At age 25, most people are very early in their career if they have even settled on one. For Jenna, recently branded JENNA Nation, she settled on a career long ago and already has twelve years of experience.
Born and Raised in Ottawa and now living and working in Toronto, JENNA started vocal lessons at age seven as well as studying both piano and saxophone. She also has music theory education from the Royal Conservatory of Music, as well as formal jazz training. But you could fill a stadium with twenty-somethings who can claim the same musical training. For JENNA, the moment when she knew music theory must morph into a musical career came very early.
At age eight, she won her first competition.
“It was one of those moments where I really knew what I wanted to do. It was the moment when I thought – I’m actually good at this – I can do this. I was just a kid and I liked singing. It was my first time at a competition and singing for real. I spent months preparing for this. The category I was in was twelve years and younger, so most the kids in it were a lot older 11 and 12. All my family was there and it felt really good when I won. Like I said, that was the moment when I knew what I wanted to do.”
Shortly after that competition and largely because of the exposure it gave her, JENNA was asked to sing on Parliament Hill for Canada Day. What was that like?
“Yeah – someone in the audience at the competition was responsible for the programming for Canada Day on the Hill. Aselin Debison from Nova Scotia was an eleven year old who was supposed to be singing, but she had another engagement. So a few days before the actual performance, the woman from the competition called me and asked if I could perform in place of Aselin. I had to learn the song. My mom was pretty nervous. She was thinking about the thousands of people that I’d have to perform in front of and I didn’t even know the song yet. I just said “no – no I can do this”. I worked with my vocal coach. She believed in me. We were at the cottage and she drilled me for hours to get the song right. I just got to it and did it. It was probably one of the biggest performances I’ve ever done.”
When asked about being only eight and nervous, JENNA responds with her confidence built on the love of performing.
“No – actually I wasn’t nervous at all. It was just something that I loved, so I really felt at home on the stage. I get more nervous when it’s just a few people that I’m performing for.”
JENNA continued to grace the stages of the Nation’s Capital often performing at Ottawa’s annual International Jazz Festival before she moved on to study music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston?
I asked JENNA to tell me more about her time at Berklee.
“It was my dream to go there. In many ways it was as good as I could have imagined and in other ways it was way beyond anything that I could have imagined. I learned that everyone there had the same passion, so it was great to be surrounded by so many like-minded people. It wasn’t a very big school, so pretty much everybody knew everybody else and that was really cool. You didn’t have classes with hundreds of other people. You had more one-on-one with your professors. You got to know them. I found that they really wanted to help you develop. These are people who have been in the industry for years and they really want to impart their knowledge and experience.
The other thing that I absolutely loved was the fact that you had people from all over the world. Sometimes I think I learned more outside the classroom from the other students. First year was hard because I wanted to be up all night just jamming with the other students and writing. I had to find a balance.
It was such a great experience being surrounded by so many people with the same interests as me, but also being exposed to so many different styles of music and cultures. That was another thing about Berklee – they didn’t try to put you in a box. Other schools do this. If you’re in the classical program, you stick to classical. If you’re in the jazz program, you have to stick to jazz. But Berklee didn’t do that. You could be in a Latin music class, or a gospel choir. I was in a middle-eastern ensemble. There was no judgment. People were really welcoming and accepting. It was a great learning environment.”
How did your time at Berklee change your approach to music?
“It helped me develop my artistry. Learning about genres and history helps me to understand the origins of this music. It allows me to pull from other genres for my own music and understand where this is coming from.”
Before studying at Berklee, JENNA had released an EP of jazz, pop and musical theatre – A Moment in Time in 2008 – followed a year later by a full length album of some of her favourite jazz standards – Connected.
You’ve got a number of singles out right now. Are these intended as part of a full album?
“Yeah – that’s what I’m working towards. I don’t know if all of the singles will be on the album. Probably Drunk and Dreamin’ will for sure.”
Any release dates?
“I’m looking to have it done by the summer.” (NOTE: since this interview, the album was completed and ready for a fall release).
What goes into your decisions about what is kept and what is not included in an album? How much control do you have over those decisions and how much is made by others?
“Because I’m not signed to a label yet, pretty much everything is my decision – which is nice, but sometimes it can be difficult. When you’re the artist listening to your own songs, it can be difficult to choose because I’ve been writing them so it’s hard to choose a favourite. I’ll listen to a song that I wrote yesterday and think “I can do better”. It can be a difficult process. Right now I’ve been going through songs with my manager and with close friends. I get their opinions. We try to decide what songs could be on an album.
Because I haven’t been signed yet, I have the industry looking at me. The industry wants to put people in a box. They want to be able to define you. There’s been times when I’ve felt pressured to have an album that has a certain sound to it. And there’s been times when I felt I should do that just to make everybody else happy. But that’s not where I am. I come from so many different genres. I was a jazz singer for a long time. I studied and performed classical music. I’ve done musical theatre. And from my exposure at Berklee it’s really hard to say I’m just this kind of a singer. There are other artists who have had success with a lot of different music types. It’s just really difficult for me to put myself in one category.”
I was listening to “Break Your Heart” and I was wondering who is singing with you.
“That’s a friend of mine from Berklee. I was at a recording studio in Houston as a Student Ambassador for Berklee. I was helping with auditions at the studio. After I graduated, they invited me back to record and one of my friends from Berklee was living in Houston, so I just invited him to record with me.”
Where did you record your latest singles?
“Wake Up” was recorded in New York with A+A . The video was shot in Ottawa.
You made a shift from jazz to R&B/Soul, tell me about that transition.
“I still do some jazz, but I’m not releasing any jazz albums. When I went to Berklee, I had to write a lot more and this new music was just what was coming to me. I found that as much as I still love jazz, I found that R&B is where my true passion is.”
Most of what you’re releasing now is R&B and Soul. Do you write most of these?
“Yes. I do work with some other writers, but I’m involved in all of it.”
Can you tell me more about your creative process?
“There’s no exact formula. It would literally be when I’m walking down the street a melody will come into my head and when I get home, I start working on it at the piano. Try to get something down. Then I’ll take it to a producer to get help in working it up to a track. Or sometimes, probably more often, I’ll be talking to someone or just see maybe a billboard sign and think “that’s a really cool phrase or line” that will be good for a lyric. And then there are times that I just have an idea for a concept for a song. I’m constantly making voice notes on my phone or writing notes in my phone. That’s usually where it starts. But there are times when I go to the studio and we know this is a writing session. The producer will usually start by laying down a couple of tracks and I try to find lyrics that work with it. I like this more organic approach more where we work off the energy in the room. I don’t really like to work from a track that someone has emailed to me. It’s just not as effective for me.
Who are your major musical influences right now?
“That’s a tough question. I always have R&B playing at home or at the gym. That’s an inspiration. And Michael Jackson will always be a huge influence. I love jazz too – Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson.
Currently, as much as I’m not a fan of him as a person, I do like Chris Brown’s music. I’m also listening to Kehlani – she is a newer artist, but I really like what she is doing.”
Any plans for upcoming collaborations? Who would you really like to collaborate with?
“On my upcoming album there will be some rap and live instrumental collaborations. I’d like to work with Chris Brown of course. It would be really cool to work with Drake or The Weeknd.”
Where do you see your career five years from now?
“I see myself as an international performer with a large international fan base. I see myself doing large arena concerts and outdoor festivals.”
I’m rebranding myself as JENNA Nation so I’d like to develop that brand like Lady Gaga has her Monsters and Justin Bieber has his Beliebers. I want to have JENNA Nation. All of my social media and website have JENNA Nation as my brand and @jennagnation. To bring together people from all over the world who believe in my music.”
I also really want to be able to give back. An idea that I have is to start a camp for recording artists. One thing that was great about Berklee was the theory and the performance, but other than taking a business course, you don’t learn a lot about the business of music. I had to learn this as I was going along. I’d like to have a camp where you come as a recording artist. People would be there to help you with your performance skills. Have classes on management – how to avoid people who just want to take advantage of you.”
Any plans to release on vinyl?
“I’ve thought about it, but right now, cost-wise it doesn’t make sense. Maybe in the future when I have the money for this it would be really cool.”
Has the emergence of digital media changed the creative process?
“I think it has made me reconsider things like doing an album or just putting out singles. People really aren’t buying albums.
Now the single comes first before an album or EP.
It’s almost a waste to put out a 15 song album that people will only download one or two songs from iTunes.
I’d like to see more value put into buying music. When people bought vinyl albums there was the art work and lyrics – you had something to hold in your hands that was valuable.
Downloads are not a physical thing so people don’t really value them as much.”
Have services like SoundCloud had an impact on your work?
“Absolutely. You don’t need to start with a record label anymore. You can release on SoundCloud and connect with people in other countries where I might not have been able to before. There have been times when I’ve connected with producers from other countries, just because they’ve heard something that I’ve done on SoundCloud.”
What about social media – has it had an impact on how you reach your fan base?
“Definitely. I’m still learning, but it helps me connect with someone in say Brazil. It is really helpful.”
What was the inspiration for the album cover shot on the cover of your self-titled album?
“That’s funny. We were just wandering around Toronto and taking random shots and I had never seen a laundromat with such vibrant colours. There were just so many colours – it was straight out of the sixties. There wasn’t any specific meaning to it. We just liked the vibrant colours. It has a retro feel to it and a lot of the songs on that album had a retro sound to them.”
What’s your perspective on musicians on social issues? Should they speak out?
“I think musicians have an obligation to speak out. It’s really essential. Especially for people who have been in the industry for a long time. Music and politics really go hand in hand. Whether it’s Marvin Gaye or Lady Gaga, advocating for equal rights. It’s happening right now in hip hop. You saw it for Trump’s inauguration when most musicians wouldn’t even consider performing for him because they didn’t believe in what he stood for.
It’s something that I want to do as well. I did a little bit of that with my song Wake Up. That song was about power and our addiction to our devices and trying to make the point that we need to have social interaction and not through our devices or social media. That face to face contact and connection. There’s a lot of things that I believe in and would like to speak out on like girls and body image. I don’t believe in violent approaches to conflict.
It’s Canada 150 – who would you like on the hill?
“Celine Dion would have to be included. And Drake would have to be included. He’s done a lot for Canada and especially for Toronto. I’d love to be included.”