Jana Herzen: The Voice and Heart of Motema Music

Roseanna Vitro’s interview with the singer and record company owner

Jana Herzen image 0

Jana Herzen

Jana Herzen switches hats gracefully. As a singer she possesses a warm flexible tone, which serves well her stylistic choices of folk, pop and jazz music. Additionally, she is a composer, guitarist and lyricist whose performances are imaginative and soulful. Many of her concerts feature original material that she renders in duet with bassist Charnett Moffett. Her tunes take you on a journey-from the beaches of Bali to the dangerous turns of “Slippery When Wet.” She delivers all with a twinkle in her eye.

Jana is the CEO and matriarch of Motema Music, one of the fastest growing record labels in jazz and world music. I first met her in my home recording studio in 2009. She was working with my husband, recording engineer Paul Wickliffe. I immediately felt a connection with her; we share an abiding appreciation for great singers, songwriters, lyrics and lyricists.

Jana’s closest friends push her to perform more often. The balancing act between being a performer and an executive poses considerable challenges. The industry’s changing paradigms add to the mix, which appear to shift with the winds. When reviewing the impressive list of artists that Jana has signed, one gets the impression that any and all things are possible with her and her team. I speak from experience; with the help of the Motema crew, I received a Grammy nomination in 2012 for The Music of Randy Newman.

Jana heads to Los Angeles this coming week to attend the Grammys. She’ll be thinking about the label’s five nominations, featuring Rene Marie, Arturo O’Farrill, Rufus Reid and Pedrito Martinez. Whether or not she comes home with any winners seems to be beside the point. In Jana’s world, her artists are all winners – a fact noted and recognized by those who enjoy the privilege of working with her.

Roseanna Vitro: What are your earliest recollections of music that inspired you?

Jana Herzen: There was always music in my household – show tunes, classical music, folk, rock and roll, and some mainstream jazz. My mom was into hootenannies and would help put on rock concerts at Stanford University with the student union and downtown Palo Alto, where she helped produce the Free Music for Free People concerts deep in the hippie heart of California. Yes, you guessed it. We are talking 1967-72.

RV: Did you study music in school in your early years?

JH: My first instrument was piano at age five. I was the youngest student of my piano teacher. He taught me to sing intervals by playing a C on the piano and asking me to sing the third, fifth, sixth, minor seventh, and the major seventh. It trained my ear at an early age so I could make up my own harmonies. My mother, who couldn’t do that, was wildly impressed and would cart me around and show people how I could make up harmonies and sing with her when she played her banjo or guitar. She was actually my first band mate, as we used to go into my classroom and sing things like “You Are My Sunshine” and “Careless Love.” She’d play and sing the melody and I’d chime in happy as a lark on the harmonies. I love singing harmonies to this day. I had a whole crew of friends as a kid that loved to harmonize. We sang Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Crosby Stills and Nash, James Taylor, The Beatles…

RV: It’s wonderful your mother heard your talent so early and nurtured your ears. Was there a particular teacher or program whom encouraged your singing and musicianship?

JH: My piano teacher, Mr. Griffen, taught me until I was twelve. I had a great ear and could pick things up by hearing it once. But I had a hard time really playing while reading music. It’s still really hard for me. It’s like the part of my mind that can play music and the part that reads notes are not integrated. When I play, even though I know all the basics about notation and chord theory, my ability to think about that kind of thing just goes out of my brain somehow. It’s a bit embarrassing. Sometimes I can’t even call off the names of the chords to teach my side folks a song. It’s not just that I’m rusty; it’s really some kind of a block or something. In any case, as my piano lessons got more complex (doing full sonatinas and rhapsodies and what not), it got hard to memorize all that stuff. I eventually was so frustrated that I quit piano. So I did get a really good grounding in music with piano lessons from age five to twelve. I also learned recorder in school. Then picked up clarinet, but was kicked out of the band because I wasn’t very good at, or very interested in reading music. Then when I was in seventh grade, I took a guitar class and fell in love. My guitar has been my most constant companion ever since. It’s been with me everywhere and I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of happy hours playing it in nature, on stage, in living rooms, in recording studios. When I get a free moment, I love to learn new tricks. Lately, my guitars (I have a number of them now) have been a bit neglected due to the amount of time I spend running Motema Music. I didn’t study formally much after that class, but there were a lot of great guitarists at my high school, including Stanley Jordan. We would all play together and hang out, listening to music. I also worked as a lighting technician and stage manager at the theater on my high school campus. Gunn High is a beautiful school that is almost like a small college campus and there is a thousand seat proscenium theater there, which doubles as a community theater facility. All kinds of great stuff came through there: Cal Tjader, Stan Getz, The Midsummer Mozart Orchestra, and various ballet companies. I was exposed to all of this culture very early. I even got paid to see it, as we ran the lights and mopped the floor in the theater. It was a lot of fun.

RV: It sounds like you were exposed to a myriad of styles. As students of music, we don’t all learn in the same way. One of my favorite singer / composers was Kenny Rankin. He didn’t even read music. Did you study singing privately or in school?

JH: My first vocal coach was Betina Jonic, who was the director of Actor Singer Development at the Covent Garden Opera House in London. It was a fluke that I got to be in her workshop. There were all these famous West End actors in there: Morag Hood, Martin Shaw, Dianna Rigg and a bunch of people from the Opera Company, and me a little American fifteen year old who came with Morag Hood. She was an actress, who took me under her wing when my parents lived in London for a year in 1976. It was exhilarating, and a bit intimidating to take singing lessons with Betina, who had worked extensively with experimental theater guru Peter Brook. (As an aside, in an odd coincidence – are there many coincidences-I’ve reconnected with Betina thirty years later and put out one of her records on Motema. She’s a one of a kind, amazing singer. She put together a very intense project called “The Bitter Mirror,” in which she juxtaposes the work of Bertolt Brecht and Bob Dylan. I recommend that singers check that out, as there is much to learn from Bettina’s intense commitment to a lyric. She still lives in London. I see her when I pass through. More singing lessons happened in College. I studied theater at NYU in Manhattan. When I started, I was in the directing program, but that dried up, so I had a choice to go into the acting track or the musical theater track. I took the musical theater option because I loved music, and found the program meant tap dance, jazz dance, and vocal lessons. It was a blast. I never had any real ambitions to perform in musicals, but I loved learning all those tricks, and it improved my vocal skills. Our vocal teacher, Joe Scott, was amazing and had a huge influence on me. I loved studying with him at school, so when we graduated, I took care of arranging private group classes for him, so I could keep studying more affordably. He always used an exercise where we would vocalize in arpeggiated octaves using the words “I Love You So Much.” I did, indeed, love him so much. He was a leprechaun with a twinkle in his eye. Sadly, he died suddenly of a heart attack a few years later. He was at a Louise Hay Workshop. Go figure. It was a shock and hit me hard. I still miss him to this day.

Joe used to always say that singing is just “Elongated Speech.” He taught us operatic arias and musical theater songs. I always sang folk / rock and jazz standards with my guitar.

RV: This is amazing to finally learn about your history. I knew when I heard you sing you had studied. Theater and opera blended in your style and gave you solid technique. What was the first song you wrote?

JH: Aside from a few humorous ditties I wrote as a child, my first real song was called “Passion of a Lonely Heart.” I wrote it when I was 28. It’s actually a pretty complex jazz tune; not sure how I knew to write it. I wrote it after seeing a Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross concert. I was so inspired by the music that I wanted to write something in that style. I also was enamored with a guy. He was older, and I figured kind of out of my reach, so the song lyrics tell the story. It took about 25 years to get around to recording it professionally. It became the title track of my second, and most recent album that I recorded as a duet with Charnett Moffett. It came out in 2013 coinciding with the tenth anniversary of Motema. After that first song, I started writing more regularly.

RV: Were there any particular books that impacted your song writing that you would like to recommend?

JH: All the Shakespeare and other plays and literature that I studied in college certainly had an effect on my lyric writing, and all the music from every style that I’ve absorbed through the years has affected my melody and arrangement skills. I don’t learn from books well, but there is one book that I think should be mandatory for all performers: Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery. I also got a whole lot out of a guitar book called Chord Chemistry. It unlocked the full upper neck of the guitar to me. It had been a complete mystery to me before that.

RV: You can’t go wrong studying Shakespeare. I’m delighted to discover you’re a fan of Kenny Werner’s book. We are the oldest of friends with six albums together. Kenny has been asked to start a program at Berklee in Boston, based off the success of his book and concepts. Did you study acting in high school? I feel singers who study poetry and acting tend to be better story tellers.

JH: Yes, in high school, in college and after. I am one of seven founders of the MCC Theater in NYC. We founded it in 1983 (just out of college) and it’s still running strong today. It is lead by casting mogul Bernard Telsey (who I went to school with) and actor Robert LuPone (who initiated the role of Zach in AChorus Line and was our beloved acting teacher at NYU). I served on the board and as dramaturg (research & developer) for the company for its first ten years.

RV: You really have a lot of theater background. Perhaps your work in theater afforded you the calm persona you present publicly. I’ve always wondered how you manage a company and so many creative artists with such a calm demeanor. I have one more question about your singing experience. Did you ever perform in choral groups or rock bands?

JH: Briefly. In my thirties, I joined my first band. It was a reggae band led by a steel pan player from Trinidad named Gordon Nurse. We were called The Cobra Stones. I played electric guitar and we were the house band for a reggae jam session that happened every Monday in Santa Cruz, California. The band lasted about a year and then our leader disappeared. I think perhaps the law was after him. I believe I was the only person in the band and in the audience that wasn’t high on pot each Monday (not that I have anything against pot in particular). I was raised as a California hippie after all. But truthfully, all it does for me is put me to sleep or make me paranoid. So it’s not for me.

RV: I had the impression you knew a little something about California hippies. That was definitely my era and I loved it. From a distance you appear somewhat shy and reserved. Was it difficult facing an audience when you first started performing?

JH: Yes indeed. In fact, it sometimes felt like daggers were going through my heart when I stepped on stage to perform. And it got even worse if I did a really great job and got a lot of applause.

RV: Singing is so personal. You’re exposed and your heart is on the line. What were your first significant gigs?

JH: Folk clubs in England when I was fifteen and sixteen years old. Mostly open mic nights, and sometimes, I’d open for an act I was friends with, Telephone Bill & The Smooth Operators. I was sweet on their violinist / mandolinist and he taught me a lot of really great guitar and harmony tricks.

RV: What stories do you recall as you birthed into a performer?

JH: I tried my hand at musical theater performing during and just after college. I wasn’t good at auditioning. I would always end up with backstage jobs that made it hard to find time to perform. In fact Motema kind of fills that “backstage” job roll in my life. So far my biggest performances have been the release events for Passion of a Lonely Heart. We performed at Joe’s Pub in NYC, some great halls in Paris, and some good venues in California, including the Monterey Jazz Fest. That was a blast!

RV: It appears your mission in music began at the age of five and never stopped. Are you more dedicated to performing these days? As a vocalist, do you subscribe to any particular vocal warm ups?

JH: My mission to perform has been deep inside me always, but I can’t really call it “solid” as I’ve let everything get in the way of it. Yet I always do it and I am always connected to my music. One of these days I may really lean into it hard. As for warm ups, I don’t do much, but I have one that I do all the time both for public speaking and singing. It’s a bit weird looking, so I usually hide to do it. But it’s an amazing warm up.

Here are the instructions: You stick your tongue out as far as it can go, then you count to 100 articulating each syllable to the best of your ability, so that the numbers are intelligible even though your tongue is in the way. I always recommend that people first say a few words and notice how it sounds and feels, then do that exercise and say the same words again.

Try it. It’s a truly liberating feeling and makes for clear crisp speech. Another thing that really helped my technique in a huge way was learning to play the didgeridoo. It’s necessary to do circular breathing to play the didgeridoo, which results in making you breathe from your diaphragm. Singing teachers had been telling me to do diaphragmatic breathing for years, but it was only when I started to play didgeridoo that I felt 100% of what they meant. Suddenly I had so much more power and support for my voice. That “pillar of air” that Joe had talked about suddenly was a concrete reality for me. It also cleared up a lot of my pitch issues. Another amazing teacher that I had for brief while was Judy Davis, who taught Barbra Streisand. I had the chance to study with her in Oakland, California not long before she passed. What an amazing old dame she was, full of great stories about Sammy Davis, Jr., and Frank Sinatra. She knew them all. Judy pointed out to her students how hard it is to sing in English because there are so many diphthongs. She said, whenever you find yourself singing off-key, check out whether it’s on a diphthong. She was right. She would make us analyze lyrics based on the pure vowel sounds and I learned to recognize them. Then, you could decide if you would hold on the first vowel or the second of the diphthong. Suddenly, your mind was no longer confused and the pitch would hold. It really helped me in the studio on my first record. She also pointed out the trouble with throat consonants like “r”. She had some cool exercises that take you through all the vowels while concentrating on your jaw and lip positions. After studying with Judy, I got a little bit affected though. My dear friend Ellen Weiss, who coaches in New York, helped me relax into my singing better with a technique she uses called Libero Canto, developed by an Austrian Vocal teacher named Edvin Szamosi. That technique focuses on deep relaxation of all of the musculature of the head. There are some great exercises to relax your tongue and jaw. It’s unusual work, but it really helped me and I still study with Ellen now and then.

RV: I love hearing about your extensive vocal studies. Diphthongs and a relaxed jaw and tongue I know about, but I’ve never thought about playing a didgeridoo to improve your breathing. I’m going to try it. What brought you back to the East Coast?

JH: I came from California for my third and fourth years of college at NYU in 1981. Then I left the city in 1991 and travelled all over the world. I re-settled in California for a long time, which is where I started Motema. Then, all of the activity of Motema on the jazz scene pulled me back to New York City. It’s a hard city to leave. I really love the artistic energy here.

RV: What inspired you to create Motema Music and how long did it take for the label to be up and running?

JH: I started it as a vanity label to put my own record out, Soup’s on Fire, which I released as a DIY project in 1999. As I performed around San Francisco, I wound up working with Babatunde Lea, an amazing drummer who plays Afro-Latin Jazz. He had put out several records. He introduced me to various people in the business, including Suzi Reynolds, a producer and manager who lived in New York. We engaged Suzi to produce a record for Babatunde. This brought me to New York for the sessions. (I hadn’t yet decided to do a label; I was just helping my friend Tunde get a record recorded.) That first record, Soul Pools, featured an all-star jazz cast: Hilton Ruiz (may he rest in peace) on piano, Jon Benitez on bass, Mario Rivera on saxophone (may he also rest in peace), Frank Lacy, and Raul Midon and percussionist Koko Jones (then known as Kevin). My first record had been multi tracked over a long period using click tracks, and putting each track down separately. I was astounded to see an entire jazz record (and a brilliant one at that) go down in just two days in the studio. I was floored by all of the musical brilliance in the room and I got bitten kind-of-hard by the jazz bug. Suzi then introduced me to David Neidhart, who had been let go as VP of Marketing for Verve records. (There were a lot of blood baths going on from the majors at that time due to the advent of digital music.) David, Suzi and I batted around the idea of starting a label, and I decided I would do it. My folks had come into a little money at that time. They loved music almost as much as the science that occupied their days and nights, and agreed to help bankroll it. The rest is history.

RV: Motema Music features a wide variety of talent. Straight ahead jazz to world music and singer-songwriters. In the current world today, an icon such as McCoy Tyner may sell 3000 albums instead of 30,000. It appears Motema is growing at a rapid pace. How do you decide whom to sign?

JH: It’s really a gut thing with me. I sign projects: a) because I love them; b) because I perceive the artist has a special spark, is an amazing live performer, has a great work ethic, and has a good back story of some sort for the artist; or c) for the specific project they are presenting. I also like putting out culturally significant projects, or debuting an artist that I think has an amazing vision and / or amazing commercial potential.

RV: Computers do not come with CD players these days. Most digital information is downloaded and listened to on squashed mp3s. How much of your business is downloads versus CD sales?

JH: I’m happy that more people listen to music now than ever before, but I’m not sure how to keep a record company open if everyone can stream things for free. I’m working on cracking that code. Part of my strategy is to get more involved in live performance opportunities. You can’t download a live performance. These days, vinyl sales are up. I think collectors will continue to buy really cool vinyl packages. But I doubt it will be a huge profit center, although it will for some kinds of music, probably.

RV: Today’s youth do not watch television. They tune in to Netflix or Amazon Prime if there’s a series they’re interested in. No commercials and you’re in control. I’ve been dreaming of a jazz based-ROKU Channel with jazz programming around the clock. Customers would buy subscriptions for what they’re interested in. Have you considered a Motema Channel?

JH: We have a YouTube channel of course, and I have actually considered trying to get a Motema XM radio station going. I hadn’t thought of Roku, but I think it’s a great idea. We actually had a lot of play on Music Choice (the Cable Music Channel). It makes perfect sense to get jazz going on ROKU, especially if it IDs the artists that are being played, so they can build plans. I have a plan to create some long Motema YouTube streams that feature multiple artists, something like a radio station, because I know that people go to YouTube and play it like radio these days. This hasn’t made it to the top of my to-do list yet, and it would need someone to spearhead the project, but I imagine we will try these and other plans. Deep digital strategy has been part of the Motema plan for a while. I was very proud last year when I learned from the jazz editor at iTunes that we were at the top of the game for jazz labels interacting with their digital team. We have a young team, spearheaded by Fanny Delsol and Haley Brawner, who bring pop digital strategies to marketing our jazz. And we’ve had some excellent successes recently. As I write, I just learned that iTunes just put up a Motema Label Spotlight, which is awesome! We also have a spotlight running at HDTrax.com, where audiophiles can find our projects in hi-res audio. I definitely appreciate iTunes launch of their “Mastered For iTunes” format last year, which offers a significant improvement the audio quality over the older form of mp3s

RV: Who are your favorite singers and why?

JH: Big question. I love kd lang, Annie Lennox, Sade, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Gabriel, Habib Koite, Salif Keita, Leonard Cohen (more for his lyrics and storytelling than his voice, but then I love his raspy voice as well), John Lennon. I also love Marc Cohn for his one amazing hit, “Walking in Memphis.” Rene Marie has been a favorite of mine since I first saw her in 2005. I couldn’t believe my luck when I had a chance to sign her in 2010. She’s made some fine records and brought us our third Grammy nomination for Best Vocal Jazz Record. Our prior nominations in that category were for: the debut record of Gregory Porter (who I am also of course a huge fan of) and you, who I also think of as a fantastic singer. Why I call out these singers as favorites is that they all have their own styles. They are storytellers who get very deep into the emotional nature of the song (almost like an actor in a play). They each put out impeccable albums. They have something to say, and I simply love the tambour of their voices. They are emotionally connected to their vocal instruments and they make me feel things very deeply. They are my buddies in times of sadness and celebration. I’m also very fond of Pete Seeger-not for his voice, but for who he was and how he influenced my life.

RV: Thank you for sharing so much of who you are in this interview. I love your list of singers and the reasons why you love them. You’re carving out quite a legacy at the label and your music. I know all the artists on Motema are grateful for your vision and support. It’s not small what you’re creating. Thanks again.

JH: I really get a tremendous amount out of working closely with all of the artists on the label. And I learn so much from each of them about style, work ethic, fortitude, spirituality, conviction, and commitment to excellence. All this music swirls round in my head. And I find that even though I don’t play much these days, every time I sit down to play the guitar or piano, I have new facilities that I’ve learned by osmosis. I also really got a great deal out of working with Charnett Moffett. He was the first person in my life who really pushed me to play regularly and listen closely to my own music. I’m easily drawn into other work than music; I have a tremendous respect for people who do music 24/7. I’d like to try having that type of commitment to playing for a while. For the short period that I was rehearsing to record Passion of a Lonely Heart. I played for about three hours almost every day. My playing really transformed. As Abbey Lincoln said, “The Music is the Magic.” I wholeheartedly agree.

Recommended Listening:

Passion of a Lonely Heart – Jana Herzen & Charnett Moffett
Soups on Fire – Jana Herzen

Jana Herzen’s artist page at the Motema Music website.