VanJess has spent nearly a decade working towards the position they find themselves in today. The Nigerian-American R&B duo comprised of sisters Ivana and Jessica Nwokike, earned their first bit of success back in the early 2010s thanks to a viral cover of Drake’s “Headlines.” From then on, the duo would perfect their craft and sound that’s laced with a ’90s touch of R&B and soul. While their talents are certainly undeniable, their rise to success has been one that’s required an ample amount of patience.
In 2013, VanJess independently released their debut EP, 00 Till Escape, and re-released it two years later where it earned a top-ten position on the iTunes charts. Three years later, in 2018, the duo returned with their official debut album, Silk Canvas. The 14-track effort was an impressive collection of songs that touched based on all corners of their wide-ranging musical palette. Contributions from Masego, GoldLink, and Leikeli47, as well as production from Kaytranada and IAMNOBOI, set up the perfect canvas for VanJess to flaunt their silky talents upon.
Nowadays, Ivana and Jess are more like veterans in this R&B world. They’re far removed from the young sisters who sang covers to their growing YouTube audience in their early days. However, the passion and love for music remain the same. VanJess would join Keep Cool’s roster at the end of 2018, and more than two years later, they returned with a new EP, Homegrown. The project hones in on the growth they experience through remaining tethered to their roots and staying patient through it all. With help from Kaytranada, Garren, Devin Morrison, and Elbee from Phony Ppl, VanJess shows that the best growth is rooted in digging right where you stand.
Fresh off the release of Homegrown, we spoke with VanJess about the new EP, how their Nigerian background influences the music they create today, and what makes them and Kaytranada such a great combination, and more.
I just found out that your 2018 album Silk Canvas was actually supposed to be named Homegrown. What made this EP a more fitting project for the experience you wanted to bring with Homegrown.
Jess: At that time, 2016 was very, very interesting for us because it was simultaneously the lowest point in our lives, but also a breakthrough creatively. Our mom had just had a stroke and was in the hospital and we had to take care of her during the day. Oftentimes, we would have to go to the studio, pay out of pocket cause we were independent. During that time, we had to rely on ourselves to create music. We had to stay in our homes a lot of that time and we had to just go bare bones and just rely on ourselves and our own production and our writing. What’s crazy is four years later, last year with COVID-19 and quarantine and everything we kinda found ourselves back with family spending more time with our family than we had since that time and because of that we really just felt like we were going back to that time in a way. We were clear of distractions, we were really focused on our family and what was important. So as we were creating the EP and putting the songs together, we realized wow Homegrown, that’s really what this is, that’s what we’ve always been and that’s what we still are. And so we thought that would be a great name for the EP now.
On Homegrown, there’s definitely some growth to your music and to your sound, so I wanted to ask you both, what is the growth that you’ve seen in each other since your Silk Canvas?
Jess: Since 2016, I feel like she’s a lot calmer in her energy. I think she’s molded into who she is now, and as I was back then, it was a very unpredictable time, a time where we were very new to the industry and going to LA and experiencing that side of things for the first time, I think that there’s a certain level of confidence in calm that my sister has now — as do I — in the sense of not feeling the need to really be in the mix or do things for others. Just doing things for herself and I think that also reflects in the music. I think she’s also in a place of positivity. You’ll notice we’re kind of on the same page with all these things, but I would definitely say that for my sister, that’s what I’ve seen. The growth I’ve seen is I think she has a calm in who she is and that’s important because I think it’s one thing to know who you are, it’s another thing to feel the need to explain yourself all the time, and then it’s another thing to not feel the need to explain yourself but just be that. I think that’s what she has.
Ivana: I think that’s where we both are. Jess and I on our own individual roads to just more inner authenticity. I think that as artists we feel as if we’re currently struggling to be that for everyone, but we forget that we got here based on what we brought. So, I think one thing for both of us has been to constantly keep that authenticity and always come back to it and I think that’s why Homegrown is so special.
I remember with “Come Over,” we wrote that song in 2016 and we were looking for production for it and, it was a pretty back and forth kind of situation just figuring out where to go, but the first track that we heard was the one we chose, but I didn’t feel it, I was like, “I know there’s gotta be something else,” but what Jess said was, “This is us, this is who we are, this is literally us in our core, in our essence let’s go with this track,” and when she gave that perspective, it was just like a light bulb. I think that in itself gave even more of a pathway to us knowing that the EP would be called Homegrown. Everything has been connecting so much, when you’re aligned you start to feel that way because everything is just moving along, you’re not really forcing it, it’s just all going. Some things don’t happen, but you know it’s for the good. It’s great I’m thankful for Jess and her perspective. I think that’s another thing that has just grown. Just her way of understanding and perspective and just keeping true to who she is and what she believes in, what she likes, not getting caught in the noise of things because it is really easy to do in 2020 because we didn’t have anything to do. You’re constantly online searching and scrolling and reading the news and noise noise noise and that in itself is harmful for an artist to create. How did we even create in that time, I mean we’re still here, but how? It’s because we were able to just focus on our family dynamic, focus on each other, and focus on ourselves, our inner wellness.
You mentioned “Come Over” was something y’all wrote four years ago, what are some of the more recent songs y’all created that are on this EP?
Jess: “Slow Down” definitely came more recently. Ivana wrote the verses, I wrote the hook at that time it wasn’t even as crazy, but it was just thinking about what was important. The toxic love thing we hear about all the time and it seems trendy and that’s kind of what we’re thinking about, let’s put out a song about positive love, you know, what love is supposed to be? Can we get back to that? That’s how that one had come. “Boo Thang” is one that definitely came in the middle of the pandemic, that was one of the ones that was a collaboration. I guess “Caught Up,” it came together in the pandemic as well. We brought on Elbee from Phony Ppl on the record and that one, the magic of it really came to life during this time last year. It took time, it took awhile for Elbee to get his verse over to us, but it was worth it. We were always very intentional with who we collaborate with, it’s never the label paying someone to be on our song. It’s always artists that we genuinely connect with and work well with. So those were really exciting records to put together for this EP.
Ivana: Yeah, I’m just thankful that Jess and I were always writing. We’re always are creating, we’ve created a lot of songs. It wasn’t really that hard for us to say, “Hey you know what? Let’s put something together. Let’s tie up a little project for everyone.”
Jess: “Come Over Again,” too. That one was originally supposed to be on a different beat and, it’s so funny how it all came together, because M-Phazes, who produced “Come Over,” we were like, alright, we’re gonna do this other version, people love remixes we got it, cool. We always kind of put a lot more into our remixes and this one in particular, we were like maybe we can change the verses up, how are we going to put this together? Our A&R had sent us this beat and the story of it was he was just listening to old, old beats, like beats that like we’re not touched. He realized that this one beat sampled a song called “Come Over” by Faith Evans and we’re like woah that’s so crazy, that just seems so meant to be. We started trying ideas on it and it literally came together in like 2 days. We put the song together and we were like “Yo, this the remix. This is it.” It’s its own song and it ends the EP and that was towards the very end of the year last year that we put that together.
While growth is definitely a theme on the EP, patience comes up as one, too. Being gentle, taking your time, and letting things happen at their own natural pace. What’s the message that you hope fans receive with this theme and the songs that align with it?
Jess: Patience is definitely one. Learning to be patient with people, with partners, with friends, with family. Patience is also being understanding of people you love. Everything ties in and I think that the people we love are the ones we seek understanding from, but also seek understanding from us and those two things have to work hand in hand. I want our fans to embrace love, embrace positivity, embrace understanding, patience, and embrace joy as well and gratitude. We want our music to uplift people, we want our music to help people in that search for joy in this hard time, but we want them to be able to find it in the little things, the things that they don’t think [about]. It doesn’t have to be in the Birkin bag, it doesn’t have to be in having a crazy bank account because a lot of people don’t have that right now. You can find joy in so much more, just in a song like “High & Dry” which is just about having someone in your life that, no matter what, can make you feel better. That’s a blessing, that’s something to celebrate.
I think that’s what we want people to take from our EP, that can use that you can celebrate and find joy in the little things. You can have gratitude and that’s so important and I think because the truth of the matter is that not everybody’s in the same tax bracket, not everyone is fortunate to have the same thing. One thing we can all try to do is find our sources of joy, whether that’s just music — we hope that that music and that people can look into our music and find that. But we hope that that’s having the right people in their lives and if they don’t have that, then finding those people and escaping with like-minded people who also love.
Considering that a lot of our sources for inspiration are gone because of the pandemic, how did you both fill that void over the last ten or so months?
Ivana: I think for us again, it goes back to just being present [and] digging where you stand. We’re fortunate that a lot of the music on this project was already created pre-pandemic, but we did create a lot during this time. I think that going through life together I think being able to talk, being able to share perspectives and reflection — reflection was really important for me in this time when it came to inspiration, a lot of hindsight [too].
Jess: I think what also helped us stay inspired was creating with similar types of people. Just thinking about “Slow Down,” we did that right before the pandemic and I just remember that day, working with a producer and he was so positive and just allowed us to have a really safe space. As everything progressed and we kept creating, that was very important to just kind of be around people that would give each other energy. It’s so important because when you have to be creating in a space where maybe you’re hearing bad news or whatever, you can inspire each other and someone’s spirit and someone’s energy, you can channel that into music and lyrics. I think that for us, that was helpful and because we are also creatives individually, we do that for each other as well. I think being a duo and not just being ourselves also helps because you really are able to get inspired by bouncing back and forth. Ivana sends me an idea and I just get inspired off that, even if maybe I wasn’t inspired before.
I saw some influences of African print on your single artworks. How does your Nigerian background and its culture influence the music you create, because it’s not put out in plain sight for listeners, and as well as the way you approach topics?
Jess: I think for us, first and foremost, we never wanted being Nigerian to be a costume. With Black Panther, [for example], there’s been a lot of like trendiness to being African and I think that for us it’s been really important, first and foremost, to never try to force people to be like, “Hey guys we’re Nigerian look!” It is a part of us, we’re Nigerian American and so because of that, we really wanted to find a way to wear that proudly and very obviously in a way that our people would know. Not just going on Google and wearing some dashiki print, but subliminal things that we could do that only Nigerians would pick up on and that they would see and would appreciate and they would feel represented. One way we thought to do that, and it also tied into the Homegrown story, the idea really started in pandemic zoom meetings. We were talking with our team and we basically said if we were quarantined in 1970 Nigeria, what would that look like? How would we be dressed? We were looking through our parents’ photo albums, getting inspired and we decided we wanted to really represent that in our artwork. It was really important to us to really step out this time around and tell our fellow Nigerians, “Hey, we’re Nigerian,” but not do it in a way that was performative or inauthentic, but true to us and our own story being Nigerian Americans having parents that were young in the ‘70s.
In our music, we’ve always tried to represent the Nigerian side organically, like on Silk Canvas, the “Control Me” record, that was something Ivana kind of naturally fell into when she listened to that beat and because of that, we were like this is the perfect time to use pidgin English and throw a little Yoruba in it even if we’re Igbo. With the music, we’ve always done it more organically. When we listen to a beat [or] when we listen to a record, if we get inspired to channel that side of us, we do and if not then, we don’t force it and that’s the way do it when it comes to representing our Nigerian side, but it’s really important for us to showcase that identity and we’re glad that people have started to see it not just in our aesthetic, but our story.
You and Kaytranada are 3/3 at this point with “Another Lover,” “Taste,” and “Dysfunctional.” How is it working with him and what do you think makes y’all a great combination?
Ivana: We’ve been following him for many years. I think I remember I sent him a message on Soundcloud like, “Hey, it would be really great to work together,” way back in the day, definitely shooting that shot. It’s actually amazing that it happened. It’s fun to work with him and it’s just a vibe, I think the first time we ever worked together was actually a sort of impromptu situation with “Dysfunctional.” Tunji [Balogun] was like, “Yo, do y’all wanna get in with Kaytra, Mary J. Blige didn’t show up,” and Tunji was like, “You, you wanna get in with VanJess?” and [Kaytra] was like, “For sure.” We hopped in an Uber from Fontana, which is like 45 minutes away, headed down to LA and did that.
Jess: He literally played “Dysfunctional” and was like, “I don’t know guys, tell me if you can write something to this,” and we’re like okay! He popped it on and it was just mumbles, we put it together, and then we were like, “Why don’t you sing the hook?” and he’s like, “No, oh my gosh,” and then he sang it and we wrote the verses. After that, we were in good graces so that’s when we’re like, “Heyyy, we’ve been writing to some of your beats, can we use this one too?!” and that’s where it formed from there. He’s also very specific, it’s not about the clout for him, I think that’s what we take pride in, like he really does respect us artistically. So when he was putting together his album, he sent us a beat pack and we wrote “Taste.” Actually, we wrote it to another beat originally and he loved the song so much that he would like, “Okay I’m going to reproduce this,” and then he’s like, “Okay just rewrite the second verses.” We did that and it came together and it’s the “Taste” that everyone hears now.
I think that musically, we’ve always been inspired by the same thing and when you’re inspired by the same things when grew up in this very eclectic sound palette, then I think that’s really why, not just us, but the artists like Kay, I think that’s why it just makes sense. Whether it’s an artist like a Tinashe or a Masego, when you look at artists, the sounds in their own music outside of Kaytra, it’s always very eclectic. I think that you have to kind of have an expansive musical kind of — just outside of R&B, but R&B or soul being the core. It’s just good vibes, good music, music with feeling, tempo sometimes is nice and he does that you know.
Another feature I really enjoyed was Devin Morrison’s.
Jess: He’s the only person that’s been able to vocal produce us. We usually vocal produce ourselves, so nobody can tell us anything we do everything right? He, oh my gosh, his ear, he’ll be like, “Try this harmony,” and we’re like, “Come again? What? Do what?” He’s incredible, genius. It was a song that [he] wrote and we heard in the midst of a pandemic, funny thing about it: We had a session with him before everything went crazy, I couldn’t go because I was having tonsillitis at the time. Ivana started a different record from scratch, that one’s still in the works. Kind of as fate would have it, he sent us this record that we really loved and we wrote our own verse and made it a collab.
You gave fans a little bit of everything on this project. There’s moments to dance and there’s moments to lay back, but it’s still a cohesive project. Was this experience something you intended to bring with the project?
Jess: We don’t ever say, “Hey let’s do this,” or “Hey let’s make it sound like this and then go this way.” We just create and then it just comes together.
Ivana: Yeah, we make our music, it’s our project. We’re experiencing, we’re living life and going through it creating songs and a thought might come like, “Hey what about this,” and we’re really close to our A&R too and we just have a really good dynamic together with our team, so it’s always a smooth flow of ideas running like “Oh, this would go great after this or what about that.” It always comes smoothly. A lot of these songs we had [for awhile], so to put them together, who knew they would work? It just did.
Jess: And we have a lot more. The thing is we’re constantly writing, we’re constantly creating, so — I don’t know if this is gonna excite people too much — we have so much music, we have projects for days at this point, but it’s kind of like when we’re putting a project together, obviously there’s working with Tunji on sequencing and whatnot, but that wasn’t even the conversation when we were deciding the singles. We had the music that we wanted to put out, we put it out, and we’re like, “Alright, let’s put it together.” We didn’t know what’s going to work the way it did. It’s crazy because even with releasing “Come Over” and “High & Dry,” right?. We originally wanted to put out “Caught Up” before “Slow Down,” and we all were talking and we’re like you know we feel like the world needs more R&B VanJess in this moment, so let’s go with that. I think the best thing I could say is a pro for us is that we really just have no rules when it comes to the sound because we always are in the core VanJess. Because all the music is us no matter what, when you hear it, it just makes sense. You don’t know why, but it just does. I think it’s just because we know who we are so no matter what sonically is happening. It’s just VanJess.
Homegrown is out now via Keep Cool/RCA. Get it here.