Interview with Ross Jennings (Haken, Novena) about new solo record

For most Proglodytes readers, Ross Jennings requires no introduction. As the lead vocalist of progressive metal group Haken, and as a contributing member of the prog-metal collective Novena, Ross has made a name for himself for his expressive voice and incredible range, as well as his humility, warmth, and humor.

Last year, Ross decided to write his first solo outing, which eventually became A Shadow of my Future Self. While most of his recorded vocal work had been in the progressive metal vein, Ross wanted to challenge himself artistically and went for a more pop-oriented sound, along with relatable, personal themes about human relationships and struggles. With the help of a stellar cast of musicians, Ross has brought this album to life, and we’re all very excited to hear it! Ross stopped by Proglodytes to answer a few questions about his new solo record, as well as his future plans.

How long have you been working on this new solo record?

Funnily enough, I’ve actually been sitting on this collection of songs now longer that the amount of time it took to work on them! The writing process itself was rather quick. Around the end of April or start of May 2020 I just had a flood of inspiration and drive to work on something that was separate from HAKEN and deliberately far removed, stylistically. It started off with the idea to do a country record actually, but I realised quite quickly that I was only coming up with bad imitations of existing country hits, so I felt it needed to be much more than that, shine some light on a wider range of influences and have my own identity. Amazingly, over a period of about 3 weeks I had pretty much written a rough demo per day and found my self with about 25 or so songs! Recording took place throughout July to early August and by October 2020 I had a fully mixed and mastered record in my hands.

You’ve mentioned that this album will be more accessible than other projects you’ve worked on. Tell us about some of the musical influences that you channeled on this record.

I intentionally approached this album acknowledging that the albums I’ve released in my bands thus far have ALL been prog-metal concept albums…so my first mandate was to ensure that this was to be a more ’singles’-oriented record. Secondly, I needed a breather from complex Prog-Metal and to flex my songwriting muscles in a more indie and pop/rock context. In terms of influences, there are many non-progressive influences that can be heard whilst there are still flavourings of prog sprinkled throughout. One might be able to make connections to bands like Elbow, Coldplay, U2 & early Radiohead. There are also some tracks that I could attribute to my love for American arena rock such as Aerosmith, Styx or Journey…so yes, quite the eclectic mix!

Photo credit: Tom Russell at AfterLive Music

Why did you choose the name A Shadow of my Future Self?

The philosophy behind this record was self-improvement, self-development & self-healing. I found myself at a very low point which was affecting my relationships as well as my own physical and mental health. I was lacking a lot of confidence and I was also unbeknownst to me at the time, allowing my career, my ego and my selfishness to affect my marriage. So there were many issues I needed to figure out and writing this music became the therapy that helped me work through some of the problems I was having. Ultimately, the title is a positive spin on the phrase ‘A shadow of my former self’ which is used to describe one looking back on better times that have passed. For me this album represents the opposite. It signifies me stepping out of a negative space and into a new era, projecting and manifesting positivity and optimism with the ability to acknowledge and appreciate the value of the lessons learned.

How were these songs composed? Tell us about your personal compositional style, and what may have been unique about this solo record vs. other bands you are a part of.

There’s a huge and significant difference in the way this album was written compared to the way we approach writing in HAKEN, for example. Where vocals are concerned at least, this is typically the last element that is added to the composition. I’m often sent somewhat complicated segments of music, perhaps with some space allowed for “an epic chorus” for example, but more than often that’s quite a challenge to glue together after the fact, especially if top line vocal melodies haven’t really been considered at the early stage of composing.

For me and this solo record, the vocal hooks were first and foremost. In practice it could start with a melody that has just come to me, hummed into my phone or clumsily performed into a blank audio project. Once that’s down, I have a bit of freedom to find some chords and see how I can flesh out that melody over a simple chord sequence, perhaps simultaneously picking a few vowel sounds or words that feel right in that rhythmic context… Slowly but surely I’ll start to see the bigger picture and I can hear in my head what the other parts might be doing. Ultimately though, all these songs would have had a very simple skeleton of vocals and acoustic guitar in the beginning, something that has come in handy when addressing my solo live performance.

Photo credit: Yulia Jennings

This album features some stellar backup musicians: Nathan Navarro (Devin Townsend) on bass, Vikram Shankar (Redemption, Lux Terminus, Silent Skies) on keyboards and Simen Sandnes (Arkentype) on drums. How did you decide who would play on this album?

First off. I don’t know exactly why, but it was important to me that I used personnel that were unrelated to any of my other projects. Truth be told, I initially wanted to play everything myself, but that intention was short-lived and naïve. I thought I was an OK bass player until I started tracking and it became swiftly apparent that I needed help. Luckily I’d befriended Nathan on the recent Devin Townsend tour I’d been on. Admittedly, I was apprehensive at first to ask such a master of his craft to play on these mere mortal pop songs, but he really added a touch of class on these tunes that I could never pull off, elevating the tunes to ‘cool’ status.

Drums and Keyboards were also easy choices. Simen had been on Haken’s Affinity tour with Arkentype in 2016. I witnessed first hand his skill level and enthusiasm on that tour and he would subsequently become a very close friend. I’d had in mind as far back as then that I would like to have someone like that on my solo album. I’m not looking for the biggest names necessarily but it had to be a good dude or dude-ess and someone with the chops and musical personality to have fun with this “simpler” music. As for Vikram, I had been following his career trajectory ever since I saw a YouTube video of him performing an Affinity medley. Since he came on to my radar he’s gone on to produce some incredible work with ‘Lux Terminus’ who released an instrumental album that completely blew my mind, plus the rather beautiful album he has done with Thomas Englund sealed the deal for me. I had to have this pianist on my album! Funnily enough when I reached out to Vikram, I only had about 4 songs in mind for piano but he ended up performing all the synth work and arranged all my orchestral parts into full scores too. He really went above and beyond for me which I’ll be eternally grateful for!

The first single, “Words We Can’t Unsay”, is about human relationships. Is this candid, personal lyrical style a good predictor of the lyrical content that we can expect on this album?

Definitely. Just like my need to deliver something different musically, I also wanted to show that I can write about real life as well as I can about cockroaches and mermaids! Honestly, there’s always been a strain of personal and relatable themes in my other writing but it’s usually much more layered and cloaked in fantasy. My solo record is more on the nose. With this one I’m putting out there precisely the words and experiences I’ve lived through and although there’s an element of hanging out my dirty laundry, it’s helped me so much to face up to my emotions and problems, not to sweep things under the rug and remain authentic.

Tell us about the acoustic livestream you are planning on doing at the end of this month, Acoustic Shadows. (Link to purchase tickets here)

The initial plan was to release the record earlier this year and the live stream was going to support that. Due to delays it’s now flipped the other way around. So with no one having heard the full album, I’m taking a risk by giving people a taste of the new album in acoustic form, so it’s not the truest reflection of the record, but in a way this is quite special, because you get to hear songs closer to how they were when I was writing them! In order for the whole show not to seem alien, there will be a 2nd single out just in time for the show PLUS I’m going to be including a cover, and performing a track from each of my other bands repertoire. I could also mention that there may even be guests from those bands appearing…but that might be giving too much away!

Apart from the livestream, are you thinking about playing some of these songs in a live concert setting?

I’m keeping a peripheral eye on what’s happening with COVID-19 and international travel regulations. The UK is only now just announcing the lifting of certain restrictions and the return to public gatherings. If all things go back to normal, I’m going to be very busy with HAKEN in 2022, but there’s potential for some low key shows in the UK later this year. For now I’ve got the acoustic show on sale that everyone around the world can see. For the foreseeable future, this is the only option to see me perform, but that was the whole point in doing it. Most of my fan base seems to be in North and South America, so it’s the best way I can perform this stuff to an international audience right now.

Photo credit: Yulia Jennings

BONUS QUESTIONS:

What non-musical topics do you feel like you could give a lecture on without much preparation?

Up until about 10 years ago I was somewhat of a movie buff but quite honestly, once streaming services overtook cinema and the sheer amount of content produced across all these platforms ten-folded, I quite frankly lost the ability to keep up and retain all the knowledge about directors and actors and first assistant D.O.P’s etc.… I guess I could do a practical photography lecture as this is what I do for a living in my other day job!

What are some songs you sing live that you never tire of?

I haven’t had such a long career that there’s anything to tire of. I mean, I’ve had no hit song I’ve had to sing every night for 30 years…yet!

I don’t think I could tire of singing ‘Crystallised’ – it’s based on one of the first songs we wrote for HAKEN (Snow) which I hold great affection for, plus there are just so many powerful vocal moments and musically interesting sections to get your teeth into, not least the a cappella section. I guess the other one would be Toto’s ‘Africa’. HAKEN covered it a few times. I can’t imagine that ever getting boring!

What is your favorite dinosaur species?

I’m gonna keep it musical and say ‘Dinosaur Jr’, ‘Jurassic 5’ & ‘T-Rex’

Thanks to Ross Jennings for the interview. Make sure to buy tickets for Ross’s live event here!

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