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South African artist Jean Zenan discusses his debut album, his musical influences and composing and scoring songs for film

By Emily May

South African producer, composer, songwriter, singer and performer Jean Zenan recently released his debut album entitled A Perfect Sight.  The album was 2 decades in the making, recorded with the resources available to him with each step of the album making process.  Zenan is a dynamic live performer and combines genres such as rock, pop and jazz into his own original music to create a sound of his own.  He started performing live with a band in 2007, later transitioning to solo piano and vocal shows.  In 2013, upon completing his music studies, he took a break from performing to focus on sound design and scoring for different documentaries and short films, facing the challenge of composing music without lyrics.  In 2014/2015, Zenan decided to assemble some of his original music from the previous 15 years to record A Perfect Sight.  Zenan established his own production company, Jean Zenan Productions, in order to house the various productions he has planned for the future.  With enough songs stockpiled over the years for 4 albums, Zenan definitely has plenty to keep him busy going forward.  It will be exciting to see what the next albums hold.  Staff writer Emily May spoke recently via email with Zenan and discussed the album, musical influences and composing and scoring songs for film.  You can stay up-to-date with Jean Zenan and all upcoming tour dates, as well asstream and purchase his album, via the links below.  You can check out the video for “My Angel”, as well as the mini documentary about the song, below.

Facebook- https://www.facebook.com/jeanzenanmusic/
Instagram- https://www.instagram.com/jeanzenan/?hl=en
Twitter- https://twitter.com/jeanzenan
YouTube- https://www.youtube.com/user/ZENANproductions/videos
Spotify- https://open.spotify.com/artist/7jXMmXv3FlL5ZLxOg3mnd2
SoundCloud- https://soundcloud.com/jean-zenan-1
iTunes- https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/jean-zenan/1348485827

Your debut album, A Perfect Sight, was 2 decades in the making! I read that you recorded the album with the only resources you had available at the time, such as a musical instrument shop and a linen cupboard. Is it surreal to think about where the album started and how it ended up being mastered at the legendary Abbey Road studio in London?

Every stage of the recording and production of this album was a challenge, and somehow, I had to find a way to approach each stage and make it happen. I started with the piano recordings in the Instrument shop, which came through a very impulsive reaction after seeing a beautiful black grand piano in a music shop not far from my home. As mentioned, I did the backing vocals in a linen closet as an experiment which single handedly inspired me to make this album at last. The acoustic guitars we recorded in my garage because the music shop closed and had to move. The electric guitars, live strings, and lead vocals was finally done in a proper studio in the end. So like the mastering at Abbey road Studios, every one of these stages just happened the way it was supposed to I guess.

It depends from which side you look at it. Looking forward from the beginning, it was a day by day experience not knowing what tomorrow will bring, and looking back at it with the album in my hands, it definitely feels surreal. From a modest farmhouse in the South African Bushveld, to the sparkling streets of London, and hopefully now, into the world.

What inspires your lyrics and what is your songwriting process like? Who were your musical influences growing up? Are there any current bands that you would consider influential?

My lyrics get inspired by everyday life. The ups, and especially downs, is what makes us human, and should be the absolute resource for artists to feed from. I think if songwriters and artists use only cool phrases and rhyming words to write songs, then it loses its honesty and truthfulness, which is something a lot of people relate to. Off course one can also relate to certain genres and songs that don’t have complicated lyrics, but I still think songs need to deliver some sort of message, even if it’s only through the music and not the lyrics as such.

I have no specific songwriting process. I believe that if you use only one recipe, you’ll get the same cake, but disguised with different frostings every time.

Songs come to me in different ways. Sometimes the music idea comes first, and sometimes a lyric line, which then inspires the process. Sometimes the songs write themselves and uses me as the instrument, and sometimes I have to workshop it to get it done. It can take a few hours, or it can take years, you’ll never know. There is really no specific method for me, and as I’ve said, that insures that the songs each have their own unique identity. I consider my songs and music much more important than the person who created them, because unlike me, they are immortal.

I am influenced by many different kinds of music. Growing up, I used to obviously listen to a lot of the trending music of that time. 70’s, 80’s and 90’s British and American artists and bands such as Elton John. Pink Floyd, Queen, The Beatles, Michael Jackson and many more Pop/Rock acts, use to play on my radio all the time. I also love Classical music and Opera that I think found its way into my songwriting. Jazz is another genre that came into my style a bit later in my career, but definitely found a place in elements like arrangements of the already written songs.  Muse, Radiohead, The Foo Fighters are some current bands that I find very influential. I am sure there are loads more, but they unfortunately might be hidden away by limited and scarce radio play.

I read an interview in which you discussed revisiting the songs you’d written over the years, when you were making your album, and how the songs read as kind of a journal of your life then. You mentioned how some songs were perfect and ready to go while others needed a lot of work to get them up to the same standard. Did you encounter any of your songs that you had to scrap, or do you feel that all of the ones that need work are salvageable?

I think they are all salvageable. The songs that were ready to go were songs that I performed a lot over the years so they were polished and straightened out as I prepared them for live shows. The songs that needed work, were the ones that never made it to the stage in those years. It was so interesting to read the lyrics of some of them to see what a clear improvement I’ve made with my songwriting and composing skills over the years, and how I got more experienced. I joke and say that I am actually glad that I didn’t make it back then, just for the simple fact, that I just wasn’t good enough. Now, I can take them as finished songs or incomplete ideas, and really bring them up to the heights that they were meant to reach.

What was the inspiration behind the album’s booklet design? How did you meet Dijon Pinard and have him help to design the booklet and share photos?

I’ve known Dijon for more than 10 years this year, and besides the fact that we are such good friends that I see him as my brother, we seem to bring out the best in each other when it comes to collaborating creatively. So it was pretty obvious with whom I would work in designing the cover and booklet, and he did an amazing job.

The idea for the cover came from the Album title “A Perfect Sight” which was inspired by the title track “Perfect sight”, and it was Dijon’s idea to use a 3D like picture to achieve the perfect sight, but to also distort it, which is exactly what the song implies: A person wanting to see the beauty in a disturbed world through the eyes of an innocent child. It also represents those blue/green and red 3D images we use to get in the nineties, pretty much the decade in which my “music career” started.

You arranged and recorded a 4 part vocal harmony for “My Angel”, your first song that inspired the making of the album. What was the appeal for you of that particular harmony? You also recently came out with a mini documentary about the song, which from what I read, was supposed to be a full documentary about the making of the album. With plans to do more behind-the-scene films about the making of the album, what can people expect from the films?

I don’t think that the harmonies or backing vocal parts was what really appealed to me as such, more the idea that I can and will make the album by using what I have. For example, the linen closet as a soundproof space together with a studio microphone, which was also used in the music instrument shop for the piano recordings.

The mini documentary came as a result of the footage that I took during the recording process. It is quite a pity, but the idea for the full documentary was in my head before I started production, and unfortunately didn’t record as much footage as I intended. Maybe because I was inexperienced and didn’t realise how involved I would get during the recording sessions, and that I couldn’t be the cameraman as well. Therefore, I used what I had, which coincidentally was all about “My Angel”. I now made my peace with the fact that it was maybe meant to be.  I think if I should make a full documentary now, it will consist of interviews with everyone involved talking about their experiences through the making of, also visiting the different venues and methods of recording during the process.

Aside from writing, recording and performing, you completed your music studies in 2013 and started composing and scoring songs for film, which was the first time you had ever composed without lyrics. What was that like for you to compose without lyrics and what did you enjoy about it? What are the main differences for you in these two creative outlets and what do you love about composing and scoring music for film?

Composing without lyrics is a challenge for me because I feel like I need some kind of theme. But It was easy for me this time around because I mostly knew what kind of film or documentary I was composing for, so I understood the mood and emotions of each scene. I don’t think I will ever just compose instrumental music for no reason at all. I do however come up with new themes, but I like to bank them in my library until something inspires its completion. On the other hand, I did enjoy doing it, because it meant that I would broaden my horizons in my music career, to not just be a rock/pop artist, but also a musician in the truest sense of the word, exploring all the different avenues of the music art form.

What prompted you to master the tracks on the CD differently than on the digital platforms?

There isn’t a big difference from the Cd to the album on the digital platforms. The only thing is that on the CD some of the tracks flow into each other more quickly where on the digital platforms, each song stands separately. The essence of the mix and master of each song is exactly the same on both. It’s a reality that CD sales are not what it used to be, so I thought it will be cool to differentiate the physical album from the digital, just as a tribute to the old school and the era that I grew up in.

What can you tell be about your new backing band?

Me and Eddy Kruze, my guitarist and very good friend, have been working together for a few years now, and we are very excited to get the live shows going as soon as the promotion and marketing of the album is fully underway.  We have very talented musicians getting involved and as soon as we have the full line up and show ready we will reveal more about this. I do without a doubt understand how important this is for marketing as well, therefore it won’t be long till all of this is underway. I can tell you that I can’t wait to get the music on every stage that I can reach.

You have mentioned that when you started doing solo piano and vocal performances that you found the real Jean Zenan! What do you think it was about piano and vocal performances that allowed you to find yourself?

Before this, I was playing rhythm guitar in a band that I formed with a couple of friends, and this was while piano was actually my first instrument. I guess standing on a stage singing rock songs while playing a guitar was just too cool at the time, and I didn’t think that piano had a place amongst it all. But when we sadly moved on from that band, I started moving back to my roots, and challenged myself to do one show on piano singing my songs in front of an audience for the first time. I guess the rest is is history as so many has said before.  I have so much control on piano and I feel that I can express myself so much more than on a guitar, and together with my vocal, I just feel that it creates that certain “Kind of Zenan” that could set me apart and make my campaign successful.

What inspired your desire to want to start your own production company? What do you feel are the benefits to being your own producer?

I think the reason why I decided to start my own production company is because I am planning different kinds of productions for the future and I wanted them to all be under one flag.  The benefits of being my own producer is that I can bring out exactly what I hear in my head when I compose the songs. But I am definitely keen on working with a number of other producers in the future, maybe even on the next album, just because it’s always better to have another opinion and skill set to ensure that the best end product is achieved, and so that the songs each reach their full potential.

The song “Love Me As Your Friend” is an upbeat and fun song, but you also have a ballad version. What inspired you to do a slower version of the song? Do you think you will do more versions of your songs as ballads going forward?

I love reinventing and redoing the songs every time I perform it live just to ensure variation.  “Love me as your friend” has a ballad like intro, and I was just fooling around on the piano rehearsing for a show one day, when this version happened. It’s amazing how the true meaning popped out with this. It’s actually quite a sad song, disguised with a fun rendition on the album.  I will definitely change songs around and make them into different versions when the time is right and if they require me to do so. It’s all good for staying ahead and being creative, frankly I think it’s just to keep yourself sane in the end.

I read that you have enough songs for at least 4 albums! When can people expect the next album? What’s next for you?

I have written many songs over the years yes, and new creations still come to me every now and then. I have already started prepping the next album but it’s hard for me to say when it can be expected to release. Hopefully not to long from now.  At this stage, what’s next for me, is really getting myself on every stage possible and truly establish and anchor myself in the music industry as a worthy and sustainable artist. If I can, and when I do, a lot of magic will come from my mind and hands. I can’t wait, and neither should you!

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