Across the bay on sister-island NZ, JessB, like many this quarantine, has been hunkered down in the confines of her home awaiting the corona-shitstorm to pass. It’s an isolation, according to the young rapper, that hasn’t necessarily manifested that novel she promised to write or album she was going to record, but has instead seen her say “fuck it, I’ll just do it when I feel like it”. Despite this, JessB seems to have stayed busy, primarily by joining the movement of live shows to cyberspace, first with her inclusive club night FILTH, and then as part of Remote Utopias alongside greats such as Erykah Badu, Jorja Smith and Tame Impala.
Now, comes her mixtape 3 Nights in Amsterdam, released just off the cuff of NZ’s second lockdown. After being unexpectedly exposed to dutch producer Max Oude Weernink’s beats, a sound that realized everything she was about, the mixtape was completed over a packed few days of writing and recording in European hotspot, Amsterdam. It’s a release that holds themes that have been hinted at in JessB’s past discography yet one’s that now feel fully-fledged in a newly evolved bass-heavy, genre-bending style. Rugged up and over the infamous zoom, we had a chat with bass-queen JessB about the unexpected trip to Amsterdam, and its championing result.
How’re you going Jess?
I’m good, I’m good!
Congratulations on the mixtape! I’ve been listening to it for the last couple of days. It seems to work around the themes of being an underdog and doing your own thing while being an unrivalled force. Would you say that’s accurate, or what would you say this mixtape’s about for you?
I mean honestly, I think that this mixtape was more about the actual sounds that we were creating rather than any really deep messages to send home. I literally had three days in a studio in Amsterdam and that’s why I called it Three Nights in Amsterdam. So I guess for me it was more an exploration of that type of sound rather than me trying to say anything in particular. But I think that naturally certain things that come up throughout my life that I talk about in my music anyway. So there’s definitely some stuff in there.
When you went over to Amsterdam did you go over there with the idea that you were going to come into that sound, or did you just find it while you were over there?
Honestly, it was really crazy how it happened. I wasn’t even planning on being in Amsterdam. I was in London at the time and my publisher was like “Hey, we’ve got this opportunity, do you want to go and do a couple of sessions in Amsterdam?” and so I said yes. It was before I knew what the style and the sound of Amsterdam was really like. So when I got there I didn’t know much about the producer Max, who I worked with on the project. I remember walking in and sitting down and he just played the first beat off his computer and I just like fell out, I nearly lost my mind. It was all of these aspects of different genres that I love, mashed into one sound and I’d never had the chance to work with that sort of sound before. So I was just geeked the whole time. I worked back to back for three days and we just pretty much made all the songs on the mixtape and some that haven’t come out.
Yeah, cause it definitely sounds like your earlier stuff but it’s gone a bit further on this mixtape. Had you always been into that bass-heavy, reggaeton, dancehall type music?
I’ve always been a fan and I’ve always wanted to dip into that sort of sound, so actually finding a producer who I could sort-of figure out where I sat amongst it all was really cool. I’ve been a fan of reggaeton, I’ve been a fan of hip hop, I’ve been a fan of EDM, all of these things forever. So being able to have this cool mash-up and it still feel like me, and still feel like something that wasn’t too far removed from stuff I’d done before, was super exciting.
What was it like working with Max? Because I know for you that the Producer-Artist relationship is really important when it comes to making music.
It was cool, because I guess obviously I was really geeked with all the stuff he had, with all the beats that he already had. A couple of the beats that we used he had already, and he played them to me. And then a couple of them we made in the studio while I was working. But I think it was also really cool to speak with someone from a different music industry and a completely different country on the other side of the world. To hear how it works over there or hear about the really cool parts of Amsterdam and the sound that has been created there. It was really awesome to get a little bit of insight and knowledge on all of that stuff because otherwise, I wouldn’t know. And he was telling me that Amsterdam has the most festivals per capita in the world, and every weekend in summer there’ll be like four festivals in Amsterdam alone. So the demand for music over there is really high. It was just cool, I got the chance to learn about a culture as well as make music of my own.
In your song, ‘We That Filth’ you say ‘whoever said I wanna fit in’, I like how in this EP you talk about being a misfit but not caring. Do you think that being different or not part of the majority kind of works in your favour or has inspired your music at the moment?
I don’t think that not being part of the majority ever works in your favour, you know what I mean? I don’t think they work in your favour in terms of a career aspect, but I think I feel so enriched in my own life by people who I can relate to. I’m sure from a musical consumption standpoint that’s how we decide whether we like the music. You connect to the most stuff that you relate to, so in that sense, why would I want to be anything other than who I am? I know there are other people who are like me, so I know that there are people out there who can relate to the stuff I’m saying. I may as well talk about who I am, not in relation to fitting in with what everybody wants or the majority is doing.
Listening to your last couple of EPs your sound keeps getting stronger and stronger, in this mixtape it’s richer, more honed. How do you think you’ve changed from EP to EP?
As a person, I’ve changed a lot. As you do stuff you get more skills, so I think that I’ve been better able to achieve what I’m trying to do. But I also think it’s access. As my career has progressed and I’ve had maybe more weight behind my own name, I’ve been able to get positions that have also enabled my art to grow. I could never have been in Amsterdam recording a project three years ago, cause no one knew who I was, or I didn’t have a publicist to help me set that up. So I think that access is a huge one. I guess for myself as well, I know that every project I put out I get a little closer to my ideal — I don’t know what my ideal sound is or what my ideal end goal is — but every project I’ve put out I feel like I grow a little bit, both as a person with a timestamp from when a project was made, but also as a creative who’s acquiring skills as they go.
I was actually watching a Munchies video this morning and at the start, a guy yelled to you on the street, that must be crazy starting to get that recognition just walking around Auckland.
[laughs]That Munchies video was so wild!
What’s it been like moving from those smaller stages on K road to performing to thousands, and performing festivals like Splendour in the Grass and Laneway?
It’s been awesome! it’s been such a cool journey thus far. I feel like it’s been really easy to see the milestones and see the growth, especially with performances and stuff. I think that performing is — I mean I love all parts of being a musician, I think I’ve really chosen the right career for me — but performing, in particular, is something that I love so much! I love creating a vibe with the crowd, so to get the opportunity to do that to bigger crowds has been so exciting and I genuinely think that as one of the only or few women in hip hop in New Zealand, I feel like we really put on a good show. Not just me but I have a whole team, Half Queen, my DJ, and the dancers that roll with me. I feel like it’s really something that’s fun for both the crowd and us on stage, and I just love it so much. So yeah, it’s been cool being able to showcase our performing talents to bigger and bigger crowds.
Do you ever miss the charm of those smaller shows?
Well, it’s funny cause I don’t think I’ve really grown past them yet if that makes sense. I think that festival shows are always bigger just because of how many thousands of people go, but I still definitely enjoy small shows locally and even when I go on tour. I did a tour last year through New Zealand and I’m planning on doing another one this year. You always do small venues ‘cause you wanna make sure it’s a vibe inside. You don’t want a half-empty venue, you know. So yeah, I wouldn’t say that I’ve grown past the small ones yet but they can definitely sometimes feel more special.
Have you performed live yet since the lockdown?
No, I was supposed to have a show. I had my first one back that was scheduled for last Saturday but we went back into lockdown, so no I haven’t.
Ah Okay, it’ll be interesting when you do your first one.
Yeah, I’ll have to blow the dust off a little bit.
The first FILTH went back in early July though, how was that?
Yeah, it was crazy! The demand for stuff like FILTH, the general demand for nightlife and parties and gigs and stuff, at least in Auckland where I’m from, seems very intense, people really wanna be going out and having a good time. So that’s really cool to know. So it was busy!
You did an Instagram live with FILTH in April as well, how did that pan out, was that interesting to put together?
Yeah, that was cute. We kinda just had the idea, you know, to keep people involved and use our tiny little platform for something else and it ended up going so well. When we would go into the lives of the DJs that we’d allocated time slots to there’d be decent numbers of people on, which was so cool. I live in a flat with a bunch of friends, we all had a little party at home watching all the different DJ’s, it was really cool, a really cool idea.
Yeah, I think there was a DJ from Melbourne called C.Frim that was part of it.
How was the coronavirus lockdown experience in general for you? Was it still easy to make music?
Nah honestly, from a creative standpoint, I found it quite hard. I had big plans at the start, I thought I was gonna write a whole album or a book. I dunno what I thought I was gonna be doing, but it was just so hard because everybody was at home. There wasn’t that much space to create with the people I’m usually creating with. So from that perspective, it wasn’t the right environment. So a couple of weeks in I was like, I’m just gonna let myself chill. I felt like everything I was making I kinda didn’t like, or it was just really hard to make something, so I was like ‘fuck it’ I’ll just do it when I feel like it. That worked a lot better when I took the pressure off myself. So I actually kind of chilled for most of the lockdown on the creative stuff, or at least with music. I tried to do a few other things creatively.
This time around, because we’ve gone back into lockdown again, I’m a little bit better ‘cause I have access to a studio that I can access by myself. So I’ve been doing that for a few days. It’s great to get out of the house and have a space that I can go to, but generally, it was pretty hard. Obviously, we lost all of our potential income from gigs and events, and this and that, so it was pretty rough on a lot of creatives.
Yeah definitely. I was reading that you live with seven people though?
That’s a lot, it must never get boring.
I mean, sometimes I say that and people are like “holy, how do you do it?” but I’ve kind of always lived in big flats. The last flat that I lived in, I think it was eight people at one time. I dunno, there’ve always just been big enough houses so that everyone’s not been on top of each other. And in lockdown, it was great because there were lots of people to do things with, but I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
With your music videos — the one for ‘Shut up’ was released a couple of weeks ago, or pretty recently — in a lot of them you always have your friends around you and you always have this really great sense of community. Is that something that you play into your videos?
Yeah, I feel like they kind of go hand-in-hand ‘cause for me, outside of making music, like the community of people around me, like my friends and stuff, that’s where I get the most enjoyment from. From a connection with people, kinda like what I was saying before, a connection with people who you can relate to and they relate to you. So I guess naturally it tends to come out in my music. ‘Cause even if I wasn’t doing music I’d still be all about the community. I think that’s where I get a lot of joy and it fills me to be involved with people. So it’s not always calculated, but it is something that I like to have around me, for sure.
So just one more question, I think the last time we talked to you was almost exactly a year ago, and a lot’s happened since then. What kind of things do you have planned for the next year?
I mean honestly, I had a lot of plans for this year and they haven’t happened, so if it all goes well with coronavirus I hope that I can get the fuck outta here. I’d really love to go overseas and continue performing and putting music out. I think especially after having a year where I’ve had to be at home, it’s just highlighted for me how much I want to travel and continue travelling and be in other places around the world. Last year I was coming over to Sydney like every two weeks. I dunno, I just want to perform, have a good time! I kind of have plans for a debut album next year but, I’ll put it out when I feel like it should come out. But next year would be my ideal goal.
That’s the thing with COVID, you just gotta see what happens.
Yeah, it’s so hard to know. I mean, this could go on for another year, we don’t even know! I don’t even know whether I can leave the country next year.
Don’t say that, don’t say that..
[laughs] Trust me I want this shit to fuck off. now, expeditiously, but we’ll see.
Follow JessB here for more and check out her mixtape 3 Nights In Amsterdam below.