Jess Connelly on Landing in Showbiz & Making Smooth, Homegrown R&B
R&B songstress Jess Connelly has come a long way since penning songs about love and heartbreak as a single teen. Hailing from Australia and the Philippines, the sensual siren tried her hand at being the vocalist for an electronic/house band (a less-than-stellar live show eventually led her to go solo) and even a reality star on Pinoy Big Brother.
Once she left the reality show and electronic band to focus on curating her cool-girl brand on social media and singing music that reflected her old-school influences (among them include Sade, Aaliyah and Tupac), Connelly became a SoundCloud darling with her first offering “Under Blankets” and inaugural EP, How I Love, made with Filipino producer, crwn.
Now, after receiving attention Stateside from The FADER and serving as a VJ on MTV Philippines, Connelly is prepping her forthcoming project, the JCON Mixtape (a nod to her nickname). TIDAL’s Rising Artist of the Week gets real about her showbiz past and musical style plus shares her JCON Mood playlist below.
You were born in Australia but grew up in the Philippines. How did music play a role in your upbringing?
Honestly, growing up in the suburbs, nobody really listened to urban music, and that’s what I gravitated towards. My brother and sister were really the ones that put me on, like I grew up listening to Tupac and Biggie, even the early ‘00s R&B, Boyz II Men, a lot of male R&B. That’s just the sound I gravitated towards and always liked, and I wanted to recreate myself and make my own version [of that sound as an artist].
When did singing become a part of your life?
I’ve been singing my whole life since I can remember. My dad sings just as a hobby, and I would always try and mimic all the vocal things he would do. Every time I learned something, I’d be like, ‘Dad, look what I can do.’ My mom was definitely the one that wanted me to succeed. My dad was always working and my mom would take me to whoever she could find. I started in a singing school then [she'd] be like, ‘Nope, you gotta level up.’ She’d drive me an hour to Sydney [in Australia] every weekend to a private vocal coach and found some studio for me to practice recording in, and that’s when I started writing at about 12, 13.
When did you end up moving to the Philippines?
I told my parents I didn’t want to go to college, and I wanted to sing. They were kind of pissed off about that, so we went on our yearly vacation. My parents tricked me. It was actually a one-way ticket to the Philippines instead of an extended vacation. At first, I hated it because I didn’t have any friends.
In Australia, I always felt out of place, and then, when I moved to the Philippines and started making friends and settling in, that’s really where I became myself. I’m really an introvert but I was an extreme introvert in Australia. I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere and then the Philippines unleashed it.
How does an introvert land in showbiz?
So I tried it but I’m also extremely stubborn. Like I’ll do something if I like to do it or else it’s not gonna be done well, and I tried it for a year and hated it. I had different managers. One put me in this tacky girl group. The goal was always singing but it seemed like I was doing everything but that. I did a reality show [Pinoy Big Brother], and that was supposed to launch [my career]. I quit the reality show.
What did you learn about yourself doing that show?
I learned that I’m so glad that I just did it my own way. So pretty much none of the [Filipino TV] stations were fucking with me to be honest, and I had to conform to being a leading lady [on-air] but that’s not what I wanted to be. So then social media came in. I was pretty late to social media. All my friends had it, and I didn’t know what Instagram was. A lot of my friends do events or they’re DJs or they run in the social scene, so I use my social media as my channel. I branded myself through my platforms and my friends would book me for events and parties. My friends who are DJs would play my music in the clubs and underground venues so really it’s my friends that supported me.
How has your sound evolved?
Now, I think I like to just create the vibe that I like. That’s really my main focus. I want people to feel a certain way when they listen to my music. Going back to [my former group] Sinyma (Ed. Note: Band name is pronounced ‘cinema’) after that show biz stuff, I wanted to perform and write so my friend was already in an electronic/house band and they needed a new singer, so I started with them but at that point, I didn’t know how to perform. I was too scared, I was too shy so they really threw me into the deep end like the first time I got with them, they were like, ‘We sent you these four beats and we’re gonna perform these next Wednesday so be ready.’ It was at this really respected gig spot in Quezon City, Route 196, that you have to go through there at least once [as an aspiring artist] like it’s a tough crowd to please. It was the worst gig of my life. There was a mirror to the side of the stage and I couldn’t talk to the audience and I just turned and looked at myself in the mirror.
But they really taught me how to write and perform, how to deal with clients with gigs but I did that for just under a year and I was like this is not for me. I want to make music that I listen to and that I like ‘cause I could write the songs that they wanted and electronic house is not my style. So I was like eff that I’m gonna do my own stuff. I met this other young producer, crwn, and we just made a song called “Under Blankets’ and put that up. At that time, SoundCloud was hugely popular over here [in America]. The Philippines will gravitate towards whatever’s popular in the States but people wouldn’t really get [a lot of] plays. I had a SoundCloud account and that song got 500,000 plays. I was like whoa, what the hell? That was really a sign like the shit I know how to do is the direction I want to go.
What are you working on now?
So I have a mixtape coming out by the end of the year. It’s more developed and I don’t want to call anything an album until it’s a proper album. My style has developed so much more because when I released “Under Blankets” or the first EP, I just wanted to put out music and I’m so happy it was received well not just in the Philippines but around Asia and even in the States but what I’m releasing now, I think my style is a lot more developed and experimental. I’m just having fun. I think with the last one, I thought so much because it was the first thing I ever put out. I thought so much about if people will like it and it’s pretty basic honestly. With this [project], I just want you to press play and then let it play. It’s all Filipino like everything about it. All the producers are Filipino.
Is spotlighting Filipino talent a goal, too?
Yeah and I hate that when I started putting out music in the Philippines, people were like, this sounds so foreign or international. I don’t think there should be a difference because that is a common thing in the Philippines like this is what local sounds like and this is what international sounds like. I know so many artists that are not exposed or have no limelight in the Philippines but [they just make] good music. There should be no difference and so I’m not labeling it as Filipino [music] but when you find out [about the talent], you’re like shit, this is all homegrown.
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