Vanessa Fernandez is a powerhouse. Ever since she stepped into the scene at the tender age of 16, the R&B chanteuse has spent the last two decades developing the artistry of her music. Outside the realm of canorous tunes, her soulful voice has extended into the headspace of everyday Singaporeans through the radio waves.
As the former Programme Director for the now defunct Lush 99.5FM, no one was hit harder by the closure of the station than Fernandez, who had to manage the team, reactions from the community and her brewing internal battles. “When I first got told, I was a wreck — emotionally, physically, everything.” But beneath it all, a deep reconfiguration of Fernandez’s power was underway. Though the process was slow and tedious, it was transformative in more ways than one. It was power metamorphosing from pure grit to a gentle vulnerability, the strength to let go, the courage to flow with the throes of change.
These days, you can find her galvanised with a slightly different mission: hosting Singapore Sounds on 938 Now; releasing new music from her latest Mindkiller EP under her nom de guerre, Vandetta; heading her own music label, Ownself Records, and continuing her work with budding musicians through the Noise Music Mentorship Program. It’s all in a day’s work for the dedicated songstress.
We sat down with Fernandez and SkL0 for an honest conversation about the closure of Lush 99.5FM, the inspiration behind her latest album, and how the process is just as important as your finished product.
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You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you felt different growing up because you had to straddle between two worlds. Was music your way to connect these worlds together?
To be honest, music was never about that so much as it was processing my own personal thoughts and feelings. And most of the time, that was related to love. I guess it’s always been about relationships, but recently I would say it’s also about how I view the world. Not always about my own personal experiences but how I make sense of the rest of the context in which we live.
When I first started writing at 16 playing simple chords on the guitar, most of my songs were about unrequited love. In Urban Xchange & Parking Lot Pimp, I wrote songs about trying to understand being in relationships for the first time. And when I was in Octover with Jason Tan, I was kind of going through this period where I was really experimenting with love and bending all my rules to see which ones would break. With the Vandetta EP, that’s when my focus shifted to the context around me. Fly is a lot about my beef with capitalism and and also struggling with feeling I didn’t fit in musically in the Singapore mainstream? I remember it was a grudging thing almost where I was happy about the opportunity but I was also like, “This is stupid. I love the transport system, I love the food, all my friends are here — why is it that I have to go somewhere else to feel like I can do this?” There’s a recurring line in Fly that goes, “I’m a caged bird living in a beautiful prison trying to tell you why I wanna fly away. Can you hear me?” It’s actually literally what I was feeling. That’s how I feel my music has gone from something that’s a bit more personal to something that’s a bit more perspective driven and Mindkiller is a further extension of that.
Those are snapshots of the phases of your life.
A lot of art and your expression is contextual. For artists, sometimes that gets communicated through art, sometimes not. It will always be whatever you are experiencing and whoever you are at that time.
Your latest EP, Mindkiller, is about fear. What kind of role does fear play in your life?
There’s no way you can escape fear. It’s biological, right? When I decided to make Mindkiller I was in my thirties and I was also doing Lush, so I was really anxious about how to do it all, but one thing I knew was that I had to work through [it] despite my fear. I guess this factors into my overall larger view of the world, which is that I understand fear exists and its function, but for me as an artist, any time I’m afraid of something, I almost purposefully want to tackle it head on because I don’t want to be controlled by it. I don’t want it to stop me from reaching my full potential. I don’t want it to stop me from saying what I need to say. I don’t want it to stop me from expressing myself.
Has fear stopped you in any way?
Yes. In many ways that I’m sure people can relate to it. When you don’t approach someone because you’re afraid they will reject you. When you don’t tell someone that they’re doing something wrong or they’re being stupid because you don’t want to hurt their feelings. On an artistic level, it’s if you don’t create your music because you think nobody’s going to like it or because you’re too old.
What made you think about tackling fear in this particular way? Why now?
I think as you get older, the fear becomes bigger and therefore the opportunity cost is greater. I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I’ve quite some experience, I’m not bad at it — I should continue doing it. Fear has the potential to stop my artistic development ; deciding not to continue developing your craft because you won’t make money from it, you can’t achieve this, you’re too old, you’re too this, you won’t do that. But I can’t forget that in essence, all I’m doing as an artist is creating and expressing myself, and I feel like that process can be halted by fear if I’m not careful.
The thing is that you’ve always been practicing. When you mentioned opportunity cost, is it because you took a break for a bit to focus on Lush, and because of that hiatus in between, you felt you needed to catch up?
Hmm, no. I should also explain that one of my greatest fears is what people will think of me. I hate that and ask myself, “Why the fuck do you care what people think about you?” The opportunity cost is in worrying what people will think, to the point that I stop creating, thus losing the meaning, purpose and outlet that art gives me, which would be tragic. While managing Lush, I didn’t have as much headspace but I’ve continuously released music throughout my time there since 2014 so it wasn’t really a hiatus from music, but Mindkiller was the second Vandetta project and 4 years since my debut self-titled EP.
As a public figure, how does it feel when you meet strangers and you imagine that they might have preconceived notions about you? What do you imagine they might think given what’s out there?
I don’t always know what people’s actual opinions of me are and whether they are good or bad. I think generally people do have a good opinion of me, or so my friends have told me. I think people can also be very intimidated by me sometimes. I’ve experienced that [situation] where you are shy but you are pretending to be confident, and then you meet this person who is intimidated by you and they’re aloof or awkward and then I think, “Why don’t they like me? What did I do? I don’t know what I did. Did I do something wrong?” But actually they’re probably just like, “Fuck, I don’t know what to say to her.” It’s probably something like that so I try not to dwell on those silly thoughts I have.
Why do you think your fear gets bigger as you get older?
Maybe there’s more to lose? When you’re young, you make a lot more mistakes. As you get older you create this world for yourself that feels comfortable and secure. You’ve transcended the pain or learned from those past mistakes and the fact that you’ve worked so hard to built what ever you built — it’s scary to lose that.
After all these experiences you’ve had, you’re actually in a position to look at everything from the outside. You have this gauge and you know what it is you like or want even more now.
You would think that, right? I think people have this impression that I’m this amazing musician — I’m not as amazing as some other people. I also feel that I’m still learning and developing, which is also great. Also, sometimes what I like or can do artistically changes as well so I’m not always in a comfortable space as an artist.
I think it’s just something we battle ourselves.
Why do you think there’s still such a stigma that local artists are not as good as international artists?
I think it’s two-fold. A lot of people have a disconnection with Singapore culture. We understand it on a very surface level because you have your four races, your four languages, you get it taught in school, we’re taught that we have to integrate. But what is culture? For artists, I think we understand culture very instinctually, being emotional beings who feel in order to create, which is also how we connect, engage and contribute to culture by physically adding to it. Audiences don’t realise they don’t need to create art to be part of culture. That understanding, consuming, critiquing and sharing their thoughts about art also contributes to helping the culture grow. I also think people dismiss local and constantly judge it against what other countries do because that’s all they know. Us artists who are part of the community get exposed to more than that — we experience and hear our fellow musicians alongside being influenced globally. I don’t think the stigma towards local has anything to do with the quality of the actual music. It’s the concept of “good” being quantified by what they’re exposed to instead of the breadth of what actually exists. It’s all perception.
How can we work towards overcoming that [perception]?
You know, that’s what I felt was my duty or one of my intentions at Lush. I really felt if we say #LushLovesLocal, if we just be positive, if we just do our thing and we provide a space, and we keep cracking on and fight this good fight because we believe in the culture and the music, it’s worth it. And I still think that’s a good intention. But culture is very complex. You can’t just work in first quarter, second quarter, third quarter. Culture is a five to ten, even twenty year kind of game and beyond. So I think the best thing artists can do is to keep creating. Industry people should keep finding ways to support, share and expose audiences to more local artists. And audiences should keep discovering and sharing when they like or don’t like something. Just keep doing it, being open about it and it will naturally develop.
Who are some of the local musicians that you like?
Oh man, so many. I adore weish and .gif. They’re my favourite band. I do the Noise Music Mentorship stuff and there’s a lot of these young kids who are really great that I really like — Abby Simone, Krysta Joy, Mars, Ffion. I really love Amateur Takes Control [too]. Also, everything Fauxe does to me is very cool because he has an interesting personality and is really skilled. My Apple iTunes is all local music that I buy.
Lush was supposed to be this platform where more people could actually share and you also got in some really great people in the team like Tracy and Rozz. You do share [when you like something] and you play a part in creating, and so do other musicians who also create and share as well. How did it not gel together in the end?
Several things. I couldn’t have anticipated structural organisational changes would happen at the company during my time or known the limitations (both personal and in terms of resources) before taking the job on. It’s no one’s fault. Internally, media used to be divided according to Radio, TV, and Print, but in 2015 they reorganised all platforms and divided it by consumer groups in order to better service advertisers. For example the Family segment would have Class 95FM, Channel 5 and 8 Days in the group. The sales team was still centralised though, and they have a huge challenge with trying to help all platforms achieve their targets while achieving their own. The company had more than ten radio channels, close to the same number of TV channels and several print titles. Lush was just one with a very small and niche albeit quality audience.
The only thing that I feel I can focus on now is to keep creating and contributing whatever way I can now. If culture is a long game anyway and I keep the same positive intention, I can just let it happen the way it happens.
We know that creatives have to be paired with suits, right? If the expectations were already as such and the suits knew what they had to do with the model that the creatives were proposing, how come it couldn’t work out? Were there different expectations?
I think everyone had different expectations and people trying to answer the question of why this happened also make some assumptions. So here are mine: If I’m a salesperson and my biggest stations give me a higher commission, and I have only a finite number of hours in a day and a whole bunch of things that I have to achieve, why would I sell Lush? If I’m a client buying mass media, I want the largest reach and biggest bang for my buck so I can hit my KPIs. Why would I buy Lush? If I run a traditional media organisation and face financial threats in the face of digital that’s changing the game even faster than I can keep up with and I have finite resources to transform — why would I spend it on Lush? If I’m a savvy music listener looking to discover new music globally, I would go to streaming or I would already know all the local artists and places to go to find and watch them physically — why would I choose Singapore radio or Lush? Because we care and we do things differently and perhaps are kinda “cool” is not a good enough reason when everything is about the bottom line. It’s just business.
It was challenging for me because I didn’t also have a network of business clients that I could immediately go to and say, “Yo, do you want to do something? This is how much it costs, shall we do this together? Let’s do it for the culture can you take a chance and part your resources on me?” I didn’t have that and I wish we did because that probably would have been the most helpful to a product like Lush. I think that idea of doing it for the creative culture was something that I and the whole team believed, which is why we worked so hard for not a whole lot because we got a lot back from the community. I think we and the community felt that the station didn’t exist to make money, it existed for art and culture. Assumptions and expectations versus the reality of where we were just didn’t match.
There’s so much to juggle.
Sometimes it’s out of your control. They saw that Lush had talent and they wanted to move that talent to other parts of the company. Again, this is exactly what a business person should do — make full use of your resources and talent is a resource. But I also couldn’t change that [feeling of], “I cannot feel for a product that isn’t Lush. I don’t fit here.” So I resigned. But I conceptualised and was given the opportunity to work freelance on Singapore Sounds, so I’m grateful because it’s important to me.
Last time you felt like you wanted to control the end, and now you’re like, “Okay, I can’t foresee what’s going to happen so I can only control what I do.”
Yeah, I have changed. I would say that that has been one of the greatest lessons that I’ve learnt, in part through Lush, but in part through all my experiences over the last couple of years in music and media. Contributing to culture through music and my experience has been my intention since I came back from LA in 2013. But I also realised when Lush was ending that my thought of “I have to stay here and I have to make it work in Mediacorp because there won’t be anything else otherwise. Oh no, what’s going to happen to the culture?” — A lot of that is just ego. This idea that I have to be there because it will be worse if it’s not there… it’s egotistical and untrue. Singapore musicians and artists are awesome. They will keep creating, getting better and making waves.
Did it take a toll on your personal creative process when you were trying to control the ending?
For Lush, I knew earlier than everyone else but as a [part of the] management, I wasn’t allowed to say anything. But I did tell my team a little bit earlier than when we made the public announcement so that they could be prepared. When I first got told, I was a wreck. Emotionally, physically, everything. It felt like somebody [going], “I’m taking your baby. I’m also burning down your house but I need you to help me clean up the ashes.” I think the whole of last year was a very difficult year for me having to manage this closure, the team, the community, my own thoughts and emotions and then on top of all that having to release my own music, which I really didn’t want to do but I had to because I applied for a grant and I already delayed [it]. It was quite bad so I actually sought professional help, which really helped me a lot, as well as taking a two week break in Peru at the end of the year complete with a digital detox.
What do you think of the idea that creative people need to be depressed or sad to be able to produce great work?
I think art is a lot of having your own questions that you need to answer and you have different modes of expressing that. Personally, I am emotional and have struggled with depression, anxiety and anger. When I am overwhelmed by these feelings, one of the things that helps get rid of that feeling is creating art. So for me, if I’m very upset or I’m going through something, if I make music, I will 100% feel better when I’m done. You cannot deny that an artist uses art as a form of catharsis, and there is usually a product at the end of it i.e. the art. But that’s not all depressed or sad. Love and truth also inspire the creation of art — it does for me anyway. Achieving your greatest work is not just about answering questions but about transcending your own limitations whether they’re related to your emotional state or your physical ability.
Do you create when you’re happy?
I do, and I’m actually trying to get back to doing that more often because I feel like I spend a lot of time [creating when I’m depressed] that you forget that you can also create when you’re happy. On the Vandetta EP, I had fallen in love with someone and I had taken a risk and left to LA for no one but myself so I found that the music was very uplifting. It was just in that positive space and that was actually really good for me.
When I was younger, I used to sing in the shower — a very simple thing that made me happy. I remember I stopped doing it because my mom mentioned it and then I realised other people could hear it and it made me self-conscious. Then the other day I was sitting with a bunch of people at a friend’s house and this song came on, and I just got up and started dancing and harmonising along. I probably wouldn’t do that before because I was worried about what people would think of me. But now I just want to be happy and sing if I’m into it.
Earlier on, you mentioned how you had to go to LA and it got me thinking of this model that a lot of people always believe in, which is that you have to go abroad to do something, make it big, and come back before anyone ever recognises you here. This is the model that a lot of people have done and it works for some of them. Where do you stand on that?
I think you need to do whatever you have to do. I also think the support systems here in Singapore are playing catch up and that’s a good thing. The artists are probably going, “Finally! By the way, we’ve been waiting for you for like, ten, twenty years already.” As an artist, just ask yourself, “What’s your intention?” If your intention is to gain some notoriety or have as many different people as possible listen to your stuff, if the means to that end is for you to go somewhere else and make it work, and you have the means and ability to do so, you should. Honestly, taking that risk and going to LA probably taught me so much more with regards to process and mindset than I could have ever learnt if I had stayed here. At the end of the day, all that experience benefits you anyway. I don’t really judge whether somebody wants to do it or not. As long as you feel that it will be beneficial to you and to your career, just do it.
Sometimes that mindset is accompanied with, “I have to do this because it’s a numbers game.” People still subscribe to the mindset that they have to get out and actually do something in order to come back and succeed. Isn’t this more of a trend and hype?
Trend and hype are inescapable, right? It will always be this way because hype works, but there’s more to art than hype. These are two sides to the same coin.
You can see what happens out of it organically.
Yeah, because that’s culture.
There will always be a push and a pull and there will always be someone reacting to something at that point of time.
I was reading Antifragile where [Nassim Nicholas Taleb] talks about fragility and how there’s no such word for the opposite of fragility. But he feels the opposite of fragility, which is the idea of anti-fragility is that when you break it, it makes you stronger as opposed to you crumbling. And nature is like this. When you cut off a plant, it doesn’t just try and protect itself from the cut, it imagines [something] worse than cutting and grows tougher to protect itself from future impact. That’s kind of what nature does, it overcompensates. But it also allows and accepts for weird anomalies. You know, it’s like, “Oh, okay lor. This part of me is going to die, die lor.” Nature accepts, prepares and is resilient. So I’m trying to be a bit more like nature.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you always have to look back in order to move forward. What experiences are you constantly looking back to?
When I look back musically, it’s more to remember what I’ve done. I feel that I keep making things [and] sometimes I forget all the stuff that I’ve done. I think also as you get older as an artist, it’s probably worth it to remember that you did this stuff. And then it’s good memories. Take for example my past groups, Urban Xchange and Parking Lot Pimp. We were signed to major labels and broke up and it was one of those rather dramatic things. I could have held onto that drama, but enough time has passed for me to go like, “You know what, we actually had a great time together.” I learnt so much through that with regards to what I will and will not put up with, how I would make music, how I wanted to be as an artist even practical things like how to produce our own launch party. It’s good to take stock, I guess.
But what does it do for you on an emotional level?
Recently, I had to realise that because I also have a lot of pain in my past, I have to learn to let it go very quickly because it stops me from being present. If you’re in the present and you keep thinking about the past and you’re obsessing about it, all that’s doing is preventing you from being and living in this moment. And I really want to just be present. It’s important to acknowledge the traumas in your life but when they start to affect how you move forward or when it starts to affect your present, that’s not good.
What’s your biggest fear?
I have many, many fears. One of the fears that I mentioned recently was that the people I love will think that I don’t love them. Only people who are closest to me will know this, which is if you are very close to me, I will hurt you. It’s very bad, I’ve lost people because of it and it’s embarrassing and frustrating to have explain it to the people I care about. I’m working very hard on correcting this. Luckily, the people who are still in my life understand, but I worry that I will sabotage my own happiness or that I will lose them. I don’t want people that I love to think that I don’t love them.
I think another one is not reaching my full potential. I don’t want to let these things, these traumas, this ego, all of these issues that are very normal for everyone to have, to stop me from achieving all the good things that I know I can achieve and add value to other’s lives. I really do think that I have a good gift and I can use it wisely, and I don’t want to be not be able to do that.
I think a lot of people think that after you’re done with one project, the end product is the measure of your full potential. So I think the mistake we make is that the process is actually the part that shows your full potential, because every time you’re in the midst of doing it, you’re always going to try and be better. But it doesn’t really mean that that is your full potential as well because that is something where we’ll always keep trying. That’s the fun part.
That’s exactly why people who don’t understand arts and culture [find it] very hard to wrap [their] heads around this, but it’s the process. “What do you mean the process? What do I see at the end of it?”
Sadly, that’s all we have to show these days as well. They only want to see the end product and that’s what counts.
We forget that the process is equally, if not more important.
Different industries depend on the speed of how quickly they can churn out something. In visual arts, you can just “turn off” and produce something and the speed of how much you earn is how much you draw out. I think it’s a little bit different in music because the process is already different in terms of technicalities.
It depends on where you are and the demand of your work.
It’s just the hype and if it’s very trendy then more people will subscribe. And so on.
Totally. But there’s also this thing where you are essentially developing your community. That’s the interesting part about this new age of the Internet and social. Before, the medium is the message is TV, radio and print. Now, because of the Internet, information is democratised and because of social, everyone is a medium. If you are a medium, what are you using with your influence? It’s not just influencers who have influence, you have influence. Literally, you can build and grow and have influence. That’s you. So what are you going to do with it?
A lot of people don’t know how much power they have.
It’s always the case, right? You don’t realise it until it happens to you, and hopefully you will have a good support system or be educated enough to deal with whatever that is being presented to you.
You have a lot of influence in the industry as well.
The influencer of the influencers. (laughs) I definitely have really good connections and I think that the people who follow what I do are in their own right very amazing people. Building your influence means putting yourself out there. You know what, I’m actually not an extroverted person. I know people think I am because I’ve trained myself to perform and speak in public, but I’m introverted by nature.
Do you protect that part of yourself that wants to have that introverted space?
Yes and no. I’ve been grappling with social for a very long time. It’s already such an ordeal to try and deal with all of my own demons. Imagine having to do it on social media. And also this pressure to present the best version of yourself. So, is it real? Am I fake? Recently I was like, you know what, I’m not going to be afraid to share deeply the things that I choose to share. I’m going to create as much content as I can so that I can connect with people and hopefully build and grow my influence. This is my only way I can rationalise playing the game, because if you don’t play the game, there’s a lot of shitty people who are playing the game and suddenly it will all just be polluted and filled with shit, and then my anger will come back.
And then you’ll try to diffuse it by assuming it’s your ego speaking.
(Laughs) Exactly, it’s a cycle. But I accept that it’s just going to be that way and I also accept that some days I’ll be more into it than other days. Some days I’m going to be like, eh, I don’t want. Other days I’m going to feel like I have lots to share.
You care a lot about other people and this trickles down to Ownself Records where your underlying philosophy is also about creating value for others. Not to mention your involvement with the Noise Music Mentorship program as well. What motivates you this aspect of yourself?
I think creating value for other people is the only other way I can get around feeling awkward about having this talent. I didn’t have the talent so that I could influence, I didn’t have the talent so that I could make money. I just have this talent. As an artist, I just want to make my stuff and all of the things that become battles for me is because I’m shy and introverted. In order for me to deal this, I can only figure out how what I do can create value for someone else. It’s another way I rationalise playing the game if I feel like it benefits other people. Otherwise it just feels selfish.
Are you in a state of play right now? Are you going to play around the arena of music or do you think you could try something else?
I kind of go with whatever opportunity presents itself. I still do work with the National Arts Council, I’m still working on music, and I have a few music side projects that I do as well. I’m also talking to the Singapore Community Radio people just to see if there’s stuff I can help them out with, and there’s a couple of things that I might do in terms of music production. And then of course I have my own label, but the label is for me to just release my stuff for now until I learn a little bit more about the whole music eco system and feel more confident to be able to do that for other people.
I’m sure you’re going to sign on people in the future. What kind of sounds are you looking for?
I’m looking for people who have vision. I would say that it doesn’t need to be people who have huge followings or whatever. I know these days there are labels [that look for this]. But that’s also why I don’t want to sign someone on yet because I need to have a good framework where I can take that person and help that person grow their influence. And I’m not at that level now. Eventually if I do get to that level, then I’ll be looking for people who have vision. That’s something interesting.
A lot of people are going to ask — what vision is this?
I feel that when you talk to people who have vision, they are able to articulate something [and help] you see something that hasn’t been created very clearly yet. With people who have vision, it’s never a “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” It’s like, “Oh yeah, that sounds very interesting” and I can see it too. Not everyone has that, but I feel like I’ve experience enough people in my life who have vision to know when that’s happening. Part of it is you buying into it, for sure.
But people struggle with anything beyond instant gratification. Sometimes we don’t know what exactly will happen next because my life stage is as such. And if I want to move on to the next life stage, I don’t even know exactly what I’m going to be going through. I can only see how I want to keep creating and keeping up that stamina. How does this play a part in what you’re looking for?
You have to have a certain level of experience and expertise to have vision. That’s also another thing I’ve noticed. I don’t think anyone who is not an expert or quite skilled in whatever they want to achieve can articulate a vision. I don’t forget what it’s like to be young and I don’t think that instant gratification is something that just now in the age of the Internet. It’s OG too and when we had pagers, c’mon. The instant gratification is just part of youth. Again, it’s just not having as many experiences under your belt to know this is actually how the process is. Are you asking how kids can get to the level of being visionary? You just keep doing your work. Be present. Keep creating. Keep getting better man. The problem is also maybe ego, like “I’m the shit.” You think you’re the shit? Dude, 100% there’s somebody out there in the world who’s better than you. .You should find that person and keep that person close to your heart and remember you are never going to be better than that person. That’s why I think seeing [people like] Jacob Collier, Anderson .Paak, Hiatus Kaiyote, are inspiring. I’m not as good as them and I must keep working to get there.
Do you ever get caught up in the numbers sometimes?
Knowing your numbers is related to giving back for me. I like research. I like knowing how many people bought my EP, streamed my music, who they are and what they do and like outside of what I give to them. Also, if you don’t think about numbers, how are you going to take care of yourself to be able to keep doing this?
So numbers are important.
Yeah, numbers are part of life. But that’s not my intention. Arts and culture is also my business and I have to care about numbers, but to me people aren’t just numbers either. I’m in the same camp as you. I can’t be in that camp that does this just for the money. But you still need to figure out ways for it to be sustainable so that we can keep creating, and contributing to culture. To me, that’s good business.
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Photographs & images courtesy of Vanessa Fernandez
Singapore Sounds airs weekdays, Monday through Friday, on 938 Now at the following times: 12:09, 14:09, 15:20, 15:38.