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Interview by: Ashley ‘Splash’ Hyde & Tami Tsansai
IRIE. You went to school in California, tell us a bit about the years you spent there. What made you go to Cali in the first place?
Kelissa: I had family over there… still do. I love Cali, but the part of California where I lived wasn’t the right place for me to be at that time of my life.
IRIE. We know you have a project in the works that’s not 100% fleshed out yet, would you like to tell us what’s happening with that?
Kelissa: We have a name! It’s called Spellbound, Anbessa Productions and Natural High.
IRIE. Why did you decide to collaborate with Natural High?
Kelissa: We collaborated together on my single ‘Best Kept Secret’ and we had a couple of other songs together, the chemistry is great and we realized we’ve done a lot of work together so we decided to put it together as a project, it was a natural high. We work well together because they went to school with my manager, I used to go to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church with Blaze and him family them too, so we coming from far. It’s nice to be in a space creating with them when you’re already comfortable.
IRIE. Where did you guys record it and do you know how many tracks you’re going to put out for this project?
Kelissa: Re: recording, it’s a mix. For this project so far, they’ve kinda come up with the bass of the riddim, I write on it, sing on it, then we add live instrumentation. Right now we’re getting live drums played on some of the tracks, so in many ways we’ve been composers and we’ve gotten live musicians to kinda bring it to life. But there’s still the very dubbish, ethereal effects that I think is very signature of Natural High, it’s a nice synergy. It’s gonna be five tracks.
IRIE. So do you have a timeline for the release of Spellbound?
Kelissa: (Laughs) We’ve had many timelines, but soon… within the next month or two. We’re also in a space where we don’t want to rush it too much. We’re gonna work with Nakazzi on the cover image, so she’s gonna be painiting it; we definitely doe wah rush that either, but I think we’re closer, now, to completing it.
IRIE. When did you start working on it together?
Kelissa: (Laughs) A little while now, definitely more than a year… when Best Kept Secret came out but we weren’t concentrating on that (putting a project together) until now, this year that we decided on it. It was one new one that I walked in on, a riddim I heard them building in their space and was like ‘yo! I want this!’ then we realised that we have five and said we might as well work on a project together.
IRIE. Where did the whole concept of Spellbound come from?
Kelissa: Well one of the songs is called Spellbound, it’s actually a love song; but I think that the way the project is gonna be structured it’s gonna span beyond just romantic love. There’s another track that I’m doing with Jesse Royal called Wake Up & Live that’s just talking about loving life, next track Topsy Turvy is the second single that we will be releasing from it, and Best Kept Secret is on it as well. We’re gonna have transitions that thread everything together – kinda bring together the theme of Spellbound, which also speaks very much to the musical dub ethereal element. Also I was reasoning with Nakazzi about the power that women have and even how we can capture that visually and the fact that Spellbound kinda speaks to that as well, where a woman can just… ketch you wid her vibes, and us as women owning and coming into the fullness of our power and using that as a medium to express other things.
IRIE. We see a lot of artistes these days following a chronological order in a sense each time they put out a new piece of work. Do you have a plan for what you want to do with this project, like take it on the road?
Kelissa: Wherever the music wants to go, that’s how I feel enuh. For me, that’s the exciting part after I create the music to see where it goes, where it travels and where it takes me. Sometimes you can try to control it, but most times it goes to places that we never imagined and it’s nice for me to even go with that flow too and not have too many expectations of it… there are many times you do that and then you get disappointed.
So I know for me it’s just a strong body of work. It’s only five songs right now but it definitely represents where I want to go production wise and on a level keeping the whole project consistent in terms of the sound as well.
I don’t have a distinct plan yet, I think it’s a natural progression to take it on the road because once people hear the work, dem going want to hear it live. I’m just open to where the music tek me, the thing is, with this project I also feel like my artistry has now progressed beyond the music on it, even though people haven’t heard it yet. Some of the things I started working on from last year, so now it just feels like… Jah know star, I’m not there as an artist anymore, I’ve moved on from that.
IRIE. On that note, where would you say you are now, what mental/artistic space are you in musically?
Kelissa: (Laughs) I think it’s just an ever-evolving thing, art is an ever evolving entity, I would say. I’m in a space where I feel a bit more comfortable with the music that’s directly coming from me, you know. I’ve worked in the past and still do it… juggling riddims, working with other people’s riddims.
The music that I’m making now is songs that are coming through me from my guitar, driving in my car, from a reasoning that me and my sistren having and it sparks like a whole song, from what’s going on in society… in the world in general. I feel like it’s a little bit more honest, in terms of… it’s truly me. I don’t even wah say me, ‘cause it doesn’t feel like I know it; but it just feels like I’m overstanding my creative genius a little bit more. Now I can get into a zone a lot easier, I’m not trying to like, find the right vibes for a riddim, you know?
I know it’s a process and I also have to allow people to catch up to that process too. Even now, I’m performing songs that I released years ago, that’s why you haffi careful wah you sing too enuh ‘cause those songs are gonna stick.
You know, singing songs like Slow Down and Gideon, they’re nice songs, but I’m so tired of that,
but they’re people who’ve never heard them before and you still have to give them a chance to
digest even that side of you, so that they can follow the progression. The good thing is, I’m proud of the music I’ve done. I just kinda tired a dem. Am I going to want to sing Babylon is Burning when I’m old? (Laugh)
IRIE. So what else do you feel like you’re putting into your music? Like daily practices that help to contribute to building your craft and influencing your art?
Kelissa: Just keeping myself upful on a mental health level and keeping my vibes up. If I don’t exercise in a week, I am just miserable, I have a creative block… so I try and just do my best. I go my bed really late, so the days are short but I always try to squeeze in some exercise and if I don’t, I’ll do a likkle yoga… there’s definitely herb in the mix right now fueling all of that creative energy (laughs). Living good with people, trying not to tek tings too serious, try go likkle river, likkle beach… try new things. I wah go surfing with my sister soon, you know? Just little things like that and holding some space on my own, which is one of the most important things for me to create, to be able to find a space for myself where I can just hear my thoughts, hear the melodies that are coming to me.
IRIE. Yeah, that’s really important. So, for Jamaica specifically, how do you find that people are taking to your music?
Kelissa: I think they’re taking to it. Jamaica is such an interesting place on SO many levels. I left Jamaica when I was 16 and returned when I was 22/23, but I was back and forth, so I’d come here on summer holidays… I spent a good amount of my late teens, early twenties away from Jamaica; which I think is a very imprintful time. In many ways I don’t fully feel Jamaican, Like I know I did born here, but they’re many things like even sometimes I say phrases in Swahili or Amharic — my roommate in California was Ethiopian— so I find myself feeling very much connected to those things.
I do feel like Jamaica has definitely embraced my music because I have embraced it now, instead of trying to define it and feeling like I need to fit it into a Jamaican box. I’m now comfortable with the fact that I’m not a typical Jamaican. I haven’t had a typical Jamaican (artiste) experience where I born and I grow in the ghetto and music is my escape. Music has been my escape in many ways, but so has travelling, so has going to school and all of those things are in my music as well. The challenge has been for me, which I’ve definitely grown a lot into, is connecting with Jamaican people without making them feel like I think that I’m better than them. It’s just the way that I express myself, I don’t speak straight patois, I’ll say words in Amharic or Swahili or sometimes I sound like an American and people are just like… ‘where you come from? You don’t sound like you come from Jamaica.’ But I still think that there’s a lot about me and about my music that is very relatable, that people do connect to. I’m finding ways now, and finding what works and what doesn’t and I think I’m in a very beautiful space now where that’s concerned. I genuinely feel like I can connect with the people but I feel like I can connect with the world too and still fully be me.
If oonu nuh like me, then cool because I’m having fun, I like what I’m doing and I know that there’s some people who are really benefitting from this. I think that happens to me the most when I’m on stage. It’s so deep, because sometimes even when you’re there performing, you’re not even present in the performance or in the singing. I’m looking at everybody’s expressions, how people are responding to it. Who is singing along? Who is hearing the music? Where are they hearing it? How come they know the song? Why this one screwing up her face with me? How did I offend her? All of these things are going through my head when I’m performing and I’m just on autopilot, singing… but I’m absorbing all of this criticism, this wonder, this connection, you know? (Artistes) they’ll go on stage and probably feel very judged, but it’s probably people who are just like, taking it all in. There’s so much about that experience that’s very interesting to me and I think it’s the most profound for me in Jamaica because people are trying to figure that shit out…and I’m trying to figure it out too, but it definitely has been really positive. I feel people embracing it more, I feel a little bit more open to change, less judgmental, but it could also be that I’m coming into a much more comfortable place within myself. You know say it is what it is.
IRIE. We’ve been having discussions here with the IRIE team about how the lack of real industry here for the music in Jamaica and the need for a space to include and embrace other music of the world, what are your thoughts on that and do you have any suggestions to change this?
Kelissa: I agree with you. There really isn’t much of a space here for that yet even though there are lots of people in Jamaica, like a Tessanne Chin, who do alternative music. Her music is more like alternative rock, and she’s had to bend a lot. Even I do alternative music when I’m ready, there’s a lot of my earliest music that I haven’t released just because I don’t think there’s a place and an appreciation for it right now, but I know there will be, so I just have it until I’m ready. I think industry goes way beyond marketing though, we as a country need to start seeing more value. I think we really undermine the potential of our music, even within corporate Jamaica, for instance, there’s a lot more that they could invest into the music outside of just sponsoring a stage show… you know what a mean? As Chronixx say, build a venue, I dunno, there are many things. Support the festivals that are actually trying to do it without feeling like you have to come and take over and brand everything. How can you support the music and the actual industry itself without feeling like you haffi always win? Other people haffi lose because you just haffi win and that’s it. I think there could be a lot more interest on the part of the government in knowing that this is our strength as Jamaicans, everybody is an artiste in Jamaica anyway. Why wouldn’t, like, mek it a likkle easier fi we fi get work? The majority of us don’t work in Jamaica, we mek music here and rehearse here, then we export our talent… why is that? We need fi look at why that is the case. You know what a mean? There is a reason. Yes, our market is very small and we only have 2.7-3 million people, but our tourist industry is blooming right now and I know that reggae music is a great part of it. When dem come to Jamaica dem can’t even get the very thing weh dem come fah. Dem get the pretty beaches and rae rae but on the beaches they’re listening to reggae music. Excuse my French, you zimme…?
IRIE. Yeah, the music is bringing in a totally different set of people in recent years. We’ve been in Jamaica, in Kingston in particular for six years and we know for a fact that the reggae music coming out of Jamaica has changed tourism. That’s a whole new set of commerce and opportunities with real potential that we can harness, but we think the point is to really try and bring about some solutions. Try and make some demands.
Kelissa: Well I think that’s where we (artistes) come in. Me done with the government now and with corporate people. We cyaan really depend on them anymore but we kinda just have to be patient because many of us as musicians and artists are in a building stage, but I know that all of us have a long-term vision in terms of how we woulda wah see other youths progress. The kinda help that we wish we would have gotten when we were up and coming, but I think it’s about being patient. I genuinely have faith in us, that if any of us where to make bank right now, whether it’s through selling herb, or making music I know that we going to invest it in something positive.
IRIE. We see what people are doing with little to none, let’s throw events, let’s try… and there’s not a cent that sometimes travels through people’s hands for that interaction, it’s all sweat and love. It’s amazing.
Kelissa: Exactly, sometimes a man just wah know say you have lunch for him and that’s good and I think that’s the beauty of it really. That is where the strength lies, in us… we already have an industry waiting to bloom. The camera people are there, the actors are there, the musicians are there. Even to go into our film industry… how much music and film can be fueling each other, not just in terms of actors acting in music videos, but films that are straight Jamaican music where you not hearing nutten else. Putting out compilation albums for movies that are hits, you know what I mean? Right now Jamaica just needs the right investment and the right interest. As a people, we also have to learn how to support each other too. Before we can even get there with the industry, it’s a lifestyle change, we haffi change people’s minds with the music, the teaching first. Also, we’re a young society. Think of how long England has been an empire.
IRIE. To steer the conversation in a different direction, We’d love to hear your views on networking among female artistes in Jamaica. We see that very often with the men linking up and collaborating, touring together, where is that kind of synergy with female artistes?
Kelissa: I’ve come to learn that as women, we have a different creative process, there are definitely women who go about freestyling like the men do, but the majority of us don’t. We sit down and write in our little books and practice on our own, go to the studios and feel a little shy, then do your thing. Now, we’re recognizing the importance of this kind of synergy, maybe there’s not a lot of material being released, but I know that women are collaborating. Maybe it’s just a matter of time. To be honest, I just think it’s a different nature of people and we’re also overcoming that competitiveness within ourselves because we’ve been made to believe this is necessary. The industry kind of pits female artistes against each other and unfortunately, a lot of us fell for that shit, but we’re all in a place right now where we realise that’s not the case. We’re definitely a lot stronger supporting each other – I personally have some collaborations with women that are coming up soon.
IRIE. Can you tell our IRIE readers who are some of your favourite upcoming female artistes to listen to?
Kelissa: Sevana, Zosia McGregor, Rackie Nicole, Xana Romeo, Marla Brown, Leila, Earth And the Fullness, Keida, Nadia Harris MacaNuff to name a few. Not a big fan of name calling as I feel like there is always someone I am forgetting!! But, big love and respect goes out to all female artists doing their thing and making positive uplifting music.
IRIE. So do you think there’s a different space carved out for women in the reggae industry to fit into? How do you suggest we remove that box?
Kelissa: Well, the first thing for me is I think that the term reggae limits our scope and what we can actually do. For instance, a girl like Leila who raps or deejays would not necessarily bring that to a big reggae stage show in Jamaica. I think as females and artistes in general in Jamaica, we’re very versatile. I personally will sing, deejay, dance, but it’s just that there’s not that many opportunities
for us to explore our full artistry because you’re automatically put into a reggae box and that says something about you as a woman automatically. You’re either dancehall and dashing out or singing conscious music. My music is not so polarized, I’m not one or the other… I’m kind of a mix of everything and more and maybe a little bit less as well.
I don’t think it’s necessarily to remove it, I just think it’s an element of it. Many people are going through this experience worldwide where they don’t want to be put in a box. There are people like Drake doing dancehall music, but they’re not calling it dancehall. They want to call it popular music or tropical house, don’t even get me started. There’s wholeap of space for female artistes, our perspective, our talents. I think Jamaica is tired. I think we’re being overwhelmed by male dominance in the musical industry right now, so I think it’s refreshing, where we are actually at an advantage if we come hard and we come good. We don’t need anybody to open any doors for us, the space is there. I do think that men in the industry are intimidated by us.
IRIE. If you weren’t doing music, what else would you be doing? And where do you feel this multidimensional creativity of yours will lead you?
Kelissa: (Laughs) It’s intense keeping up with all these sides of myself sometimes and I feel like part of that is my inner child where it’s so fun to explore new things that you don’t really want to just settle for one thing. You have to keep other parts of yuhself alive. When you grow up all that shit just stops and you forget how to live. I am very business oriented and I like to use my hands… I like to cook, I have my t-shirt and fashion line, Anbessa, so I definitely feel like there will be a lot more room for me to expand on that and I know that I’m going to incorporate dance into my music videos and performances even more. It’s just a matter of time, but right now in terms of resources, I think the smartest thing is to focus on one thing, but I think it will all come. I’m not the kind of person to just settle on one thing, that inhibits my creativity, ‘cause when I cook, I get songs. When I’m making something with my hands it allows me to meditate, hear new sounds and riddims. You have to go out and do things to release and so your mind is challenged.
IRIE. Do you have any plans to go on the road right now or are you here in Kingston for a while?
Kelissa: I’m here right now, creating. I know and can genuinely feel that time (on the road) is coming, so I’m just trying to immerse myself into this creative process. This has actually given me the time to just be in Jamaica, I’m doing the IRIE FM road tour, it’s different from anything I’ve ever done, because it’s a track show, but very good. It’s allowing me to connect with people and my own artistry in new ways.
IRIE. Who’s on your core team?
Kelissa: My management, Scott and Bulpus. Outside of that we work with different people… photographers, musicians, artists etc. Nicholas Bird, he has done every music video for us so far. I mostly do my own artwork, except for like the ones with Taj and now Nakazzi, that will be nice for
IRIE. Nice, that’s awesome. Well give thanks for the reasoning Kelissa, always a pleasure.
Kelissa: Yeah man, give thanks IRIE, every time.
Official Website: KelissaAnbessa.com – Password: bestkeptsecret