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Ones to Watch: VanJess

This week we meet with VanJess, the dynamic R&B duo composed of sisters Ivana and Jessica Nwokike. Their music combines elements of 90’s-inspired-neo-soul mixed with slick beats and smooth production. The sisters have had an amazing year, to say the least, with their most recent release comprising of nine fresh remixes off their stellar 2018 debut album Silk Canvas. The impressive tracklist (below) includes remixes and features from Ari Lennox, Saba, Xavier Omär, Bas, and more. 

Milk met up with the sisters in Santa Monica where we got a chance to speak about their upbringing between being born in the US and raised in Nigeria and how a small decision later on in life would ultimately be a pivoting point in their careers. 

Tell me a little about your upbringing, I know you both were born in the US and immediately when back to Nigeria. Describe the journey you had back into the states and how music was introduced into your lives?

Jessica Nwokike: So we spent really the first 10 years of our lives in Nigeria, our parents had good jobs and we lived really well, had a lot of love we were super fortunate. And during that time we were exposed to music mostly in church, traditional Igbo praise songs and that really taught us the essence of feel good and soulful honest music, there’s a beautiful simplicity about it that stuck with us even now. It was great to then come to America and be engulfed in the early 2000s r&b pop and hip hop at that time, I think it just created this very open and wide curiosity and appreciation for all kinds of songs.

Coming to America for us was ironic because it’s seen as oh you’ve made it once you get here, the promised land or whatever. But for us it was when we truly experienced the reality of life and things being hard, our mother was sick from the point we got here and financially we were no longer fortunate like in Nigeria. But it made our family so much closer and made creating our safe haven. 

You both signed to RCA/Keep Cool Records in 2018. How were you introduced to Tunji and what has the last year been like for you all since being signed to a major label? 

JN:  We met tunji over Twitter, he followed us back in 2012 after he discovered our YouTube and then would send him music over the years, finally met in 2016. He’s been like our guardian angel because he was someone who saw our potential early on in a space where literally everyone we would meet didn’t understand. Now being on RCA, having people like him and the people at the label truly get it is something we never thought would happen. But it’s great, we can be ourselves and create very honestly. 

I discovered your music based on your features with other artists, are you able to describe to me your favorite part of the collaborative process? Are there any memories that come to mind when thinking back to working with another artist?

Ivana Nwokike: It’s always dope visualizing what a song would sound like between you and someone that inspires you. Most times though you don’t even get to record the collaborations together. Thinking back we had an amazing session with Kaytranada recording dysfunctional. It was a real last-minute session that wasn’t even initially our own. However, we were just excited to record with him and jam… There’s a magic that happens when the vibe is right… We pulled up and the rest was history. We had no expectations but the end result was more than we could have imagined. I don’t think we will ever forget that night.

And speaking of collaboration, your most recent track ‘Cool of the Rain’ with Ari Lennox just released last week. How were you introduced to her music? What was that process like working with her on this song?

JN: We discovered and met Ari way back in 2017 in London, we both performed at a festival Little Simz (who is also amazing ) was having and I remember watching being drawn to her soul not just as a singer but personally. We talked and just instantly had so much in common, being brown-skinned black women in life in this industry there’s this unspoken thing, We just have experiences no one else can understand. It’s amazing that we were able to come together on this record, we knew whoever hopped on it had to be a singer who had the soul and who SANG that’s so important and she just does it in her own way 

We are now over a year since you have released Silk Canvas, what has the response from that album taught you about your sound and what might be the next evolution of VanJess? 

IN: If anything it’s taught me to keep going no matter what life throws at you because the music, the sounds we created for Silk Canvas really did speak for itself. If you let yourself be vulnerable in this process of life, you can learn something new every day and as a creative,  being exposed to new perspectives can only enhance the music. The next evolution will be a result of everything we have been learning after Silk Canvas. Here’s what we are thinking about the things we have been experiencing essentially.

I want to speak about social media. Your Twitter has an amazing balance between supporting your friends in music and having those moments where you encourage positivity. What inspires you to have that type of social media presence?

JN: I think that’s really just who we are as people, but more importantly there’s so much darkness and negativity on social media. People just waiting to make fun of there’s but other people down. We just want to be a light within that because people might not say it but the darkness is draining. 

IN: It’s really just important to be an example. Artists / influential people have a responsibility to be role models/ leaders. You have been blessed with a platform that can reach people, so why not share something that can positively impact another person especially the next generation. It doesn’t take much to uplift others!

What can we expect next from VanJess?

IN: You can expect more honesty, more vulnerability in the music. Right now we just want to experience life and have it bring forth our next chapter in this music thing.

My greatest expectation for VanJess is to continue to get better within so that the music can be Louder in the next era.

Stay tuned to Milk for more Ones to Watch.

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