By Yeow Kai Chai
Vanessa Fernandez is reclining on a pristine beach in Okinawa, the sub-tropical island paradise off the south-western tip of Japan. Well, at least that’s how you’d imagine her. After all, you could hear waves lapping gently, a ceaseless ebb and flow echoing her mellifluous flow of ideas.
Under normal circumstances, one would be ridiculously jealous of her, but this is Vanessa we’re talking about here – one of Singapore’s most industrious, giving and brilliant musicians who has paid her dues for two decades, so let’s just say she has earned this respite.
Her resume is impressive: At 18, she was part of the hip-hop group Urban Xchange (later renamed Parking Lot Pimp), became a radio deejay at 98.7FM , and released her first EP under her new electronic moniker Vandetta in 2013 during a stint in Los Angeles. Returning to Singapore, she became the Programme Director at the indie music station Lush 99.5FM before it went off transmission in August 2017.
She then set up her own imprint, Ownself Records, and has been tirelessly championing Singaporean music. She curated the Hear65 showcase at BIGSOUND music festival and conference in Brisbane recently, and runs the Noise Music Mentorship for the National Arts Council. As Vanessa Fernandez, she has released albums with Groove Notes Records. As Vandetta, she has released music on Syndicate, Medallion Sounds and her own imprint. Her side projects include Octover, Vandemons and Soulful Ghosts.
In the midst of an intriguing singles project which began in August this year and ends in January 2020, Vanessa speaks to us on Skype before she performs at The Alex Blake Charlie Sessions on 7 Dec.
You’ve been releasing a series of five singles inspired by music that has influenced you, such as R&B, jazz, soul, house and hip-hop. Is it because you did not want to release them as an album, and that you wanted to test out the different sounds?
It’s a couple of things. I started my own imprint, Ownself Records. Yes, ownself release ownself! (Laughs) I wanted to understand how the industry works. I do things independently, and it’s not like I have huge resources or anything. So, as somebody who likes to have a lot of creative control, I just wanted to do it, launch it, and see how it works. It’s pretty much a singles’ market these days. People drop a bunch of singles, and then release like an EP or an album. For me, I felt like I wanted to drop them as singles.
When I did the Mindkiller EP in 2017, you did a video, you talked about it, and then you dropped the EP. It was a two-month window where you were communicating with people. So, for me, it is more about communication. I’m not somebody who, like, posts three times a day on socials, and goes out and attends a lot of stuff.
But I really like creating. So it’s an exercise in: “You know, I have this work. It doesn’t necessarily fit into an EP, because each of the tracks are a very different sound and a different genre.” It made more sense to release them as singles. I would also have more chances to talk about the songs, the musical influences, and what they mean to me.
What are some insights you have gleaned so far?
The first song I released was ‘Hold It Down’. It’s what you would call “neo-R&B” and “soul R&B”. That’s my most successful single to date. That’s probably because it is very much a “now” sound. I’m also processing the data in terms of streaming channels and how successful they are.
I have also heard from people who haven’t heard from me in a long time. A secondary schoolmate contacted me and said: “I just saw you’re releasing a single called ‘Not Your B’. I’m so amazed you’re still making music, and I’m so happy for you.” These are the things which are actually more meaningful.
I’m glad you mentioned ‘Not Your B’, which is a very personal song. Did you have any reservations about releasing it, or was it something you needed to do?
I forgot about that song! I was working with Zendyll Records, a collective started by Jon Chua from The Sam Willows. I was doing a show for them. I was rehearsing, and The Sam Willows were also rehearsing in the same space. Benjamin Kheng from The Sam Willows came over and said: “I need to tell you something. I really like your B song.” I was like, “Oh sh**, I completely forgot about it!”
Then I thought, “Y’know, it is a cool song, and I had actually had it all done.” It was already produced back in 2008. So we updated it. I feel it’s a bit of a triumph to take something you have had for a long time, and redo it with a bunch of amazing people, like Evanturetime, Chok Kerong… and I can’t believe that Charlie Lim said yes, and Tim De Cotta too!
And the message still works. At that time, when I wrote the song, I was in an emotionally abusive relationship, and feeling all sorts of things. To get that out, and be able to create with it, that’s one of the things which is beautiful about art and music. I had no reservations, because it’s a message people can relate to: “You’re not alone, you can come out of it and be strong.”
You’re actually having a conversation with your younger self from 10 years ago.
(Laughs) You’re right!
(Vandetta by Martin Yeoh)
You flit between two personas: the audiophile Vanessa Fernandez and the electronic Vandetta. Do you think one day you might fuse them together?
I have entertained the idea. But I’m not sure whether I would do it. A lot of things have to be in place for something like that to come to fruition, like A&R. It’s not like it’s impossible, and it’s not that I’m not open to it. In terms of where I’m at in my musical career, I’m thinking: what are the projects, who are the people I want to work with, what do I want to say, and how is that going to change or morph into different types of creative outlets.
Give us a sneak peek into what’s on the horizon then.
One idea I’m thinking about for the next Vandetta project is for it to be multi-media and multi-sensory. I also work with my partner, Nic Robertson, under this project called Soulful Ghosts, and we have been writing some music together. I’m also working with Chok Kerong for The Alex Blake Charlie Sessions. He has rearranged a bunch of my songs and I’m really excited for that. I may also be working with Jason Tan for Octover.
It sounds super exciting already. Talking about The Alex Blake Charlie Sessions, what do you think of it, and are there artists you’re looking out for?
I’ve known Marcia (Tan, founder of the organisers 24OWLS), and the team for a long time. Laneway having local artists in its programme is pretty much because of them. They have always considered the music scene – not just in terms of caring about it, but also how to put out good stuff and create top-notch experiences.
First, I’m glad they are doing their own thing, and of course, it’s going to be amazing. Second, which is very brave and very clever, is for them to do a female-fronted line-up. For me, I’ve never seen something like that since the Lilith Fair, which was more than 20 years ago. They have always been trendsetters and ahead of their own game.
In terms of the artists I want to see, Kero Kero Bonito! I met them in Shanghai. I’m also excited to see SOAK and LÉON. And of course, the other local artists Amanda Ang aka A/K/A SOUNDS and Ginette Chittick, they always bring a good time!
Vandetta performs at The Alex Blake Charlie Sessions on Saturday, 7 Dec, at the Pasir Panjang Power Station. Get tickets here: http://bit.ly/ABCapactix