A Conversation With VanJess
By Courtlyn “Court Kim” Montgomery | @thecourtkim
The year of 2021 is still a theoretical landscape with an infinite amount of hope, possibility for change, and a promise of fruitfulness after a devastating year filled with societal upheaval and global uncertainty. In the case of sisters Ivana and Jessica Nwokike, their upcoming Homegrown EP release on February 5th is expected to be an uplifting reset that’s a continuation of their afrofuturistic, feel-good soul music that has become a VanJess signature. The Nigerian-born R&B duo have already solidified their presence in the industry with their viral-worthy YouTube covers in addition to their impressive debut album Silk Canvas. Come Over is a dance-worthy and alluring track that has captured fans and critics alike with its perfect execution of 70s disco-soul influence paired with VanJess’ pitch-perfect harmonies. Slow Down brings a sultry, enticing vibe to a track that is a celebration of a healthy, enriching love dynamic with lyrics such as, “you keep things objective, then wave a white flag. Discuss, then we love.” The musical tone of VanJess’ singles ahead of the upcoming Homegrown EP release indicates that Ivana and Jessica have tapped into their creative power, self-awareness, and sensuality as undeniable power players in the Soul/R&B genre. RNB Radar had the honor and privilege of facilitating a conversation between Ivana and Jessica leading up to the Homegrown EP release. We sat down with the brilliant Nwokike sisters and discussed their music, life, and the power of intention.
Top Photo by Kiran Gidda
Second Photo by Jamal Peters
“Silk Canvas” is a body of work that gives listeners everything that they could possibly want: refreshing Afrofuturistic tones, flawless harmonies, and feel-good R&B from top to bottom. What should listeners expect from the Homegrown EP release in February?
Jessica - Thank you for saying that. They can expect all of that still. Heavy emphasis on feel-good R&B. This is very positive. They can expect really uplifting lyrics, upbeat energy, and soul with the same harmonies. If you like the vibes of Silk Canvas, you’ll definitely like this EP you know?
Ivana - “I definitely feel like they can expect VanJess to do VanJess. Bring that feel-good energy. Definitely a lot of futuristic sounds. A lot of love. A lot of good, positive vibes. Something that’s going to soothe everyone’s soul.
It would be ridiculous of me to ask about the Homegrown EP and not ask about the creative process behind the work. What was it like creating this project during the COVID-19 Pandemic?
Jessica - “You know… Of course the obvious thing is, ‘oh, it was difficult.’ But I really do think that it made us get more creative. You know for instance with Come Over, we obviously initially wrote that song four years ago and teased it on Twitter. We wouldn’t have done that if it wasn’t for the situation we found ourselves in. We ended up kind of finishing the song here in our home studio. We recorded it and engineered it ourselves. Ivana did her part and recorded herself then I did my part. So that was really cool to kind of get back to that. Again, that’s kind of part of the reason we went with the Homegrown title, you know? But we also did a lot of Zoom meetings with our team. The few times we were able to get in the studio and kind of complete some of the records. But it was definitely us having to get very creative.”
Ivana - “I think that it was trying to just mentally prepare and take everything as it comes, you know? With so much noise happening, it’s kind of like you don’t really know where to put your mind. I think one thing that helped a lot was just shutting off a lot of the social media and really just kind of sitting/talking to Jess. Sharing our own perspective on things, being in our own vibe, and just creating such good vibes it just honestly amplified creating the music. I think we’re always in our element when it comes to being at home because we started out that way doing YouTube covers at our home. I was like, ‘Oh snap! We’re really just kind of getting back into a vibe that we started with and we even did some covers at home, too. That was super fun to do as well. I think that obviously when it came to shooting music videos that was when it was like, ‘Aight.’ Now, we’re taking COVID tests and you know everyone on set has to test negative. It’s all of the extra stuff. What if someone has it and they can’t shoot, you know? It gets complicated. Like you were saying, it’s really been super trial-based but I think now everyone’s kind of gotten the hang of it. However, I think now that - you know I don’t wish this - but if things kind of get worse in LA or something now people can’t shoot. Prop people are gonna have to move sets to different locations you know that would be open.”
Jessica - “Yeah! We settled into that because I think before everything happened, you had a certain lifestyle that might have been more difficult to just stop, right? I think for us we really settled into the fact that we were like, ‘Alright. We’re gonna be at home now. We’re gonna be around family. We’re really slowing it down and embracing that, you know?’ That helps.”
What is your personal favorite song from the upcoming Homegrown EP and why?
Jessica - “I think that my favorite is definitely Slow Down. I just think that record - I love that it is about healthy love. I think that it’s one of the best songs that we’ve written together. I think that it’s just resonating with people a lot.”
Ivana - “Um. You know I really have the cliche, ‘ahh I don’t know. They’re all of my favorites.’ I’m gonna say Roses because I think there’s something really special about that track. It’s one of the more unique songs that we’ve done. It definitely has its own special sound and I think that people will get a very cool vibe from it. I just feel like I’m excited to see how everyone reacts to that song because I know that when we created it, we were like, ‘oooh! This one goes!’”
Your Homegrown Sessions Live Performances gives viewers a peek into the ethereal, soulful presence that you both naturally exude through your artistry. What is your personal formula of execution when it comes to curating impactful live performances?
Jessica - “Oh man. When we perform, we really do play off each other, you know? Obviously, it’s no surprise to people that with the state of the world, with these performances that we’re filming them ahead of time. With those (Homegrown Sessions), we didn’t go into it like, ‘Alright. This is what we’re going to do.’ per se, but we had little things that we kind of naturally came up with. It’s just kind of our natural synergy. We tend to kind of mirror each other. We know how to do it naturally. For us, it’s just about us having fun. I say that a lot but genuinely we try to have a good time and give people a good time when they’re watching. What we have in our minds is that we’re performing the song, (especially with a record like Come Over) you’re dancing, and you feel good listening to that so we have to exude that. That’s what we try to do. Nothing that’s too rehearsed.
Ivana - “Yeah, I feel the same way! We’re just up there doing our thing. We just have a natural thing that we do where we’re feeling the music and we’re in the ‘soul’ of it. That’s what ‘Soul’ is: It’s a feeling. You’re singing your life. You’re expressing your experiences. I don’t think there’s any other way to do it than to just be authentic. There’s two of us so we’re kind of just telepathically exuding similar things, I guess.
Court Kim - “That sister dynamic is nothing to mess with, ok?”
Ivana - “Nah. Facts.”
Walk me through 2020 for Ivana and Jessica: What are some social issues that matter to you both? What were some moments that truly brought you joy?
Jessica - “Ooooh. I’ll go first. I can’t not say ‘Black Lives Matter’ - obviously it was a big social issue. The EndSARS Movement absolutely was very, very important considering that we are Nigerian-American First Generation and that was something that impacted our own family that’s living in Nigeria. What brought me joy was food! I started using this app called Goldbelly and you can order food from wherever you want in the country. That brought me a lot of joy. It felt good to support these businesses because for a lot of them, using this site saves their businesses, actually. They showcase a lot of Black-owned ones and we supported one for Thanksgiving so that brought me joy.”
Ivana - “I feel like 2020 was definitely a lot of reflection and hindsight. What brought me joy a lot this year was being able to spend time with family. I feel like we were all going so fast in the last few years. I think when 2020 hit, everyone was expecting to be like, ‘Yo! This is gonna be the year! I’m really about to really go off and go super-duper hard!’ and we’re hit with this crazy pandemic. I think what I took from it was time to just kind of be silent, hear myself, and put things together. Minus the noise, what’s going on and the fear? Let me dial back and break from generational curses. Let me think through some of what was going on with me during these past four years of my life and just process some stuff. Taking that time through the hardship of the year. I like to press into the pain of things because I feel like you get some growth out of that. There’s always some growth and struggle but that is what brought me joy. This doesn’t erase that there is struggle going on, homeless rates are at an all-time high, people can’t eat, these stimulus checks, and unemployment. There’s so much going on BUT we will prevail.”
Self-care is a regimen that is a standard for any creative maneuvering through their prospective mediums. Tell me about one hobby and/or self-care practice that brings you peace of mind?
Ivana - “Taking time to be in silence. There’s nothing better than being by the ocean and being in the shower. Water is so calming- just listening to water is always so soothing. Sitting outside is always so soothing while listening to the birds. Taking long walks. Praying. Being thankful and grateful. I love me some skincare: A good mask, taking a nice bath with some good essential oils.”
Jessica - “My biggest self-care thing is exercise lately. What gets me through is usually doing a nice hour-long walk or weightlifting. Anything that I can just do exercise with. I feel like it’s so good for your mental health. There’s no bad results of doing that. You always feel better even just going on a walk. I do feel like my way of self-care. Of course, I do my pampering. To be honest, I miss the spas and not having that? It’s hard to fill the void. However, I’m honestly more than happy with exercising and doing skincare stuff now and again.”
What is your personal definition of success? What does that concept look like for you?
Jessica - “Success to me is fulfilment. I think that when you can feel fulfilled, that means that you’ve achieved something on your own terms in the way that you wanted to achieve it. Whether that’s just seeing your vision come to life. I think that fulfillment is really what success means to me and that doesn’t always mean a ‘money’ thing. It’s just feeling happy in whatever it is that you’re doing. It’s the people that are around you and being able to celebrate/be proud. That is what true success is to me.
Ivana - “Success is definitely fulfillment for sure. Being able to share our music at any point in our careers. Even in the beginning, having one or two people say, ‘Hey! This did something for me.’ I feel like we’ve succeeded at that point already. Being able to help family. Being able to protect the future. Impact people in a positive way. Promote change. I think that it is a great responsibility that we have through telling our stories through music. I think that the greatest success is when that story is to help somebody.”