It’s not often that you encounter 19-year-old Gold Coasters trying to break into the world of hip-hop. For the last few years however, that is exactly what homegrown local Jesswar has been working towards. Now with her first solo EP Peachy about to be launched, she sat down with Natalie O’Driscoll to have a chat about her journey so far.
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Jesswar (pronounced Jess-wah) was just 17 years old when she was accepted into the Bachelor of Popular Music at Griffith, but after the first year her restless feet took her down a different path.
“I did the first year and then went overseas to the states. When I look back on that decision I do sometimes think it was a mistake.”
She acknowledges that there is plenty of time to go back however, and her time in the states certainly wasn’t wasted.
“I travelled around with my mum, we went to about 17 different states, I stayed in Memphis and in the south mostly. In uni I studied a lot about blues and rock n’ roll so travelling to these places was like the lectures coming alive.”
Jess grew up around music, especially Elvis.
“My mum was this massive Elvis fan, and when we went to the states we went to Graceland, which was amazing. That was by far the most awesome, to be in the King’s house.”
I want to know if she had any other major influences growing up.
“I come from an Islander background and growing up going to family gatherings, an uncle would whip out the guitar and we’d all have a singalong. It wasn’t so much that I was influenced by any particular family members but just being around a lot of music, Bob Marley, a lot of reggae. It all reminds me of my childhood.”
It wasn’t until her older brothers got into rap and hip-hop that Jesswar really found the genre that would come to define her later style.
“I remember when Eminem first blew up in Australia, that was all that was playing around my house. Eminem, 50 Cent, Wu-Tang, and we would always play it before going to school and my mum would come yelling at us to get that stuff out of her house! She hated rap, actually, so much, until I told her that that’s what I wanted to do, and then I rapped a song that I wrote for her, and after that she wasn’t so biased against it.”
Being introduced to male hip-hop artists by the males in her life, it took a little longer for Jesswar to become acquainted with the more successful female names of the industry.
“I didn’t really know of many female rappers until I started listening to Missy Elliot, Eve, and I’m now a big fan of Lauryn Hill…. she would be my favourite female rapper.”
Hip-hop as a genre and certainly individual male rap artists over the years have developed a reputation for misogyny and the objectification of women. I ask Jesswar as a woman in hip-hop, how she personally feels about that reputation.
“It’s definitely a male-dominated genre. It’s hard out here, for a female rapper. It’s an iffy subject. No matter what I try not to make my gender apparent. I’m always hoping that my art will be judged on my talent. It’s an ideal world and I hope for that day, but until then I just try to keep my mind straight and stay positive. Especially because I’m gay as well, and in some ways hip-hop may seem like a homophobic genre.”
We talk about how of late the industry seems to be making positive steps towards tackling homophobia, and I mention Macklemore as an example.
“Macklemore changed a lot”, agrees Jesswar.
“I think he had a lot of balls to release that song, you know he wasn’t even gay, it’s for his uncles, and that opened a lot of people’s minds. I remember the first time I heard that song, I cried. It’s a beautiful song. There’s a gay female rapper by the name of Angel Haze too, she’s getting quite big at the moment, and is actually dating Alec Baldwin’s daughter. I’ve also been shown a video of a drag queen rapper from New York from a couple of years ago. He looked amazing. I can’t wait for the day for there to be a really famous gay male rapper.”
Having previously MC-ed with all girl group Sneeky Picnic, Jess is no stranger to performing on stage, with two Big Day Outs under her belt already.
“I just loved being in a band with those girls. I loved gigging, the live shows. I learned a lot of my stagecraft from years of gigging in the Valley, playing gigs with just the security guards there to having a hundred people there. I’ve seen it progress, and that gave me a hunger for the stage.”
We finally get around to talking about her new EP, Peachy, which will be released in March. It’s Jesswar’s first solo recording now that she has recently signed to label Human Records, and she’s both eager and apprehensive about putting it out there.
“I’ve always worked in a band or in a group, so this for me is going outside of my comfort zone. It’s massive. I kind of want to pave my way as a solo artist. I’m a little bit nervous, doing it solo. I’ve got the launch coming up in March and that’s going to be the first solo show.”
Being an artist who writes everything straight from the heart and personal experience, it is understandable why Jesswar would be feeling a bit vulnerable about laying her first six tracks out there for everyone to hear.
“Peachy is pretty much a summary of my life for the last eight months. Songs on there are definitely from personal experience. For instance Acid Fantasy was the time that I went to a party and did some acid and went clubbing afterwards. It was the worst idea I’ve ever had in my life. Addicted is about the fact that I’ve grown up and seen the big drug problem here on the Gold Coast, and it’s my view of seeing that all around me. As for Jelly, well I just fell in love for the first time, it’s weird, so scary, my heart is so sore. I wrote that straight after I had a fight with her and she went to Bali, and it was just about the complications in my relationship. And it was through all the bullsh*t that relationships bring, I love it at the end of the day because I love the person, so that’s what it was about.”
I say it’s quite flattering to have any piece of art or music inspired by you, and wonder what her girlfriend thought of Jelly when she heard it.
“I played it to her before I played it to anyone. And she said it was so good, but also told me I was a little shit!” Jess lets out a big belly laugh.
“She’s got it on her iPod and everything.”
Jesswar has recently come off a regional tour where she played with friends and frequent collaborators Lane Harry x Ike Campbell as a support for popular Australian rapper 360. By far the biggest thing to happen in her career to date, she gets starry eyed when recalling the experience.
“It was perfecto, my friend. 360 is just an awesome guy on and off stage. He’s such a beautiful human, and I felt so grateful that Lane had asked me to come and play those songs because… that was just… I’ll never, ever, ever forget that.”
She lets out a big sigh.
“It was beautiful, it was awesome. It really put fire in my belly to just keep going at it, and hopefully one day… I watched every single show, when he went and played. There are a good thousand, fifteen hundred people screaming and he’s just so chilled!”
I ask if she’s ever played to that many people before.
“No way, nothing like. Actually before we went on in Toowoomba, I had a little panic attack before I went on, only because that crowd was huge. That had never happened to me before, but I was just so nervous.”
She managed to overcome it however, with the simplest of tricks.
“Breathing, that’s it. Just breathing. I went into the girl’s toilets, and sat down, and concentrated on my breathing until I just got it all under control. I do get really nervous, so that’s the thing that really works for me.”
It’s so refreshing to speak with an artist who is as unguarded and unaffected as Jesswar. I find myself hoping that she manages to maintain her warmth, honesty and down-to-earth nature in the face of whatever future success is to come for her. In the meantime, she seems more than ready to release Peachy onto the world – so named for one of her favourite slang expressions “everything’s peachy”. I ask why that is particularly relevant and once again her answer is simple.
“Well, the EP is about my life, and for the last six months I’ve been feeling pretty peachy!” She smiles.
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Jesswar launches her EP during Bleach* Festival at The Soundlounge Currumbin on Friday 13 March.