By FEMI ABORISADE
After a decade-long tenure in the music industry, it is rare that an artist reenter the scene with more vigor than when they started. Such is the case of Vandetta, the Singapore-via-Los Angeles producer, singer and songwriter born Vanessa Fernandez, who released a self-titled EP of cool, transcendent songs that pair rich R&B vocals and liquid electronica production — all derived from her mouth.
Fernandez became interested in music at an early age, singing in the church choir and playing gigs around Singapore. She eventually became a part of the hip hop group Urban Xchange, a successful artistic period that culminated in their 2002 nomination at the MTV Asia Music Awards. Following the group’s disbandment and her graduation from college, she helmed the morning drive radio show at 987fm from 2006-2010.
Now, on “Vandetta,” Fernandez has seemingly taken the knowledge of fitting her lovely voice among a cadre of other factors and flipping that on its head, turning her voice into the instrument. For that fact, the EP comes off as a mystic jam session with her and beatboxers: “Walls” is an interlocked system of skittering snares, harmonic hoos and bass gulps providing an airy chasm for her expectant lyrics: “Waitin’ for the day when I no longer fear the life I’m dreamin’.”
The surreal “Number One” features what sounds like a hyperventilating pan flute, hip-hop-influenced vocal percussion and choppy group vocals haunting the background. The lead single, “Fly,” is an infectious dance track with murky lyrics and a breezy composition.
In anticipation of the EP’s release, The Collegian held an interview with the talented Fernandez to talk about “Vandetta’s” conception, the lead single’s creative visuals, the music scene in her native Singapore and more.
1. What factors must be in place to create a song or and EP based on heavy vocal instrumentation?
If you’re going to do it yourself you have to be a producer, which means you have to understand how to build a song and create a journey. You also have to understand the relationship between different sounds in order to make everything fit together. On my EP I wanted my voice to sound like instruments, so some knowledge of synthesis is required as well. Everything else is your imagination and emotion.
2. How long did it take to craft the EP?
The entire process took about a year. It started with the concept of creating music using just my voice to represent a story of feeling like a caged bird and finding joy in song. I was quite patient. I’d make a bunch of songs and then step away, live life a little, come back and work on new ideas or refine some others. When I had enough songs that strongly represented the initial concept I decided it was ready.
I came up with an initial concept brief and worked with Kevin Ou to bring it to life. I knew the idea was slightly strange and definitely symbolic so to make it work I needed someone with a great eye, which is why Kevin was perfect because he comes from a photography background. I like things to look beautiful and romantic, but Kevin knows how to actually get there. He was great to work with.
4. What music did you listen to growing up?
My dad monopolized the record player in our house when we were kids. He’d play a range of music from Vivaldi to Nat King Cole to Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and I think I learned to love different kinds of music because of him. Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” was the first record I was allowed to play. I was obsessed with Mariah Carey’s “Music Box” as much as Oasis’ “What’s The Story Morning Glory?” I got into singer-songwriters like Alanis Morisette, Sheryl Crow and John Mayer, then fell in love with D’Angelo and Maxwell.
5. How was meeting Kanye West back in 2008?
I was working for a Singapore radio station and we were hosting the press conference and listening party for 808s & Heartbreak. I remember him being super down to earth and humble during the listening session, later walking upstairs to the press conference room with all the media without any airs. When the cameras were turned on it’s almost like he turned on his Kanye West persona too. Then later when it was all done he was just a regular guy again. He’s only human but he is also a true artist. I don’t think too many people understand embodying that juxtaposition. The way he presents his art through hip-hop is unparalleled by anyone in the game right now except Flying Lotus. I have nothing but respect for him.
6. You are one-half of Octover, with producer Jason Tan. If you had the chance to work with one of your favorite producers for an entire project, who would that be?
Either Danger Mouse or Hudson Mohawke.
7. Being that you and Yuna come from the same area, do Malaysia and Singapore have an affinity for rich R&B?
Most definitely! I spent a lot of time in Malaysia when I first started out in a hip-hop group called Urban Xchange back in 2002 – we were signed to Universal Malaysia. There were so many amazing artists we got to hang with who were fantastic R&B singers. If you just look at traditional Malay music even, the kind of vocal runs they can do are super difficult! Malaysia definitely loves their rock, jazz and electronic music too, just as much as we Singaporeans do.
8. What is the great difference you have seen between the American music scene and the Singaporean music scene?
The American music scene is so large and diverse and open, and it’s filled with incredibly talented people. It’s inspiring and that kind of culture and community makes you feel free. There are definitely talented people in Singapore but we’re small and we don’t really have an industry the way America does. Over here, if any child said they wanted to be an artist or a musician it is discouraged because it’s virtually impossible to survive creating original music. In America talent is truly celebrated and appreciated, which is why it’s everywhere. It makes the struggle seem harder here, but I’ve realised artists anywhere in the world struggle all the time. You have to just make it work, keep creating, refining your craft and strengthening your voice.
9. What do you have on your iPod right now?
I don’t have an iPod, just playlists on my iPhone, which are titled Bjork, Dilla, Gem Drops (compilations by a label called Dropping Gems), Radiohead, Brainfeeder. On repeat right now is an El Train refix of Mary J. Blige’s “Just Fine.”
10. Pancakes or Waffles?
Both. With loads of butter and maple syrup!