Vanessa Fernandez is one of those musicians who confounds the local-international dichotomy that has long affixed itself to conversations of Made In Singapore music. In all her disparate guises, including her Vandetta incarnation, the Singaporean chanteuse and SYNDICATE member has offered a silken, gilt-edged touch. Able to reach celestial heights when she elects to airlift you with her shimmery croon, her voice can also cut through butter when she’s in earthy, torch-song mode. Recently, she issued a new transmission, “ONZ”, a lush, soul-facing ode to self-empowerment with a white-hot rap thrust, that belongs to a larger set, the forthcoming Mindkiller EP. That’s a proposition that spells good new for us all. Below, we find out more from the woman herself.
Looking back with Mindkiller in mind, how would you say you’ve changed since 2013’s self-titled EP?
2013 – I had just gotten back from Los Angeles, and at that point, I had already gone through this process of change just by being surrounded by these crazy-talented, multi-disciplined, super hardworking, hustle-based people back in the States. That type and level of energy is infectious, so I came back to Singapore feeling really ambitious and driven. I really wanted to do something. At that time, I think this ‘something’ was still tied to music, but with a more community-centric shift. Now, I think I’ve been doing a lot of work for a long time, which I love, but I also need to find a bit of a balance. I need to be able to manage music and my role as an advocate and mentor, or I’ll go a little bit insane. I don’t mean making another fully produced project; I mean needing to incorporate more music into my life. Mindkiller is just the first step for getting into my music headspace again.
Why did you work only with local producers this time round?
In my abandonment of fear and my discarding of all the reasons why I shouldn’t make music, in an attempt to remind myself why I have to keep making music, I turned to the people who inspire me to do so: the OGs and the young-and-upcoming.
Several years ago, I had this really deep sadness, which is one of the reasons why I went to LA. If you play the trumpet and you’re American, you have Miles Davis to look up to. I was like, ‘Why don’t we have that here?’ So when I discovered SYNDICATE in 2011, during my first steps into electronic music, that was the first time I felt that feeling of what I thought it’d feel like for a trumpeter in America to reference Miles Davis.
I think having only local producers is just an expansion of that idea. I’m very proud of the talent in Singapore – not just the OGs, such as KoFlow and Kiat, but newer people too, such as Perk Pietrek, Lineath and Fauxe, who’re all producers I admire.
I’m going to go out to the world and do my best to have as many people as possible listen to the work that I’ve done, and it’s important for me to take all these inspiring people along with me.
“Why are we racist? Why do we choose to be in horrible relationships? Why do we make bad decisions? I feel like a lot of that is because we’re afraid. Fear really is a mind-killer.”
It’s known that the title is a take on a line from Dune. Why does it resonate with the EP, and on a deeper level, you?
I grew up coming from a Catholic school, and had this set idea of how things were supposed to be, who I was meant to be, what’s right and what’s wrong, and at that time, I was like, ‘F*** it!’ but I didn’t really do anything because I was afraid. So, I decided to bend all of my rules to see which ones would break. Through doing that, I came to this realisation that I needed to get out and go to LA, but I was absolutely petrified. I told myself you can’t make a decision based on fear, so that’s why I left: I decided that I needed to not stay because I was scared.
I’ve dealt with this concept of fear in a very internal way and I think it will always be a battle. Right now, I almost feel like that’s a message I want to share with my community, and that doesn’t just refer to people who make music. It extends to everyone else in the world.
Why are we racist? Why do we choose to be in horrible relationships? Why do we make bad decisions? I feel like a lot of that is because we’re afraid. Fear really is a mind-killer.
Even now, when you’re so respected as a musician?
It doesn’t matter how old you are. Fear is part of the human DNA. Being afraid is an instinctual response to keep you alive. When we were all cavemen, if you were like, ‘Ah, I’m not scared of the lion, it’d come and eat you!’ You’d be dead in moments!
Maybe the lion is something else now, and we might not always recognise what it is, but that lion – or that fear – will always be there, shifting and morphing, manifesting in different forms. A lot of the time, we feel fear and get confused and stop ourselves from doing things. That’s something I still feel. No matter what I do, I’ll have to deal with that. I may be able to deal with being afraid of going on stage by just focusing on performing and delivering, but I probably still have a fear of commitment. Fear will always be something you’ll struggle with, but that you must also always overcome.
How did “ONZ” come together?
Perk did that track and I went with the first melody that popped into my head. I wrote a whole bunch of stuff. I had written a mock rap initially, and we were trying to figure out whom to get to rap it. It needed to be someone who could convey a high energy. I thought of Kim Olsen, who I knew from my early days in Urban Xchange. I sent her the track, she had a listen, and one day she came to my place to talk it out. Then she wrote something, sent it to me via a voice memo, and I thought it was awesome, so we recorded it. It was the last track we finished for the album. She was pregnant too!
There’s a lot you reveal in the song, despite its playful title. What does it mean to you?
Sometimes, I feel that people might think it’s silly to chase these dreams I have, especially since I’m in my thirties, and a lot of people are critical about women in their thirties making music. I’m almost anticipating some of the things people might say, and just remembering some of the stupid s*** people have told me in the past: That I shouldn’t do it and that I won’t ever be good enough.
When I first started out, maybe my music was, like, ‘Ugh, why doesn’t he love me?’ But now that I’m older, a lot of the things I write about aren’t just the personal things I’ve experienced; it’s also a look into my culture. It’s about the things I see in people, from the perspective of someone who interacts with the community so much. I meet many different types of people with varying levels of states of mind and expertise. Making music is more than me chasing a big dream. It’s also how I process all these things. The music is a way for me to say what I need to say.
And lastly, when you think of what your life’s work will be like, what do you hope to accomplish, musically, twenty years down the road?
I’d want to score a movie soundtrack or be a music director on a movie soundtrack.
Mindkiller drops late August.
Photography by Lenne Chai.