In an attempt to interpret and preserve the artistic heritage of Washington, D.C., ‘The Uptown Interview’ transcribes candid conversations with the artists, curators, personalities and amplifiers of the District’s creative ecosystem.
Jenna Camille has identified as a working musician since her foundational education at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a renowned high school that has produced all-around creators like Dave Chappelle and a host of artists defining the culture in the city today. Originally too shy to sing and too embarrassed to play the clarinet, Camille has evolved into an adept pianist and R&B singer. She has navigated iconic music venues like 9:30 Club and is preparing for an upcoming performance Thursday, November 1st at the Smithsonian American Art Gallery hosted by Luce Unplugged. While she remains a constant presence in the live, sonic landscape and has landed notable collaborations in recent months, Camille has been quietly chipping away at her next body of work, ‘Free,’ for several years. Drawing from inspirations like Janet Jackson’s ‘The Velvet Rope,’ Kelela, and Mndsgn, the Maryland-born/Northwest, D.C.-resident executes a neo-funk-soul sound that is amplified by improvisational notes during performances with her band, The Free Radicals. This interview took place at her home, “The Castle,” in December 2017.
Maxwell Young: I’d like for you to tell me about yourself. Where’d you go to school?
Jenna Camille: I went to Duke Ellington School of the Arts. I went there as an instrumental piano major. I played in the jazz orchestra there and the small ensemble. I started playing piano at the Sewell Music Conservatory, which is Nag Champa’s Allen Jones’ father’s school. So, I started learning under his dad Harlan [Jones], and I started playing there when I was six. When I graduated from Duke, I went to Michigan St. for their jazz studies program. I left Michigan in 2010 and I came back to D.C. to go to University of District of Columbia’s jazz studies program. That’s my music history.
MY: Talk about being a Duke kid. Before you made the choice to go to Duke Ellington, where did you go to school?
JC: I actually didn’t go to school in D.C. I’m from Accokeek, Maryland, so I went to school in PG County. I’m largely montessori educated up to middle school--I went to John Hanson Montessori School in Oxon Hill, Maryland. My mom was telling me that one of my cousins--you know how black people have play cousins--she said one of my play cousins graduated from Duke Ellington. So, she was telling me about this school, wanted me to audition there. I auditioned there and I auditioned at Suitlands Art School. I got into both of them. Initially, I wanted to audition for clarinet and vocals, but I was too shy to do vocals and too embarrassed to play clarinet.
JC: I ended up auditioning for piano and got in. It was interesting because I had seen in TV shows where they have the art kids running around and they’re doing song and dance, whatever, like ‘that’s cool, but that’s not how it is in real life.’ But no, when I got there that’s how it was. There was a lot of running around singing and dancing in the hallways and playing instrumentals. It was an extraordinary experience. It was so much different from being in Montessori school where there are few talented kids, they get all the attention, and then all of a sudden you’re mixed with all these amazingly talented kids and it’s just like you’re just one of many. It’s kind of like being in X-Men--all these people have amazing gifts and abilities. It was incredible. We got to see a lot of famous people come in and talk to us, it just made us feel really special: Russell Simmons, P-Diddy, Debbie Allen--there was a whole bunch of people that came through. It was really exciting. But, for me as a woman and at the time a teenage girl and being in the instrumental department, there’s a lot to prove. I wouldn’t say it’s mostly boys, but the girls have expected to play the soft instruments like the violins, the pianos, the flutes and stuff like that, so being one of the few girls in the jazz band and the jazz ensemble was a lot to prove. And in the piano department, there were few girls there, too, and a lot of the guys got all the attention and opportunity, so it was definitely a fight. It wasn’t without its struggles which I think are typical when you’re dealing with the art industry in general. That’s just our society, unfortunately. But overall, it was an incredible experience, and I give it 80%-90% of the responsibility of molding me as an artist.
MY: Were you creating your own sounds and music at that point?
JC: Yeah I had actually started creating music when I first started playing piano. That’s when I first started taking an interest in making music. And that’s when my mom got interested in putting me in piano lessons. I first started learning by ear. Anything that I had taken an interest in listening to I would try learning on the piano, then I got to trying to compose my own stuff and then I started writing lyrics--maybe around eight or nine. I’ve just been inspired by listening to Janet Jackson.
JC: I would say the one album that inspired me to write was The Velvet Rope. After that it was on from there.
MY: I want to know what your sound sounded like during those moments of feeling frustrated or feeling like you had something to prove in school. What did those original songs sound like?
JC: I don’t know how to describe it. I think my style back then was a lot more folksy. I wrote a lot of like, ‘I’m running away from home or traveling, trying to escape’--type things.
JC: At the time, I was listening to people like Sara Bareilles and The Fray--Fiona Apple. And so I was just trying to find some way to escape. My parents at the time were going through a divorce, and it was just a really--you know--it’s complicated for any teenage kid. Just a lot of, ‘I’m gonna get out of here and make my way in the world’ type of stuff. I never really dealt with my frustrations and trying to prove myself in my music. It was more my frustrations with life and being at home and being a person who was shy and feeling like everybody around me was ignoring me or not paying attention to what was going on inside me. It was a lot of that at the time.
MY: You have a song called “My Way,” speaking of trying to find your way, produced by SUPR. How did that relationship come about?
JC: It was very interesting how that came about. It was kind of a whirlwind. That whole experience happened and then it was over. So, basically what happened was, I met Suleman, a guitar player and the other half of SUPR kids because its two guys: Tehron Porter and Suleman Azimi. I met Suleman at another show that my homie Trae was playing at and we had exchanged contact. One day, he hit me up and was like, “Yo, I’m trying to work with you, I’m trying to get you to come out to the studio--blah, blah, blah.” And so I was like , ‘Alright, okay, cool.’ He was interested in re-doing one of my songs, and for me, I was like, ‘I’m not interested in people taking my songs and re-doing them.’
MY: Which song was this?
JC: This was “My Boo.” He wanted to re-do it, so he invited me out to the studio to talk about it and I said okay. I came out and we were talking and he was telling me his plans of what the production company--because SUPR was supposed to be more than just them producing--it was supposed to be like a whole production company along with some other things. He was talking about his plan and wanting to get me involved, and so we were listening to some of their beats that they made, and I was just flowing. He was like, “Oh, I like what you did! Can you do it again and record it?” And I was like, ‘Fuck, I don’t even remember what I did,’ but I remembered the hook, which was “my way.” So, that was basically a freestyle off the theme of “don’t come around my way.” We thought it was dope and so we released it as a single.
MY: Is that how a lot of your songs are formed? What is your songwriting process like?
JC: Most of the time I’ll start with the beat and then I’ll flow with a melody. There might be certain words that come out as I’m doing that and certain vowel sounds and syllables. I’ll try to--what’s that game called? Mad Libs! I’ll try to Mad-Lib it, you know. I’ll try to put shit in between what I think I was trying to say or what I think the vowel sounds like and then I’m like, ‘Okay, well now I have an idea, so I’m going to just build off of that and construct whatever the theme is from there.’ That’s mostly how it happens, me trying to figure out what I think was trying to come out and constructing what I think it was from there.
MY: You have the song “The Stuff,” that’s my favorite song. It sounds a little bit like Janet, in my opinion.
MY: Its got that 90s type vibe, and I think “My Way” and “Birdie,” too, are similarly in that pocket. Where do you think your sound is going next?
JC: I don’t know. It’s hard to say because my interests are all over the place. I’ve just been listening to a lot of the new funk stuff, just that whole re-creation of the eighties synth vibes--I’ve been really getting into that a lot.
MY: Who are you listening to?
JC: Mndsgn, Benny Sings, Joyce Rice, Tomesh, this cat Moods--I’ve been going back to SWV a lot.
JC: Who else...oh, Kelela, Ne-Yo, basically anyone that pops up in my discover weekly playlist on Spotify. So, it’s a whole lot of people I can’t even think of right now.
MY: Do you find yourself trying to, you know, you’re listening to these artists and you’re a fan, but how does that influence your own music?
JC: I guess the only thing that I would say that it does is makes me want to step my game up. I wouldn’t say that I find myself trying to recreate what they’re doing, but I do find myself going, ‘Okay, I like this idea. I need to figure out what that is...I like this transition, this drum pattern--drum break--I like this thing they did from the engineering perspective. I wanna try to see if I can make that in my own music.’ Not necessarily recreate their sound but recreate their technique. I’ve been doing that a lot, especially with Kelela because I think engineering wise I was really impressed with the last album she put out. The array of sonic construction was something I have not heard. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like that, so it inspired me to put some more work in and master my shit.
MY: What artists in the D.C. area do you appreciate?
JC: In the D.C. area, Meche Korrect, Sir E.U, my man Cef, Lord Java, Dreamcast, Seven Jackson, Nico, Odd Mojo, Deacon Izzy, Nag Champa...I know some people who secretly have the dopest shit ever, but they just haven’t been putting out music here. I have to name this person: Yellowkake. She’s the best out of Michigan and she’s based out of this group called The Black Pack, and The Black Pack has this rapper, Red Pill, on Mellow Music. They’re associated with Tunde Olaniran who is blowing up. They have writers for Complex. They’re dope. They’re based out of Lansing and Flint and Detroit. [Yellowkake] is incredible. She was in the jazz vocal department at Michigan St. and she’s crazy, I would check out her music for sure.
MY: Is she on SoundCloud?
JC: Yeah, she is on SoundCloud.
MY: I saw you at Velvet Lounge for Jamal, Rob, and Dreamcast’s show?
MY: Is that important to you? Going to other people’s shows, do you find that you’re able to collaborate with other artists as a result of going to these shows?
JC: I think it’s important to support other musicians, especially ones you appreciate. I also feel like it’s important as performers that we give something worth supporting because a lot of times I think we take support for granted and we think that it’s owed to us and we expect people to come to our shows just because we’re performing, and we feel like we don’t really need to consider what it means for somebody to come out and spend $10 to see you perform. It takes a lot, especially for some of us who have children or financial responsibilities, you know. Some of us just can’t afford to take an Uber to go see you perform and take an Uber back, so it’s a lot. I feel like if I come out to see you perform it’s because I believe in your work and think that you’re dope and I think that you put on a great show and I want to experience it. I’m not coming to your show if I don’t feel like you care enough to put on a decent show for people who support you because it’s cool to make music for yourself, but if you want to make music for other people, it has to be evident in the way you put your shit together--that goes for your recording and that goes for your performances.
MY: I think a lot of times, especially in this age where there’s so much music on SoundCloud, there’s so much music on Bandcamp--these places where you can find free music or not pay a lot for it--that it’s hard to discern what’s entertaining and what’s actually quality. What gets lost sometimes is the live aspect of the show. I think you have both elements that you’re able to balance very well. You have songs that sound good coming out of the speaker, and when it’s live you’re doing things that are dynamic, that are improvisational, and change the elements to the song, which is entertaining. You perform with a lot of different artists. You have The Free Radicals, you performed with Trae the Drummer last weekend, which was dope. First of all, the Christmas songs were awesome. I understand Christmas isn’t something you’re about, but at the same time that was really cool.
JC: Thank you.
MY: Thank you! But, talk a little bit about who you perform with and why.
JC: Well, The Free Radicals started with me, Trae, and Deante Haggerty-Willis, which is funny because Deante is a guitar player, but the first gig that we did with him we needed a bass player. So, I was like, “Can you play bass?” and he was like, “Alright, cool,” and he was killin’ it--it was just the three of us for a few years. And then I met Teddy, who is the guitar player now, at Howard. He was sitting in on the jazz band at University of the District of Columbia, and I met him and got his contact information because we have a mutual friend who went to UDC as well. He used to hang out at Mousai House, which is no longer at Union Arts where it used to be, but we were hanging out there and I was like, “Yo, do you wanna play with us?” And he played a show with us, I think it was for a Prince tribute and he killed it! It was like, ‘Oh, we gotta keep him around. So, we had him and then my girl Kalassa, who is a fellow Duke alum, she was a year under me, and she...I think maybe we asked her to do backgrounds for a show and we just kept bringing her back, you know, and she became a part of the show. I work with all these guys because they’re professional. They’re super professional. They take their music seriously and they are just really dope at coming up with ideas, especially Trae.
JC: Trae is a wild man. I don’t even know where his mind be at because the things he comes up with, it’s just like damn. With all of them, though, like Kalassa has this really unique thing that she does when we’re performing. It’s kind of like this operatic dissonance that she does. It reminds me of the Fifth Element. It’s like everybody just brings this unique thing and it really works because it fits with the name. We do feel like a radical thing on stage. I also work with Meche Korrect a lot. And Meche Korrect and I were also in school together--high school together--and Meche is interesting because I feel like she doesn’t get enough credit and she has this firey like, ‘Yo, y’all gonna fuck with me. I’m gonna make you fuck with me’--and that’s not an energy that I see a lot. A lot of performers I feel like are like, ‘Please fuck with me, please like my music.’ [Meche] is like, ‘Naw, you better like my shit. I’m not about to be on the stage fucking around if you don’t like my shit. You’re gonna like my shit.’
JC: So, I just feel that type of energy doesn’t get enough credit here. It’s a lot of, ‘Yo, come fuck with us,’ like, ‘Naw, you are going to fuck with us.’ That’s the type of people I like to surround myself with: people who no matter where they are, it doesn’t matter whether have Billboard Top 20’s or not, we carry ourselves like we have Billboard Top 20’s. We carry ourselves like we made it because if we don’t believe in ourselves like that, how do we expect to make it? We have to hold ourselves with the level of respect that we expect from people, like, ‘You’re gonna acknowledge me as a force because that’s how I carry myself. And whether I’m at the Grammy’s or not, you’re still going to acknowledge that.’
MY: I think that harkens back to Duke and having all of these people [stars] roll through where they’re there because they’re trying to teach you something. It’s not like you’re there to see them as fans, they’re like, ‘Nah, you’re at this school because you have talent, and we’re here because we’re trying to teach you something so that one day you can be in our shoes.’ So, that’s that confidence I think a lot of Duke kids have.
JC: Oh yea, definitely. That’s one thing we got early on--we’re professionals. They taught us to be professionals. We were working. We were actually working. We didn’t get any of the money, the school got the money, but we were working musicians since we were 14, 15 years old. So, for us coming out of Duke, we had these years behind us. We really were out here playing gigs, playing with celebrities, and we were playing for the rich white people. 15-year old kids out doing these gigs that professional musicians now are out here getting paid money for, but we were doing it too, and we were kids, but we didn’t get none of the money though, you know what I’m saying. But we still had the experience, so it definitely gave us an attitude like, ‘We are professionals,’ so whether you’re out here mingling with the top people or not, you’re still a professional--no matter where you are. So for us, nothing is too small. Whether you’re playing a at a wedding or the Essence Awards, it’s all something that you need to take seriously, and that’s how I carry myself. Everything that I do, I take seriously. Every venue I go to whether it’s big or not, I take seriously because it’s about being professional at the end of the day. It’s about caring about, like I said earlier, it’s about caring about the experience for other people, not just yourself.
MY: You’ve played a lot of venues in D.C., what are some of your favorites?
JC: Not to sound biased because I work there now, but 9:30 Club. Yeah, it’s definitely my favorite--the sound is incredible. Just to hear my music come out of that sound system is like, ‘Oh my God!’ It’s like a dream. I can only imagine what it would sound like if it came out of the fucking Anthem sound system. That definitely was my favorite show of all time. There have been some good ones, but that was definitely incredible.
MY: What do you think is left to accomplish here in the city as far as playing, as far as exposure?
JC: Honestly, I kind of feel like I’ve max-ed out. I feel like I’ve accomplished as much as I’ve wanted, like I’ve wanted to play at 9:30 and I played it. I mean, I guess the only dream I have now is playing at Anthem, which would be dope. But other than that, I feel like I’ve pretty much max-ed out everything that I’ve wanted to do here and I’m ready to move on, ready to start something else.
MY: That’s a narrative I’m hearing among a lot of artists, like Jamal was just saying that about Nag Champa, too. How do you get to that next place of playing outside of D.C.?
JC: I guess that is what everyone’s trying to figure out.
MY: Why do you think that’s a problem, though? Why don’t you think more artists don’t have that ability? Because there are artists who are playing outside of D.C.--April + Vista--people who are becoming nationally known. There’s a lot of talent here that deserves to be exposed.
JC: Well, I think it boils down to very simple things: one of them is money and the other thing is support. I can’t speak on the support that April + Vista have, but they obviously have some sort of backing that allows them to leave and travel. Some of us don’t have that--I think that’s the biggest struggle for a lot of us--it costs money. Even people that I know who have done nationwide tours, they come back and they’re broke because everything that they made touring goes to traveling. It’s like they can do a show where ever, but they have to take that money and use it to pay for gas, use it to pay for places to stay unless you know somebody that is in every state! You have to spend some money. Unfortunately, a lot of us are living the narrative of starving artists. We’re very good but we’re very broke.
JC: It’s like if you don’t have a team behind you that can support you traveling it doesn’t matter.
MY: I’m sorry that has to be the narrative right now because there’s too much money in the city, especially politically, for the artists to be burdened. But this house--it’s got a very creative vibe to it, tell me about it.
JC: We have shows here every month. We started having shows here in June --I can’t remember when we started, but it was this year. We’ve had shows here before, but on a consistent, monthly basis we started this year.
MY: What’s the series called?
JC: I don’t really know if we have a name for it, it’s just ‘The Castle’ because that’s the name of the house. It’s consistently been successful, we’ve had our house filled up a lot. There was one time where it was out of control. It was super packed, it was actually for a Howard party. We ventured into doing parties, and that ended very quickly--like 20-year olds, outta control. But, yeah, we’ve had some pretty dope things happen here.
MY: So what’s going on with your album Free?
JC: Well, Free is delayed for numerous interesting reasons. One, I originally...my first album I recorded myself. I recorded it on this computer and a few years ago all my USB ports and my CD drive just busted, so I haven’t been able to plug a mic up into it and do anything with it. I also haven’t been able to edit the production I’ve done because I also wanted to fix, but I can’t plug in my MIDI controller. It’s been a lot of technical shit that seems like, ‘Oh, it would be so simple to fix,’ but because it costs money to fix it, I haven’t been able to do it, and I’ve taken up collections, but then I’d get some money and be like $200 short. It’s hard to save to really invest because every time I try to save I end up short on some other shit and it’s been a lot of chasing my tail. Also over the years, you know how you make something you think is dope, then you go back and you listen to it and it’s like, ‘Ugh, I need to go back, I need to do that over, I need to do that over, I need to bring out that [sound].’ So, it’s been a lot of changes on the way that I view the project, which is making it difficult. We are going to doing more work on it this coming week. It’s starting to move now and I thank my manager for that because he’s been pushing me to get it done. I’m at a point now where I want to get it done. I care how it’s received, but at this point I really don’t. My main goal is to get it done and have it out because I’ve worked so hard on it. I’ve put a lot of emotion...you know, the project itself started as an affirmation for myself--an affirmation of wanting to be free from concern. The first project was really emotional because I was going through a hard time with a breakup.
MY: What was the first album called?
JC: Red. It’s on Bandcamp. Yeah, so I’d gone through a really bad breakup and I was just really angry and there was a lot of trying to deal with stuff. And then Free for me is, ‘Okay, I’m done with this. I’m cool. I’m happy.’ It’s kind of ironic because it was an affirmation that wasn’t quite true, but as time has gone on its become more and more true. I feel like [Free] hasn’t been finished because I needed to actually make it true. I needed to confirm what I’m saying on the record. And I’m happy with the process. I want it to be finished, but I’m happy with the process because it has become more and more true for me, and I’m starting to feel more comfortable.
MY: It sounds like there’s still some more songs to write or do you feel like the voice is there?
JC: The voice is there, now we just need to get it on wax.
MY: What is your role as an artist in the DIY scene?
JC: I don’t know, I think it’s gonna be up to us to have the awareness to take care of each other because I feel like with Union Arts, that community we had, is kind of not there anymore. I do remember a time when everybody was collaborating, everybody had this mindset of, ‘We gotta work together,’ around the time of Trayvon Martin and Ferguson. We were really like, ‘Okay guys, we have to do something.’ We were really invigorated by that and there was a lot of things that were being done and coming together, but after that shit died down that spirit died down, too, and now it’s everybody for themselves again. Not to say there aren’t people trying to preserve that, but it’s also like, ‘Let’s make the music and get out,’ which is sad. At the same time, getting out of D.C. is kind of necessary. We need that experience to open our minds and realize there’s more than this. There’s a lot more to accomplish. And that’s not to degrade this. What we have here is very important, it’s gonna be important forever, but as artists and as people, we need more experiences to develop ourselves creatively and to help bring more eyes to what’s going on here in D.C.