Reaching New Sonic Heights with VanJess in their latest EP ‘HOMEGROWN’
If the title of their newly-announced EP ‘Homegrown‘ is any indication, VanJess has been tapping into their roots. The nine-song collection is the official follow up to their 2018 debut album ‘Silk Canvas.’ Growing up between Lagos, Nigeria, and California, VanJess have brought an entirely new take to contemporary R&B, one that pays tribute to ‘90s greats like TLC, SWV, and Aaliyah, while instinctually inciting an inimitable style.
The Nigerian-American sister duo, whom the Wall Street Journal calls “the phrase ‘Black Is Beautiful’ personified,” has been spending the last few months keeping R&B fans satiated with four groovy singles. In the accompanying artwork for each single, the ladies exude pure Naija glamour, complete with afros and stately African designs. The looks aren’t a statement from VanJess, but rather an open invitation, drawing listeners in to witness a more personal side of the sisters.
“We shot and styled these pics ourselves at home inspired by the music we grew up listening to and our Nigerian heritage,” the ladies revealed on Twitter.
‘Homegrown’ hosts a robust group of collaborators, including Grammy-nominated producer KAYTRANADA, neo soul group Phony PPL and Pomo, whose producer credits include Mac Miller’s ‘Swimming,’ Anderson .Paak’s ‘Ventura’ and HONNE’s ‘No Song Without You.’ As a whole, VanJess continues along their upward trajectory on ‘Homegrown,” creating a cohesive, well-rounded project that reaches new sonic heights elevated by remarkable visuals.
Shirley: Congratulations on the completion of your EP ‘Homegrown’ and the accompanying singles “Slow Down”, “Come Over” and “Curious” As a listener I feel myself represented through your expression of Black-American femininity. The music you curate as an expression of that intersectionality is fully innovative in this house r&b sound. Why title the EP “Homegrown”?
Jess: The title Homegrown, means a lot to us for a few reasons. First, it was actually the original title of our first album and that was obviously because at the time we obviously got our start through YouTube. We struggled to be taken seriously in the industry, really, and it was almost like, if these producers don’t wanna take it seriously, we are just going to produce ourselves, we are going to write all of our music, we had set up our own studio. We were like we should really callout first project “Homegrown” because it really is homegrown. Everything was done in our house, singing in our bathroom. That was at the time. That year, 2016, was really a breakthrough for us for our current A & R. We started to really independently build our sound, and then obviously it led us to our label home now.
We found ourselves getting back to that last year with quarantine and everything. We found ourselves being closer to each other than ever before, and our family. I realized we got back to doing covers over the quarantine. We are recording at home again. We really kinda went back to it. It was this beautiful thing. We’ve kinda almost come full circle, and we still create the same exact way. And that’s what the title “Homegrown” meant to us.
Shirley: How do identity politics and intersectionality intersect with your artistic practice?
Jess: With being Nigerian American, and having this duo-identity, i think that’s something for us, because before all this current roll out we’ve been on, a lot of people didn’t know we were two people. They didn’t see us a lot. I think we wanted to take the opportunity of people seeing our faces to really showcase that identity. We didn’t want to do it in a way that felt performative or like we were putting on a costume. You know. Because that’s never really the move.
Shirley: Yes. You were trying to be authentic and move with intent.
Jess: It’s important for people to see themselves, we came up with this starting point with the concept and we thought if we were quarantined in the 70s in Nigeria, what would we dress like? How would we look? And we just be laid back, and be very natural. That inspired us to take the single artwork in our home. What we did was, with this girl name Becky who was the plug for all the Ankara fabrics, we used it as the backdrop for the art. We used my iphone to take the photos. For the first three covers that’s really what we did. We are so happy because people really got it. We were blown away by the response on twitter and we were happy because that’s what we did want, for people to see that and understand.
Shirley: What was the production process like? Do you envision the production and find artists that can emulate the sounds that you want, or do you work on already built beats? Or kind of a balance of everything?
Jess: For usnow, we are fortunate that we are able to work with producers and engineers that understand us, so our project is sounding the way its supposed to. It’s all a journey, it’s a process of finding people who get who you are, and understand your sound. Who know how to properly execute your vision. That takes time. Fortunately we had a lot of that in place already so the process was a bit easier, even if it was kinda from home.
Even the song ”Come over” we teased some of it on Twitter and we recorded the rest of it at home and sending it to the engineer, so it was this whole special thing that was coming together.
Shirley: Your vision is unique, not just on a musical level, but also on a visual – the cover art for your singles are beautiful! As musicians, how do you aim to represent your work through visual forms? What is the intentionality behind it?
Ivana: The intention is always to be authentic, to represent who we are, and allow people to get to know us through that. I think with this current era we were definitely more intentional with representing our culture in a subtle way, and not being so trendy, or doing something that’s not genuine. I think that we are always organic. We are always in conversation. Jess and I are always talking about where we are at and what we are inspired by.
Kahlea: That’s something I wanted to get at; what are you inspired by. Keeping on the same line of visuals, you both typically rock natural styles which is something we don’t see often in the music industry, There is a pressure to not be natural. What is your inspiration and what do you hope to convey?
Ivana: It’s exactly what you’re saying. It’s the fact that, wow this isn’t happening. We always want to change. We always want to impact in the right way because we have a responsibility as artists because people are viewing so what’s getting in your eye gate? Oh it’s two black women, they are doing the same thing, it’s not necessarily changing something for the next person. I wanna take this further, I want to be inspired and take this to another level. I am going to continue this because this is resonating with me. Oh I relate. Wow, she looks like me. And that doesn’t always happen. It’s oh maybe I should look like that because it seems like that’s what’s popular. But why shouldn’t being authentic, or being who we are be popular. Why can’t we come out as we are? Jess and I are always trying tobreak that, our goal is to break that down and confront.
Jess: And normalize it too. The truth is, you see us now and our hair is not styled.
Shirley: And I love that because you are authentically yourself.
Ivana: And it’s the truth!
Jess: For us, as artists, of course we are going to put on make up and look pretty, but even in that setting we can still be ourselves. And that’s still beautiful, and that’s still glamorous to look like that. The more that we normalize that — because it was normalized, in the 90s and early 2000s. We saw so much more hair representation. I think for us, we grew up with that. And I think we are actually starting to get back to it. For us we want to keep that. It doesn’t mean we don’t put on a wig here and there because sometimes you wanna switch it up. Being natural is so important to us.
Ivana: Especially with the art work because whatever is front and center, whatever is going to be seen the most, that’s where we have an opportunity. As much as we can to take the opportunity to confront, to see. To show the truth will do that. Noweveryone wants things to be a certain way that you kind of start to diminish yourself. Maybe i shouldn’t. Let me just go with what’s accepted. In our case we are at home. We are in our truth. We’re not dolled up like that all the time. We are just in our natural state, so that’s what we gave. That’s who we would be.
Jess: One important reference that I haven’t mentioned yet, just as far as really intentional thing that we tried to channel, was early 2000s Nollywood movies, and that’s just like Nigerian movies. We grew up with a lot of Nollywood movies, and the women in those movies would be all sorts of skin tones, they would always rock natural styles. It was cool to be able to grow up seeing that and we really wanted to channel that as well into our single artwork that we have been doing.
Ivana: It’s tough because I don’t judge anybody for what they choose to wear or do because we are all individuals. I think it’s just unfortunate that what’s being popularized is not necessarily what is true. It’s like, oh i guess they are not realizing that their impact is going to continue something. Because, when you are in the front, everybody is going to copy that. If we are not thinking about the fact that someone is going to be inspired by us, we are beginning to see some sort of tree of something, then it becomes like I can only see one way. It’s good for everybody to have a space. It’s important that everyone has a space to be themselves, and they’re okay to be that.
Kahlea: You raise a really good point, both of you, because there’s a lot of conversation surrounding, can you separate the art from the artist, but when you are engaging in the ways you are talking about, the person and the art are the same thing. We get to see your public and your private in those ways, that I think is important to black womanhood. To what ivana said, why do i have to go to this almost underground level to tap into the folks that are doing that.
Shirley: And that was something that I was struggling with, trying to curate my questions. I was not trying to make it about black femininity. I feel like it’s easy in certain ways to commodify identity politics or expression. I just want to be authentic in the question making process. I’m not trying to lead too much into someone’s personal life, but as Kahlea said, when the work is authentic, the art and the artist are inseparable. You’re not modifying it for a different palette or an audience. You are authentically representing yourself
Kahlea: I’ve been following you all since your first ep, I actually think the first song i remember hearing was “ Through Enough. With that,” it is very clear you all aren’t bound to the traditional rnb sound and play in electronic and house. Will you synthesize these sounds with traditional cultures in your next work – not just visual but in music?
Jess: I think for us, one thing that, as you pointed out, as far as sonically or production, we never limit ourselves to any specific sound. It’s really, if we hear a beat, or if we are working with a certain producer, we have records that are Afrobeat leaning that just haven’t been released. Whenever we put out a body of work, it’s just a journey. Everything is VanJess. Even touching on more Afrobeat sounds, that’s something that we always do, and at different times it comes out. We are definitely going to do this in our next coming project, just playing around with other sounds that we haven’t explored before. I think that’s the beautiful thing about our creative process, and our freedom of being on the label we are on. We don’t hold that this is the sound for this project.
Ivana: And we’re not gonna let anybody do that to us.
Jess: It’s always been us creating music. We work with our A&R, and he’s kind of the third member.Sometimes he will send us beats, or we will listen to beat packs and just be in the studio with the producer and just create something. We have no rules, and we are really fortunate to work with so many different types of producers.
Ivana: We do what we feel and I am glad that we started that way because it is so important. Your first project is the most important because that’s what sets the tone for everything else. We came in with a very eclectic project. We are gonna give you a whole full course meal. Before that project we were trying many different things. We approach everything in our own way, and that’s what makes us VanJess. And it doesn’t matter what style it is, we are going to approach it our own way because of what we grew up listening to. We grew up listening to everything. We come from that time. We are 90s babies. We listened to everything so it’s not going to be shocking.
Shirley: Going off of what you said, having so many influences that shape your understanding and expression through music; you know what elements you are mashing up. How do you decide what genre to attribute to your work?
Jess: For us, we define the foundation which is soul, music that just feels something. That’s always the foundation of our music. As far as the branches that come out, those are the things that we are never so focused on. Of course people can dissect it and pinpoint the genres we are touching on, for us the core of sound has always just been soul.
Ivana: Because it’s a feeling.
Jess: Whether that’s channeled on an EDM track or a house track, on an Afrobeat track, who knows, it’s always just soulful. That’s the truest response we can say. We just want to make soul music, in whatever form that comes.
Feature interview conducted by Shirley Reynozo and Kahlea Khabir
VANJESS ON THE WEB:
Special thank you to the Shore Fire team