Jess Connelly’s music has an earnest quality, dancing between soulful lyrics and downtempo beats. Born in Australia but raised in the Philippines, Connelly’s now solo career is breaking boundaries and trespassing borders. Her latest project, the JCON mixtape, is a curated 13-track open letter, showcasing her maturity since the release of her debut EP, How I Love, two years ago and ultimately introducing her new self to the world. We catch up with the starlet to talk about her unique background, music influences and the importance of live performing.
Part Australian, part Filipina, you’ll think Connelly’s heart may be divided between two worlds. “I am definitely mixed with all different influences from growing up in Australia and living in Manila now for nine years,” she recounts. “I had a great childhood with great opportunities to learn about music and enjoyed the simplicity of Australia in comparison to the Philippines but all my life experiences and growing up happened when I moved to Cebu and Manila. My career opportunities grew here and connecting to people through Asia was beneficial to where I’m at now.”
Having started out in the underground R&B scene precisely in Asia, Connelly’s initial experiences in the music business came from the get-go, first-hand, something that certainly helped fledge her sound professionally. “I think my music is a mix of R&B, soul with jazz and pop influences,” the artist proclaims. “It’s important to put in the groundwork and get in your hours. I took chances with my writing and put myself out there, it made me learn what I like to do and what I want to sound like.” But despite the hands-on experience, Connelly is not merely a street artist per se but rather a classically trained vocalist, which, in conjunction, have shaped her as an all-rounder artist and performer. “Being taught traditionally helped with my muscle memory,” she says. “I was always part of a performing group or attended vocal lessons growing up. It’s easier to go backwards and to simplify things [than] being thrown into the deep end and having no basic knowledge of performing or music.”
A clear testament to this ability is her latest project, the JCON mixtape. “The mixtape is a developed and matured sound in comparison to my early music,” Connelly admits. “I’ve grown into myself and my sound. I hope to constantly grow.” She created the mixtape in whole locally from Manila and at the same time globally, collaborating with multiple producers abroad. “It’s how I’ve always envisioned it,” she says. “I love creating from home and will always do that but I also like to get out of my comfort zone and connect with producers when I travel.” Comprised of 13 tracks, JCON is emotional, soul-wrenching and powerful, yet mellow at the same time. When asked whether she has any favourite tracks of her own, her response is as matured and collected as you’d expect from the soulful artist. “I obviously love all of them but every week I’ll have different favourites [or] moods,” she concedes. “Lyrically, my favourite is Fool4u. I [also] love Wasting because I think it’s different and unexpected.” Connelly draws inspiration to write and compose her tracks from “love, the good and bad.” She reveals that she is inspired by “daily frustrations or anything that makes me feel good. I like when my music makes you feel good.”
And hers certainly does. Having started penning her own lyrics at only 13, this is a craft she has perfected and matured indisputably. “I definitely have more to write about [now]. I was pretty lame until about 21,” she jokingly admits. “That’s when I started having better experiences to reference from.” Fast forward a couple of years and now the talented songstress is opening for the likes of Chance The Rapper in her hometown of Manila, ticking off yet another music-related conquer off her bucket list. “I’ve always wondered what it’d be like to perform in an arena and I loved it! [It was] amazing, I loved the venue.” If you weren’t in Manila for the show, don’t despair: Connelly has some acts lined up on the other side of the pond, highlighting her passion for live performing. “The live aspect is a big part of the music, nothing compares to experiencing an artist in person,” she admits. “I’m always freaking out inside but I do love performing and constantly want to be better. I’m joining Noodles on tour through the East and West Coast of the U.S. starting October. Aside from that, I’d love to jump on an Asian tour.”
An Asian tour would surely be the cherry on top of a successful year for Connelly, as the artist is vocal about how important it is for her to stay in Manila and help uplift the community. “I don’t know if I’d be in this position if I didn’t move to the Philippines or if I’d create the same music,” she narrates. “I’m always inspired by the scene here and love making music at home so if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I don’t wanna ditch and not be a part of what’s growing here. I hope to be the door to what’s going on. I consider Manila as my hideout and I love to travel so I don’t mind moving around. I’m influenced by different things from different communities but mostly, there’s no place like home.”
It is precisely in the Philippine capital that Connelly first amassed success, with no entourage or label. To this day, she remains an independent artist — something she reveals can be a double-edged sword. “There’s definitely pros and cons to choosing to stay independent,” she says. “It just depends on what you want and what works for you. I want to grow organically and if I’ve done this much this far by myself, what do I have to lose? There are advantages that you get when you’re with a major label but I’m cool with going this route.”
And it’s undoubtedly working for her: with a smooth voice that soothes the soul, Connelly strays sonically from the norm, although non-deliberately. “I don’t intentionally but it is a compliment [to hear] my music and style is singular to me.” With JCON amassing great numbers in its first month out and On My Way Up, the first visual off the mixtape, fresh off the press, it’s safe to say Connelly’s plate is full but she has her eyes on the future. “[I’m excited about] my music videos, touring and sharing my music with the world.”