Interview: She has her master plan and I just have to follow it – Thana Alexa presents ONA

As a response to what feels like an increasingly turbulent socio-political environment all over the world, several artists have incorporated activism into their work, in different shapes and forms. In her upcoming release, Croatian-American vocalist, composer and educator Thana Alexa resolves to make a resonant statement on women’s empowerment and the role women play in society.

After spending part of her childhood in Croatia, Thana returned to her native United States, emerging on the New Yok jazz scene as a vocalist and composer recognized for her musicianship, unique sound and ability to use the human voice as both a lyrical and experimental instrument.

Alexa made her mark in 2015 with her well-received debut album, Ode to Heroes, where she pays tribute to the personalities that have influenced her creative development. Polished, complex and deeply introspective, Thana’s music reveals an artist who seems wise beyond her years, with a remarkable sense of self-awareness and a commitment to creative integrity. She was nominated for a PORIN – Croatia’s Grammy equivalent – for Best Jazz Composition and also won the international Jazzon Alpe Adria Composition Competition. She has since been in the Downbeat Magazine Rising Star Female Vocalist Poll for four consecutive years (2016-2019). Most recently, in recognition of the uniqueness of her upcoming album ONA, Alexa received the first music production grant ever awarded in New York City by the Cafe Royal Cultural Foundation.

Perhaps Alexa’s most important and ongoing collaboration has been with her husband, five-time Grammy winner Antonio Sanchez. Together with his band Migration, in which she is the vocalist and lyricist, they have recorded and toured three critically acclaimed albums, including the most recent CAM Jazz recording Lines in the Sand. She has also toured and recorded four albums with guitarist Gene Ess and appeared as a vocalist with bassist Michael Olatuja’s Lagos Pepper Soup among others.

Determined to continue on this path of self-examination, the 32 year-old musician prepares to release ONA, an ambitious, genre-spanning album envisioned as a “celebration of women” and an attempt to “go deep into the female existence.

I caught up with Thana over Skype last summer, a few days after she participated in the Music for Human Rights benefit concert at Brooklyn’s Shapeshifter Lab, organized in support of ACLU’s work to protect immigrant rights. In this in-depth interview, we discussed her creative process, her career so far, the personal and social relevance of her upcoming record and the importance of activism in art.

You’ve recently participated in the Music for Human Rights benefit concert at ShapeShifter Lab, organized in support of ACLU’s work to protect immigrant rights. Could you tell me a bit about that?  

Antonio Sanchez’s latest release, Lines in the Sand, came out in November of last year. We’ve been touring it all around the world throughout 2019. It’s an album about the immigration experience. It was with this project that we performed as part of this benefit concert that raised almost 8000 dollars for immigrants at the US-Mexico border. It was very powerful.

You and Antonio have been very active in promoting this concert on social media. I know Antonio was featured as one of the headliners. Were you also involved in organizing the event?

There were four major headliners: Antonio’s band Migration (which I am a member of), Shai Maestro, Dayna Stephens and Aaron Parks, along with a bunch of special guests including Camila Meza. Originally, the idea to do this concert was thought up by a friend of ours, Fanny Delsol. She’s the one who got everybody together and got everyone to volunteer their time. We weren’t involved in the organization of the event itself, but we did a lot of advertising. It was really just our small New York jazz community that participated, which was very important. It showed that we all think in a similar way, we all want these things to change and we’re willing to donate our time to make changes happen.

Tell me a bit about ONA. What’s the current status on this project?

I had originally planned to release it in September of this year. Unfortunately, a number of things happened behind the scenes and I had to delay it.

It’s been a long time coming. There have been a lot of bumps in the road that have delayed my entire process, one of them being the whole situation with PledgeMusic, the crowdfunding platform I used to raise money to produce the album. There was some kind of mismanagement from within the company that happened between 2017 and 2018, which resulted in the liquidation of the company. Basically, it means that all of the artists who raised money during that time frame were not given the funds that were donated towards their campaigns (mine included).

That caused huge delays in the project – in the release, post-production, everything. I persisted nonetheless and kept on working whenever I had the funds to do so. I refused to give in and give up. I also applied for a grant last year, which I was extremely happy and honored to receive in July. Now, the album is finished and finally set for release on March 27, 2020!

The interesting thing is that it’s very clear to me that ONA is not just an album. It’s a spirit. “She” has her own schedule and her own timing. I have my plans but ONA has her master plan and I just have to follow it.

I know the album is centered on the concept of celebrating womanhood. Of course, that is self-explanatory but I’d like to know what that means to you, personally? How did you come up with the idea of doing this album? 

The way it came about was interesting. I didn’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write an album about women’s empowerment.” It revealed itself to me over the course of time.

The first inspiration and motivating factor was that I attended the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D.C., the day after Trump had been inaugurated. Hundreds of thousands of people came from all over the country and all over the world to march for equality and women’s rights. I had never been a part of something that big and powerful before. I felt like I was witnessing – and becoming – a part of history that we will be talking about for a long time.

Many things have been developing over the last hundred years, since women have been given the right to vote, but it’s been a slow-moving process. In the last few years, there’s been this catapult of energy and motivation. A revolution. When I returned home from the march, I was really inspired. The first thing I did was write a song called “The Resistance”.

In June of 2017, I went to Peru for the wedding of one of my best friends. She and her husband, who are eco-conservationists, have dedicated their lives to saving the environment. I wrote a song that I performed at their wedding about them – two people who throw themselves into love’s vulnerability, crossing the world to find each other and risking everything to be together. A part of being a woman is about taking those chances and recognizing when something is worth taking a chance for. The song I wrote was really to honor that part of humanity in all of us, that when we see something we know could change our lives, we’ll often take a risk to experience it.

Being in Peru, surrounded by nature, also had a huge impact on me. I started to think not only about women’s rights and things that women have been doing throughout the course of history, but also about this idea that mother nature is personified as a woman. We think of nature as our Mother – one that we must take care of, as she takes care of us. I wrote a song called  “Pachamama”, which is the Quechua word for Mother Mature.

All of these songs just started coming out in different periods of that year. I started to notice this trend, that the songs were all either about a particular woman, about resisting the worldwide socio-political climate, or about the relationships I have in my life and what that means to me as a woman. After I saw this theme showing up in a number of the compositions I was writing, it seemed very clear that it was something I personally needed to express at this point in my life.

A lot of people take the women’s movement to be a man-hating movement. It’s the same way that a lot of the immigration talk is expressed as a hatred toward political powers. Extremes take things to a place of hatred, which is very counterproductive, because it goes against the actual thing that you’re fighting for. For Lines In The Sand, one thing Antonio explains when he’s talking about the album on stage, is that it’s not about hating Trump or any other politicians or party, because the more we talk about hating this or that person or party, the less we talk about  and focus on the people who are actually suffering and need help.

In ONA, I wanted to focus on celebrating women and the incredible advances that we have made in our lives and in society throughout history. It’s not about pointing the finger and saying, “Look at how oppressed you’ve made me and look at all the things you’ve prevented me from doing!” I wanted to focus on the things that I’ve been able to do despite what has stood in my way.

That started with thinking about the women in my own family, the generations and cultures they have spanned in order to bring me to the point where I could feel free enough to create a work like this. That’s how the title was born. “Ona”, in Croatian, means “she”.

I started interviewing my mother and my grandmother, talking to them about their experiences in the different parts of history and the different cultures in which they have lived. My grandmother was born in 1921. She’s 98 years old and she is an incredible human being, an incredible survivor. She has been through war, through famine, poverty and everything you can imagine.

She rarely talks to just anybody about her life. She likes to live in the present because the past is just too painful. But we’re very close and she has told me a lot of things about her life, the things she had to deal with as a woman: coming to the United States, escaping communism, making a life, supporting her family. There are things that women did very silently in order to save families, but it wasn’t until many years later that those kinds of actions were considered heroic. At the time, it was just what you were supposed to do.

It was a similar thing for my mother. She was born in the US to Croatian parents who fled communism. She built her life in a very interesting way, first as an artist – an actress – and then as a very important investment banker in the United States. She was one of the highest-ranking women investment bankers of her time, and then went back to the art world as a supporter of emerging artists.

I was thinking about this and where I stand in my own history and my own family, between the United States and Croatia, between all of the generations of women – and men, of course – who lived through certain things in order for me to live what I’m living now. That’s what I wanted to base the album on.

Please tell me a bit about the transition from Ode To Heroes to ONA and how that reflected on your creative process. 

Ode to Heroes was my first album, straight out of college. I was really finding my voice – vocally and compositionally. I really wanted to make my mark as the kind of vocalist who is a musician, one who composes and one who can be both a lyrical and an experimental instrument.

I love using the voice as an experimental instrument. I can tell a story through words and language on a humanistic level that connects with people who understand that language. But music is a language in and of itself, so I have also enjoyed exploring what my voice can do without the power of words. Combining those two elements has been a really beautiful process for me, just to see what the voice can do and what kinds of messages it can evoke.

Ode to Heroes was a very jazz-centric album. It was much more of an improvisational album. I definitely wrote and sang a lot more wordless melodies and doubling lines with the saxophone and things like that. As music and jazz have been changing over the last five years or so, there has been an influx of other genres into the jazz genre. Jazz has been changing its identity – growing – the way that groove has been introduced in a different way to jazz, the way that electronics have been introduced, the way that production has been introduced. It’s a living, breathing organism.

Artists are always influenced by what’s happen around them, the music that other people are making, the music that you are listening to, the art you are witnessing in real time. When I was coming from my college years, I was listening to a lot of instrumental jazz and straight ahead. Recently, I’ve started listening to bands that are musically very interesting, but are also groove-oriented, like Radiohead, Hiatus Kaiyote, Brotherly and different things like that. These are bands that have been giving a new sound to this interesting, still complex and sophisticated music. That’s kind of what I wanted to do with ONA.

I was starting to write and I no longer wanted to impress people. (laughs) I no longer wanted to think about the most difficult thing that I could write just so that other musicians would respect me (a commonplace of the modern jazz vocalist!). I just wanted to write something that I would love listening to. Not to say that I don’t love listening to Ode to Heroes, but as an artist I’ve been developing into something else that enjoys a different sonic palette. You always recreate yourself. So, ONA in and of itself is a departure from the traditional side of my musicality and an introduction to a newer me, I guess.

How did this departure reflect in the way you approach composition? 

Firstly, when I wrote the music for Ode to Heroes, I wasn’t using any electronics. I was just using my microphone to amplify the voice. That was the extent of my electric power. (laughs)

When I did my first album, I recorded lots of background vocals, percussion overdubs and things like that in post production. When I was pitching the album to labels, I got a lot of the same responses, “The album is great, we love the musicality, we love your compositions, but we’re wondering how you’re going to recreate this live.”

It was actually Antonio’s idea that I incorporate a looping pedal in my live show and try to recreate the layers of harmony and vocal textures I recorded in the studio. I started with a very basic pedal for looping and effects. Over the years, that has grown into a much larger setup. I now use two looping and effects pedals (BOSS RC-505 and TC Helicon VoiceLive Touch 2) and I do a lot of different things with the voice. Sometimes, I can make the voice even sound like a synthesizer, it doesn’t even sound like a human anymore!

It has made for a really interesting transition with my live performance, but it has also influenced how I compose. Now, when I compose, I’m thinking about what I can do live with these machines. Connecting that back to the new album, literally and also metaphorically, ONA is about what women can do – sometimes all on their own. It has really been a discovery of my own abilities, reaching for places that I never thought could be possible before. The electronics were a big part of that.

Also, ONA is the first record that I edited, produced and initially mixed all by myself. I did most of the post-production – with a lot of great input from Antonio as co-producer. I’m proud of that behind-the-scenes production element, because it was the first time that I had complete control over my music from conception and composition to the completion of the recording.

When Antonio did his Bad Hombre album, which is basically open drum improvisations with electronics, he learned how to do all of this stuff. The original plan was that he we would do all of the post-production together. He did do a significant amount of work on this album with me, but he was also working on his own project, so I was left to my own devices for most of it. He sat down with me one afternoon in the very beginning and said, “Look, I’m going to show you a few things and then you’ll just learn by trial and error, because I have to do my record and you have to do yours.” It was scary, but I finally realized how to take control of my own music and sonic palette. This album has really led me to find a state of empowerment in my life.

I imagine that learning all of this and going through this process is really going to influence how you build and structure your next albums. 

Absolutely! ONA has already generated a couple of new projects. I have a trio called SONICA with two other fantastic women, Julia Adamy – one of the most versatile and sought-after bassists in NY – and Grammy Nominated vocalist and composer Nicole Zuraitis. We all sing, we all play (bass, piano, loops) and we I use electronics. After doing a few really fun performances together I got the idea for us to record an album. I have a very small studio in our basement at home, so the girls and I have been slowly recording this album in pieces. I have been engineering and producing as well as composing and singing. Without the ONA experience, this would have never even come into my consciousness as a possibility.

I also created a project called Founding Mothers of Jazz in conjunction with MusicTalks Concerts to celebrate and honor the powerhouse women who helped build the jazz genre from the ground up, many of whom were not historically recognized for their contributions because of their gender.

I was going to ask if you have any upcoming projects prepared, though I know it might be a bit premature. 

I’m already planning that special project and I’m already starting to think about the next album as well. Even though ONA is still not released, the music was finished quite some time ago. I think that artistically and creatively I’m already itching for something else to come out.

How would you describe the music of ONA?

It’s deeply rooted in jazz because of the harmony and the nature of improvisation within the music, but it does take from many other genres. There’s a lot of world music in there. I think that my Balkan roots tend to make me get excited over odd time-signatures and various minor-sounding harmonies and things like that, but that’s also mixed with the electronic side. I think it’s a fusion between jazz, contemporary-soul and world music.

Why did you choose to title the album in Croatian?

The “ONA” track has lyrics in English and Croatian. It’s a reflection of who I am, because my life is split between Croatia and the USA. This is actually the first time I’ve ever written lyrics in Croatian. English is my first language. It’s the language in which I feel most comfortable expressing myself. However, with the nature of this album and after having spoken to my mother and my grandmother, it felt natural to introduce Croatian lyrics too.

With my grandmother, I speak exclusively in Croatian. I created the Croatian lyrics from sayings that my grandmother has said to me throughout my life. They’re really her words. With my mother I speak in English, so the English lyrics are reflective of things that I learned from her. I really wanted to incorporate the influence of these two powerful women in my life and the languages with which they influenced me.

You have many guest collaborators on the album. This being such a personal project, how did you choose the musicians you wanted to feature?

I wanted to feature special guest artists who are women that I admire within the jazz scene and also the larger artistic scene in New York. One of the special guests is not a musician. She’s a poet and a spoken-word artist.

There are certain women that I love listening to, not because they’re women but because they’re incredible artists. One of those artists is Regina Carter. I love Regina! I love her playing, I love her as a human being. She and I first had the chance to play together in another band I sing with, led by British-Nigerian bassist, Michael Olatuja.

From the first moment, Regina and I really connected, musically and then afterwards as friends. She was someone I very clearly envision on the song on which she was featured. There are few times as a musician when you witness someone doing exactly what they were put on this Earth to do. When she recorded “Pachamama” in our basement and played her solo in one take, it was like witnessing greatness. I have no words to explain the kind of musician she is, not to mention  the kind of wonderful human being she is as well.

I have a Croatian vocalist friend named Astrid Kuljanic who lives in New York. I went to her CD-release party at Carnegie Hall where she performed a song with a Serbian choir she sings in, the ROSA Vocal Group. I knew that I wanted some kind of Balkan singing on the record. When I heard these women, I just knew that they were the sound I had been looking for. It was an incredible experience to have them on this album.

The group is made up of six singers who met at Berklee College of Music. When they graduated, they decided to form this women’s choir. They focus on reviving old Serbian folk songs, but on my album they are singing Croatian lyrics. It’s an interesting group. There’s my friend, who is Croatian and a Serbian woman who runs the choir. The other four women are from Greece, the United States, India and Italy. It’s a multi-cultural choir that performs Balkan music, which is really unique.

On the same song, I wanted to have female singers who would also be singing in English. Sofia Rei is one of those artists I respect so much because of the way she has recreated herself over time in so many different ways. She’s a powerhouse – innovative, creative and very inspiring. She has this powerful, imposing voice. She doesn’t have an apologetic voice. When she sings, she wants you to hear her. That’s what I needed for this project.

Claudia Acuña is an artist I listened to for years. She’s another powerhouse, one of those voices in jazz who is not afraid to belt it out. I also really love her as a human being. She’s an incredible woman, incredible mother.

Nicole Zuraitis is my closest friend and a musician that I hold in the highest regard. She and Sarah Elizabeth Charles completed the English choir. Both are ground-breaking composers and singers, both using their music as platforms for change and positivity. While the Balkan choir is singing in Croatian, these four powerful women are singing in English.

I also wanted to have an element that was not musical on the album, something that sounded more like a literal call to action. One day, I was googling feminist poetry, activism in poetry and that kind of thing. I came across this woman named Staceyann Chin –  an immigrant from Jamaica, living in Brooklyn. She is half-Chinese, half-Jamaican. She is an LGBT feminist activist, poet and spoken-word artist. There was a poem that she wrote for the Black Lives Matter movement that gave me chills. The power in the way she delivered her words was so impactful. I emailed her and she replied, saying that she would love to be on the album. We met the day she came to the studio. She performed a part of that poem she wrote for the Black lives Matter movement. She recited it on the song called “The Resistance”. That’s an incredibly powerful moment on the record.

Last, but certainly not least, is Becca Stevens. She is a vocalist, composer and multi-instrumentalist that I have respected and looked up to for a long time. She and I went to the same college – The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. She was actually finishing college as I was starting, so I got to see her when she was still in her student days. Becca has made huge strides in her work in the music world. I love everything she comes out with. I think she’s a real genius.

All of the musicians on the album are not only people I respect as musicians, but people who I love and respect as human beings and now also as friends.

You said you already have something in mind as a follow-up to ONA. Can you talk about that at this point?

I’m still not sure. Usually, what happens is that I just start to write and something presents itself to me. I am in the beginning of that process. If I were to tell you what it is now, it would be a lie, because I’m sure it will change ten times. (laughs) It’s really just about getting to know who I am at this moment and how the me right now is going to express itself.

One important factor, though, that’s just a technicality, is that my very first instrument was violin. I played violin very seriously for about fifteen years and stopped in my teens because I gave singing the upper hand. Recently, I started playing the violin again. I’ve been experimenting more in including the violin in my work and my electronics and in my compositions, so I think the violin on this next record is probably going have more of a leading role.

How do you see yourself as a musician? What would you like your legacy to be?

For me, the important thing is just to make a statement about the world we live in. Ode To Heroes was the first way I introduced myself to the world. It was basically my way of giving thanks to all of the musicians who inspired me to grow into the person that I was becoming at that point. We are all ever-changing and ever developing. Now, I feel a need to include activism in my work. There are so few artists who are expressing the world as it is, fighting for human rights. Art is an expression, for revolution and for evoking change. That’s part of what I would like to be remembered by: making a positive change and giving people the freedom to think, to see and to express.

Find out more about Thana’s work at her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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