Jess Connelly, a musician from the Philippines who is gaining attention with American audiences, has lived an entire past life as a performer. She started out trying to be what’s called an artista — a Filipino film star who sings, dances and does all-around performance in the public eye. They tend to have huge fan bases: millions of followers on Instagram and Twitter, where they craft carefully curated portrayals of their lives through pictures and videos.
But now, Connelly is focused totally on her music as a popular artist in the Philippines’ bustling underground music scene. The clandestine musicians in the country essentially go the opposite way of fame, compared with artistas; they get their hands dirty, work their way up by sticking to their musical work and performing at Manila clubs like Route 196. Twenty-five years ago, the Philippines music scene wasn’t like this, Connelly says. People wouldn’t circumvent the norm, nor would they even think of writing a song in English and releasing it. But these days, it’s done often — and young people in the Philippines are now hungry for something different, after seeing what artists in the Western world are up to.
Connelly is steadily making her way into American ears — she released her “JCon” mixtape in August, and opened for Chance the Rapper in Manila in September. She spent the subsequent months performing with Noodles, who DJs for R&B artist Kehlani. Still traveling and doing shows, Connelly — on two hours of sleep — drove to New York from her Tuesday night performance at Songbyrd in Washington, D.C. On Wednesday, she was scheduled to play at Mercury Lounge in the Lower East Side.
“I know that my music can reach further,” she says. “That was always a goal. How it started is definitely different compared to the final product.”
When Connelly was young, she and her family were tapped into the Filipino community in her home country of Australia. Once a month, there would be a Filipino function where she’d perform.
“I was little Britney Spears,” she says, sitting on a leather couch in Manhattan. “My parents bought me a little headset, and my mom would make all my outfits.”
She wanted to pursue music from an early age, and her mother and father were all for it. But as Connelly tells it, her family didn’t know the first thing about being in the music industry — so her mother’s initial thought was to make her an artista. The musician, at 13 years old, had already started taking classes with a private teacher in Sydney, who encouraged Connelly to sing and write. She was even booking studio time at that young age.
“If you’re part Filipino, or you’re Filipino and live abroad, you have a tita [aunt] who is like, ‘You can be an artista, you can just go to the Philippines.’”
At 17 years old, she did — her mother, father, brother and sister all moved to Manila, where she pursued a possible future in the industry. Almost immediately, Connelly knew it wasn’t for her.
This was around 2010, when the music platform Soundcloud was reaching its peak popularity. But in the Philippines, Connelly says, not many musicians were participating in the flood of uploads. In what might have been an act of defiance, or perhaps a way to showcase her own art, Connelly posted a single song to her Soundcloud account. It blew up.
The “JCon” mixtape took Connelly about a year and a half to make. “I don’t think it should take that long, but I’m glad it did, because everything that I needed fell into place while I was making it,” she says.
The single off the mixtape, “Process,” featuring Japanese artist Awich, was produced by Bay Area artists Julia Lewis, née Benjamin Falik, and Jay Anthony. According to Falik, he and Connelly met one evening in the studio and made the bulk of the track from scratch that evening.
“In conversation, Jess kept referencing a Nineties R&B sound that I knew I could drum up,” he says. “I went into the other room and started some drums. Jay came in and played the chord changes, and the song started to materialize.”
Connelly, he adds, has a calm and collected nature. “She exudes a cool confidence that makes it easy for me to write,” he says.
In person, Connelly is careful with her words and thinks deeply when she’s about to say something she thinks could be controversial. Not that she’s afraid, she’s just aware of herself and the importance of a face-to-face interaction. She would rather meet someone IRL and gain another listener that way than have a fan “double-tap on my selfies,” as she puts it. When it’s time to write music at home in the Philippines, she will go to a friend’s apartment a few blocks away from where she lives to hang out and see what they come up with.
“I think it’s important to have your own sound, and I’m still finding it,” she admits. “I don’t want to make super trendy music. I want to listen to my music in 10 years and for it to still have that same, fresh, timeless feeling. Longevity is important to me because in this day and age, people can get 6 million followers in a year, and then they can fizzle out.”
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