“I don’t ask you to give me any commission/All I ask is you if for you to pay attention,” Jenny James croons on her debut CD, Aspiring 2 B Me.
That has been no problem for this Filipino talent, who has been “mesmerizing” audiences on the Toronto covers circuit over the past three years with an all-inclusive package of exotic beauty, God-given vocals, and well-choreographed strutting, recalling such pop icons as Shakira, Beyonce, and Celine Dion. She now faces the infinitely higher hurdle of making it with her original music, a Pan-cultural pot pourri, reflecting the East-meets-West milieu of her homeland.
The assured Aspiring 2 Me features Pop (The Best Thing), feverish Electronica (Release The Beast), Soul hooks with silky smooth Jazz (Love 101), lonely piano ballads (Forgive Me), and more.
“I think, with the title, the thought process was that all my life I’ve been performing on stage and doing diva cover songs, and now I’m aspiring to be me,” she offers. “When we were meeting with different producers, they were saying, “Who is Jenny James? What kind of music? It was a real soul-searching experience.”
She hails from a family of professional musicians. And James was performing in public by the age of five (on vocals, piano, and guitar!) at traditional “fiestas”, and singing competitions in her home town of Davao City. Her father Alfonso Sr. (a.k.a. Ponching) is a singer, pianist and composer, who does sequencing for bands, worldwide. Her mother Gloria was a singer with a dynamic vocal range. “My dad, I grew up without him,” she relates. “He has been touring all the time. My parents were separated when I was a kid. They didn’t focus on it as a career, but all my brothers and sisters have musical abilities.”
“I don’t know how I would describe it, really,” she continues. “My teachers, they always wanted me to sing in school programs and stuff, because I have a golden voice -- that’s what they’d always say.”
In 2001, James lost her mother, and turned to her music and religion to get through. She was a grand finalist of the Voice of Davao contest in 2004, and would subsequently front more than 10 different bands -- playing five-star hotels in Asia, resorts in the Middle East, and cruise ships. In mid-2007, she began focusing on her solo career.
Since relocating to Toronto in 2008, it has been a process of, “jamming with various bands, doing ongoing recordings in the studio with different producers (most notably, appearing on Mark Webster’s “Urban Launching Pad” compilation), and just getting a feel for things in North America”.
James (jennyjamesmusic.com) finally found the right producer in Bullen, a Juno award winner well-known on Toronto’s Caribbean/Urban scene for his work with artists like Liberty Silver, Salome Bey, Dan Hill, and Oletta Adams, and for his own recordings. The bulk of the disc was produced and mixed at his Thunder Dome Studio (while producer Nayan Williams also had a hand in it).
“We really have a great chemistry together. Eddie knew what I wanted for the song. He can really read my mind,” Jenny says, in soft-spoken tones. “When we brought him the songs, he redid everything his way. It’s really exciting, every time. He’s very, very easy-going. He’s a Gemini, like me and I usually get along with Gemini’s. He lets you kind of find your own way.”
The 11 tracks are a split between co-writes by James and her husband Brian Mann, and songs handpicked for her by Bullen. Part Of You, and Just Say You Love Me were both originally intended for the multi-million-selling Dion. “Those songs were just sitting at Eddie’s studio, and he said, “I think this song would fit you,”” she relates.
While it offers all kinds of crossover potential for radio, James acknowledges the unrelenting, love-centric nature of the material -- reflecting both the American pop/soul tradition (from Smokey Robinson, on down), and her own roots.
“In the Philippines, it’s more ballads. Lots of love songs,” she laughs. “Personally, I like to listen to ballads and love songs, and electronica, too. I wanted to put a little bit of a disco sound on the record, and see what happens. I think there is a chance. I really believe so -- if not here, maybe somewhere else in the world, with the Internet.”