Thana Alexa on her new album Ona and the Living Rooms Music Festival!
Thana Alexa is one of the Jazz Goddesses – passionate, a master in her vocal craft, and political. Simply, a woman after my own heart – and someone to look up to!
I remember first seeing a live recording of her vocalizing at lightning speed next to a saxophone for her husband’s “Migration” album tour, and I couldn’t help but fangirl! A true musician, but with her new album “Ona”, it’s clear her talents are boundless. We caught up with her (virtually) to talk about overcoming challenges like a cancelled tour and the importance of bringing the political into the arts.
1. What would you like to tell the readers about yourself before we get started?
For me, as an artist, the most important thing is to make a statement about the world we live in through the art that we make. Art is an expression of a time - the evidence of revolution and a tool for evoking change. Every major event in history has been followed by art and music that has defined that generation. That’s part of what I would like to be remembered by: making a positive change and giving people the freedom to think, to see and to express.
2. Ona, it’s gorgeous. Let’s dive in:
a. Ona - the title track, you can hear immediately that this album has many influences outside of the traditional realms of jazz, can you tell me more about working with the Rosa Vocal Group, and how you brought your vision of multiple and overlapping voicings/duets/soli for this track to life? “Man wants to keep me down, but my wolf pack won’t allow” “We speak above the men” this track is exceptionally political and brave and fierce and it gets a rise in me, a very angry and happy rise that reminds me I am powerful. It feels amazing, and I can feel it in my heart and in my chest – the feeling is pride.
First of all, thank you for spending the time to not only listen to my music, but to truly HEAR it and its message. The fact that you feel all of these things while listening to ONA is probably the best compliment I could get. I feel like good art provokes a complex web of confrontational feelings within us… happiness, anger, excitement, power, confusion, etc. ONA is the musical expression of what being a woman means to me. It is my discovery of the wild woman spirit within me and the experiences I’ve encountered in setting her free. With this song (and also this album in general) I wanted to celebrate the inspirational women in my life - namely my mother and my grandmother - who have given me the confidence to realize my truth and express it freely. The Croatian lyrics are comprised of sayings and teachings I learned from my grandmother (with whom I speak in Croatian) and the English lyrics are rooted in life experience with my mother (with whom I speak in English). It is a beautiful combination of the two most prominent female voices in my life.
b. Cassandra – who is this for/about? Please tell us the story.
In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a princess of Troy. The god Apollo tried to seduce her by granting her the ability to see the future, but when she refused his advances he cursed her so that no one would ever believe her prophecies. After the birth of the #MeToo movement I began thinking about women who have remained silent about the traumas they have experienced in fear of not being believed or heard. This song is for the Cassandras of the world and their untold stories.
c. Teardrop – this track starts out with your solo voice, can you tell me about how you practice this type of vocal craft, where you are essentially creating all aspects of the soundscape?
When I originally wrote this arrangement I wanted to create an interesting harmony around the main melody from the original song performed by Massive Attack. I wrote out the melody and started erasing certain notes on the page randomly just to see what it would sound like when I sang it back. Then I recorded myself on the looper at home and started to harmonize on top of it… that’s how that intro was born. I really started experimenting with how to create these kinds of vocal soundscapes with my looping and effects pedals while writing the music for this record. Electronics have become a huge part of my sound and my effects have given way to a lot of new creative possibilities with the voice. I feel like I can produce a studio sound in a live setting by using these incredible machines. The combination that I’ve found works the best for me is using the BOSS RC505 with the TC Helicon Voice LiveTouch2.
d. You Taught Me – Who is the quiet one? This has a gentle guitar and voice duo that forms a beautiful warm pocket to look within which then seamlessly slips into an ensemble.
The quiet one is my father. I wrote this song for him. There are very strong women in my life who have helped me grow into the person that I am, but my father is the male figure who showed me what it means for a man to truly respect a woman, her mind, her life and her work. My dad and I have seen tragedy, loss and heartbreak in our family life and we’ve learned a lot from each other in the process – something that will connect us forever. In recent years we’ve disagreed about some things, including politics, which has caused strain on our relationship, but I’ve recognized the fact that I am able to speak my mind and feel confident in my own opinions even when disagreeing with him because of how he helped raise me and how he taught me to defend myself and my ideas.
e. Pachamama – the dancing piano gives pulse that resists in a dance with the bass and voice, please tell us more about the story behind this piece and your experience in working with Regina Carter?
This song is named after the Incan goddess of Earth and fertility and the track is a call to protect our threatened environment. Pachamama is mother to us all. She connects and gives life to everyone and everything that exists. We’ve become so consumed with ourselves that we’ve forgotten how to respect her and the gifts she has given us. In our narcissism we’ve overlooked the fact that Mother Nature can absolutely survive without us, but we cannot survive without her. When I wrote this song I HEARD Regina’s playing on it from the beginning. Regina is so expressive with the violin…. she can make that instrument sing. I met her the first time when we played together with Nigerian bass player Michael Olatuja and his band Lagos Pepper Soup. We had such a great time performing together on that gig that when I finished writing this song I approached her about recording on it and she was very excited to be a part of it. After we recorded the band during our main studio days, Regina then came to our house and overdubbed her part in our home studio, which was an experience I’ll never forget. Watching and listening to her record that day was the true meaning of seeing a person do exactly what they were put on this Earth to do. It was very inspiring.
f. Set Free – this track immediately makes me think of Norma Winstone’s “Distances” album – has she been an influence on you?
I actually haven’t listened to much of Norma Winstone, but now that you’ve mentioned it I’m going to have to check her out! Thank you for the recommendation! I wrote Set Free for my late brother, who passed away in April 2010. Siblings have a special connection that’s unlike any other relationship. It’s a bond that links you physically and emotionally to another person for your whole life. That relationship is your family history, shared secrets, memories… a part of your identity. After I lost my brother I realized that a part of me went with him; a part that no other person on the face of this Earth would ever fully know or understand. I’m grateful that I know what being a sister feels like and I will keep the memories I had with my brother close to my heart forever.
g. Animal Instinct – starts with a wandering bass – fretless? And it truly is quite a delicious arrangement, and I find your voice pulls me into a feverish focus as we journey through this tune.
Matt Brewer is a beast on bass. Upright AND electric. On this tune he came with all of his pedals and created such an atmosphere with his intro… it really sets the stage for the whole thing. Then when Antonio’s drums comes in, Carmen Staaf layers sounds on fender rhodes and Jordan Peters’ guitar soundscapes float on top it becomes other worldly. I love this tune. It’s also a tune that I am very connected to and proud of… not only because of the song itself, but for what it represents. Women are passionate and sexual beings whose desires and fantasies are advertised in society as merely props to excite, entice and satisfy the whims of men. A woman’s needs are often overlooked. Animal Instinct is about my unapologetic pride and comfort in my own sexuality. I’m proud of the sexual being within me and want other women to know that they should be proud of the animals inside of them as well.
h. He Said She Said – I wish there was footage of you and Becca Stevens in the same room together- what a time to be alive! What was your favourite part of working with Becca?
There IS footage! And it will be released next week! ️ I’ve known Becca since we were at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music together. She was a star back then and then just kept getting brighter with ever year. She is so talented, so unique and such a joy to work with. We recorded this song entirely in our home studio - Becca and I singing and Antonio engineering. Becca and I stood there, in our socks and comfy clothes, singing to each other and with each other on either side of the microphone. It was a really special recording session. This song is also very special to me. I wrote it for my best friend and her husband for their wedding. They got married in a small village in the north of Peru. I taught the entire wedding party the bass line and I sang the melody over it while Antonio played cajon. It was beautiful. The story is about how we as people have an incredible ability to throw ourselves into love and vulnerability because we believe in its power. Love has inspired and moved the world since the beginning of time. It gives meaning to life. This song is the story of my friend and her husband, who risked everything to be together and took a chance on love.
3. Phew, this album hits hard, it’s a laughing-crying joy, and you take us on quite the trip. What prompted you to make this album? What was this album’s biggest challenge?
Thank you for saying that. I am so happy to hear the amount of women (and men, for that matter) who have been touched by the album’s message. The idea for ONA evolved over the course of two years, but crystallized in early 2017 after I attended the Women's March on Washington, D.C. I had never felt so motivated to express my right to resist, to protest, to be heard and to support a positive movement of change. Right after I got back from the march I composed "The Resistance” and subsequently continued to write songs with women as the theme. The theme didn’t really jump out at me until I was 2-3 songs in… I suddenly realized that the culmination of the stories I began to build through these compositions lead me to ONA, the theme, the song and the songs on the rest of the album.
The making of this album was an uphill battle from the beginning. I was distressed to learn in August of 2019 that PledgeMusic, the crowdfunding platform I had used to promote and raise funds for my album, was liquidated and pending a criminal investigation by the Insolvency Court in the UK. This was after more than a year of fighting with the company - to no avail - trying to retrieve the funds that I had raised through my campaign. I am one of the thousands of international artists whose projects was negatively affected. In my case, about half of the funds raised through the generous support of friends, family and fans using this platform was frozen and will never be paid out to me. This was one of the largest blows to the ONA project and it set me back a great deal. Not only did they not pay me the money that I had raised, but I was then stuck in a situation where hundreds of friends and fans around the world had paid for merchandise (CDs, t-shirts, etc) that I could not afford to make and send. The album production was delayed by at least a year, because I didn’t want to release the album until I was in a position to be able to send my fans the things they paid for. Now, with the current Coronavirus crisis, those deliveries have been further delayed, but will be sent out as soon as it is safe to do so. Thanks to an incredibly generous grant from the Cafe Royal Cultural Foundation last year, I was able to finish the album and cover what was lost by the PledgeMusic scandal.
4. Please tell me about what a cancelled tour means to you, and what can we do to help overcome the losses facing the musical community during these isolated times?
As I mentioned before, the process of making this album has been an uphill battle from the beginning, and my cancelled release tour is no exception. Not only has my release tour been cancelled, but ALL of my gigs, tours and teaching until at least the middle of August (and even that is still pending). It is a very difficult time for musicians and freelancers all over the world. This could very well change the landscape of the gigging lifestyle as we know it. Even if a vaccine is discovered for COVID-19, I wonder how long it will take for people to feel comfortable gathering in large groups for concerts, masterclasses and the like. It may take a while. In the meantime, we artists have to focus on ways to continue developing our craft, expressing what we feel, and connecting with the musical community that we all love so much. That is part of the reason that I teamed up with two friends - NYC musicians Sirintip and Owen Broder - to create Live From Our Living Rooms, an Online Festival & Fundraiser.
When the pandemic first came to national attention in the US and concerts, tours and other music-related jobs were getting cancelled, Sirintip decided to start a personal GoFundMe to raise money for NYC artists who were looking at very difficult financial times ahead. Owen Broder, who saw a post about her fundraiser on Instagram, got in touch with her with an idea to start an online music festival to continue a creative exchange of music within our community. They both then contacted me with the idea, and I suggested that we get a nonprofit fiscal sponsor involved in order to solicit tax deductible donations and, hopefully, institutional support as well as a detailed grant application and an experienced panel of grantmakers in NYC. This is how the team of Live From Our Living Rooms began. Ever since that first conference call a continuous flow of mutual support, wonderful ideas and creativity have given way to what is now the Live From Our Living Rooms Online Music Festival & Fundraiser. From there, we began contacting all the musicians we knew collectively. The stellar lineup we secured is a firsthand account of what a supportive community we are all apart of here in NYC.
The festival will run April 1-7 and will include 4 livestream videos each day - one children’s program in the morning, one interdisciplinary program/ masterclass in the afternoon and two evening performances. We’ve managed to get some incredible names in jazz on board to graciously donate their time to help the cause, including Chick Corea, Christian McBride & Melissa Walker, Joe Lovano & Judi Silvano, Linda May Han Oh & Fabian Almazan, Becca Stevens, Bill Frisell, Julian Lage & Margaret Glaspy, and many others. Our full festival schedule is available HERE. All the performances will be broadcast for free via Crowdcast, where there will also be a button to make tax deductible donations to our Charitable GoFundMe which was set up by our nonprofit partner, MusicTalks.
The music festival’s purpose is to bring attention to the charitable fundraiser we’ve set up to give $500 performance grants to select NYC musicians who are struggling in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic and who apply for aid. We have a grant application that is available on our website. Each application will be reviewed by a panel of experienced grantmakers in the arts here in NYC. The grant application deadline is April 8 and the first round of grants will be paid out by April 22. If we raise enough money, we will open it up for a second round of applications and probably even a second week of the festival for more performances.
This whole initiative has reached more people and recognition than we could have ever anticipated… We have already been covered in Rolling Stone, NPR, The Telegraph, All About Jazz, Broadway World, and more, and are still waiting for more coverage to come out this week. It’s a heartwarming thing to feel the support.
Check out www.livefromourlivingrooms.com for more information!
5. Last but not least, what would you like to say to the womxn and youth about being a womxn in jazz?
All women of the world have a difficult journey to travel, no matter what field they find themselves in. I believe that if we all as human beings live with integrity first - never compromising on WHO we are and WHAT we stand for - we can reach a level of mutual respect. With ONA, I wanted to focus on celebrating women and the incredible advances that we have made in our lifetime and in society throughout history - from my perspective, of course. It’s not about pointing the finger and saying, “Look at how oppressed you’ve made me and look at all the things you’ve prevented me from doing!” The focus is on the things that we HAVE been able to do despite what has stood in our way. Women are like water… we always find our way. To all the young female musicians out there, stick to your instincts, never feel like you have to compromise on your integrity, and be confident in knowing that your self respect is worth FAR more than anything else. Believe in yourself… always.