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Interview: Chantelle Ernandez

Interview: Chantelle Ernandez

Interview: Chantelle Ernandez

By on - Photos by Laura Forcucci - 1 comment

"I gravitated towards singing because it was an escape"


Singer-songwriter Chantelle Ernandez was born in Kingston of Jamaican and Cuban ancestry. From a young age she proved skilled at piano, singing, dancing and acting. Raised on gospel by her church going family her musical palette began to expand from the late Whitney Houston, Dionne Warwick and Nina Simone to Hindi, Arab and Greek music. While at school she joined some choir-mates in the 5 piece band Essence who in 1999 attracted the interest of producer and Grafton studio owner Mikey Bennett, the father of one of Chantelle's friends. The group soon disbanded but Ms Ernandez was hooked and carried on doing backing vocals for Gumption productions until she was noticed by Shaggy's bandleader Michael Fletcher, for whom she cut her initial single, Something Inside My Heart.

Harmonies for everyone from Gregory to the Wailers followed, yet the big hearted, big voiced Chantelle wanted to break out into the spotlight as Etana had done before her. A link with Sly & Robbie in 2008 lead to her cracking the Japanese market as part of the group UNITZz and even getting into the first round of selections for a Grammy. By chance, while laying some backups for Gussie Clarke at Anchor studio, Chantelle met the visiting pilgrim Curtis Lynch and signed up to his Necessary Mayhem imprint to release her impressive debut EP 'My Forever' in 2011. Since then, Chantelle has relocated to Europe where she is working on her first album with Catalan label Reggaeland. Angus Taylor spoke to a rising star in the making and found she had plenty to say...

Chantelle Ernandez

When did you discover you had so many creative talents and why did you gravitate towards singing?

Before I'd even started a formal class I was doing these things. I could do choreography, singing songs, being a drama queen if that's what you needed (laughs). I've been writing poetry and songs since I was little, mind you they didn't make much sense then! So luckily my family figured I shouldn't waste my talents and allowed me to explore them in and outside of school. I gravitated more towards singing because it was an escape, but I tell people that I didn't choose music, it chose me.

What were you escaping from?

I went through my parents' divorce when I was six years old and a period in school where I was being bullied for a little bit. My way of fighting back was not to fight physically, not that I never did - I had a little bit of blind rage when I was very young but I got over it - but with words. Singing was the one thing I did exceptionally well, that most people around me could not do. So if I wanted to get back at somebody I'd start singing a song about them (laughs).

Are your songs often autobiographical?

My friends and family know, if they tell me a story about themselves it might end up in a song. I'll never call names but you listen and go "Oh shit, that's me". I write my own stories in songs as well, personal stuff like breakups, and loving stuff. So everything goes into the song.

You did backing vocals for some of the biggest artists in reggae. How easy was it for you to move to centre-stage?

That's a journey I loved. I hold it dearly because singing harmonies, that's second nature to me. I learned a lot about the business thanks to Mr Isaacs who gave me a few pointers when I was struggling with producers who would hire me to do background vocals. It's hard for a female, they take you for granted more than they take everybody else for granted and I had issues with them not wanting to pay me, not paying me on time. If you know Gregory he's a no-nonsense person. He taught me well. If they have half of the money you sing half the song, when they get the other half you go back. And if they have no money you automatically have no voice! I learned that from him.

Gregory taught me well. If they have half of the money you sing half the song... And if they have no money you automatically have no voice!

Etana came from that background and she made that move. Was she at all an inspiration to you at the time? I know now you've sung on the same rhythms as her and so on.

When she came out with her first song No Trouble, I was like "Whoa, she did it!" Most of us as background vocalists in Jamaica really want to make that move, very few are brave enough to do it. I was very happy for her and I somehow knew she would have but I was like "OK, good. One of us stepped out, now it's time for the rest of us to do it".

Through doing background vocals for Sly & Robbie you became "Big in Japan" with the group UNITZz. Were you surprised by the success there?

I was. It was strange at first. It's not easy to do Japanese pop covers, in reggae, in English. To us a lot of  J-Pop words are strange, very different, extremely poetic, and sometimes we struggled to make sense of what they were trying to say. We put a lot of time and energy and creativity into it, so when we found out we were selected for first round of Grammy nominations we were happy, and it happened twice, on both albums, except that the second album they removed us from the Reggae category and put us in Best Pop Vocal. We only made it to first round but that's still major! A lot of artists  in Jamaica never make it for any selection in the Grammys at all.

There is a belief in the industry that the Reggae Grammy is the poor man of the Grammys in terms of selecting people who actually deserve things at that time. What can be done to remedy that?

It's a number of things. I think the quality of reggae, sadly, has dropped. A lot of what's coming out of Jamaica, nobody internationally can relate to it. It can't really cross a border. A lot of my peers treat it like a hustle or a money-making hobby. All doctors have to go to medical school before they can become a doctor, a lawyer has to go to law school before they can become lawyers, a taxi driver has to know how to drive a car before he can become a taxi driver. We have lots of artists in Jamaica who know absolutely nothing about music, about the creative side or the business side. On top of that there's a rhythm culture that's great for what it represents in our history but also dilutes the music to some extent. Because no-one would buy a reggae album because by the time they've collected ten rhythms from ten different producers they've already got the album. Then there's the media. We have a very bad situation with payola in Jamaica, so a lot of good artists never get heard because they either cannot afford or refuse to join the payola system. So there isn't much for the Grammy committee to think about.

Let's look at what you've been doing recently. How did you meet Curtis Lynch and do some work with Necessary Mayhem?

Chantelle Ernandez - My ForeverI was at Anchor singing background vocals. I'd seen him around during the day but I never actually got round to talking to him, then one day out of the blue he called. Apparently he was mastering a song where I'd done background vocals and to him it sounded like lead vocals and he started to ask around for my number. He called and we chatted a long time, then he sent me one rhythm and I showed up in the studio the next day with a song. That song is not yet out. It's called Dub Me, a very bass-heavy kind of track,  where I substituted "Love" for "Dub", instead of telling you to Love Me I'm telling you to Dub Me. I used a lot of things relating to Dubtonic Kru , the second verse has names of their songs in. We had a blast, me and Curtis, creating the harmonies, it was awesome.

Tell me about your links with Dubtonic, because they've been going for quite a long time but now everybody in Europe is going mad for them and they're going to "save reggae"? You mentioned issues with the quality and accessibility of music coming out of Jamaica. Do you think that groups like Dubtonic are going to change that?

I think it has already started changing. I was just saying last night that very soon it's going to be very little about the artists and more about the bands. You have Dubtonic, you have Raging Fyah, you have Roots Underground, you have Pentateuch. All these bands that are being formed all over the place in Jamaica and are pushing forward now, so there's a strong live cultural movement that's growing but picking up mostly on an international level. The promoters are noticing, the media is noticing, so I think very soon it's going to switch.

Describe Curtis in one word.

Crazy! (laughs) He's musically crazy and I love it! I wouldn't change that about him for anything else. He comes up with ideas that make my eyebrows raise and I look at him and go "Did you smoke rum this morning?" but I love that because there was a part of me that was stifled by Jamaican producers. A lot of them I feel didn't really know what to do with me in terms of my vocal type, in terms of the ideas I had. Curtis was the first producer who allowed me to get as crazy as I wanted to.  I could switch personalities, invent a new vocal, whatever. Trying something is an art form, we're playing with it and I absolutely love that.

Curtis Lynch was the first producer who allowed me to get as crazy as I wanted to

Tell me about how you wrote the song My Forever on Delroy Wilson's Worth Your Weight in Gold.

Wow, that was the hardest song I've ever written. Curtis specifically said to me "I want a love song and I want it to be such a strong sweet song that even the coldest heart would melt when they hear it". I struggled with that song. I struggled with the structure of the music for a while but I can't change that so I started struggling with the lyrics and the melody. The day of the studio session, I woke up very early, showered, sat on my bed completely naked, and for hours not one word would come. The I decided to get into role-playing, so what I did was strip myself of my personality and my character, tell myself that I'm not Chantelle Ernandez, and try to feel from another perspective. That's still a love song that I can't relate to this day. I've never felt that way about anybody actually. Once I got into the role-playing it got so damn real that I started to cry, that's when the first sentence came. So I was on my bed naked and crying with the track playing and the rest poured out like water.

Tell me about your move to Europe and the music you've been doing there. Have you left Necessary Mayhem?

I have not left Necessary Mayhem. Curtis was working on other projects, and I got busy trying to do tours, promote my music and other things, but  I think Curtis and I are so good at being crazy together. We're like an old married couple, separate for a while then it's like "Oh, I miss you, Where are you?". He's coming over in a few weeks, to do some more work on our second EP, so I can't wait to be back in the studio with him again. I originally came to Europe with the intention to do promotional shows. I felt that in Jamaica promoters might know about me but because of how the economy is there aren't so many promoters willing to fly an unknown name, so to speak, from Jamaica to do a tour or shows. So I used my strongest links and the minute I got here the bookings were a lot easier. Chantelle ErnandezI have a great team, Mark Sanchez and Laura Forcucci helping me so I haven't been fighting it on my own. I started recording with the Reggaeland back in 2009 and I'm still recording with them now, so it helped.

Tell me about your track that you did for Reggaeland, Reggae Reasoning last year. Tell me what inspired you to talk about reggae on that very general level.

I think a lot of people don't know that even though Jamaica is home of reggae music we still have issues with people there, it's more of a class issue with more the upper-middle class and upper classes who tend to not give it so much ratings, they tend to disrespect reggae musicians and artists. Even the corporate society in Jamaica sometimes. It happened a lot then that people would ask me "What do you do?" and I guess based on how I talk they wouldn't expect me to say "I'm a singer-songwriter of reggae music". They don't expect that or they don't expect to hear that I'm a reggae musician and the response is usually "Oh, you're one of those" (laughs). I think it's because a lot of them don't realise just how powerful reggae is as a genre and just how powerful it is as a carrier of messages, they just don't realise how strong it is and how needed it is and how important it is, so I felt that I needed to do that song in the simplest form. It's something that they'll probably listen to because it's not too heavy for them, it's not too vulgar, it's not any of what they tried to avoid. I felt like for those people who didn't respect it as much then they'll hear that and it will help them kind of see the light.

You seem to believe very much in animal rights, would that be fair to say?

When I was growing up we had pets, like most people, and it's very contradictory because while you're being taught to take care and have responsibility for your pet, you're also being told that animals are dumb things. I see people do things to animals and it was ok because they're not a person, so what's the difference? Very few people think that animals can feel and for the ones who do think they can only feel on a physical level.  They never stop to think that animals are living beings and they might have emotions. So when that had occurred to me, I started getting more aware of animal testing, of what products I used, trying not to support companies that conduct animal testing. I started doing my own research and came across some very gross videos of animal abuse. That's how I came to be an advocate for animal rights.

You've also been part of a project called Reggae Against Intolerance. Tell me a bit about that.

While I was at Rototom I was approached to do a video-message against intolerance, but at the time it seemed to be more of a message against homosexual intolerance. I didn't have a problem becoming a part of it because I don't believe in discrimination on any level, even though I felt it could get me some heat from my fellow musicians and fellow Jamaicans. I believe in One Love, which is something people use loosely but I believe when Bob said it he meant love and accept people regardless of race, religion, belief, of whatever you might deem to be different. You don't have to be a part of their lifestyle but you don't have to hate them, disrespect them, disregard their feelings. In being a strong believer of the One Love philosophy I felt like it was the right thing to do.

You've mentioned anti-homosexual feeling in Jamaica. Is this something that is changing at its own pace?

It kind of is and it isn't. There is actually a big homosexual community in Jamaica, people don't know it but it exists. They're increasingly becoming more open about their lifestyle, not hiding so much, not denying it so much. At the same time you may have people who think badly of them but they never express it vocally. I think that's the major difference, that not so many people are expressing it now, and in the cities it seems not so many people care so much. It's not becoming accepted but little by little it's just becoming another thing that people know exists but they probably don't pay so much attention to it as they would years ago. You still have people who feel very strongly against it, however if you're in this business then they've seen by example of their fellow players that's it's best to not express, so they shut up.

Love and accept people regardless of race, religion, belief, of whatever you might deem to be different

What do you think about censorship of lyrics in general?

That's sticky. I think in a lot of ways it's good. I think certain types of lyrics should not be on the radio in daytime when children are listening. At the same time you're expressing yourself and it's a part of the art. I have learnt to edit lyrics but not edit feelings, still there are some feelings whose lyrics would be very hard to edit because it might dilute what you want to say. This is where education comes in amongst artists and songwriters, if we learn more in terms of vocabulary then we can learn to say exactly what we feel without being vulgar or very blatant about it. So I think the censorship shouldn't  come down to what the radio does to censor your music, I think it's a personal responsibility, I think that's where it starts.

Finally, you are working on an album with Reggaeland.

The album I'm doing now is with Reggaeland. The title is Gimme What's Mine. I have recorded many tracks, some with messages against the sex slave industry, some with messages for our prison system in Jamaica, but I still do love songs and sensual things. The genres right now are kind of mixed. I've done reggae, pop and R&B, so the album is still in progress, so I can't exactly say what direction it will take. It's a good writing experience and I'm having fun doing it.

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Read comments (1)

Posted by beverley sinclair on 03.31.2012
Great interview... Better reading that Saturdays papers....

Comments actually desactivated due to too much spams

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