“‘Carry My Weight’ is about the impositions and burdens we place on the ones we love. The people who willingly put themselves in emotional harms way in an effort to ultimately create something that transcends whatever each of them would be on their own. The endless cycle of failure knocking on the door of forgiveness.” —Canon Blue (Daniel James), via Brooklyn Vegan
“What Nashville offered us as far as […] the impact that it had on our sound, we’ve had a very individual experience here. We found our way… But the biggest thing Nashville gave us was this sense of community. This sense of people rooting for you and sometimes you need that. You don’t always need it. It’s unhealthy to focus on that, but sometimes you need that community and that tight-knit group. You know people are in here trying to get through the food chain too, but no one’s stepping on each other’s heads here for the most part. It’s a lot of fun to make music here.” —Jake Nawas, via ANCHR Magazine
“Trouble” is the title track from NAWAS’s 2017 debut EP.
Born in Canada and now stationed in New York City, FJØRA isn’t a traditional “Nashville artist,” despite the roots of her debut release being firmly planted in the city’s musical landscape. Having moved to Nashville to attend Belmont, she expanded her presence in the city’s scene following her graduation last year, establishing herself within an ever-evolving network of like-minded artists in “a city that hasn’t historically been known for pop music.”
Most recently FJØRA returned to town for some studio time and to celebrate the release of Generdyn’s new Chronicles EP (where she is featured on the track “Bridges”). Now, in heading back to NYC, she’s also book-ending a period of creative success she’s found in Nashville with the release of her new WATERCOLOR EP. “So much effort, collaboration, and love was put into this project,” the singer shared recently on her Instagram page. “And I am just so unbelievably grateful to every single person who helped in its creation.”
WATERCOLOR bears production by the likes of Super Duper and Bryan Todd, with the EP’s six tracks focusing their sound around vibrant synth-pop and the singer’s “Ellie Goulding vibes.” Various inspirations can be heard throughout the release, as well, whether it be through tracks such as “Wild Animals,” which pulls from FJØRA’s international heritage, or “Just Us” which boasts a playful Timbaland-sounding throwback beat.
The following discussion came over email where FJØRA detailed her entire musical journey, while also previewing what might come next as she continues to pursue her musical education at NYU’s Steinhardt Graduate School of Music’s composition program. WATERCOLOR is out now and is available via Spotify and Apple Music.
Villin.net: You’ve already worked with a number of highly talented writers and producers – what has the process been like when you’re approaching co-writes, and how do you change your approach in that realm versus the solo composition writing you do?
FJØRA: I have been extremely fortunate in that I have gotten to work with a great many talented individuals in the music industry. Co-writes and sessions vary on a day-to-day basis – there are days when I walk into a session with a particular lyrical or melodic idea bouncing around my brain, and days when I enter a room with my mind a blank slate. The beautiful thing about working with fellow artists, writers, and producers is that there is no one right way to do something or to create. I try to remain as open as possible when creating new music – this is especially important within co-writes. Sometimes prior to the session the writer and/or producer and I will exchange any thoughts or concepts we’ve been conjuring up to see if there is any potential for creative chemistry. Being honest in the creative process is also something I consider vital. The most rewarding sessions are those where the writer/producer tells me the truth about what they are thinking and feeling. No sugar-coating necessary. In my own solo composition writing, all of these values are weighted just as significantly. The only difference is that instead of talking out loud, I have all of my conversations in my head. Well, mostly.
Villin.net: How did you meet Charlie Lowell and what was it like collaborating with him? Several Christian music sites have made reference to your work – is your personal faith at all part of your own creative process, as it has been Charlie’s?
FJØRA: Charlie Lowell is an incredibly talented, motivated individual. Working with him has been very inspirational to me. I met Charlie through my acting manager, Matt Bronleewe (Unsecret Music, Showdown Management), as they were both in the band Jars of Clay. Suffice to say, it is still very surreal to me that I get the opportunity to work with not one, but two members of this band I listened to growing up. I do think that my personal faith remains a consistent, underlying foundation to my creative process, as I know it does Charlie’s. It is not necessarily an intentionally devised, molded shape to which I fill my creative energy in, but rather a silent anchor which keeps me grounded and secure.
Villin.net: When did you begin attending Belmont, and what influenced your decision to continue your education there?
FJØRA: I attended Belmont University for my Masters in Commercial Music (Composition and Arranging) between the years 2014-2016. I gained very valuable experiences and insights into the world of commercial music that I might otherwise had not been exposed to. I decided to attend Belmont because of several factors important to me: the school was personal and encouraged professor/student relations and friendships, the program was one of two music commercial graduate degrees offered in North America, Belmont offered me to attend their school of music on scholarship, and most significantly it was located in the vibrant city of Nashville.
Villin.net: Prior, you were an Istvan Electroacoustic Scholar. (Sidenote: What an amazing
title!) Did you attend school at Queen’s University before heading south?
FJØRA: Yes, I did attend Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario (Canada) for my Bachelor of Music degree before heading south. My specialization area for this degree was piano performance and music composition and theory. The composition major was comprised (upon my choice) of exploration of both electroacoustic and acoustic musics. As a result, many compositional works I created had an electro thread present, if not entirely based around electro music. The advent of sampling and sample sounds within music libraries also fascinated me, and I loved spending hours “playing” with various music sound libraries. I was incredibly honored to be named the Istvan Electroacoustic Scholar my graduating year – and yes, it is an awesome title! Very impressive… might look into the possibility of a bumper sticker.
Villin.net: Your Instagram feed captures various stops at major studios and recording companies around town. From the time you spent here, do you have any moments that still stand out to you where you thought “I can’t believe this is even happening right now!”?
FJØRA: Yes. Absolutely. There are so many moments where I look around and think, “Huh? What? How am I here right now?” I am constantly anxious that somebody is going to look up at me and say, “Hang on, what’s she doing here?” Some of these past moments that I still can’t believe happened were sessions I spent at Universal Music Publishing Studios in Nashville, where my first single, “Wild Animals” was actually created. Or my time spent at BMG Studios making music with the primary writer for the band Echosmith. I still remember rolling up in my car at Capitol Music Studios, parking in the lot, and walking up to the front glass doors thinking, there’s no way they’re going to let me in. But miraculously, they did. They do. It’s mind-boggling even now.
Villin.net: Are your parents from Macedonia, or does that heritage come into the picture
from prior generations?
FJØRA: My father is an immigrant from Macedonia, having immigrated to Canada in his early thirties. My mother is seven generations Canadian, or as I like to say, extremely white. I think there’s some German background on my mom’s side, too. There is definitely Scottish heritage from my mom too, as one of my sister’s middle names is the Scottish clan we belonged to, way back in the day. The MacDonald clan! No wonder we love McDonald’s so much!
Villin.net: Beyond your father being a musical professor, what do you recall about how music was used and regarded in your family’s household growing up?
FJØRA: My entire life was music growing up. I mean, I did other things and pastimes that were also very significant to me as a child; reading, swimming, gymnastics, eating Oreo cookies. However, music was a constant. I woke up to music, and fell asleep to music. My father taught my sisters and I piano from the ages of four, and by the time we entered middle school we had all completed the Royal Conservatory of Music levels of piano. I also completed all levels of music history, harmony, counterpoint, and pedagogy by age fourteen. Needless to say, I had a very classically-trained background. But it wasn’t just classical music that I learned, nor listened to around the house. My dad is a jazz musician, so I was exposed to jazz music at a young age. Additionally, my mom, who also achieved her piano levels as a child, listened to “old school” music like the Carpenters, Elton John, and the Beatles around the house. She also really enjoyed playing the great folk Canadian artists, like Stan Rogers on vinyl. Oh, and Michael Bublé. My mom really likes Michael Bublé.
Villin.net: How did growing up in Canada influence your musical tastes? (I’m from Calgary,
so I’ve got my own take on this… haha.)
FJØRA: Haha! I didn’t realize you were from Canada, too! Yes!! That’s awesome. I’ve actually never been to Calgary, meaning to though. Well, I suppose growing up in Canada influenced my musical tastes in a few respects, like what I was exposed to on the radio (Canadian radio promoting Canadian artists) as well as the music I would hear at local festivals (the folky, alternative, and sometimes electronic Canadian sound). This is something to consider too, that the T.V. shows I was watching were mostly Canadian, and so the music accompanying these scores were likely sourced from Canadian composers. I was and am a huge fan of Canadian artists like Metric, the Arcade Fire, and Simple Plan – so my childhood was peppered with Canadian musical influences from all of them. I think more than just growing up in Canada, growing up in the greater Toronto area really helped shape the musical tastes I garner now. Toronto is incredibly multicultural, and so my musical palate just grew and expanded in the most positive way as a result. (My food palate, too!)
Villin.net: Was there ever any stress put on you, growing up, to focus on the classical aspect of your musical education?
FJØRA: I think any stress or pressure put on me is almost always put there from me. I am convinced I am a masochist, or at least have masochistic tendencies. I do it to myself. Focusing on the classical aspect of my musical education was definitely supported by my parents, but not necessarily pushed on me. Perhaps there was a bit more pressure placed on me once I got the ball rolling in that realm myself. But I am the captain of my own ship, the master of my own seas. A masochistic sea master. There’s another Pirates of the Caribbean movie waiting to happen — Pirates: Jack Sparrow Versus Masochistic Sea Master, Part I.
Villin.net: Did you ever try to rebel against formal musical training?
FJØRA: Not really. I was a pretty nerdy kid. Extremely introverted, very “head in the clouds.” I honestly didn’t really understand or know that everyone else didn’t study music on this formal musical training level. I thought that all my friends were doing it, too. Once I hit middle school, the realization that they in fact did not study the various four-part harmony motions every morning struck me. It was pretty eye-opening.
FJØRA: The GiGi Sisters was an incredibly enriching and positive experience for me, as well as my sisters (who were apart of it). There are three of us, and we sometimes joke that we’re pretty interchangeable – all coming from similar musical backgrounds, and all having longish hair. All joking aside, both advents of the GiGi Sisters and ASK opened up the threshold of popular music as a genre to me personally, it being a potential and very real avenue I could choose to explore. Another take-away from these groups was the confidence and practice gained in singing publicly, as I had little to none prior.
Villin.net: Do Stefanie and Katharine still write, record, or perform music?
FJØRA: Yes, they do. Katharine is actually studying her Bachelor of Music degree in composition at the University of Toronto, and Stefanie is wrapping up her Undergraduate degree in Entertainment Industry Services at Belmont University (more on the music business side of things).
Villin.net: What was the basis for your thesis, “Behind Closed Doors: Meaning Through Musical and the Modern Family,” and did you draw from personal experience in its compilation?
FJØRA: Can I just say, I am amazed that you have the title of my masters thesis. The basis for this thesis was essentially tying together the musical platform concept with sociological and historical themes, using music to convey and support a narrative highlighting domestic abuse, equality, gender-normative roles, and identity. I don’t want to necessarily say that I drew entirely from personal experience in its overall compilation, but let’s just say there were predominant themes present that correlated with my own life’s trajectory.
Villin.net: Having achieved your master’s, and now continuing on to NYU where you’ll be attending graduate school and focusing on film scoring (I believe?), what do you see yourself doing musically once you’ve completed your formal education?
FJØRA: Honestly, being a planner, I really like to plan things. I’m also a keener, so that doesn’t help. I usually do way too much, all the time. Believe me, the realization that I can’t actually control or plan everything hit me the hardest. But I can’t. That’s really what it comes down to. No one can. Life kind of just happens. I didn’t expect to find myself back in school necessarily at this stage of my life, but here I am, pursuing my PhD at NYU. My intention these days is to just be – to create music within the paradigm of school, of my professional life, FJORA, and keep my heart and mind open. I am an intense lover of film scoring, music for multimedia, and combining this passion with my love of artistry is an exciting prospect. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Villin.net: What might listeners hear with [the WATERCOLOR EP] that they may not expect, given the selections you’ve already released?
FJØRA: I am extremely excited for [WATERCOLOR]. The tracks on this EP are all cohesive, but in my opinion offer insight into the slightly nuanced genres within pop music today. I don’t want to give anything away too much, but there are some tracks that are not only electronic, but also delve into the synthesizer world in a fresh, organic way. There is also presence of “chill” beats used amidst soaring, lullaby-esque melodies. I’m really looking forward to this EP!
Villin.net: Were you born on Canada Day?
FJØRA: Hell yes.
Villin.net: And lastly — why did you decide on the name “FJØRA”?
FJØRA: When I was a child, I played this made up game with my sisters called Fairyland. One of the characters in this fantasy world was “Fiora.” Then, later on, I found out that the same pronunciation, only spelled as FJØRA, was a Faroese term of the Faroe Islands, meaning “rolling tide.” This had perfect cyclical symmetry to me, as I grew up spending my time near or on the water. For me, water is the greatest symbol of change, development, fluctuation, and rebirth. I felt it was perfect to use “FJØRA” as the name for this next chapter of my life journey.
“This LP is really a view inside my head over the last year or so. It’s my debut record as a solo artist, so I felt a lot of pressure for it to not only be good, but also reach my almost unobtainable expectations for myself. There were many times I almost wasn’t going to release any of this music because of my own anxiety or issues, but I’m glad it’s here and I’m happy about where it ended up. I felt like I needed to get real and explore a lot of the darker elements in my life that I hadn’t touched on before, like the struggle of real relationships and what it really costs to love someone in songs like ‘Babel’ and ‘Even if it Hurts’… There’s always a sliver of light in every song, though, if you’re looking for it, which is accurate for my life in general.” —Sam Tinnesz, via Native
“Even if it Hurts” is the lead track from Sam Tinnesz’s 2017 Babel LP.
“When I was a child,” says the Toronto-born singer FJØRA via email, “I played this made up game with my sisters, [and] one of the characters in this fantasy world was ‘Fiora.’ Then, later on, I found out that the same pronunciation, only spelled as FJØRA, was a Faroese term of the Faroe Islands, meaning ‘rolling tide.’ For me, water is the greatest symbol of change, development, fluctuation, and rebirth. I felt it was perfect to use ‘FJØRA’ as the name for this next chapter of my life journey.”
While technological democratization continues to level the creative playing-field for artists, the availability of interesting music has gone from a steady trickle a few decades ago to a rapid torrent today. A quiet casualty of this genre-neutral development, however, might be contextual narrative: the why’s and where’s of how a piece of work came to be. That said, it’s within this exact framing — the story behind the music — that listening to FJØRA’s music takes on a substantial level of gravity.
The press release for her forthcoming Watercolor rightly touts it as a mix of “husky vocals with electronic samples, synthesizers, tribal-sounding percussion, and heavy bass,” but in adopting the pseudonym as a means to signify a new beginning, the EP becomes something beyond a series of “synth-infused pop earworm[s].” Instead, it represents a marker of personal transition along a lifelong creative timeline.
Born Alexandra Petkovski, her parents instilled within each of their three daughters an appreciation of music from a young age. Taking cues from them both — her mother a pianist and her father a music professor and acclaimed Macedonian jazz composer — those two threads, jazz and classical, were constants growing up, and from the age of four Alexandra excelled under this direction. “Focusing on the classical aspect of my musical education was definitely supported by my parents, but not necessarily pushed on me,” she says. “I honestly didn’t really understand or know that everyone else didn’t study music on this formal musical training level. I thought that all my friends were doing it, too.”
By her teens, Alexandra had completed the Royal Conservatory of Music levels of piano, taken up an interest in improvisational jazz, and teamed up with her sisters in the creation of a pop group called ASK, which opened up the threshold of popular music as a genre to her.
After attending arts high school, this focus on pop continued as her childhood group evolved into the GiGi Sisters. The vocal pop trio progressed, and while Alexandra began attending Queen’s University in Kingston, the sisters would open for the likes of X-Factor alumni Jillian Jensen and Jennel Garcia. “Another take-away from these groups was the confidence and practice gained in singing publicly,” she says, “as I had little to none prior.”
Alexandra moved south to attend Belmont University in pursuit of a Masters of Commercial Music in Composition and Arranging. She continued to hone her own compositions before graduating in 2016 and turning an eye to collaboration, connecting with various writers and producers before signing with Unsecret Music. “When I first met her, I was amazed at the array of talents she possesses,” Unsecret’s Matt Bronleewe told MusicRow magazine earlier this year. “It’s going to take years before the depths of those abilities fully come to light.”
“The beautiful thing about working with fellow artists, writers, and producers,” says Alexandra, “is that there is no one right way to do something or to create. I try to remain as open as possible when creating new music – this is especially important within co-writes.” Working with the likes of Bryan Todd, Kenny Fleetwood, Josh Hawkins, and Michael McEachern on her EP, the singer also connected with Charlie Lowell on a side-project, collaborating on “When The Silence Comes” through his Hollow // Hum vehicle. “[He] is an incredibly talented, motivated individual,” says Alexandra. “Working with him has been very inspirational to me. I met Charlie through my acting manager, Matt Bronleewe, as they were both in the band, Jars of Clay. Suffice to say, it is still very surreal to me that I get the opportunity to work with not one, but two members of this band I listened to growing up.”
Before allowing this “symbol of change, development, fluctuation, and rebirth” to fully take root in Nashville, however, Alexandra was recently greeted with news that she’d been accepted by New York University to join the Steinhardt Graduate School of Music’s composition program. “I am an intense lover of film scoring, music for multimedia, and combining this passion with my love of artistry is an exciting prospect.”
For those who create music there has never been much in the way of control regarding who listens to your music, how it’s received, or what legacy — if any — it might bear. But one of the controllable angles to a piece of work is the level of self-honesty exhibited throughout its creation and the level of personal relevance upheld in its release. “Believe me,” says Alexandra, “the realization that I can’t actually control or plan everything hit me the hardest. But I can’t. That’s really what it comes down to. No one can. Life kind of just happens.”
In that way, life is like the freeform jazz that her father passed down to her, giving Alexandra the tools to create something interesting and unique without ever trying to force the direction that work would take. And with Watercolor and her move on to the next stop after Nashville, that narrative continues to play out naturally. “I didn’t expect to find myself back in school necessarily at this stage of my life, but here I am.” “My intention these days is to just be,” she adds. “To create music within the paradigm of school, of my professional life, FJØRA, and keep my heart and mind open.”
“I used to get kind of stressed about my age,” says Jon Santana, sitting outside Steadfast Coffee in Germantown, reflecting in between sips of a coffee soda. “Especially when I was twenty-one [or] twenty-two. I was like, ‘Zedd’s twenty-three – I got two more years! I gotta make it!'”
But that sense of artistic dread is nowhere to be found amid the measured production that has since echoed throughout his last several years of credits, be it the “buzzing staccato synth” of his original work, his “chilled out” remixes, or the “diverse landscapes” of his many collaborations. Santana will turn twenty-seven in December, but in the five or six years that have passed since his passing phase of creative anxiety, he’s gone from being a college kid recording and producing friends in his parents’s house, to being a full-time producer in Music City.
“My bills are getting paid by working on other people’s stuff,” he says, smiling. While he hasn’t headlined any international tours yet, adopting his passion as his profession should still be considered a near-universal sign of having made it. Taking a moment to naval-gaze amid his caffeine-induced stream of consciousness storytelling, it seems to hit him. “It’s a dream,” he says.
Born to Caribbean parents and raised in Long Island, Santana’s family moved to Florida when he was fifteen. He eventually transitioned to Southeastern University in pursuit of a music business degree. By this time, he was already experienced in making beats, having familiarized himself with Fruity Loops in his early teens. A California producer by the name of Errol Beats befriended him over AOL Instant Messenger conversations, and took him under his wing — teaching him how to market his music for sale online. “When I was 18, I was a freshman, I sold my first beat for like 50 bucks and I kind of just went from there.”
A drive to produce more music sprung out of this newly found source of validation and income. This evolved into a collaboration with close friend Patrick Hagen’s group A Sound Asleep, before teaming with Hagen under the name Apollo Poeta. Incepted in the midst of a semester studying at the Contemporary Music Center in Brentwood, Poeta helped mark Santana’s introduction to Nashville and later helped usher him into the DJ scene in Lakeland once he returned back home. The next two and a half years saw him springboard off the duo’s formulaic EDM and begin experimenting with a variety of new sounds and influences within the realm of electronic music. This period was essential in helping Santana reduce and refine his musical projects to a point where he could focus fully on his own production.
In the fall of 2011, Santana worked at a local Lakeland studio, where his education of recording and production really took hold. But throughout college and the years that followed his education wasn’t limited to the studio. For two and a half years he played keys with the hardcore band EliudinE, before connecting with indie rockers The Careful Ones. Already showcasing his stylistic flexibility, he began experimenting more with house music, mashups, and remixes.
What’s so interesting about this transition, however, isn’t necessarily the end result of what Santana’s music developed into, but how he moved in such a direction without abandoning his lifelong influences and personal history along the way. Throughout our conversation, Santana maintained a genuine enthusiasm to share all the different phases of who he used to be. There was no trepidation in saying his hardcore band was also a Christian band, and he openly shares about playing music at church. When asked about his faith he says, “I’ve always played in worship bands my whole life,” but aside production work on a surprisingly palatable Christian pop album (an ’80s synth-heavy EP by MOONS, which Santana called “worship music you’ll want to listen to”), there’s little effort made to either filter his music through a lens of his faith, nor try to scrub the internet of any sign of his beliefs for fear of being pigeonholed.
Similarly, scrolling back through his Instagram feed, Circa Survive’s post-hardcore debut album Juturna comes up as Santana’s “favorite record” and his “most prized possession,” despite abandoning rock music entirely as a performer, himself. He’s quick to express his love for his remix of Banks’s “Change” (“It’s just weird!”). But just as excited to share how he geeked out and threw a burned CD with his mix on stage when he saw the group shortly after its release. All of this is just who he is, and somehow it’s all contributed to him making some of the city’s most sublime electronic music.
Since making Nashville his full-time home in early 2015, he’s gone from producing two or three beats a day to learning the co-writing process to becoming an in-demand producer among the city’s burgeoning pop music scene. And having collaborated with the likes of local artists REMMI, CAPPA, and Truitt, he’s now expanding his reach and repertoire through projects such as the recent “power” which he released with Hoyle. Over this same period, he’s also refined his remixing (his 2016 collaborative mix of Justin Beiber’s “What Do You Mean?” with 4B — which is closing in on one million Soundcloud plays — was featured on Diplo’s best of 2016 mix) and released a “creative kaleidoscope” with his debut EP titled And There They Were.
Despite that initial anxiety over how to force success at an early age, little of that burden seems present in Santana’s daily life. Now he seems less occupied with reaching for some sense of other-worldly success, and more comfortable with continuing to allow his story to evolve. When asked about where he wants to see this go, his words make leaps as his mind bounces about. “I love making my own stuff,” he says, later adding that he has two or three songs started for his next solo release, which he hopes to ready by the end of the year. He’s finishing a few EPs, including one for Conventioner, and is set to get married next year, but this isn’t to say that he’s any less determined give up on his search for a larger audience. “I would love to have a major release, a radio song. I’m definitely working toward that.” He’s not limiting what success is to such rigid standards as he set for himself in college. “[A year from now I want to be] doing what I’m doing now, but at a larger scale. Nothing’s going to change, just the people I’m working with. Whatever that looks like, I guess we’ll find out.”