There's No Pill For Talent
Even a cursory listen to Nya Jade’s My Denial will tell you Nya Jade is a fabulous vocalist. Her entry into music industry, however, was not at all straightforward.
According to her website, Ms. Jade was a pre-med major at Stanford University, and a vocalist in the acclaimed ensemble Talisman, before she was struck by a speeding car. Her head hit the windshield, and her injuries required time away from her studies for physical therapy. As she reflected on her life, she started thinking about pursuing her musical dreams, using guitar lessons and songwriting to aid the healing process. She played a few coffeehouses and some open mic gigs in the Bay Area—and liked it—but ultimately sought a master’s degree in Organizational Studies.
She tried to go corporate, but realized she wasn’t built to sit behind a desk. Music finally took center stage for Nya Jade in 2004. While Robert Frost might advise us to take “the road less traveled”, Nya Jade’s sojourn reminds us of Sheryl Crow singing, “Everyday is a winding road.” Considering the path Nya Jade followed to become an artist and CEO at her own record label, Katako Records, it’s surprising her debut, My Denial, wasn’t named after one of the album’s best songs, Leave It All Behind.
Once I saw the album cover—a three-quarter headshot of Jade and a portion of her guitar against a white background—I had a feeling the Tracy Chapman and India.Arie associations might pop up. Then, when I heard the line “Love is stronger than pride when emotions collide” in Jade’s song “Home”, I was convinced the Sade comparisons were on the way, since “Love Is Stronger Than Pride” is still a popular Sade song.
Don’t get me wrong. It must be an honor to be named alongside such outstanding artists. Plus, it’s not like the comparisons are unwarranted. On the contrary, Nya Jade’s tone bears a trace of Chapman, despite the dissimilar vibes of their output—Chapman is distinctively folk; Nya Jade brings rock and pop to the party. And while it’s a difficult task to write intensely private songs that nevertheless resonate for a general audience, both Nya Jade and India.Arie seem to accomplish this like it’s second nature. As for Sade, I don’t hear many similarities, although there are hints in “Home” and the inspirational “Live” (that’s a short “i” as in “to live”, not a long “i” as in “the wire was live”).
There is, however, another comparison for Nya Jade’s approach, style, and presentation. That’s Dionne Farris. After appearing with Arrested Development on the group’s gigantic hit “Tennessee”, Farris released her solo album, 1994’s Wild Seed—Wild Flower. Even their album covers remind me a little of each other—Nya Jade and guitar on white background, compared to Dionne Farris sitting in a rocking chair on a white background. Where Nya Jade enlists expert musicians to perform on her record—notably legendary guitarist Rick Dufay of Aerosmith and bass player Dan Rothchild—so too did Farris receive contributions from Lenny Kravitz, Peter Michael Escovedo, and Randy Jackson.
Musically, both ladies can rock your stereo, as Farris demonstrated with her guitar-centered single “I Know”. Likewise, Nya Jade shows her rock sensibilities on most of her debut, particularly on songs like “Crawl”, “Molasses”, and “Sedated”. Yet, also like Farris, Nya Jade can take a leaner, softer approach, as on “Next To You”. This masterful song—my favorite, by the way—showcases Nya Jade on vocals, Kamron Hack on background vocals, and Dan West and Jason Moen on keyboards.
Lyrically, Nya Jade’s songwriting is compatible with Dionne Farris’ work. Farris’ “Reality” explored how we know what we think we know, asking, “Why is green ‘green’? What if it’s really blue? And is what we think we think really truth?” Along these lines, Jade opens My Denial with the playful and poignant “One Pill”. Observing that we are “a quick fix nation”, Jade points out society’s current addiction to instant relief. The chorus sums it up nicely:
And there’s… one pill
Just to kill the pain
And there’s… one pill
To make you feel safe
And there’s… one pill
For a cheap thrill
And it’s… all downhill.
It reminds me of comedian Chris Rock’s joke from his Never Scared standup routine, where he described late night commercials hawking pills and remedies as attempts to “get you hooked on some legal sh*t”:
I saw a commercial the other day that said, “Do you go to bed at night and wake up in the morning?” Oh sh*t, they got one! I got that! I’m sick! I need that pill!
Where Farris and Jade part company is the structure of their songs. Aside from “I Know”, Farris’ lyrics and arrangements were more flexible and open to experimentation. Jade, on the other hand, keeps her writing tight. It’s beautiful to listen to because, although only 10 out of the 12 songs last longer than four minutes, none of the songs sound short or choppy. Densely packed, each tune is rich with lyrical and musical imagery. At a little more than 42 minutes, the album is both entertaining and satisfying.
The downsides to My Denial are minor when you stand them next to the album’s treasures. For instance, two songs, “Live” and “Sedated”, sound like they might have been written for a Disney Channel original movie, tapping into the flavor of current teen bubble gum pop. But that’s not necessarily a negative; it actually adds variety.
My biggest problem is with the use of drum programming, but this only occurs on two tracks. On both, “My Denial” and “Fall Through”, the music—on the album and in these songs—has such an organic quality that the artificial drums are out of place. For “My Denial”, I wondered how the song would sound without any drums at all. Perhaps the rhythm of the guitar might have successfully driven the piece. For “Fall Through”, live drums might have turned a great song into perfection, much like Dan Potruch’s drums in “Crawl” and “One Pill”.
My Denial grabs the rock baton from Farris’ Wild Seed—Wild Flower to craft a promising debut. The best part is, the more you listen to My Denial, the more you want to hear.