VanJess Perfected Their Own R&B Sound on the 'Homegrown' EP
We spoke to VanJess about their Homegrown EP, musical influences, and the importance of connecting with producers and collaborators.
Nigerian-American duo VanJess makes contemporary R&B that brings fans back to the '90s. Composed of sisters Ivanna and Jess, VanJess has managed to stand out vocally, with harmonies reminiscent of TLC and a vast production arsenal that includes pop, soul, electronic, funk, and hip-hop.
On Friday, they dropped Homegrown, their first release under the RCA Records banner, and the follow-up to their 2018 independently released debut album Silk Canvas. On Silk Cannvas — which featured appearances from Goldlink, Masego, Kaytranada, and more — the sisters showed an ability to effortlessly shift from a slow R&B vibe to a fast, pulsating underground club beat. On their new EP, they lean more into their affinity for old-school R&B.
The standout production includes a retro '80s beat on the Phony Ppl-assisted “Caught Up”; funky bass lines on the single “Come Over”; and a futuristic, Timbaland-sounding beat on “Roses." The slow-tempo track “Slow Down,” which samples the Lafayette Afro Rock Band's "Darkest Lightfelt" is a throwback to the late '90s, with its seductive production.
The sisters’ love for R&B is clear throughout their catalog — starting with their early YouTube covers in 2009. But they have been known to utilize an eclectic palette. It’s indicated in their sound and collaborations, that even if they are R&B they don’t keep themselves limited to one genre. The result is a colorful sonic sound that often makes you want to dance.
Weeks before their Homegrown EP released, we spoke to the sisters about their love for music and coming into their sound. We got to understand a good sense of their style when we discussed their influences and who they’re listening to now. We also learned their favorite tracks on the EP and talked about the importance of connecting with producers and collaborators.
Let’s discuss your music.It stands apart from other artists that are out right now, especially in the R&B sphere. How did you carve out this sound, including your harmonies?
Ivanna: We're '90s babies. We grew up listening to *NSYNC, Mariah Carey... TLC, Aaliyah. Growing up we were in choir. [We were] basically the leaders in the choir and putting together harmonies. Now we're digging more into the technicalities of music, getting more into jazz, getting more into funk bands. We're just products of what we've been around our whole lives.
How did you manage to come up with the sound that works for you? I feel like you have a consistent sound, but it still varies enough where it makes sense. There’s definitely some experimenting, so I want to know if you connected with producers who had a sound you were drawn to or was it the other way around?
Jess: The truth, which sounds so simplified to say, is that we found the sound by not trying to find it. Just simply working with producers that we got along with as people, vibed with, and had chemistry with was the first step. Taking it back to 2016, I remember we connected with Jay “Kurzweil” [Oyebadejo.] He was really instrumental for a breakthrough that we had creatively. He produced our most recent single ["Curious".] We would go to his house every week and just create different songs. At the time we didn't know a lot of producers, but he was someone that we just really gelled with. As you can see, four years later we still work with him. From there, it was just really lucky meeting people. I remember we had first met Masego four years ago, too, and started working together. One day we did a record with [Kurzweil], and then we invited Masego to come over and he played sax on "Touch the Floor."
That's really how a lot of the songs came together. I remember us being like, "well if we're going to be R&B, then that means our beats need to be like this" and... We were like, "wait, why though?" If we go into the studio and a house record comes, who cares? That's what came up. That was honest. That's who we are. I think the more you create that way, you almost come into your own sound without even knowing it and you're just doing it without even trying.
Ivana: We always knew what we wanted to do, but first we had to kind of clear away the people who didn't get it, trust ourselves, and go forward with what we knew. Do it without anybody’s approval. I think that being able to put out music that way gives you a lot of confidence. It builds a foundation.
Jess: What we learned very early on is when you're not given a way, you make a way. I think that's really important for artists to know is that nobody is going to tell you who you are. You know yourself the best. You kind of get more specific in your life… ‘Well where should I sit vocally?’ Well, you have to play around with your own voice and figure out where your comfort zones are and what you can do.
Who would you say are your top influences?
I think both of us can agree that we're just music fans. Like truly. It really changes. No brainers are Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson, Stevie Wonder. I'm really inspired by a lot of big vocalists like Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston, and Brandy. Those are people that I study. But also, I grew up listening to early 2000s pop. [From] the UK [there’s] The Sugababes, Craig David and here [in the US there’s] Britney Spears, the Spice Girls, and *NSYNC. This music really inspired us as well.
Ivanna: Jess said some of mine. Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, SWV, XSCAP3, The Gap Band, Charlie Wilson, The S.O.S. Band. I think that in general, we're always going to gravitate to music that has a feeling and that has soul. The '90s, 2000s, '80s, '70s, '60s — a lot of music from that time had a certain something that still hits the same way now.
Who are some of your favorite artists of today?
Jess: One of my favorite artists right now is Perfume. They're a Japanese electronic band that I really love. I'm really all over the place, honestly. I love Jhené Aiko. I've always loved her music, and I still do. Jazmine Sullivan is someone that I think has always been incredible. Oh, and SZA of course. I'm really here for women. I'm really here for Black women and continued expression of music and our voices.
Ivana: For me, I really like Moonchild. There's a band called Men I Trust, Haim, Cleo Sol, and Devin Morrison who is actually on our project. Phony Ppl are also on our project. There's just so many people that we like.
On VanJess's new EP, Homegrown, they lean more into their affinity for old-school R&B. Photo Credit: Dana Trippe
How was making the EP? How long did it take you guys, and what was that process like?
Jess: We recorded a lot of music in 2019 and the beginning of 2020 before everything happened. At that time, we were just like, "we're going to pause anything that we were planning on doing." We kind of went back to basics a bit, and we were at home together and posting covers again. One day we were like, let's tease "Come Over," which was a song we did four years ago. People really liked it, and then we had a mission to get it produced. We recorded it at home, and we found ourselves really getting back to the energy we had in 2016, which was like when we were very hungry and doing everything on our own. We shot the single artwork for "Come Over," and then the two singles after that. We recorded most of the vocals for that record at home, too. It was very like homegrown.
We're still doing the same thing now. It's never changed. It's being authentic to yourself, essentially. You're your true self at home, and so I think for us that title really represented the fact that VanJess was really built by VanJess. Now it's like a precursor to our album, which is going to come out this year as well.
Do you have a favorite track on this project?
I'm trying to be consistent, but at this point it changes. Today, I've been saying "Roses." Usually, I say "Slow Down," but "Roses" is also a song I'm excited for people to hear because it's something very different from anything we've done. It was produced by Monte Booker [and] Da-P, who we worked with on "Honeywheat." They all worked on that beat together, and we wrote that record two years ago.
Ivanna: My fave today is "Caught Up." We wrote that in 2016. We definitely wanted it to drop when we wrote it, but it felt like it wasn't going to ever see the light of day.
When can we expect the album?
Life is what will tell us when it'll happen. It'll be this year. We don't even know what's going to come next month. This year is so unpredictable!
Jess: We just have to be thankful and grateful and keep hope alive. If we can't keep hope alive, then we're already doomed.
Banner Photo: Dana Trippe
Sri Rain Stewart is a native New Yorker living in New York City. She writes mostly about fashion, but also has a love for music, culture, TV, and film. In her free time, she writes poetry.