Carrying a Comme des Garçons Kraft Tote on one hand, and a coffee on the other, Jess Connelly carefully navigates her way through the narrow entrance of our shoot location. She has a certain lightness to her—a kind of zen some would even say—happily engaging with the entire team as she preps for the long day ahead. It’s quite obvious that this photoshoot is nothing out of the ordinary for the vocalist.
Dropping off her suitcase, I take a look and find an assortment of clothes ranging from TOQA to Margiela. Her style is a distinct kind of boyish cool: Think Lauryn Hill’s ’90s oversized style era. Look closer and you’ll even see hints of Aaliyah come through. Coincidentally enough, these artists were the very individuals Jess looked up to growing up in the ’90s, listening to an assortment of soul, R&B, and hip-hop from her suburban bedroom.
Born and raised just outside of Sydney, Australia, Jess’ first introduction into the Philippine entertainment industry shares a common thread with many local artists of mixed descent. “It’s pretty standard for all mixed Filipino kids, I think. You’ll get the comment “puwede ka mag artista” or something. That’s kind of where it started for me,” she says. Although she also dabbled in other fields of the entertainment industry such as television to figure her options out, it was always clear that music was the end destination.
“My parents were always very supportive in the sense of like, they never let me think I couldn’t do music or be a star,” Jess shares. “They never viewed it as just a hobby for me. They always saw that I could do it and never let me think otherwise, so that was instilled in me from a very early age.” Jess’ mother drove her to her very first studio and would religiously pick her up and drop her off to auditions.
After the release of her record ‘Under Blankets’ in 2016, Jess’ music quickly spread like wildfire on SoundCloud which earned her a cult-following of listeners refreshed by her distinct and soulful style. Amidst a local music landscape dominated by the genres of rock and indie pop, it’s easy to see how Jess’ music stood out.
Describing the evolution of her creative process back then compared to now, Jess confesses: “I definitely think that my words and lyricism have gotten a bit more vulnerable or deeper, which is what you hope for, so I think it’s only gonna get better,” she shares. “Writing a song for me is not the challenging part. It’s more like who I am overall as an artist. I think now that I am more developed, I just know what my sound is and what direction I want to go in.”
This mastered sound and direction that she’s pertaining to are the very elements that have ingrained Jess’ name into the local music stage, establishing her as one of the most respected vocalists the country has ever produced. It wasn’t long until global attention followed, with foreign management reaching out, and granting her opportunities to be flown in for sessions. She would eventually go on to sign with Los Angeles-based management Above Ground Entertainment, whose list of artists under their roster include the likes of Grammy-nominated singer Kehlani, Rico Nasty, P-Lo, and Larry June. Some of Jess’ collaborators are also industry titans that ring familiar to many as well, namely Lustbass, Curtissmith, CRWN, and Peter CottonTale. In 2019, she spent several months performing with San Francisco-born DJ Noodles, and in that same year, opened for Chance The Rapper during his show in Manila.
Alluding to these collaborations, Jess shares: “I never make collab decisions over numbers or how I can benefit from stuff like that. That’s just not for me. I’d rather have no collabs, than collaborate with somebody just because they have a certain amount of followers on Instagram or anything like that. Nowadays, everybody has numbers. It’s important to build your own numbers, but to me, it’s more about finding the right song.”
When the world went into a grinding halt because of the Coronavirus pandemic, Jess retreated back to her home of Australia where she would spend the rest of her time until the country opened up in 2020. From hopping on planes every few weeks, flying to Los Angeles to Manila, and other parts of the world, the singer was forced to take a step back. It was during this time that she began to form her newest album “Bittersweet.”
“‘Bittersweet’ was my pandemic project. To be honest, I guess you could say it’s the old side of me,” she confesses. “The album’s name is an oxymoron, and I feel like the whole experience, the story of it all and what I’m talking about in my album was exactly that. I went through something really great and really bad at the same time.” Jess further explains: “To me, that’s what love is, you know. In a lot of cases, it’s an experience that can be really great, but it can also be really bad. But that’s what it is, it’s bittersweet.”
Her first album in four years, this new project marked the end of a particular chapter in the vocalist’s life, sharing: “I don’t know how to explain it, but I think that this album helped me move past certain things,” Whether it be in the spectrum of love, her career, or life pre-pandemic, “Bittersweet” led Jess to embark on a new journey as an artist, carrying with it the finality of one chapter closing, and another one beginning. “I used to always hear people be like, ‘Oh, music is so therapeutic,’ and it is, but I would get that from listening to it. I had never really reached a point where writing my own music was therapeutic for me, and now after my new album, I totally understand it. Now I have no fear about writing whatever I want to say because it’s my truth.”
Similar to her previous work, ‘Bittersweet’ shares a recurring theme in the sense that it focuses on the topic of love. Specifically, the many different kinds of stages or phases of that particular experience. Through the second track of the album, “Exchange”, the early days of a relationship are alluded to. “Who is he that’s creeping in my system / I think that I really wanna make your day / It ain’t been too long but yet already I do miss him / Got me blushing when they say your name” she sings. In the album’s second track, “Risk”, she then goes on to sing about the perils of falling in love “Cause I love the way you feel / I’m a fool and I don’t care / If I’m fallin’ for a risk then I’ll take it”. In “2AM” and “Over you” you begin to see cracks coming through with Connelly singing about staying up in the wee hours of the night, overthinking and analyzing every aspect of a relationship and struggling to let go of that particular romance. Towards the end, the slow burn of Connelly’s lyrics settle into your system, almost vicariously experiencing the highs and lows of the story she tells through her music.
It is often said that the best time for artists to create is when their emotions are heightened. Whether it be absolute ecstasy or deep sorrow, it’s been said that these emotions are what unlock the most vulnerable sides of an artist, resulting in more raw and honest work. When asked about this, Jess smiled and recalled something her manager told her: “You gotta stand on your word.”
She clarifies: “I am very strong on my own opinions. I think I see both sides of a situation all the time. I’m very fair. But I also know in my soul what’s right for me.
“I used to be scared of what certain people in my life would say. I’ve had people get mad at me for songs I’d put out even though there were no lies, but because of their own ego, they’d get upset. After what my manager told me, I realized that fear was definitely no way to live your life,” she says. “Everybody who knows who I am knows I always come with good intentions. But I’m an artist. I put my emotions and my own stories into my music.”
Admitting that it was this reinforcement that helped push her, Jess also explained how she was also her own worst enemy. As the story goes for a lot of other people, the battle you have with yourself is often the most difficult to overcome.
“My mind will put me down before anybody else, and that’s definitely something that I always deal with. The best way for me to get out of that is when I’m alone writing, because then I’m not conscious of anybody around me.” Jess admits. “In LA, because I’m mixed with so many different people all the time, it is hard to be vulnerable. Another thing about working there is how so much music is churned out because that’s really where the business is. I used to fall into that pressure. I mean, I do what I need to because it’s still business at the end of the day and that’s the way music works now, but you don’t have to rush your music. I really feel like my most real vulnerable stuff is the things that I work on for a period of time alone.”
Although there may be a broad spectrum of inspiration and emotion an artist can draw from, it’s also often practiced to explore fictional themes in music. When brought up with Jess, the vocalist expressed how she had previously explored it during the earlier days of her career. “A lot of people don’t know this, but I would write about a love that I wanted even though I was in love at the time. But yeah, when I look back at it now, it’s funny. I would write romantic songs just because it was easy, but I do love love,” she shares. Now, Connelly’s musical account of romance comes from a more subjective point of view, mending her lyrics around real moments that have transpired, unapologetically speaking her truth, similar to Bittersweet’s unyielding nature.
Protecting her peace
As our time with the vocalist came to an end, I asked her what advice she’d give her 23-year-old self if given the chance. Often referencing how she began her career at a young age throughout our interview, it’s plain to see how Jess has had a lot to learn over the years, overcoming the trials and tribulations many who brave the music industry have to face.
“Oh, 23? I hadn’t even put out a song yet,” She pauses for a moment to collect her thoughts. “First of all, I think body image has always been like an insecurity for me. I’m better with it now, but definitely at 23, I was still doing commercial modeling. I was definitely trying to sing, but the modeling was paying the bills. I just always thought I was so fat. Now, I see pictures of me at 23 and I’m like, girl, get over yourself. I definitely fell victim to that. But I would probably tell her to relax and know that she looks perfectly fine.” As for the second piece of advice she’d give herself? Jess says: “I’ve been writing songs since I was 12 or 13. But there was no social media then so I didn’t feel like I had any power. Now, I’d tell her it’s okay, because everything will come at the right time. Keep going. You’re going to be very proud of yourself.”
Now several years into the game, it’s safe to say that her advice has materialized. Confidently walking us through her journey, Jess remains grounded despite her success, generously crediting the people she surrounds herself with as her greatest motivators. Further cementing how authenticity is the only way Jess believes she can truly feel fulfilled with the material she puts out, she explains: “You define your own success. For me, as long as the work I’m putting out feels right, then that’s where I want to go. I feel like that’s where I go with my authenticity,”. She elaborates: “I like to protect my peace and my energy as much as possible. As long as I stick true to what sounds and feels good to me, then that’s where I’m happy.”.
‘Bittersweet’ is out and available to stream on all music platforms.
Photography by JT Fernandez, assisted by Abby Corvera
Creative Direction by Nimu Muallam
Styling by Sophia Berbano Concordia, assisted by Alyssa Gwyneth King
Make-up by Nicole Ceballos
Hair by Patrick Domingo
Produced by Angela Go, assisted by Colleen Cosme
Video by Samantha Ong & Mikey Yabut
Cover design by Julia Elaine Lim
Special thanks to Shauna Jay Popple of Noble House Philippines