Inspired by love and loss

Alemay Fernandez will perform songs from her album tonight at the Esplanade Recital Studio.
Alemay Fernandez will perform songs from her album tonight at the Esplanade Recital Studio. PHOTO: TYVN NICE

Home-grown jazz singer Alemay Fernandez makes her songwriting debut with an album that features 21 musicians

Three life-changing experiences prompted home-grown jazz powerhouse Alemay Fernandez to release her first album of originals.

In the last eight years, she has met the love of her life, American singer Richard Jackson, lost her father to kidney failure and become an aunt for the first time.

Her album, Hard To Imagine, which releases via Spotify today, is a 10-track journey she has lovingingly put together. Tickets to her album launch concert at the Esplande Recital Studio tonight are sold out.

The 38-year-old is a fixture in the scene, having performed for the past 20 years, but the album marks her first foray into songwriting.

"I never fancied myself a songwriter," she admits. "I always thought of myself as a performer or an artist, but I didn't have confidence in my skills until my co-producer Shawn Letts encouraged me and said he would show me the ropes."

Letts, an Oklahoma native now based in Singapore, is a saxophonist, pianist, composer and arranger.

Fernandez tapped on the seismic shifts in her life for material and started working on the album in 2011.

For example, it includes the song How Many Ways written by her younger sister Sabina, which was first performed for her father's 70th birthday.

He died in 2010, seven years later.

While the original melody has been tweaked to sound more bluesy, the lyrics remain the same, a tribute to the accountant who loved jazz music.

"A lot of people ask me, 'Why jazz?'. It all started really because my father was a jazz fan and there was always jazz music playing in the house when I was growing up," Fernandez says.

Sheer Perfection, on the other hand, was written for her 31/2-year-old nephew, who she says "sees the world through pure and innocent eyes".

The big band tune My Baby & Me is an ode to her relationship with Jackson, whom she met in 2008 when they were both doing jazz residencies on different ends of Boat Quay.

The varied album also features a gospel song, a funk and soul-inspired tune and an upbeat Latin number.

She took to songwriting with relative ease, learning about music production and arrangement along the way.

"As I'm a jazz singer, there's a strong jazz undertone throughout the album. But I decided to flavour it with overtones that reflect the different musical influences I've had," she explains.

The five-year stretch saw her breaking up the production of the album, where she would repeat the cycle of "working, putting some money aside and then recording a track".

The long process also saw a series of serendipitous events that allowed her to rope in some of the best in the business to record on her album.

Some 21 musicians feature on the album, including American singer James Brown's drummer Erik Hargrove and trumpeter Steve Cannon, whose forte is the big band sound.

Both had passed through Singapore on various projects and she got them to record with her.

Working on the album for such a long time was a blessing in disguise, she says. "I could pick and choose different musicians who suited each genre I wanted to feature on the album."

While nine tracks are originals, one gospel track, I Believe, is a cover of a song that she grew up singing in the church choir.

For her album showcase tonight, she will perform the track alongside the women she used to sing with in church - her sister Sabina, her cousin and fellow singer Vanessa Fernandez and her "honorary" sister Michaela Therese, also a singer.

Putting her original music out to the world for the first time is a nerve-racking experience for Fernandez, who jokes: "It feels like I've been pregnant for five years and I'm birthing this album."

But with the universal themes she addresses through her songs, she hopes that people will see the honesty of her journey in this "musical diary" of sorts.

"I'd like to think that everyone, at some point, has had some similar experience to the ones I've had and will be able to relate to my songs," she says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 09, 2016, with the headline 'Inspired by love and loss'. Print Edition | Subscribe