Jade Simmons is one busy woman.
The Houston-based classical pianist's newest EP, Playing With Fire drops in September. On Tuesday, the track "Boss's Nova" from the EP was released as a free download. On Friday night, Simmons will perform with her "partner-in-crime," Playing With Fire's co-producer Roburt Reynolds, at The Jet Lounge.
Simmons and Reynolds also collaborated on the upcoming eOne records release Paganini Project, due out in February 2013, which includes performances of music by Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Robert Muczynski and Fazil Say.
"The day I made that decision, I cannot tell you, it was like my perspective, my vision, the way that I felt as an artist, everything changed. I felt freer, you know?"
Playing With Fire features Simmons on piano and keyboards, including a vintage Wurlitzer, backed by bossa nova, jazz, Jamaican dancehall and old and new school hip-hop beats. Simmons also makes her debut rapping on the bonus track "Fire," and promises to spit a verse or two Friday night.
Playing With Fire will be the first release on Simmons' Superwoman Records label, which will focus on singles, EPs and mix tapes, all formats more or less ignored by the classical recording industry. The label is dedicated to releasing "adventurous music by adventurous women," and offers a way around the traditional long-term album release paradigm most record labels still cling to.
I caught up with Simmons a couple days before she traveled to New York City to perform at the launch event for Magic Johnson's new cable network ASPiRE TV which airs on Comcast (Simmons appears in promos for the network).
Chris Becker: My first question is, why start a record label? You're busy!
Jade Simmons: You know what it was? And I'll be really honest with you. I expected my Paganini Project with eOne to come out this year. We went into the studio back in October 2011 in New Orleans to record the electronics part and then December, I was in New York recording all the classical stuff. And so as far as I knew the CD was going to come out first in June, and then it got pushed back to September, and then the last thing I heard is that it wasn't going to come out until February 2013
I'm pretty much a self-managed artist, so a lot of the work that I have to do for myself has to happen way in advance if I'm going to see any fruit come from it. So I'd already started setting up media, and was looking at touring for the fall. I was begging the label, "You can't leave me hanging!"
So it was this moment of either I could sulk and complain, and just sit still until February. Or, I could make some more music, and find a way to put it out. I've always seen myself, 10, 15, 20 years down the road possibly managing other artists, and I thought, why not have a label? The day I made that decision, I cannot tell you, it was like my perspective, my vision, the way that I felt as an artist, everything changed. I felt freer, you know?
So there's kind of a statement there. The whole idea behind "Superwoman" — that's been my nickname for as long as I can remember, and I thought I'd just run with it!
CB: You're in good company. There are a lot of independent labels in all genres of music that are going strong.
JS: That's right. You know, that's what's been wonderful about eOne records, which used to be Koch Records. They've been so awesome to me when it comes to allowing me to explore some things musically. Creative, freedom wise, I really can't complain. But in this day and age, because artists have so many options, there's no reason to be hemmed in.
CB: What would you tell a classical musician who wants to record and release their own music? What kind of set of expectations should they have? Back in the day, an artist could expect to make some money selling some records. In my view, any artist who records has to have a different set of expectations other than, "I'm gonna sell a million records and make a lot of money!"
JS: Well, I think you're right on track there. Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, even those guys aren't making tons of money on records. A lot of them, Jay-Z included, are buying up their own records that first week just to kind of prop up sales! So if the biggest name artists aren't really making any profit from it, then you have to look at why they're still making albums. And the reason is it’s the music and the product that keeps you relevant.
What I was trying to explain to (eOne) is, "I understand this is a business decision for you. But if you really expect me to go from 2009 (when Simmons' Revolutionary Rhythm was released on Koch) until February 2013 with nothing released, I cease to exist for anybody who supports me in any way." I'm all about blogging, I'm all about making videos, but at some point, people are going to say, "Wait a minute, aren't you a musician? Where's your music?"
What a classical or any independent musician has to realize is that your music is your product. It's your hook. That music, in addition to representing who you are as an artist, is that thing that keeps you relevant.
Classical music is just in its world. And its been allowed to exist in its own world with a certain level of success. Because of that, there's a status quo that not many people want to fight.
For instance, when I went to the label and said, "Look. I know you're not going to put out my full album until September. But let's do an EP. Or let's do a single." Somebody from the label came back and said, "Well, we're just worried if you put out music ahead of the album it's gonna water down interest." And I thought, "Wow, what year is this? Did I just get in a time machine?" It's just a whole other mentality.
CB: It seems to me people are comfortable listening to individual tracks or a handful of tracks, or they make up their own playlists.
JS: That's right.
CB: There's just a whole lot of ways people consume music.
JS: Yeah! I just love the idea of a classical artist putting out a mix tape. I mean just the sound of that to me is so cool. This is coming from someone who's grown up on R&B and hip-hop as much as I've grown up on classical. I just think that in the classical music industry, we've kind of boxed ourselves in. We haven't allowed ourselves to take advantage of what the mainstream world is having some success with.
Rob (Roburt Reynolds) my beat producer really wanted to put out an EP on wax, and I was like, "Well, that sounds cool, but I don't have a fan base that's really ready to buy a wax package from me yet!" But I like the idea, and that he's thinking that way.
CB: How did you meet Roburt Reynolds?
JS: When I first started the Impulse Artist Series, I had a very small group of supporters in Houston, one being the Rothko Chapel. I think we were the first musical organization to have a concert in there, and that was because of a lady named K.C. Eynatten, who was their executive director at the time. We had a house concert at her home (with) me performing.
So I'm playing and when I get done, out walks this white guy wearing hardcore combat boots, leather jacket, ripped jeans, and I was like, "Who is this dude? And how did he break into K.C.'s house?" And she said, "This is my son, Roburt!" I had just released Revolutionary Rhythm, and Roburt asked what kind of music I play. I said primarily classical, but that I had just started experimenting with electronics and hip-hop beats. And when I said, "hip-hop beats," his eyes just lit up. He told me how he used to do in Chicago all these hip-hop beats for underground rappers.
And we just kind of played around one day in his makeshift studio, and we vibed really well. What I ended up doing for my CD release party in Houston, instead of playing the tracks as they were on the album, I had him come in and remix them live. And we've just kind of been together ever since. We make a nice team.
CB: As a classical pianist, is it a challenge to play to beats or electronic sounds, either in the studio or in a live performance?
JS: When Rob and I got together . . . here's this musician who really moonlights as a one-man metal and punk band called Wooden Teeth. He does his own guitar and singing. So we got together to do this session and he starts riffing and doing all of this improv and then he's like, "Go! Your turn!" And I remember freezing! Just completely freezing! And it was fascinating to him, because he'd just seen me play Rachmaninoff, Chopin, where my hands are all over the keyboard. And when he was like, "Go!" I didn't know what to do with myself!
So that became this journey for me, to figure out how to be free, how to improv . . . I think the biggest hurdle for classical musicians when it comes to improv is, we have a sound in our head of what's "right." So we're worried about playing a wrong note!
Actually what I'm doing now . . . there's no difficulty playing with a track. I love rhythmic music, so once I get the groove going that's not an issue for me. The biggest issue for me was to get over myself, over my training, and just try to make music in the moment.
And man, Chris, it was like the same thing when I started this label. Once I had that concert experience (with Roburt) where I was becoming freer and freer onstage, you don't want to go back! You just don't want to go back. What I also noticed is a freedom began to seep its way into my classical playing as well. And that's been really life changing.