LA-based singer/songwriter Jessica Tonder has the kind of voice that pulls you in close and then knocks you off your feet. Deep and velvety, classically trained yet rough around the edges with a raw and soulful strength, the kind that comes from a life well-lived. Her songs paint vibrant, textured portraits of her most honest moments, embracing the both the darkness and the light, in a way that feels both surreal and relatable, empowering and tender. Her voice trembles and soars, vibrating with a vulnerability that splits you open. The early years of Tonder’s career were tumultuous, an uncertain journey towards finding herself, using her music as a guiding light to find the purity and clarity of her own voice. After years of dealing with disillusionment and dishonesty in the music industry, bending herself to fit someone else’s idea of success, she took a break from the industry and turned inward. She emerged standing on her own two feet and released a raw, sensual, and fiercely unapologetic EP aptly titled “A Rise of Peace.” We chatted with her about the inspiration behind her record, the fashion sense she inherited from her mother, and how she was able to free herself creatively.
LF: Do you consider yourself an artist?
JT: I would say so, yes.
LF: Would you hyphenate that at all? Like artist/musician/songstress/performer, or do you just say artist?
JT: No, I believe it’s all the same. I think it’s just creating in different realms. The visual is just as important as the musical aspect of what I do…like watching a film wouldn’t be the same if it had no sound. It’s the whole experience.
LF: We see two big forces behind everything you’re doing. The first is your obvious talent and incredibly strong voice, but the second is your unique and elegant visual identity. I’d love to know more about that, but first, tell us where you’re from and how you’ve arrived at who you are today.
JT: I’ve been involved with different genres of music ever since I was very young. It began with more traditional styles (opera, jazz, blues, etc) and later on was directed into more of a popular sound to try to begin making a life for myself as an artist, as I was told it would be the only way. I started to realize the songs I would write were generated based off of what I had listened to in the past and not about what I really felt authentically, through my own voice or my own self. It took me many years to arrive at the place I am now, where I feel in tune and in line with what I want. I now feel that [my music] is something I can offer others, in hopes that they will also find a sense of purity within themselves, so that they can give it to others, and so on.
Now, I’m able to combine all of my different efforts in different realms of creativity, whether it be film, imagery, or style, and grow and expand. It’s so important on so many levels to inspire and challenge myself to go deeper into that space that I love so much and to create this atmosphere that’s hopefully relevant for people now. I think we are all longing for that sort of nostalgia, like a modern nostalgia, something that allows us to remember but also moves us forward. The most important thing for me has been to really spend some time with myself and understand what’s important and how I can create that world for others – like a beautiful cocoon!
LF: What are the challenges and triumphs of being this type of artist as opposed to a more popular, sensationalized artist?
JT: I cannot speak for others, but speaking from my own experience, it’s about longevity. It’s about sticking to your vision and maintaining it in a light that’s always present. It’s about never resenting anything and learning to enjoy the wait. It is a difficult time and we have to work very hard at making a living. Sometimes you have to do other things until you’ve achieved the goal you’ve set for yourself, and then once you’ve reached that place where you finally feel successful, all the hardships you endured up until that point are a distant sweet memory.
LF: Where are you from and when did you move to LA?
JT: I’m from Peru and Croatia and I moved to LA three years ago from Miami.
LF: Who are your greatest influences?
JT: That’s a difficult question because, for me, it’s not about a person, it’s about a feeling.
LF: Let’s talk about that feeling…
JT: It’s like going to an opera house and watching 100 ballerinas dance while a large ensemble of strings, brass, and percussion fill the room, and during the second movement, with a huge spotlight at the center of the stage, the tenor arrives and blows you away with one single note as he looks into your eyes.
LF: Where does your inspiration come from?
JT: Inspiration can come from anywhere. You are walking down the street and something blows across your face and in that instant it brings you back to a memory, a moment in time. I think there are a lot of artists that can give you that, that feeling, that burst of energy, a stirring experience when you need it the most.
LF: You have a very distinct fashion sense. Did that come from your mother?
JT: Yes, she instilled something in me that’s very strong. It came primarily from my grandmother. She was a restauranteur that owned many restaurants – a woman in the 1950’s that was running her own business which was unheard of, and in Peru of all places. She would get all of her clothes custom-made and would sew the dresses on my mother and then a star was born!
She would parade around in them at the restaurants she ran for my grandmother and attend events and go to bull fights and present the trophies in these gorgeous tailored outfits. As I was growing up, I would watch her, and even at home she would wear the most astounding clothes. So I learned about fabrics and fits at a very young age, and how they could express so much of your personality and really let you live out your own fantasy.
LF: Lets talk about your most recent album and video, which was very beautiful. What’s the vision for your upcoming album?
JT: The most recent record I put out was a self release. I didn’t have any expectations for it other than I wanted to actually release something that was completely mine, that wasn’t tainted by any other person and wasn’t a product of whatever anyone else saw fit for a project. I started writing it on tour in England, continued to write it back in Miami, and eventually moved here once it was finished and made the video for “My Body Is My Home,” which was the first song on the record, here in LA.
LF: What was the writing process?
JT: It all started with “My Body Is My Home.” I had given up on the idea of making music for a while because of some discouraging experiences with the music business and started to make sculptures with an older Argentinian woman at my home in Miami, and I began having this recurring dream of a chant (which is the opening for the song). I decided to go in to record it and I said, “Well, this is it. This is the start of my new record.” I quickly gave in to the realization that I could never leave music and met this incredible young jazz musician Dion Kerr who made the record with me. We recorded it in a few days, mixed and mastered it, and then I came to LA.
LF: And then you made that gorgeous video.
JT: That’s correct.
LF: Let’s talk about your new release. When will it be coming out?
JT: Hopefully sometime after the holidays. The record is finished – I recorded it with Joe Cardamone, Will Scott, and Gregg Foreman, and it will be released through Do Not Disturb Records, by my dear friend Brian Lee Hughes. This one, I have to say, is definitely more narrative compared to my past records. The music is more bare bones and minimal but very strong. The songs all tie in to one another, like one long and beautiful film. That’s how I wanted it to be listened to – just play it all the way through. I think this record is my favorite so far. I know people always say whatever they just made is their favorite, but this really is my favorite.
LF: Could you describe the tone of the record?
JT: I would say it’s like going through worlds, like going through someone’s internal world.
LF: Like their emotional landscape?
JT: Yes, it’s capturing a moment in their lives and detailing it as much as possible, so you really believe you are there, living in the songs with me. When I listen to this record, I close my eyes and I can watch it like a film. That’s what I’ve always wanted to make, sonic films.
I’m interested in creating this world that’s not about catchy choruses, it’s about something thats rooted and sometimes maybe unsettling, but nourishes all these different aspects in you. There are a few songs that are very strong and some that are more soothing and I think that’s humanity. Theres something in there about time, the time we live in and may not understand. Most of us don’t understand what time is, but we all coexist in this world together, and so for me its like speaking to someone through a song, connecting through something that’s built on just music, which on its own feels like a narrative and once vocals are added, feels like the full story. There are 6 songs on the record, with one surprise.
LF: Will there be a video coming out soon?
JT: Yes, that’s in the works now. Shortly after that, we’ll release the record along with a beautiful tour.