When a 13-year-old American kid uprooted and moved with her nuclear family to Croatia, she felt shocked and suffocated. But at 31, Thana Alexa can’t imagine a life lived any differently. Finding in her cultural duality the “full version of [her] identity,” the singer, composer and arranger invites a range of life experiences and musical encounters to inform her work.
Alexa debuts as a leader at The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, May 17, performing a live preview of her forthcoming record ONA that explores another realm of her identity: strength in femininity. In her interview with The Jazz Gallery, Alexa discusses the origin of her effects pedal, combining American and Balkan musical influences, and the afflicted paradigm of the contemporary artist.
The Jazz Gallery: You’re known to explore percussive elements of music in your arrangements and compositions and also in your improvising. When you’re writing, do you tend to feel these thematic patterns and rhythmic pads as you’re writing, or do they develop later in the process?
Thana Alexa: Every song is completely different. It kind of comes to me in a different form. Sometimes there is a very percussive element of it; sometimes it’s all harmonic and then the percussive element comes later. It’s really a case-by-case basis. I do think that since I was a kid who grew up in the States, I’m very influenced by traditional American music, which is jazz. But then having also this Eastern European part of me, there’s an element of Balkan music which has a lot of odd time signatures and minor sounding tonalities and things like that. So I think there’s a really interesting mix of the two identities that affect me personally and then, musically, they just come out naturally.
TJG: Well let’s talk about harmony, specifically for this upcoming record. But before we go in, what’s the release date for ONA?
TA: There’s not a specific release date yet; it’s going to be early 2019. We went into the studio in January of this year, and I was hoping to release it by the summer, but then I wound up going on tour for basically all of February, March and April, and there was just no way to get it finished for the summer. And I didn’t want to release it in the fall, because releasing something in the fourth quarter of the year, if you’re not a super famous artist, is not the best thing to do. So I decided to wait and really put all my time and effort into the post-production of this project. Just like my first record, there are going to be a lot of songs that have very in-depth post-production, lots of voices, lots of percussion, lots of electronic sounds—[the latter of] which is actually very different from my first record. This is going to be a much more electronic sounding record. And then there are going to be a lot of “bare bones” songs, as well, just stripped down, acoustic.
I wanted to give myself time to really find out what this record is all about. You know, I have the story behind it, but musically, even though we recorded everything, it’s still steering me in all these really interesting directions as I edit and as I do all the post-production. It’s been kind of—I don’t know if cathartic is the right word—it’s just been a very interesting, liberating experience to work on this project so far.
It started out as me writing songs about things that I was experiencing throughout the  election process, and feeling kind of left aside as a woman—seeing all the things that were happening in our political situation, not only in the States, but around the world. And then I realized a lot of the things I was writing had this common theme about women. And it wasn’t about me writing and complaining; it was really about this introspective look at being a woman and expressing musically what being a woman means to me. And I realized, through the music, I was kind of giving light to how I discovered the wild woman spirit within me, and how I’ve become comfortable with her. And it’s not a very easy thing to do, for any woman to be comfortable with who they are and how they. I think that’s a daily struggle. We’re all trying to be who we are as individuals, but as women, we’re all trying to be who we are and still fit into society. So I just started seeing all these really interesting things come up in the music, and then that led me to the project.