Vanessa Fernandez Sings the Singapore Blues

Vanessa Fernandez Sings the Singapore Blues
Photo Courtesy of Danger Village

[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]

From this spot in Silver Lake, you can walk to four medical marijuana dispensaries in a two-block radius. Anywhere in Singapore, meanwhile, a joint in a cigarette pack can land you two years in prison. The Southeast Asian city-state boasts the world's highest percentage of millionaires (one in six), but a gathering with five or more people requires a police permit.

The singer baptized Vanessa Fernandez returns to her native Singapore tomorrow. It's where she is as you read this sentence. It's the unseen fist at the periphery of her music, which balances themes of oppression with uncommon soul.

"My music is about my voice, and I had to really fight to be heard. I took everything that frustrated me about the world I lived in and hopefully found a way to turn it into something beautiful," Fernandez says as she nurses a coffee at a café a couple miles from the downtown art loft where she recorded much of her self-titled EP, due in October.

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She's wearing gold and green butterfly earrings, and it's difficult to avoid the obvious connection with the metaphors of flight that underpin her songs -- an understandable impulse considering her home country abolished trial by jury shortly after Woodstock. "Fly" is her subversive lead single.

But it's myopic to frame her music, under the name Vandetta, as little more than exotic backstory. For one thing, Fernandez can really sing. Her voice does volitations ranging from angelic hymns to caged bird blues. Inspired by Björk's Medulla, it's the only instrument on the record. Mouth pops are manipulated to sound like a drum machine. Ethereal wails are splintered and sampled to imitate synths. It triangulates trip-hop, R&B and the disembodied beats you'd find at Lincoln Heights' Low End Theory.

The creative liberation of the artists at the latter spot somewhat inspired her original decision to spend half of her time in L.A.

"It can be difficult to create in Singapore, because you can feel claustrophobic," Fernandez says. "Coming to L.A. makes me instantly feel free. There's room for everything."

Despite the sociopolitical differences, Fernandez also embodies how much American culture has done to bridge the gaps: MTV and radio imported Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey, as well as Top 40 rap. Her accent is practically nonexistent. She's wearing a black scoop-neck shirt and blue jeans, with tattoos across her right arm and back -- practically standard issue for Silver Lake.

 

But Fernandez's story is singular. Raised in a devout Catholic family by an Indian father and a Chinese mother, she had three hyper-musical nun aunts who sang perfect three-part harmonies. As a teenager, she turned rebellious and took up smoking and drinking. By 18, she was part of a Black Eyed Peas-type group that was signed to EMI and nominated for "Best Singapore Act" at the 2002 MTV Asia Music Awards. After it disbanded, she studied mass communication at university and became a morning drive-time host on one of Singapore's most popular radio stations. She quit that job three years ago to focus on music full-time. She's also a member of The Syndicate, an audiovisual collective spearheading a nascent underground music scene in Singapore.

Disillusionment with Singaporean politics is never far from Fernandez's mind. But there's also a love of home, and the hope that her music broadens international perception of Singapore beyond draconian laws, media censorship and economic prowess. It deserves to.

"I couldn't have written this EP without feeling frustrated with the state of Singapore," Fernandez says. "But one of the great things about art is that you can say something without being literal. It's more fun to say 'fuck you' without actually having to say it."

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