Jordannah Elizabeth is a force of nature: From her music to her manner, you get the impression that spending a day with the singer-songwriter is like barreling down a highway on the back of her motorcycle, hurdling forward into the unknown. Yet, though you have no idea where the heck you’re going, you’re too riveted to let go of her waist and jump off.
Born to an affluent Baltimore, Maryland family, Jordannah Elizabeth played the violin as a child, and her outstanding intelligence had her studying mass communications and building websites at an age when most of her peers were making the transition from Saturday morning cartoons to teen magazines. Today the classically trained singer is both a journalist and a marvellous musician. With a rich stunning voice that is impossible to ignore and lyrics that linger, Jordannah Elizabeth is a fearless artist.
TWM: I’m always curious about the moment when a singer realized that they could actually sing? Do you remember that first experience when you realized you had something?
Jordannah Elizabeth: I honestly don’t remember the first time I realized I could sing well. One of the first memories I have of singing was when I was about five years old and I was in the church children’s choir. We were bombing in the beginning of our recital in front the whole church. No one wanted to project their voices. After a while we came around and it turned out fine. I’ve been in choirs and have taken voice lessons for most of my life.
The first time I was told I had something was when I was about 16 or 17 and I was taking private classical vocal lessons at a junior college in Colorado. My teacher was a very talented vocal instructor, but she was strict and conservative. I was kind of an “out there kid,” so when she rolled her eyes to the back of her head with pleasure and said, “Such a handsome voice.” I knew I was good. Singing classical arias is not easy, but I felt very comfortable singing them.
TWM: Were you a singer first and songwriter second? Or did songwriting inspire you to sing?
JE: Like I mentioned, I’ve always been in singing classes, but I would say I was a writer years before I was a singer. I was shy and didn’t think I was beautiful enough to do things in front of people until I was in my late teens. Since I was very young, I scribbled in notebooks day in and day out. I wrote journal entries, poems and stories. I would fill those marble and spiral school notebooks up in less than a week with stories about vampires and weird things, and later spoken word poems.
I didn’t start singing on stage with a guitar until I was about 19 years old. I was this weird girl with dreadlocks, and I started out playing an open mic and singer songwriter night at a Grateful Deadhead bar in Colorado. I was eventually banned from the place because I was under 21, but I played twice a week for months and worked hard.
TWM: You seem to have this very strong analytical left brain side and this equally strong creative right brain side. Were you ever confused about what career direction to take? And how do you balance being both a journalist and a musician?
JE: I don’t really look at it that way. I was born, I have a life path, and I follow it. I follow my heart and I do things that make me comfortable. My logic is, if I feel comfortable and safe in my life, I will be available enough to help others. Journalism is how I give. Music is how I connect.
How do I balance the two? I wake up between 7 and 8am every morning and work until about 7pm. Everything gets done when you get up early, list out your days, have good time management, and communicate with your colleagues and bandmates regularly. I manage my own career and PR and sometimes hire and assistant.
TWM: Your music is some powerful stuff. You’re not afraid to tackle important issues – “A Prayer for Black America.” Did you always know you were going to use your music to champion what you believe in and challenge wrongs? Or did you somehow grow into crafting music with a message?
JE: First, I’ll directly comment on the origins of “A Prayer for Black America” itself: The Trayvon Martin murder hit me hard. A child was dead.
For that instance, I wrote a short piece called, “Obama Explains to the Nation What It’s Like to Be Black in America.” It was literally less than 150 words, and it was about President Obama’s speech regarding the Zimmerman not guilty verdict. That short piece actually attracted my editor and got me my job at New York Amsterdam News.
As time went on and the horror of the reality of the treatment of Black people in post segregation America was unearthed, I was deeper into my professional journalism career and I didn’t feel I wanted to make a written comment about the problem. One of the reasons was because I felt people were so used to me writing, a comment in that format would have had less impact on readers. The other reason was because I didn’t have the energy to attract responses from racist and miseducated people. My heart was bleeding. I wrote a song because it was a way to express myself and not get attacked or trolled. I knew I was a bit too sensitive at the time to deal with that. A “Prayer for Black America” is a spiritual song, and it’s from a place of empathy and understanding for the Black American community.
In regards to my music having a message: I write love songs and I write songs about complex people, circumstances and emotions. “A Prayer” seems like it is a socio-political song, but it’s a prayer for protection and healing for a group of people. The message of my music is love.
TWM: Your sound has been referred to as Nina Simone on LSD. Clearly she was one of your influences. Who were some of your other early influences? And what about their music did you/do you find important?
There are too many to list: from Erykah Badu to Nas to Johnny Cash to Carly Simon to Radiohead, to Lightnin’ Hopkins and Townes Van Zandt and Bonnie Raitt and Dolly Parton. Cassandra Wilson, Willie Nelson, SWV, Total, Biggie Smalls, Nirvana, Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane, Lucinda Williams, Patti Smith, Patti LaBelle, Digable Planets, Portishead, A Tribe Called Quest, Tricky, Tracy Chapman, Big Mama Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Carter Family, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf, Ray Charles, Barbara Lynn, P.P. Arnold, Shabazz Palaces, Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Warlocks, Dead Meadow, FKA twigs, Asteroid #4, Panda Bear, Whitney Houston, Sleater-Kinney…and on and on…
They are all important because they gave me a standard that I work to reach with my music.
TWM: Many people complain that there’s not much good music out there because they listen to mainstream radio. Your music is incredible yet not necessarily “radio friendly.” Did you ever feel torn between making the music you want to make and making the music that makes you money?
JE: I get played on indie radio and I make a little money. I’m thankful for where I am in my career. I plan to continue to grow. I don’t know how to make any other kind of music than the music I want to make. I don’t allow people in my life to pressure me to be anything I am not.
TWM: That brings me to the New Republic article, “Why Indie Music is so ‘Unbearably’ White,” which you were mentioned in. What are your thoughts on that topic? Do you feel that people try to label your music under typically “black genres.”
JE: Yeah, I’ve been a little tripped out about that article since it came out. I understand that it was coming from a place of the writer trying to help me and other artists who deserve exposure on mainstream media, but I really want to make this clear: White male musicians embraced me before anyone in this business did. I’ve never experienced any racism in my career from white artists. The media thinks the “race convo” is the new hot thing and buzzword that’s going to attract readers. All of a sudden I’m a “Black Indie Artist.” All this time I thought I was Jordannah Elizabeth.
I owe 90% of my career to neo psych, experimental and indie rock musicians, promoters and bloggers… and of course audiences. White men and women have for the most part been respectful and supportive of me and opened their world to me without any hatred or resistance. I think it’s because I work hard. I don’t manipulate people and situations. And I have a good voice. I’m real. If you’re real, people usually let you do your thing because they enjoy watching your art manifest and evolve.
I won’t get into the origins of the word “indie” because it’s a long conversation and has a lot of misunderstood connotations. I just do what I do and I love anyone who loves my art. I love people even if they don’t like my art. I love all people of all genders, ages, races, and creeds – equally. I love human beings.
TWM: Why did you name your sophomore album A Rush? It’s a great evocative title.
JE: It’s just a title of a song I wrote. It was the first song I’d written that was worth a damn in a while. It was about a person who came into my life for a season just to effect an important aspect of my destiny.
TWM: Do you feel that you approached the making of this album in a different way than you did Bring to the Table?
JE: Yes. I composed and wrote all the songs on Bring to the Table (Cello Experimental Two’s cello part was written by cellist, Kate Porter). I had players come in, but I was very very hands on. I pretty much produced the album.
For A Rush, I mainly worked with Breck Brunson’s beats and I worked with a couple of songwriters. A Rush was very collaborative. I learned to be patient with creating an album from the experience of finishing A Rush. I’m the type of artist who will write and demo for a few months, then get everyone (the session players/band) rehearsed and tight, and in and out of the studio in 4 to 7 days.
A Rush took 8 months to complete. When it was finally done, I kind of couldn’t believe it because I had pieced everything together in a way where I almost couldn’t see the method to my own madness by the end of it. I had fallen very ill during the last couple of months of recording so I was really in a scary haze of trying to fight for the health of my body and voice.
When I got better and sat down with the final 10 songs and pieced them together, it ended up being the story I wanted to tell. A Rush is the story I wanted to tell.
TWM: I find “Unwind” very gorgeous and strange. Do you have a favourite track on the album?
JE: Yeah, a few people have told me they like “Unwind.” It was the first song Breck and I recorded for the album. It was the song that proved we were onto something and gave us the confidence to move forward with the album.
I like “A Rush” and “Stop Breaking.”
TWM: If you could duet with any two artists, past or present, which two would it be? (I can say that I would love you and Meshell Ndegeocello to do a duet.)
JE: Meshell Ndegeocello would be amazing. I would have to say, Lee Gallagher of Lee Gallagher and the Hallelujah and Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces…I have to add Cassandra Wilson. I have her on repeat these days.
TWM: If you could describe the colour of your sound and the energy of your music, what would it be?
JE: I write with heart chakra energy. Sometimes, I play with root chakra energy. Depends on the vibe of the crowd. The color of my music would be the color of love.
“A Prayer for Black America,” (Al Lover Remix), is now available. Check out A Rush here!