across with so much talent, humility and generally having their shtogether that I embrace taking the time to make sure she achieves the destiny she was born to fulfill.”

She’s known as the “Pindrop Diva” of Dillinger’s, he added, because she’s able to make even the rowdiest of crowds shut their mouths as soon as they hear the notes she’s able to hit.

Wiltse isn’t sure what’s next past this phase of honing her craft at the open mics, but she’s hoping it could be a record deal. Continuing with the theme of fate, her mother met the manager of Newark, New Jersey-based record label AM2G Entertainment at an airport recently, and was able to snag her daughter a business meeting for the first weekend in April.

“I’ve had that kind of in my sight, so I’ve just held off on really releasing my own originals until I can play it for them,” she said.

Wiltse said her unique indie/rock/soul voice could help her become the label’s first non-rap artist, which is as daunting as it is exciting.

But regardless of what happens with the meeting, Wiltse plans to use her music as a means to further her advocacy work on the cause she cares about the most: climate change.

“There’s nothing on this planet that I want to spend the rest of my life doing besides the most human thing I can think of, which is creating art,” she said. “And I can’t just walk on this Earth and pretend like nothing’s wrong. I can’t just walk on this Earth and know that there’s something I can do and not do it. So I have to figure out how to get those two things to come together to my advantage.”