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.
TJG: Harmonically, there seems to be a lot of this suspended tension. There’s a lot of rub—dissonance—that’s sort of held and then it builds, in some instances, for a while until it’s resolved. Can you talk about how that choice might lend itself to the subject matter you’re exploring?
TA: Absolutely. I don’t think that I would have even noticed that until you said it, but yeah. That’s definitely an element, especially with the title track. I’ve had a couple videos from rehearsals before we ever went into the studio where I recorded myself singing with a group of six women called the ROSA Vocal Ensemble, which is an all female vocal ensemble that specializes in reviving forgotten Serbian folkloric songs. The interesting thing is that there is only one Serbian in the group; the other women come from Croatia, Italy, Greece, the United States and India. They’re an incredible group. I had them come and record this title track which is called “Ona,” and ona, in Croatian means “she.” In the song, they sing Croatian lyrics, and I have an ensemble of four [other] women who sing English lyrics in the same song. And there’s a lot of dissonance in this song. There’s definitely a Balkan influence in terms of the structure of the harmony of the song, but I think there’s definitely a release toward the end, harmonically as well, where it goes into a little bit more of—I kind of hesitate to say a pop harmony—but it’s definitely a little more digestible for the ear. And it has this forward moving motion that makes you feel propelled into the future—like you’re marching forward. It’s very hypnotic and energizing, in a way.
TJG: I was curious about whether there’s something metaphorical about those elements, given the topic you’ve chosen to explore.
TA: Absolutely. What I wanted when I was writing the song—writing all of this music—was really to feel strong as a woman first, me. And in doing that, I think musically I created some harmonic structures that make you feel that rub, make you feel a little bit uncomfortable, make you feel the tension of the harmony, and then—despite the tension, despite the dissonance—we’re moving forward into this release.
TJG: Can you discuss the effects that you’ve chosen for this upcoming Gallery performance—and for the record—and why you’ve opted to incorporate these textures and looping in your arrangements?
TA: Looping I actually started because, on my first record, I went into the studio and I recorded a bunch of background vocals. And when I was shopping my record around to labels, they said, “Beautiful music, beautiful production, but how are you going to do this live?” That was basically the comment that I got from everybody. And I didn’t really know what to do. Then I bought a little looping and effects pedal, and that’s what I started to incorporate into this whole process. And over the last few years, I’ve expanded that setup. Now I have a very large looping processor and an effects pedal that I use at the same time. And it’s actually informed how I write. The title track of ONA, I actually started it on the looping pedal, just looping voices, and that’s how I got the idea to have the Balkan choir. I heard all these voices in my head and on the looper because I was just able to record them simultaneously. And then that really evoked the feeling of wanting to hear female voices. So that’s become a big part of my show. I’m doing a lot of looping and harmonizing.
And then the effects are really interesting, as well, because it creates a different ambient environment for the song. So there are some songs that are just doubled voices and a little bit of delay, that kind of thing, but then there are songs where I change the sound of the voice to become more scratchy and megaphone-like, almost as though we’re screaming at a protest. So it’s been a really interesting thing to discover and explore sonically. It’s also the first time I’ve ever used guitar in my band. And that’s an interesting sound because the guitar can create so many otherworldly sounds—sounds that don’t exist in nature. And I’m still getting my feet wet exploring what the different options are. But just seeing the kind of atmosphere the guitar can create, it kind of informed the vocal effect, as well. I’m trying to create more like a cloud or a blanket of sound, rather than just a direct line from voice to mic to audience. So I really started thinking of it visually as covering the room with sound, blanketing the audience with different layers, peeling off the layers like an onion.
TJG: Since we’re on the subject of sound and effects, can you discuss your relationship with the vibraphone that finds its way into a lot of your music by way of the instrument itself and your vocal tendencies that are reminiscent of the instrument?
TA: The vibraphone kind of came into my life because one of my dearest friends here in New York, an incredible vibraphonist named Christos Rafalides. He was one of the first guys in New York that I started gigging with. And so just by way of us starting to work together and his gigs being some of my first gigs, I started to perform with the vibraphone a lot. I don’t so much anymore; that was my first record, and I did some projects with his band as well. But I learned a lot from him as a musician, and by learning from him, I learned a lot with the vibraphone. It’s interesting; I think you’re the first person that made that kind of connection, which is really nice because it is part of my musical upbringing. I’ve really come to appreciate the beauty of the vibraphone.
TJG: You mentioned your last record Ode to Heroes, and some of the differences between these two records. I know people frequently will tell you that you sound like a particular artist, or that your music sounds like a particular genre and that this new record is different from your last record. How do you respond to the need for the public to label an artist as one thing or another?
TA: Unfortunately, it’s just a human thing to try and label. It’s our way of making it easier for us to identify something. It’s unfortunate when you enter the world of jazz because just saying “jazz” doesn’t do it anymore. I’ve actually been struggling a lot as I’ve been producing and writing this new album. I’ve been trying to figure out what it is I’m doing in terms of genre. It is very deeply rooted in jazz; it has elements of Balkan music, world music, elements of pop music, elements of electronic music. But if there’s one genre, I would have to say jazz just because it is improvised music, but then if you just say jazz, it loses all of the other elements. It’s really difficult. That’s a really good question that you asked because it’s something that I think all contemporary artists are struggling with: how to label the music, so people can digest it better and know what they’re going to see.
TJG: What would you like listeners to bring to your performance of ONA?
TA: I just want them to come with open minds and open ears. I’m aware that whenever anybody goes to a show, they come from a very subjective place. So everybody will take from it a different thing. And I’m interested to see and hear how people listen. I want them to feel positive throughout the show, and I also want them to feel a little bit uncomfortable. I think good art makes you feel uncomfortable. And within the discomfort, you find the inspiration and the motivation.
TJG: In terms of personnel, do you want to talk about your professional association with Antonio Sanchez who will be performing as part of your band at the Gallery, and in what ways touring with that band has influenced your expression?
TA: Oh, absolutely. Touring with Antonio’s band has opened my ears in so many ways. Just getting up on stage and performing with musicians of such a high caliber really makes you find things deep within yourself that you didn’t know existed. When you’re a young musician and you’re performing, a lot of times you get on stage and I always like to say, to the audience, you’re guilty until proven innocent. You have to really work for it. And then when you reach a certain level, you go out and you perform live to audiences who really consider you innocent until proven guilty. And they really expect so much of you and are excited to see you even if they don’t know you. It’s a really different kind of performing experience. And the music is really different; the music he writes is very complex and very deep and also uses the voice in very interesting ways. I sing very few lyrics with his band; I’m more along the lines of a horn, and also with the effects, creating things within the structure of the music. But it’s interesting to see how people really accept that and are interested in it. Even if they don’t understand it at first, they try so hard to find a connection with it, or they feel immediately a connection where they weren’t sure they would. So it’s been an incredible experience to tour the world with those gentlemen. And then being that Antonio is my husband, it’s been an incredible way for us to share the music and create music together. It’s a beautiful thing.
TJG: Is there anything you’d like to add?
TA: I just want to say [regarding ONA] that the whole album is very positive. It’s really a celebration of women. It’s a celebration of who we are. It’s a celebration of the lives that we live, our experiences, good and bad. And it’s a celebration of our worth, and our desire, need and freedom that we deserve.
Thana Alexa plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, May 17, 2018. The group features Ms. Alexa on vocals and effects, Carmen Staff on piano and keyboards, Jordan Peters on guitar, Jorge Roeder on electric and acoustic bass, and Antonio Sanchez on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.