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In 2018, Thana Alexa began booking a modest tour for ONA, the self-produced, self-released record that would earn a GRAMMY nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album. DownBeat profiled her artistic process during a 2020 interview alongside her husband and frequent collaborator, the drummer Antonio Sánchez. At the time, the singer, composer and producer faced a number of setbacks, including a New York venue canceling ONA’s album launch party to book a bigger-name act.
Over the next couple years, ONA’s release tour would enter the logistical Twilight Zone. But the irrepressible artist would emerge stronger and more reflective. Ahead of her set at this year’s Newport Jazz Festival, Alexa shared the story of a tour deferred, the production of a new release titled SONICA that’s due out in September and the lessons ONA continues to teach her.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
You started booking this tour on your own.
In 2019, when I knew when ONA would be released, I started planning this dedicated West Coast tour, scheduled for April 2020, by myself.
It has faced rescheduling how many times?
Three times. March through August of 2020, during lockdown, I was in touch with the West Coast venues who had booked me, rescheduling the dates for October. Of course, October rolled around and people were barely flying, venues were still closed.
In the midst of rescheduling, you did find an agent.
I had emailed 100 people at different agencies. I must’ve emailed 20 different agents at this one particular agency, and Michael Fox got back to me. His hands were tied because, at the time, his roster was full. So, knowing that we wouldn’t be working together, he still had a frank conversation with me about my music. That’s rare. I really appreciated that. In February of 2020, I re-emailed a bunch of people, saying, “Hi, I’m going to be on the cover of DownBeat and my album is coming out in March!” trying to look more sellable. That July, I got an email from Michael, who’d recently opened his own agency. After some really productive conversations, we decided to work together. It’s been great ever since.
We’re headed into 2022 — roughly three years after you began booking — and Michael has helped you reschedule a second time.
Then Omicron happened. It canceled our January gigs a week before our flight. In less than a week, Michael rescheduled all the dates for May and June. I was bummed, though. I’d been so excited to find out what the music could do live. We didn’t know the places it could take us. There’s also the fear — and it’s a valid fear — the further we get from the release date, the more irrelevant the record becomes to a promoter.
How do you vanquish those thoughts and motivate yourself to continue?
In this case, I spent the pandemic getting the entire ONA project arranged for big band with Vince Mendoza, Miho Hazama, Dan Pugach and Ken Schaphorst. I was supposed to premiere the project in Europe before my West Coast tour. Then I got COVID.
For a lot of artists, taking that sabbatical from composing after releasing new music is part of the creative process. For others, it’s playing new repertoire while touring existing material. You created this new rendering of a recorded project; how do you view your writing tendencies?
Once I’ve started something and I like it, I’m inspired to continue. But until I find the story, it’s difficult for me to write with purpose. That’s where my critical mind tends to impair my creative mind. At the same time, ONA didn’t present itself to me until I was several songs in. So I also know I need to just start writing. A lot of what’s preventing me is fear — fear of it not being as impactful, of people comparing it to ONA. But I’ve started to get this itch to get something out, which is a familiar feeling. Maybe I’ve just needed to let myself have this time.
You are releasing a co-led project on Outside In Music with Nicole Zuraitis and Julia Adamy. We hear that choral-unison sound of your music, and that microtonal movement. There’s also intimacy and understatement. How has serving as engineer and producer for SONICA expanded your work on ONA?
Because ONA had opened up the world of production for me, we agreed I would fully engineer, edit, mix and produce SONICA. We’d track at our home studio in Queens, then I’d sit with the raw material. I did a bunch of post-production: percussion, overdubs, additional keyboards, sounds, mixing. Sonically, I’m very proud of this record because of what it means to me as a next step. I’m happy with our songs, our arrangements, all the ways we recorded. But I’m also happy with how I, through production, helped realize these tunes and the potential of our sound.
Let’s talk about your vocal injury, in the context of this tour, and how you now relate to your instrument.
When I opened up about my injury, so many singers reached out and shared their traumatic stories. Even now, I’m so conscious of the way that I’m speaking. I’m terrified of doing something wrong, even though I know that’s irrational.
I got COVID before my West Coast tour. I had this lingering cough for a month, but I was doing vocal therapy. Vocal injury is not treated like sports injury. We’re not considered vocal athletes even though that’s exactly what we are. When a soccer player injures their ankle and can’t play the next game, you don’t think, “That’s because they don’t know how to play soccer well.” But with a vocal injury, the audience assumes you sing with bad technique and don’t take care of your voice. It reflects badly on the singer.
After six great gigs in California, in Oregon I noticed something felt strange. I remember in exactly what song and at the end of exactly which solo I thought, “That didn’t feel right.” The next morning I had no voice. When I called my vocal coach, Kate Baker, she said, “Honey, please don’t get steroids. Post-COVID is different. You might have a hemorrhage. Go to an ENT and get scoped.” The promoter and his wife drove me all over Bend, Oregon, and finally an ENT told me, “You have a little hemorrhage on the upper left part of your vocal fold.” My heart sank. I called Kate, who told me, “Stop talking, go on vocal rest. You have to cancel the tour.”
I was overwhelmed with sadness. My ego was telling me to sing, but Antonio and Michael told me, “There will be many gigs, but you only have one voice. You have to protect it.” I got dressed for the gig, got up on stage and, in tears, told the audience, “I’m gonna open the set with my looper and sing for you very quietly. But I have to tell you that I suffered a vocal hemorrhage and I’ve been advised by my doctors to go on immediate vocal rest.” Maya Kronfeld, Matt Brewer and Antonio put together two incredible sets of music, on the spot. While they were playing, I was backstage redoing everyone’s plane tickets, canceling minivans and getting us back home the next day.
Jump to the present: You’re healed and headed back out. Days from now you’ll be playing Newport. How has your experience persevering through this challenging tour affected your self-reliance?
To have my instrument, which is like my identity, get taken away was really hard. But ONA’s mission has always been clear: keep pushing. That’s the way the record changed me. Forever. Every step of the way has been a new lesson in believing. DB
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