Even when she isn’t leading one of her four high-intensity training classes every week, Jessica Tomasin is always in motion.
She’s managed Echo Mountain recording studios since it opened 13 years ago. She co-founded the Asheville Music Professionals networking group, shepherded handfuls of events through her own production company, raised money for charities and given a TEDx talk.
For this week’s Amadeus Festival through the Asheville Symphony, she has curated a discussion and concert devoted to women in music. And right now, she’s in the midst of figuring out how to market her hard-to-explain festival, called Connect Beyond. Happening April 5-7 at various locales around Asheville, the festival explores the intersections of music, film and literature and their role in social change.
“That’s just how my brain works. I need that many things going on,” Tomasin said. “When you love what you do, work-life balance is a little bit different. It’s not this, ‘Ok, I go to work and then I come home and then it’s my personal life.’ A lot of it is interwoven with each other.”
Tomasin grew up in Sterling Heights, Mich., and says she was the poster child for latchkey children, holding down jobs since she was 12. She studied theater in college and got into serious rock climbing. By 20, she traveled the country setting up ropes courses for the Philip Morris tobacco company, and she did the same for Outward Bound after moving to Asheville.
“I really liked working. I liked working hard,” she said. “Any time I got a job, I quickly rose up to some sort of leadership role.”
By her mid-20s, Tomasin owned three houses in Asheville—she bought them well before the city’s popular resurgence—and still owns them.
“For me, it was also a sense of grounding," she said. "I had a pretty tumultuous childhood growing up, so buying a place of my own was the stability I had craved for a really long time.”
Tomasin stepped into music for the first time with a catch-all job at the Orange Peel, then helped Stephen Wilmans launch Echo Mountain. Tomasin patched cables to mixing boards, hired staff and handled all studio booking.
“She took it upon herself to just study up on everything,” Wilmans said. “She read everything she could, recording techniques and just the overall studio business.”
Wilmans recalls with a laugh that Tomasin convinced him to give up his home in Montford and evote to housing artists recording at Echo Mountain.
“If you take on a project with Jessica, get ready to work.” he said. “She’ll ride your butt, in a good way. She doesn’t suffer fools.”
Tomasin has produced and developed a range of music and other events. When she last year debuted Connect Beyond the Page, the festival marked new ambitions both for her and Asheville.
“I started thinking ‘What is my legacy? What do I want to leave behind?’” she said. “I wanted to do something that was different than the traditional festival, and I wanted to do something that was more meaningful, and I wanted to do something that was my own, too.”
The 2018 festival didn’t draw well, though. From the public vantage, the focus was muddled and the events seemed disconnected. Tomasin lost $50,000 of her own money, but she’s undeterred. She shortened the festival’s name—it’s now Connect Beyond—but keeping the long view.
“This is not my first rodeo. I didn’t think I was going to make money the first year,” she said. “Now, was I hoping to sell more tickets? Yeah, but that was one of the things that was surprising to see, not getting more support from Asheville. I want to make it something accessible to people in town, but on the flipside, I want to see that support from people in town. I strongly believe in my community and we’re trying to build something that’s more community-oriented.”
Tomasin has recruited about 30 musicians, composers, filmmakers, authors and journalists for Connect Beyond.
“There were a couple women I met that came from Maryland and D.C. for the festival (in 2018) and they had said ‘I just feel hopeless and I don’t know how to help my community. I’m here to figure out how to do that,’” she recalled. “For me, that made it all worth it—I just had to keep doing this.”