A Chat with The Jess Novak Band (16.01.2022)

Throughout life, many of us become different people depending on the situation, whether it is for work or other relationships. This is something that The Jess Novak Band has picked up on for their latest album A Thousand Lives. The tenth original album since the band formed, it considers all these lives we live, and how it is never too late to start a new one. An important message woven into the tracks of the album, they also show why the band has won two Syracuse Area Music Awards. We had the chance to chat with lead singer Jess Novak about the album, the evolution of sound, featured musicians, creative processes and much more.

OSR: When did you first realize that you wanted to make music?

Novak: I think I always knew. When I was really young I’d make songs about everything. I had a real classic about macaroni and cheese that I still remember. When I was about 7, my older brother, Jon, started playing in the pit orchestra for musicals like Godspell, and I wanted to be just like him, so I learned every song in the show. I’d perform the whole thing for whoever would watch. I loved entertaining people and really loved to sing. 

OSR: Your latest album A Thousand Lives was released late last year. Is there a backstory or theme to the album?

Novak: When I sat back and realized I was releasing my 10th album, it was a bizarre moment. Less than 10 years ago I didn’t have the confidence to even dream of pursuing music professionally, and suddenly I was hitting a major milestone. I felt like that had to be reflected in the music. The more I thought back, the more I realized it was as if I had lived many different lives within this one. I think everyone goes through that. When you’re a kid, a teen, a young adult, a parent, a professional, a grandparent, a human being – you keep changing as your life does. And eventually, “everything that lives, it dies.” A line from the title track, “A Thousand Lives”

OSR: As this is your tenth original album, do you feel that your sound has evolved over the years?

Novak: Absolutely. With my first album, Bad Habit, I had no idea what I was doing. I’d write a song in the morning, get excited about it and record it in the afternoon. That’s crazy! But I like that I captured my naïve enthusiasm that way. It was brave. It also gave me a great place to start and evolve from, which is key to being an artist. Never stop learning. Over the years, I think my songwriting has improved a lot. I’ve taken vocal lessons for more than a year and have seen dramatic changes there. But, I think the greatest evolution has been in the band. The more we work as a team, the more things improve in leaps and bounds. That evolution and cohesion has been amazing to hear and see. 

OSR: How do you feel this album compares to your previous releases?

Novak: It speaks to the power of the “we”. I am a firm believer that a leader shouldn’t be a boss. They should be an enabler for people to contribute. They should be a cheerleader for ideas and creativity. I have an insanely talented band and this album showcases just how much they can shine when everyone contributes ideas. I’m most proud of this album because it’s US and OUR sound. That makes it stand head and shoulders above the rest. 

OSR: There is a rather positive message woven into the tracks that wonderfully matches the energetic sound of your music. Do you find this combination easy to achieve?

Novak:  I find it natural. Even in my saddest songs, there are messages of hope, resilience and rebirth. I’m the kind of person who reads self-help books for fun and it shows. I like to keep growing and learning and that inevitably comes through in the music. I’m the same in social media. I really don’t see a point in spreading negativity in any form. Yes, we all have to overcome obstacles, but to dwell on them is counterproductive. I am a believer in spreading light and love, always, and I love doing that with my music. 

OSR: The album features a number of musicians, how did you originally connect with them?

Novak: Every story is unique and amazing. I found Anthony Saturno by chance and never looked back. He’s become my little brother. I interviewed Byron Cage as a journalist and he nonchalantly threw out the idea of playing music together. That was more than six years ago and he, too, feels like a real brother to me. Gavin, Jabare and Nick all found their places so naturally, it was never a question that they’d be in the band. I decided to add keys to this album and Deyquan went flying above all expectations. I felt a connection with Ashley ever since I met her more than 10 years ago. When you find souls that speak to yours – you follow them. That’s what this whole band is, a collection of people who connect on deeper levels.  

The Jess Novak Band
Photo Credit: Jessica Montgomery

OSR: As the songs are all a fusion of your combined musicality, what was the creative process for the album? 

Novak: I write songs alone and usually quickly. They come in a flash, but I consider them half-baked. It’s only after I send them to the band – letting each of them sit with them for some time – that we come back together with an idea of how to really finish it. One of the best moves I’ve made as a band leader is to slow down that process and let everyone really consider the song and bring their own strengths to it in their own ways. And then, as a songwriter, you have to be willing to let that change happen. You have to let go of your ego. I feed off of that. 

OSR: You perform both with the band and as a solo artist. How different are the two experiences?

Novak: I love variety. I perform as a duo, with my boyfriend Ben Wayne too (he is also on the album!). Every combination is totally different. I love that I could play the same song all three ways and it’s completely new each time. That’s also why I love playing guitar, violin and piano. You can get stiff really easily if you do the same thing all the time – whether it’s band formation or instrumentation. With the simpler formations, you can really hear the nuance of things and experiment a little more freely with chords and form. Sometimes I change entire songs on the spot, solo or duo, just because I can. But with the band, it’s another kind of freedom. I know that I can relax and trust the band to take the song wherever it’s going – and that it will be great. Each formation has their own energy as well. Solo, I vibe a lot with the crowd because they become like my bandmates for banter and conversation. Duo, Ben and I laugh through every single set. With the band, it’s an overwhelming positive energy that people can feel and I think has come to define who we are. All are amazing.

OSR: If people could listen to only one track from the album, which would you recommend for them to really get the message of the whole?

Novak: While the title track encapsulates the theme of the album, I have such a soft spot for “The Key”. That song started when a friend of mine was ending a relationship and told me, “Jess, I just need to shut that door, lock it and throw away the key.” Then, all the other lyrics kept coming to me, like I was a magnet. Someone talked about living with a bitter taste in their mouth. Someone else said they had to burn a bridge and let it light their way. It was as if everyone knew this song had to be written and so they helped me with it – without knowing anything about it. I originally wrote it as a ballad and Anthony turned it into a funk jam, which completely fits the vibe of the message. That’s when I knew it was right. That song amazes me in its levels of community and message. I feel like I’m such a small part of it. I was just the initial vessel for it to arrive, but people showed me they needed that message by handing it to me. 

OSR: Since you started making music, you have toured extensively. How does the live performance experience affect your studio work?

Novak: The studio can be very stressful because it’s permanent. Whatever you put down there is what everyone will hear again and again and again. But live, I experiment constantly and try to take big risks every show, if for no other reason than it keeps ME entertained. Many times, it’s those big risks – sometimes that fail the first few times – that become the defining moments in the studio. We’ll do something live that people react to and it becomes a staple we never would have thought of otherwise. Reactions to live performances are the best gauge for a musician to know what is going to work in the studio recording.  

OSR: What do you feel is the biggest influence on your music?

Novak: I feel for most artists, life is the influence. Everything you create is a commentary on life and humanity and it’s difficult to break it down beyond that. Certain songs come from very specific influences, but on the whole, artists are mirrors. Whatever they are reflecting is their influence and for me, I’m always trying to communicate an honest picture of universal feelings. I hope people feel that. 

OSR: What else can we expect from you in the coming year?

Novak: I’m very close to finishing a book, which has me so excited. I’m an avid reader, but hadn’t dreamed of doing this until last year. Though this book is fiction, it has roots in a lot of true stories and I hope it communicates them. It tackles the dilemmas of being a female in music, which is something I really want to bring to light for more people. I am also working on a solo electronic album, which has me energized as well. I will always come back to the band, but it’s fun to experiment, branch out and challenge myself in new ways – which is exactly what the electronic project is doing. It’s forcing me to listen to modern music more carefully and join in. It’s easy to get stuck in the way you record and the sounds you look for, so to break all of that down, study others and form a completely new sound is invigorating. I can’t wait to share it with you. In a nutshell, 2022 is already filled with brand new projects that I think are going to change everything. 

Thanks to Jess Novak for chatting with us! You can find more about The Jess Novak Band on their website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Spotify.

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