Thana Alexa celebrates power of women everywhere on ‘ONA’
DownBeat ‘Rising Vocalist’ answers the pussy-grabbing bullshit
The second you hear Thana Alexa sing, you know she’s different from everybody else.
Willowy and deep, the Croatian beauty turns lyrical phrases into emotional, spiritual, often unearthly experiences.
In person, you quickly realize that Alexa’s beautiful inside and out. She exudes warmth, a down-to-earth graciousness, and caring. None of that’s an act. It’s all real.
With shades of Carly Simon/Helen Reddy on acid, and a touch of space-age, vocal bop, the New York City-based singer/songwriter is poised to rock her own special brand of jazz on her next music project — a straight-up, unapologetic celebration of women everywhere.
Alexa turned plenty of heads after releasing her debut album, Ode To Heroes, in March 2015. She’s since racked up a ton of performance time — on her own and in various bands, including Migration with her Grammy-winning husband, “Birdman” percussionist Antonio Sánchez. She also appeared with a select group of “Rising Female Vocalists” in the 2016 and 2017 DownBeat Critic’s Poll.
Now, she’s hoping to follow up that success with an even more ambitious statement piece. A few weeks ago, Alexa took to PledgeMusic’s crowdfunding platform for her new album called ONA (“She” in Croatian), scheduled for release in June of next year.
Already 45 percent funded, with 34 days left in the campaign, ONA will feature original songs in expanded styles encompassing jazz, world music, electronica/looping, soul, and even more pop.
“I explore the feminine and the role women play in our world — a role that makes female influence and strength undeniable, but one that is more often than not overlooked and undervalued. My music will express the obligation I feel to make a relevant statement about the times in which we live,” Alexa explained in press for ONA. “I take a microscopic look at the lives of women, the mind, the soul, the sexuality and the fight within the female. I integrate elements of jazz with soul, electronica, pop and world music and charge it with a powerful message that I truly believe in. I hope you will come along for the ride!”
Some of the exclusives from Alexa’s PledgeMusic campaign include Skype and House Concerts, private drum lessons with Antonio Sánchez, your name in the liner notes, and a studio visit.
Thana Alexa took some time to get real with me about her PledgeMusic campaign, upcoming album, and that pussy-grabbing embarrassment of a President.
Hi, Thana. Before we get into your ONA PledgeMusic campaign, a little confession: I didn’t vote for Donald Trump, but initially, I didn’t see him as this monster. (I’m a fiscal conservative.) I actually thought Trump was misunderstood, his words taken out of context. I felt that the anti-Trump sentiment in general seemed over-the-top and so unfair to the man behind “Celebrity Apprentice.” It turned me off so much that I unfollowed a lot of his critics, including you. But, I’ve since seen the light. Turns out you were right all along. He really has no business in the White House. I let my personal bullshit get in the way of real dialogue. So please accept my apologies.
First off, I want to tell you that I appreciate your honesty and even more than that, I appreciate your ability to change your original attitude and opinion based on what you’ve seen… based on what Trump has shown us he is all about. If after all the misogynistic, racist, bigoted things he’s done and said you maintained that there was nothing wrong with him and that being against him was over the top and unfair, then I think there would be a problem. But you have nothing to be sorry about.
That said, what’s behind ONA? Was it Trump’s disgusting pussy-grabbing?
The idea to do an album dedicated to women actually came to me before Trump’s pussy-grabbing. The title of the record, ONA, came to me first, but it took me a while to hone in on what I wanted that to actually mean and what I wanted the music to say. Once the pussy-grabbing (and everything else) came out in the media — and by the man running for President of the United States, no doubt — it was even more clear to me that I needed to make this artistic statement.
What do you uniquely bring to the table as an artist in this ongoing conversation about “the feminine and the role women play in our world?” Female empowerment seems especially relevant after the Harvey Weinstein scandal in Hollywood.
I think that women are incredible. I think women are powerful. Our ability to endure and survive is unparalleled. Our need to protect, love, and care for others, even when it means sacrificing ourselves in the process, is astounding. We are smart and sophisticated beings, and the fact that so much of our world has tried to deny our freedoms, deny who we are, what we’re worth, and how we contribute is one of the great tragedies of history. Women have been oppressed since the dawn of humankind… each generation, culture, religion, time, and place has had its way of pushing down and disrespecting women. And it’s time for it to stop. If I don’t make my art about something as important as that, then what would I write about? Art is a reflection of our time and this topic is not just relevant to me, but to the world.
What do you hope to show through your music in this new album?
With ONA, I’m really reflecting on what it means for me to be a woman and expressing, in my own words, how extraordinary I think we are. I’m writing about our drive, our intelligence, our love, our endurance, our sexuality, and our innate ability to survive.
What’s going on right now with the making of ONA? Are you going to continue contributing your own songs in this follow-up?
I’m almost done writing the music for the record. Each song has come out in an interesting way… Some songs are about specific people, some songs are about what it means (to me) to be a woman. Some songs reflect emotions of mine, relationships I have in my life, etc. The bottom line is that I am a woman and this project is as much of a self-reflection as it is a statement about what I see in the world.
I have been dying to hear you sing other styles, especially electronica, soul, and pop, since you made such an indelible mark in jazz on your well-received debut album, Ode To Heroes. What was it like to branch out?
I feel like Ode To Heroes was my introduction to the world. It was both a musical expression of some of the most personal and impactful experiences I had had up to that point (namely losing my brother, Niki, and dealing with my mother’s fight — and triumph — with bipolar disorder), and it was also an exploration of who I was musically at the time.
Since recording and releasing Ode To Heroes, I have grown a lot as an individual and as a musician. I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve had some great musical experiences, and I’ve also listened to many different kinds of music that I’ve learned from in the process. All of this has made me appreciate the endless possibilities of blending genres, styles, sounds from different cultures, and then of course using electronics and pedals. I’ve added to my live usage of looping and effects pedals, which has, in turn, changed the way I write music and get ideas.
Sometimes I don’t even sit at the piano to write anymore, I just go straight to the looping pedal and record layers of myself singing with various effects. It’s opened up a sonic world that I’m just starting to dip my toes into.
This is also the first project I’ve ever written for guitar, which is an incredibly versatile instrument that brings so many colors and sonic possibilities to the music.
This is also the first time I’ve ever written lyrics in Croatian and introduced Balkan music into my compositions. The title track of the record is a combination of English and Croatian. The English lyrics are expressions of mine based on things I’ve learned from my mother (with whom I speak English) and the Croatian lyrics are based on things that I’ve learned from my grandmother (with whom I speak Croatian). It’s a beautiful combination of the two powerful female voices in my life who have helped guide me through and teach me about being a strong, independent woman.
Besides the other styles and this female empowerment theme, how else is ONA different from Ode? What does this say about your evolution as an artist?
I think that every artist changes with time. You, the source, remain still the same, but your influences, life experiences, and level of comfort with who you are all change over time. I feel like I’ve grown both musically and as an individual. I’m much more comfortable with who I am and have become unapologetic about being a woman and what that means to me. I think that freedom says a lot about my evolution as an artist.
Have you as an artist and a person changed since Ode To Heroes?
Yes, of course! I would hope that anyone would change and grow in a two-to-three-year time period. It’s just the stuff of life. You change as an artist as you grow as a person and art will always reflect those changes. I’ve undergone a musical transformation of sorts in allowing myself to continue to write sophisticated music, but not be scared of the “pop factor.” In jazz, it’s scary to write anything and call it “poppy,” because that sometimes takes away its credibility as sophisticated music. But I’m now comfortable with the fact that I love a lot of different kinds of music and those different styles make up who I am as an artist. It’s a constant inner struggle, but I’m starting to no longer feel the need to be complicated for the sake of being “hip.” I just want the music to be of quality and to feel good.
What has performing live done for your confidence and chops?
I’ve been able to perform with my own band, as well as with a number of other bands for the past few years in incredible venues around the world. I’ve taken my band on a few tours and have been able to play my music in the States and in Europe, which has been incredible. I most recently got to play the beginning pieces from ONA on a European tour in May. Getting such positive reactions from all of those audiences gave me the confidence and drive I needed to finish writing the music for this project. It confirmed that I’m on the right path and that this is needed in our world.
I’ve been doing a majority of my touring over the past two years with my husband’s band “Migration,” which has brought me all over the States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Europe, Asia, and Australia. To be able to perform on such incredible stages all around the world with some of the best musicians in the world has given way to a huge period of growth for me as a performer.
Do you know yet who’s going to be on this new record?
Antonio Sanchez on drums, Matt Brewer on electric and acoustic bass, Carmen Staaf on piano/synthesizer/Fender Rhodes, Jordan Peters on guitar. I’m also going to have some very special female guest artists on the project… to be announced soon!
What are you the most excited about in recording ONA?
As an artist, I think it’s extremely important that our art reflects the times in which we live. I’m grateful to have this musical platform with which I can do just that. More than anything, I just want to make a difference. I believe that we need to be the change we want to see in the world… and the way I can contribute is by expressing myself through the songs I write and put out into the world.
What’s the feedback on the PledgeMusic campaign been so far? Lots of pre-orders, I hope!
I only started my campaign a few weeks ago and we’re already almost 50 percent funded! It’s an incredible feeling to know that people are excited to hear this music, that they feel energized by the topic, and that they’re interested in helping me make it happen. I hope we can get to 100 percent or higher before we go into the studio in January!
When ONA is done, what is the first thing you’re gonna do to celebrate?
Email the music to the directors of the Women’s March [smiles].
In the end, what do you hope ONA accomplishes?
I hope that ONA sends a message to women and men about how intelligent, capable, powerful, beautiful, wild, and free all women are. I want women and girls to listen to these songs and feel empowered to continue the fight for equality and I want men to listen to these songs and finally appreciate our worth.