Jessika Kenney, Vocalist
Jessika Kenney’s voice has been described as haunting, intimate, and otherworldly. At first you might not even recognize the sound as human. It communicates with you on a primal level, like a musical instrument or the wind, bypassing your brain and speaking directly to your cells. Jessika’s distinct style is the result of her natural abilities and sensitivities and also years of fearless study, training, and performing.
As a composer/vocalist who performs within many genres, Jessika says her reverence for and interpretations of Southeast Asian and Persian vocal traditions have formed the basis for her main improvisational work. She often collaborates with her husband, composer/violist Eyvind Kang, creating avant-garde music, as well as collaborating with other musicians across the world. She is a graduate from and adjunct vocal faculty at Cornish College of the Arts.
This year, Jessika received the James W. Ray Distinguished Artist Award for work that demonstrates exceptional originality, and she and Eyvind Kang were recipients of the 2013 Stranger Genius Award in Music. To find out more about Jessika’s work and see a schedule of performances, visit her website at JessikaKenney.com. One upcoming highlight is a performance with poet Anne Carson, Robert Currie, and Eyvind Kang at Town Hall Seattle on May 13, 2014.
Jessika spoke with Constellation617 about her path to develop as a vocalist, how she sees her role as a singer, and her upcoming projects. The interview took place on March 23, 2014, at Bauhaus Coffee in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle.
C617: I understand you just finished a record. Could you talk a little about that?
Jessika Kenney: This was a completely self-guided project. I want to qualify “self-guided” because I felt guided at the same time. Instead of being collaborative, it was just me and the material, but the material’s very alive, so I definitely felt that I was collaborating with something.
The record is made of all my own pieces, but there are different formats. I do some composing on paper, and in some cases I give structures and concepts to the musicians, and they can use their own repertoire of playing styles and techniques to adapt to the situation. That’s the most exciting thing to me. Even with the most strict staff notation, you still have to have the culture to interpret what a score means, so I’m very critical about that and try to use the score in a way that’s non-hierarchical. I respect the musicians’ abilities and creativity and want to give them a context that we can work together on.
C617: Are you singing on this new record, too?
Jessika Kenney: I’m doing a lot of singing, so it took time to develop the pieces because sometimes I had to be in the role of composer and other times I had to be in the role of singer. And the moods of those are so different.
C617: How did you get on the path to become a singer or vocal artist? I should ask, which term do you prefer?
Jessika Kenney: I haven’t come up with a fixed idea about that. Singer feels so unpretentious and warm, but it is related to song. I usually use vocalist. I even like “voice.” That’s my favorite. If you ask what I’m doing and we can put down in print that I’m doing voice … I guess that’s not really grammatically correct, but it looks so nice to me. If you ask, what am I? I am a voice.
To answer how I got on this path, I started singing intuitively as a child really young, and everyone remarked that I had a good ear. Then I started doing musical theater when I was a kid, and I loved that. But I also really loved writing. I remember thinking that I wanted to be a writer, an actress, or a musician. I felt there was something in the middle of those things that was exciting to me.
Both of my parents are literary people. They love poetry. My mom is a poet and published a short book of her poems when I was a kid. She was in the creative writing program at Eastern Washington University. She studied with an Irish poet. She was really an artistic person.
We always had music playing around the house, a lot of jazz, new wave verging on punk, classical music, folky stuff, too, but a little more hard-edged. Our favorite musician was Louis Killen, who was from Newcastle but ended up living around the Puget Sound for a while on Bainbridge Island. Unfortunately, he passed away this past year. He was a huge voice in our household. My sister, brother, and I would sing his songs together. We loved the obscene sea shanties and would get really boisterous. We had a rule in our house that swearing was fine in the house and something you could do when we’re together, but when you went out in public and you’re with other people, you had to be polite and you couldn’t swear. But we were all really into swearing.
And then I had a really wild adolescence. I had a punk band that was more like a performance experiment for me. It was a 24/7 performance experiment, with the fashion and the anti-society behavior.
C617: So you grew up in Spokane?
Jessika Kenney: Yeah. I got a little bit infamous over there for some of those antics. But also I felt the same thing as I feel now—these people need this. They need this music. They need a female voice. They need to really let loose and they need a certain kind of cathartic, beautiful experience.
So I tried to do what I could to put together those kinds of shows, these little DIY shows that everyone packed into and slam danced, and got into, what were to me, ecstatic states. Shared states like that. It was a beautiful experience but also really, really difficult. Everybody was having serious problems and working through things, as I was, too. I used to wear bloody tampons in my hair. I took it seriously. If we’re going to talk about feminism, let’s go over there. The private-public split was more symbolic than an actual thing.
I think it relates to the feeling of being an outsider, which I definitely felt being in Spokane. You could say Spokane is conservative or whatever term you want to put around it, but I just think it is culturally oppressive. People trying to survive and not having a lot of access to different means of collective expression. What we were doing was a way of encoding that—this is a difficult world we’re in, so we’ll just say we have our own world and we have a different culture.
C617: Did you go to college?
Jessika Kenney: I moved to Seattle to go to Cornish. I started off studying jazz. When I was into the punk thing, I was also into gritty, intense politics and post-structuralism. Kathy Acker was my hero. I was reading all that kind of stuff. I was into the high-culture/low-culture dialogue, and also feminism as a way of deconstructing language.
I felt like that was best expressed musically in jazz. I thought the idea of improvisation in jazz would be the closest thing to understand it, especially in terms of musicians such as Ornette Coleman. I thought improvisation could be a process that follows rigorous rebellion or anarchism.
Even though it was a compromise to quit my band, take out loans, and suck it up for the institution, I knew it would be the best way to pursue the ideas I was interested in. The punk thing was just going to lead to drinking and touring. It had limits on how much you could explore and how far you could go.
Then I butted heads with the authority structure at Cornish, for a variety of reasons, and decided to go to Indonesia to continue studying improvisation. That was the category I put at the time as my interest. Now I feel that improvisation gets thrown around too much as a term and doesn’t have enough of a clear meaning. I feel like it’s usually qualified with “just”—oh, it’s just improvisation, which is crazy to me. It’s tricky to navigate that in language.
So, I went to Indonesia and studied there for four or five months. Then I came back, saved up some money, and went to Indonesia again. I did that a bunch of times. I built up some language skills and experience with Indonesian music and the radical art scene over there, which was just phenomenal. It was pushing limits and working with the subject that I was interested in, which was traditional music and how that relates to radical politics and radical art making.
C617: What does traditional music mean in this context?
Jessika Kenney: In Indonesia, it’s hard to describe. By traditional, the first thing that I’m thinking of is the secular court music that’s passed down through tradition. There is a lot of written material for that, and a lot of the Javanese literature, the literary texts, are included in the music. All of the compositions are written down and they have a notation, but you can’t play the compositions from the notation. You have to have the time with a teacher to understand the code of the notation. The notation is like an overall structure, but how you interpret that structure is very specific and refined, and dependent on who you have listened to and studied with and what you’re emulating. Eventually, that becomes a language you can just speak.
C617: Is there something that attracts you to singing or vocalizing in a different language and a different time period?
Jessika Kenney: It’s not really the different language that’s appealing. It’s more that in Javanese music the function of language is so different. If I’m singing an English text, but I can use it in a different way, it’s really exciting to me. I love to sing songs, too. That’s an incredible art form. But I think my heart is in that place where the text has a different role that’s more difficult to find in English and in music that uses the English language.
Javanese music uses text in a non-narrative and non-linear way. That’s completely normal and accepted. It also passes between different ways of using the text seamlessly. For example, one moment the text can be a riddle that no one knows the answer to, and the next moment it can be a literary text that’s just one stanza from a two-thousand stanza epic poem, and the next moment it can be a song, just speaking to another person directly, say your lover. In Javanese music, that’s really natural.
There are a few different contexts for it, like the shadow puppet plays and the instrumental music called kerawitan, which just means refinement.
C617: Can you talk a little about what your process is when you’re performing? What is the relationship of your voice to the instruments? Are you improvising?
Jessika Kenney: Maybe I can start with what it feels like and what the process is for a vocal performance. I don’t put it in terms of composition and improvisation for myself because of the traditions that I’ve studied. I’ve studied a lot of Persian and Javanese music, and those concepts are really turned around and coming from a different source than a European or jazz context. In Persian and Javanese music, you have to have oral tradition transmission to perform the music.
The word that comes to mind for the performance experience is “attunement.” I don’t mean intonation or tuning in a literal way but attunement in the sense of a mother and child. You attune yourself to an atmosphere or the emotional needs of an audience. That’s something I often feel. Not to say that I’m good at that or am actually attuned, but that’s my goal, to really attune to emotional needs in the space through the sound. And other types of needs, too, maybe creative, intellectual, or spiritual needs.
I definitely feel that being a singer is a kind of service. You clear yourself out of excess information and offer yourself to the sonic space.
The other word I was thinking of is “entrainment.” I love that image, too. So you’re attuning, but it’s not just an analysis of what’s happening in the space, it’s an ideally non-judgment following of what’s happening. In the sense of rhythm, this might be the easiest way to track it.
You have an experience of entrainment, like in the way a craniosacral therapist will track the subtle pulsation of the cerebrospinal fluid. The therapist holds someone’s head and feels this pulsation, not trying to change it, move it, or do anything but just be aware of it. So there’s this rhythmic pattern that happens between your own mind and the therapist’s mind since the cerebrospinal fluid is such an intense aspect of the mind.
I feel there’s something of that in music, that there are a lot of different rhythmic cycles happening. Some are overt, some are a tempo or meter. Sometimes it’s a poetic meter, a groove, or a swing or an association with a dance, but other times it’s just an inner pulsation that’s really not marked out in any kind of aggressive way. Sometimes it’s at the level of vibrato or the interval relationships between pitches. Those create pulsations. Different tones as well as overtones. Those are the kinds of things I’m really excited about in performance.
It’s being able to access the meditative space where you can actually interact on that level. That’s one reason I’ve been so hooked on singing with the gamelan, because it’s really full of those layers.
C617: What is a gamelan?
Jessika Kenney: It’s an Indonesian percussion orchestra. It has very low-pitch instruments like the gong on the big cycles, and then you have higher and higher pitch instruments doing smaller and smaller cycles. The singing you could say is very improvisational, but it’s also set according to the stylist pose. It’s not a narrative. It’s not a text that you have to express or a character that you have to take on, so those kinds of things are really exciting to me. As a singer, you don’t have to be narrative or embody a character, or do something like musical theater or opera or even singing your story like a ballad or a song. Over the years I’ve been more drawn to something that exists as more of a meditative space, so the singing can be part of the fabric of the sound.
C617: What projects do you have coming up?
Jessika Kenney: There are a few things that I’m really, really excited about. The first is this new record, which I’m going to call Pamor. It’s dealing with Javanese mysticism in an avant-garde way. All the music is approached from that point of view, as best as I can.
After that, there are a couple of nice projects coming up that I’m working on with Eyvind [Kang]. One is writing new music for translations from Red Pine, for his revised released of the Stonehouse poems. We’re going to do a performance in May at the Frye Art Museum using some of the Chinese texts in creative ways. That’s breaking into a sonic atmosphere and cultural point of view that’s new to me on a scholarly level, but I’ve always loved Chinese medicine and philosophy—the I Ching, the Tao Te Ching.
I’m also excited about a performance with the writer Anne Carson and her partner Bob Currie. Evyind and I and the two of them are working on a new piece for multiple voices. We might all be doing some voices. So that will be a combination of reading and sound, and that’s going to be at Town Hall in May.
I’m also going on tour with a Javanese singer friend of mine named Peni Candra Rini. We’re going to do a combination of concerts that are more on the experimental, avant-garde side—an environment she really loves and is very comfortable in. She’s a composer, too. And then also we’re going to different gamelan ensembles on the East Coast and singing traditional material. I’m really excited to work with her. She’s very inspiring and a beautiful singer.
Watch a performance of Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang at the Open Space for Arts & Community, Vashon Island, Washington (below).