“I had a huge amount of people write to me and send me tracks. Jennifer Hope stood out among the crowd because her approach was completely unique. I, of course, liked the fact that she’s ‘rock’ but not at all generic, which is wonderful.” — Warren Huart, producer, “Velvet Fire”
Jennifer Hope’s bio describes her as “an enigma.” As a musician whose training began in classical music, she has developed a fan base in the rock, pop, alternative and Goth genres. As a singer/songwriter, she somewhat ventures away from traditional song structures, weaving intricate melodies around her deeply personal lyrics. Within the light of her voice and personality, she also explores and exposes the darkness within. An enigma, perhaps, but an artist, no doubt.
In addition to having songs featured on several compilations, Hope released two albums, Reflections of an Enchanted Soul and Winds of Tomorrow, on her own label, Mystic Dreams Music. As an independent artist, she recorded on a limited budget and schedule. While the quality of her work never suffered, she knew she needed to move forward to take her music to the next level.
Demos of her new songs caught the attention of Eddie Van Halen, who immediately recognized her talent and potential. He stepped forward to sponsor the making of her new album, Velvet Fire. At the same time, producer Warren Huart had listened to two songs that she submitted online and expressed interest in producing the album. With a sponsor, a renowned producer, A-list session players and a professional studio, she finally had the resources to record her music the way she had always envisioned it.
In this interview, Jennifer Hope discusses the craft of songwriting, the making of Velvet Fire, and the passion that drives her art.
When did music become part of your life?
Probably when I was 4 or 5 years old, “playing drums” on any household objects I could find, along with records my mom would play and songs on the radio. She had to get me some toy drums when the realization came that it was not something I could be told not to do. Then, officially, in the fourth grade. That was the age in elementary school that music class was offered and students could sign up to play instruments. I was immediately interested. I didn’t have my choice of instrument. The only thing left was the violin and I did not like it at all. In fifth grade, the clarinet became available. I stayed with it through the eighth grade. I was in the school band, the orchestra, and I auditioned for and made first part, second chair in the honor band orchestra in junior high. Everyone in band within the school district auditioned for honor band; second-highest score from the judges out of all players from all schools — not bad for public school and no outside lessons! Now my voice is my main instrument. I write songs on piano, and I have a background in classical piano and the drums, but there was not enough time in a day to keep up with multiple instruments. However, they play a pretty significant role in who I am as an artist and being able to write, arrange and hear the parts for songs.
Most people hate piano lessons. Were you one of those students or did you enjoy them?
Oh no, I wanted piano lessons! I liked the clarinet at the time, but I felt there was so much more to how I wanted to experience music, and I didn’t want to play classical music long term. I loved rock, alternative and some pop music, and I begged my mom for piano lessons. I loved them! Luckily, I found a teacher through school that did not charge much money for lessons. She was also pretty cool. In addition to working on classical music, she didn’t mind me throwing in some older ’70s rock songs from artists like Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and Queen. I was very lucky to have my mother’s support, and I still do when it comes to encouragement, personal support and understanding how important my art is to me.
Which artists influenced you as a musician and songwriter?
Most people don’t guess most of my influences. Maybe that’s because it’s more aspects of artists that have inspired me. Cyndi Lauper, with a signature sound, a character voice with emotion, but also solid technique. A pop singer with hit songs but also “so unusual,” a long-term endeavor, from the ’80s to this day, genuine in what she does. Heart, again, had hit songs, I love Ann Wilson’s voice, and they are women who have rocked since the late ’70s. I love that kind of energy! Sinead O’Connor, something about her The Lion and the Cobra and I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got albums made me feel like I’m not alone; there is someone else like me who creates from a deeper place within that can be painful. I like her voice, lyrics, melodies and “rebellious with a cause” streak from the time of her first two CDs. I also appreciate that, at that time, she shaved her hair off to make the statement that it’s about the music, not looking like the “ideal woman.” Some people have guessed that Dolores O’Riordan from The Cranberries influenced me vocally, but it’s actually Sinead. Type O Negative strikes the darker side within, darker music, at times poetic lyrics and unconventional song structures tell a story I find within a part of myself. I can see how Peter Steele was a bit of a tormented-type artist. It felt as though he was his music and his music was him — and the contributing band members. His look, vibe and who he was all matched to make for a personal music experience that took me to another place of freedom that tends to be restricted in everyday life. His humor, sarcasm and what a lot of people didn’t see — his shy aspect – are all things I see within myself. Another significant influence would be Pink Floyd, in that they were not afraid to chart new territory. I appreciate the musicianship, creativity and calling out “the machine,” which limits the development of people as individuals. Unsettling observations and messages delivered in a more mellow, at times even calming, way — that’s another aspect I associate within my music. I can’t go without mentioning that Alice in Chains caught my attention for various reasons, including some great songwriting that’s clearly coming from the place of unique artists who have their own sound and are not afraid to break rules, but still manage to keep it catchy in a way to not bore the audience. The delivery, conviction and slightly rough no-b.s. edge are things I like to see in artists. I love various types of rock and alternative music. I would say the dreamy aspects within my music come from another part of myself that appreciates things like Enya and Delirium.
At what point did you realize that music would be your career?
By junior high school I knew that I needed music to always be a part of my life. A lot of different experiences led to and continued that realization, which really kicked in when I started the piano lessons in junior high. I did piano recitals, then played keyboards in a rock band. I was about 13 years old and playing keyboards with an existing band that had asked me to play with them. They already had a large following and I played at clubs like The Roxy, The Troubadour and The Whisky with them. I loved it! In high school I stopped playing the clarinet and started playing drums. I took lessons and I tried to get bands together, but I couldn’t find people who would show up on any kind of regular basis for rehearsals, and the neighbor would sometimes call the cops when I tried to practice at home. I ended up using someone else’s ID to get into bars to jam with a cover band that my teacher was playing in. I was all about playing rock drums — songs from bands like AC/DC, Queensryche, Van Halen, various glam rock bands and even some Rush. So there was a lot of musical development over those years. I had started writing poetry in junior high, mainly because I didn’t fit in, did not feel I should change who I was to make myself fit in somewhere and wrote about what I observed. A few of my poems were published. I won an Editor’s Choice award for one of them, but I found poetry limiting. I wanted to say more and that evolved into writing song lyrics. I was able to take a few basic songwriting classes. There was not a lot of money to have anything like what I heard some stage parents doing for their kids interested in music. But I didn’t let that stop me.
Musicians seem to fall into two groups regarding lessons. One group says that lessons are important because you learn to read, write charts and understand theory. The other group says that lessons are limiting because they enforce rules and stifle creativity. Your thoughts?
Music lessons gave me a lot of tools and language to express myself. I am a little more on the analytical side and I need to know what I’m doing enough to communicate it and in order to do it. Some people are good at improvising; they just hear it, know what it is on another level, do it very well with great skill — like he who sponsored my new music — and I have great respect for them as musicians and artists. There is a great freedom in that. Then again, there are some who don’t really have that gift, and with some further development and knowledge could be much improved in what they do. I hear music in my head and then need to figure out what I am hearing so I can create it. I don’t create from thoughts of theory, rules or common song patterns. For me, it’s just a little more cognitive. I don’t connect feelings, thoughts, creativity and expression without “seeing it” and knowing how to do it in my mind. But I definitely break a lot of rules. I usually have verse-chorus song formats, but I’m not a traditional writer. People who study the craft of songwriting in depth notice that I don’t stick to “the rules,” especially in things like rhythm schemes and phrasing. I don’t find knowledge limiting. I take parts of that knowledge and use it to make my music what I want it to be. I don’t let it hold me back or restrict me. I would be restricted if I had no musical language to create with.
How did you get from Point A — music student — to Point B — recording artist?
After high school, I went to The Berklee College of Music in Boston to study drums and music. I didn’t stay long because it was very expensive. But going was important, because while I was there and outside of my element I fully realized who I am as an artist: I write songs. There’s a difference between an artistic songwriter and a structural songwriter. My songs are not the ones you present to Beyonce or Justin Bieber. They’re for one artist with a distinct and unique sound: me. I always wanted to sing, but I was shy. I realized at Berklee that I’m a singer/songwriter. A songwriter/drummer was enjoyable, but not fully expressing the whole artistic vision. Those songs were for me — they are me, and all of me can be expressed singing them. I came back to Los Angeles and went to the Musicians Institute for singing. It’s very performance–oriented and that’s why I chose it. It was a good place to practice getting past myself and the shyness and becoming the music. That is where I really began to sing and write music to my lyrics, and that’s where I met Tommy Reeves, who produced my first two CDs. I also took some music business classes, which led to an internship at Cleopatra Records. I chose them over other opportunities to learn more about an indie label, and because of the genres of music they mostly dealt with. I shared my music with them. They liked my song called “The Sky Is Blushing” and included it on a compilation CD called The Unquiet Grave, Volume 1, which was sent to a lot of radio stations. It was well received and got a lot of people interested in my music within the gothic/ethereal niche. It also led to contributing to various other compilations that they released, alongside me releasing my CDs.
How difficult was it for you to overcome your shyness and let others hear your voice?
Over a period of time, I was developing my playing and learning different instruments and aspects of music to bring the artistic vision fully into focus. While I was at Berklee, I knew that I would have to get over that and do it. It was about expressing the music, not “Everybody look at me! I’m in the spotlight! I’m a singer!” I had to do it in order to fully be in the music. I returned to Los Angeles and jumped in. I was at the Musicians Institute for a year and performed several times a week from day one. If I go to that different place of becoming the music, it’s not an issue. But if I can’t get to that place for some reason at one time or another, and I’m on the outside of the music, it is there until I get out of my own way and into the music. After I completed my first CD, I started performing at clubs and events. My music was a little darker and more ethereal, so I would play at dark arts festivals and at events like the Vampire Bazaar in Long Beach. Even though my music didn’t 100 percent classically fit into that genre, fans of the genre liked my music and I felt many aspects of the subculture fit me — individualist, free-thinking, creative, self-aware people.
Who were you artistically at that time compared to who you are now on Velvet Fire?
I never try to be anything specific. I go with what I hear and feel and I don’t put restrictions on it. The past CDs and songs on the Cleopatra compilations seemed to mainly appeal to music listeners who like goth/ethereal and dark wave music. Velvet Fire is appealing to some of those listeners, as well as a lot more who like various alternative/alternative rock/alternative pop-rock music. This CD is an eclectic mix of songs. There’s some variety in mood and tones from song to song. So far, there is a little variety in who likes what songs the most in test listener groups and on Internet radio. I guess I am the same in that I write what I hear and then see who connects with it. Especially these days, they tend to make something specific, with a specific market in mind from the get-go. I still don’t play it safe like that. I’m still willing to take artistic risks.
What made Warren Huart the right producer for these songs? How did that working relationship come about?
I was looking for listings to submit my music and new demos to. I came upon a listing he had put out to find an indie artist that he liked and wanted to work with. He listened to demos that I submitted of “Maze of Lies” and “Rapture” and was interested in working with me. We set up a meeting at his studio to discuss what we wanted to do. His musical tastes are in rock and classic rock, including so many of the great rock and alternative British artists. He also has some of the darker influences to connect with my darker side, like The Cure and Joy Division, so I felt that he would get my mix of elements. The hardest part is finding a producer who understands that mix, because a lot of producers see things like mellow/dreamy and rock/dark/edgy as contradictory things that can’t go together at all. Or they want to know who you want to sound like, and then go for something specific that’s already been done almost the exact same way. He was very open to my various ideas and did not get the least bit freaked out when I mentioned things like goth CD compilations I have been on, meter changes, quirky phrasing, or when I played some crazy examples of tones I was hearing for parts — all great signs, as those things have left some scratching their heads! Warren is also a musician. That was extremely important because I write on piano and record my basic demos with vocal and piano. They are used to build the tracks. I also write charts and bring them to the studio, so I need someone who can read them, contribute to arranging, and who at least plays guitar. He was the mix of everything that I needed — producer, musician, writer, arranger and an engineer who knows various types of equipment, with three studios to work out of. He had access to accomplished musicians to contribute other parts. He also has a personality I was comfortable with. There’s nothing worse than trying to create in an uncomfortable, tension-filled environment that isn’t clicking with someone who doesn’t get you at all!
Who played on the sessions?
Warren played at least one guitar part on all of the tracks. He also played bass on some of the songs and keyboards on a few. Phil Allen played guitar and bass on a few tracks, Zac Rae played keyboards and Blair Sinta played drums. They’ve all worked with female vocalists. Phil worked with Adele, Zac played with Annie Lennox, Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple, and Blair played with Alanis Morissette, Melissa Etheridge, Stevie Nicks and Annie Lennox. These are all solo artists who have a rock or alternative sound with the focus on the singer, so I had musicians who knew how to contribute and play parts that supported rather than competed with my vocals.
You wrote charts for everyone?
Yes. I only wish I had had the time to rewrite them when I ended up changing keys on several songs! I write charts for myself first because I need to “see” what I’m doing. I bring them for the musicians because studio musicians read and charts are the quickest way for them to learn songs and contribute parts. It’s not like having a band with months of rehearsals.
Are they surprised when you walk in with charts?
They’re more surprised when I contribute to the arrangement and tone ideas for specific parts, because a lot of singers don’t write. Or if they write the basic song, they don’t know exactly what they want. I have ideas and I let the musicians know what I’m hearing. They take the idea and add to it, or come up with something else from that starting point. I play or sing a specific example. The good thing about Warren is I came in with examples and ideas and he was open to all of them. We tried them, some worked well, some we didn’t end up using, and in a lot of cases I gave a basic idea, he totally got it and added more to it.
What does it take to connect with studio musicians? As you said, it’s not a band that’s had months to rehearse together.
I would say the more you know what you want and can communicate that in a way they understand, the better. Luckily, Warren had worked with all of them before, which made the communication much easier. We had some basic rough drum tracks for Blair so that he would have a good idea of what we were going for. He had a guide track, charts and a lot of experience, so he got it quickly. You don’t fully know until you try, and I definitely put a lot of trust in Warren. Warren also contributed to arranging and building the tracks. He understood my ideas and how to build on and help communicate them. His knowledge and experience in the studio, knowing the equipment and the best way to get specific sounds, helped bring out what I wanted. Before, I had such limited resources and time that sometimes I had to go without exploring further. A huge goal of ours when we met was that I wanted the sound quality and production level to be at the standard of television and radio. In the past, a lot of industry people I came in contact with liked my songs, but they needed a little better sound and production quality. They had to be ready to go as is. No one wants to have to take something and tweak it up a few notches. So, with the goals and direction clear from the get-go, the group connected!
Where and when did you track?
Warren was producing Aerosmith when we met, so we had to wait until that album was finished. It took longer to get started on my project than originally anticipated. Then we worked in the evenings, later in 2012, and with all of the arranging, building tracks, recording and mixing, it took about two months. We didn’t work every single night, not many weekends, and we had a two-week break between tracking and mixing. We recorded at Swing House, Spitfire and Harmony. After all these years of doing music in one form or another, I finally had a sponsor and a producer who had worked with a lot of successful artists. It was very exciting to have those resources!
What do you hope listeners will get from experiencing your new songs?
I hope they will make an emotional connection and relate them to their unique and individual experiences and observations. I hope the songs inspire energy, motivation, that they tell the listeners that they’re not alone and that being unique and different are good things, because that’s what a lot of my early influences did for me.
What makes you unique as an artist? What continual aspects within your artistic vision play a role in defining Jennifer Hope?
I would say a combination of things result in something unique. Specific things in the way I hear music, my general sound, voice, phrasing, and song-wise — music and delivery — are unique. Also, I’m a singer/songwriter but mainly influenced and experienced with alternative and rock music, not folk and more typical singer/songwriter material. My background and long journey of different musical aspects came together over time to fully realize a complete artistic vision. I continually have a little more of a rebellious, don’t play it safe, and occasional dark edge than a lot of singer/songwriters that is more likely to call out a disturbing hidden truth than singing about lilies in a field of sparkling streams. Even my brighter songs tend to have more of a mystical, dreamlike feel than straight-ahead pop singer/songwriter. Some of it is restless and some of it is smooth and tranquil. There are contradicting elements, positives and negatives as I see in everything in life, which propel and motivate me to write about it. Performance-wise, I prefer dramatic, calm intensity and multidimensional. If possible, I always prefer to have the story visually told by other performers and/or images while I’m singing.
What is your definition of a good song?
One that makes me feel something and creates or gives me energy or support. If I’m feeling bad about a difficult experience, that song comforts or empowers me. It’s a song I can relate to, songs that bring parts of me to life. I think a lot of good songs can take me to totally different places within myself and experience it like I’m really there and bring up memories and feelings of past experiences. It’s an individual thing, because a lot of successful pop songs I don’t connect with at all, especially when they’re extremely repetitive with just a few lines of lyrics being the entire song, with the same music part over and over. When they are extremely predictable, have no substance, sound like the same song I’ve heard a hundred times with just a few small changes, or if it sounds so mechanical that a computer could have been programmed to do it all, including a voice that is so over-perfected and processed that it doesn’t even sound human, I can’t find anything to connect with and find “good” about it, but the people that it connects with think it’s amazing. If I feel something genuine, unique and interesting, or a great energy, that’s the main thing. A strong melody, solid lyrics and a great arrangement also make a good song. Sometimes it’s a simple but effective arrangement, like Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” Again, it’s very subjective. Someone may listen to one of my more poppy songs and find it repetitive, especially compared to something like Rush. “Taker” is simple, 4/4, straight-ahead lyrics, the chorus is repetitive, but that’s how I needed to express that subject matter because these people are simple and repetitive in their actions. “Maze Of Lies” is 3/4 to 12/8 and more musically complex because the psychotic people I’m writing about are complex. I use the tools I need to express what I need to say. I’m not a big fan of strict formulas and songs that sound just like other songs to easily fit into one of the main, safe markets. Maybe that’s a good song to someone who wants a sure thing and a quick income earner, but to me, it’s copying to crank another one out of a marketing machine, and there is just no feeling, thought, meaning or inspiration to be found in that.
Lately it seems that the key to success in everything is to “dumb it down.”
Music used to be more in the foreground. It played a part in defining people’s lives. They identified with specific genres, with the artists personally and in lifestyle. It was a bigger, more important part of someone’s life as a whole and reflected that more in depth. More music fans invested in the actual complete artist, long term, and bought the whole collection of songs on a CD. Now it seems more on the surface, more about a song than an artist with a strong identity and message going along the journey of life concurrently with the fans that identify with it. It would appear that the majority of people either don’t want to have to think, or are just too busy, stressed and worn out from the demands of modern life to have the time and energy to think or “go there.” There is always the exception, which is why I believe artists like Florence and the Machine and Adele can do something more significant and still be popular. But generally speaking, music has become something that is just downloaded, a flash on a computer screen before the next ten things come up all in a few seconds of time, as opposed to something tangible that people want to have in their hands — artwork, pictures, lyrics to look at and experience the music and artist more completely. Before, more artists could make money from the actual music. Now it’s perfume, cologne and names on clothes and products. Pure artistry has generally been watered down. They say music reflects society and that the largest part of a society will identify with the music that they relate the closest with. In my opinion, technology continues to isolate people from a direct human experience and makes it so people have to think less and less. And life has become so busy, fast-paced, ever changing, impersonal and disconnected that people seem to lose parts of themselves in the chaos just to try and keep up. Important deeper experiences, thoughts and connections are being rushed past and left behind. I think there will always be people who refuse to go along with and get lost in that. They are the people who need deeper music that also refuses to go along with the status quo, and the unique, genuine artists who create it.
When did you begin to understand composition and expression?
Pretty much when I first started writing lyrics, I saw that songwriting varies for each writer. There are some who use their tools of craft to write what somebody needs. Others create from what inspires them; they’re not forcing something to happen or because somebody wants it. A songwriter can do that: what is it for, what is it about, and they use the tools and the formula to make something specific within variety. The artist-type songwriter writes more so when they’re inspired in a moment, and it tends to be more defined by the artist’s original sound. They can go through periods when they’re not inspired at all and nothing comes. Others can get in the mode and then ideas might come. I’ve seen songwriters on the artist side that can write for and contribute to other singers’ songs when needed, as well as write strictly from their own inspirations. I’m one who needs to experience or feel something profound and then feel the need to express it. I go to a totally different place within myself and the ideas for what my experiences and feelings sound like come. I can also contribute to others’ songs and ideas if they are something along similar lines that I can connect with. I have also gone through periods in which I just can’t get to that different place at all, for various reasons like not enough time, difficult periods in which “life” takes over, and so forth.
How do you get through those times and keep going?
I don’t force it, but also I don’t stop trying all together. You have to love it and want it. It can be difficult. It’s dedication, making time and sacrificing other things in your life. I keep in mind that I’m doing what I can with the resources that I have. I’m not going to let an all-or-nothing mentality keep me from a big part of myself. A lot of people tend to think that if circumstances keep them from something like music for a period of time, that the time has passed and they can never go back to it. But if it comes from the place of expressing who you are, it’s always there and a part of you. It’s not easy, but if I’m not doing my music, a big part of me is not alive. My issue with a lot of singing competition shows is that the people they interview say, “This is my one shot. If it doesn’t work out, it’s over,” or “It’s too late by a certain age, so this is it for me because I’m at the age limit for the show,” or “If I don’t win, I’m not good enough,” or “If I don’t win this 5 million dollar contract, I can’t do this anymore.” I don’t like those messages at all. You’re never too old to be alive and create. There’s no artist development anymore. They don’t see potential and develop it so much these days. They want what someone seems to think is “perfect” to cash in on, but that’s not how true artists work. Most artists develop and evolve to fully discover their complete artistic vision over a period of time, and a lot of internal things are going on. They need to do it. And if it never becomes a main, full-time job, it’s still extremely important because it’s who you are. If you’re not who you are, you’re not really alive. You’re just going through the motions of who someone else thinks you should be.
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