Jasmine Commerce is a San Diego based Singer/Songwriter. She released her first EP, Somewhere In Between, in November 2008. In July 2009, Jasmine won the first week of Nine West’s Vintage Voices Competition. On September 16, 2009, Nine West officially announced Jasmine Commerce as the grand prize winner of the Vintage America Voices Contest. In November 2009, Commerce recorded her original song, “Meant to Be” with Sony’s in-house folk label, Hickory Records (released January 2010). She is featured in the December 2009 issue of Lucky Magazine. She plays music regularly with her brother, Matt Commerce, also a San Diego musician.
‘Here’s the book, here’s the book I was looking for
It’s the one that you said I should ignore
Here’s the song, It’s the song I used to sing
Long before you came and changed everything‘
Jasmine, from Virginia, to Seattle, to San Diego and a lot has happened in between. Tell us about your journey.
Well, something like that! I was born to young parents who, both originally from northern Virginia, were traveling hippy-style through the U.S. in a beat-up van. They happened to be living on Vashon Island when my mom went into labor with me. We left Vashon when I was six months old, and spent time in Northern CA, Austin, Salton Sea, back to VA, etc. By the time I was 4, however, the gypsy lifestyle had lost its appeal (for my mother at least!), and from that age until 6 years ago, I lived in Virginia. I suppose I had a yearning from the time I was young to really explore the west coast on my own terms, so in 2005 I made the cross-country trip, and have lived here since.
Your college major was Theater – what happened that had you decide to go the singer/songwriter route?
Interesting question. In high school I was in orchestra (violin) and many choirs. Music was a passion of mine long before theatre ever was. However, I was cast my Freshman year as the lead in our school’s spring musical. It came as a real surprise because my voice was untrained and looking back on the videos, just plain awkward! That experience was such a blast, and was my entrance into the drama department. I continued to do musicals and plays in high school, and quit cheerleading, because it interfered with my rehearsal schedules after school. When I was applying for colleges, Theatre just seemed the natural choice for a major, but actually if my college recognized ‘minors’ (which it did not), I’d have a minor in Music. I took many of the required classes for music majors, which still help me today as a musician. I sort of lost interest in acting as it didn’t provide me a creative writing outlet, which I still find is my favorite part about making music. More enjoyable to me than performing for sure.
Has your theater training been helpful in your performing?
Absolutely, every experience in front of an audience is a learning one. Lessons in the basics like enunciation, projection, blocking, and even hours spent memorizing lines and learning how to deliver them have all helped me develop a comfortable stage presence, that I hope comes across when I perform today.
Your voice is clear, and beautifully colored and textured, an engineer’s dream – riveting. How much and what kind of vocal training have you had?
Wow, what compliments you give, thank you! So, I joined choir my freshman year in high school, and continued to sing in many different kinds of choirs throughout high school and college…show choir (which met before school at 6:30 am each day, a commitment I’d be hard-pressed to make today!), women’s choir, madrigals (a cappella pieces, often from hundreds of years ago), pop choir (also a cappella but modern pieces), etc. Also, starting my senior year in high school and continuing until I graduated college I took weekly private voice lessons from several different voice teachers. Jim Van Slyke was my high school vocal coach (check him out, he created and stars in ‘The Sedaka Show’ which has played on Broadway, and toured throughout the US).
In college, I trained classically once a week with the college voice coaches. This training taught me how ‘safely’ to sing, and so much about breath control, and the anatomy of singing. When I started writing and recording my original music, however, I found that I had to almost teach myself how to take the good techniques I’d learned and apply them to a more laid-back style of singing. I’d write a song and record it, and inevitably it would sound polished and “theatre-y”, and didn’t fit the lyrics or genre. I had to work some grit back in over the years, and loosen up a bit before I felt my original music sounded like “me” on recordings.
Your family is into the arts, and gave you encouragement along the way; how important was that in dealing with the realities of the music biz these days? Can you give any examples?
Well, my mom and dad actually forced me to play the violin starting in 4th grade because it was free through the public schools, and my grandpa had an extra violin lying around. I hated it initially. I begged to quit for years because I felt like a total nerd carrying a violin to school, and as a kid I was really into sports and felt practicing violin took away from my ‘play’ time outside, which, in reality, it did. But what I didn’t know was how much I was going to benefit from years of free musical training, especially playing in a group. I learned how to read treble clef, developed my sense of pitch, timing, and was given a foundation upon which to build. My paternal grandfather was also my artistic advocate and took me to see symphonies, made me literally dozens of mixed tapes of music he recorded from his vinyl collection (classical, jazz, standards, musicals, etc.), and often came to my concerts and shows. He also paid for my first year of private voice lessons. My mom is an artist and writer and she surely encourages me still, and my dad is a musician and even today we dissect shared favorite songs together over the phone! I was very lucky to be encouraged from them all at a young age. In terms of how that relates to the music ‘biz’, I’m not sure. Certainly it provided me with a certain level of confidence and proficiency that has enabled me to play music and get paid to do it!
Your songs are wonderfully constructed, very accessible and heart affecting. Are there any songwriters who influenced you in the way you put together a song?
Thanks again for the kind words. The answer to this question changes on a regular basis, depending on what I’m listening to. There are certainly songwriters whose songs I adore for many reasons, Joni Mitchell for her meandering melodies, that leave all kinds of room for her lyrics to be heard and considered while listening, Jackson Browne for being so direct lyrically and somehow so poetic at the same time, I really appreciate knowing upon one listen what he’s getting at, Bob Dylan for just the opposite reason as Jackson (haha!)… for the wild imagery and genius wordplay, even if I very often have no idea what he’s talking about!…. so many more, for other reasons…Ben Harper for the simplicity of his lyrics (early stuff at least) which allows him to just sing his heart out (that guy can melt me with his voice in 3 notes), Indigo Girls for the beautiful way they share a song, harmonizing intricately, and a slew of others I’m learning from on a daily basis, including Sean Watkins who is producing my upcoming EP, and his sister, Sara.
Do songs come easy to you?
When I’m pissed off, yes. And easier when I’m sad than happy.
What makes a good song for you?
So many songs are great for different reasons. I dislike most modern radio hits because most seem to be full of mindless clichés and follow the same formulas musically. I like lyrics that are well thought out, whether clear or abstract, if that even makes sense. I like honest lyrics. Musically I’m open to simple melodies or more complex melodies, as long as I can follow them. Not a huge fan of screamo, metal, or even some of Duke Ellington’s crazy jazz melodies. I can respect this stuff, you know, as mathematically superior, but I don’t want to play it more than once.
Do you have any personal rules about songwriting?
No rules, just strategies that tend to end up in a song…for example; I like to write in prose exactly how I’m feeling about a subject. Really lay it out there, even pages if necessary, with no intention of rhyming. Then give it some space (even five minutes), go back and re-read, underline words/rhymes/lines that jump out as the ‘meat and potatoes’ lyrically, and go from there. Musically I’ve been pretty tame, and only recently am I taking more risks with less common chord progressions, winding the vocal melody around unusual chords.
What is the first thing you find necessary when you first sit down to write a song?
Hm, initially I have to be alone. Preferably with no one even in the house, phone ringer off, and a window of time where I don’t have other obligations. I often prefer to write with a pen in a journal as opposed to on the computer, but ‘Cheshire Moon’ was written in a flurry on my Macbook – I type much faster than I write.
‘We’re the same you and me
I understand the way you speak
We talk in melody and beat
A conversation so complete
It’s pathetic you’d agree
The kind of hold you’ve got on me’
‘Somewhere In Between’ is wonderful – one of those songs other songwriters wish they had written.. I played it over and over while I was researching this piece. This is just fine songwriting – well penned words, connected perfectly, to an emotional story where the listener shares and engages in the song. Tell us about the writing of this song.
Aw. Thanks again Ken! You really encourage me. This one fell out at midnight. Was trying to sleep, which is something that doesn’t come easily for me, and I had to keep waking up and wiping tears from my eyes to get the words down, cheesy as that sounds. They just kept tumbling out, verse after verse. I often edit lyrics many times before coming to a final version, but not with this one. I have the journal where I wrote these words, and the recorded version matches the first written version very closely. This is a song straight from the heart, about a person who is very dear to me…the subject matter is pretty obvious I think, but there is a deep sense of longing in this song. I did not ‘try’ with this song; it just is exactly what I felt. Only other song like that for me was, “Cheshire Moon’.
You wrote that you had written your first song when you were ten. How about giving us the first verse, if you remember it?
Haha, yep! I remember it well. It was to a Suzuki violin tune I was learning at the time called, “Oh Come, Little Children”… only I was singing about lost love, hahaha, some things never change.
“I love you, I need you, please don’t go away,
I’m going to miss you, I wish you would stay,
But you say it’s over, you’ve found someone new,
You’ve broken my heart, but I’ll always love you”…
Whoa, that’s the ten year-old version of Somewhere In Between! Yikes!
That old stuff can come back and bite ya! How has your songwriting changed over the years?
Well, I try to narrow it down to ONE subject per song. It’s so easy to just ramble, and truthfully, some songwriters get away with it just fine. I think Dylan has some pretty rambling songs, just stream of consciousness, that I love for the little ‘trip’ they take me on, no pun intended. But I am not Dylan, and I do best to spend my 2-5 minutes reflecting on one idea; because there are so many ways to look at one idea. I consider myself in my songwriting “toddlerhood” still, and hope to keep growing as a writer for many years to come.
I know that’s true. What is it you want your listeners to get about a Jasmine Commerce song and performance?
I just hope they feel something there is nothing worse, for a performer, than apathy.
You often play with your brother – please introduce him and his finer qualities to us.
Yes, I have three brothers, but my younger brother, Matt Commerce, also makes his living as a musician here in San Diego. He is a great guitar player, bass player, singer and songwriter. His music is made for dancing… rhythmically driven and riff-laden, you feel like you’re listening to, as he puts it, a “redneck Jack Johnson”. He’s great! He is about the best sounding-board I have musically speaking, and he helps clarify ideas, hone lyrics and solidify songs in general. Check him out at www.mattcommerce.com
Every songwriter/performer needs a win here and there to keep going – tell us about your well-deserved wins.
In 2009 I won a National songwriting competition put on by Sony/ATV and Nine West, which brought me to NYC twice: once to record the winning original song with Sony/ATV, and again to open for Joss Stone in 2010 for Vogue’s Fashion Week. Very cool experience. Also, in 2008 I won Sophie 103.7 FM’s SD Singer Songwriter Contest along with a great local musician, Kenny Eng. Our songs were played on 103.7 FM’s “Now, New, Next” hour, and we performed at the Del Mar Fair. There were a few other “wins” here and there… oh, I won $100 on karaoke @ a college sports bar when I stuffed my shirt with balloons and sang Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5″…does that count?
‘And you’re free to be who you want to be
Like a river running wild, like a bird over the sea
Riding on the wind and if it brings you back again
Then we’ll know it was meant to be’
You recorded “Meant To Be’ in New York for Sony. Tell us who, what, why, and where about this song from the day you finished writing it to the final mix.
Contestants from all over the U.S. submitted no more than a 60- second long video clip (through Nine West’s Youtube page) of an original song, performed by the artist. For 7 weeks one weekly winner was chosen, and at the end of 7 weeks, one grand prize winner of the weekly winners was chosen. So, I won the first week, and the grand prize. Nine West flew me to NYC, gave me a little wardrobe (still have the boots!), and had me record the single with Sony/ATV who released it on their folk label, “Hickory Records”. I got on so well with the marketing team at Nine West, that last fall they flew me back out again to perform at their store on 53rd street for Fashion’s Night Out, opening for Joss Stone. Love Nine West!!!
I loved your vid of ‘Georgia On My Mind’ whistling and all. You do that torchy thing incredibly well – I could hear an album of great old songs or you writing songs with that feel. ‘What’ and ‘Who’ inspires you to write?
Thanks! That’s such a great song, with a great story. Hoagie Carmichael wrote the tune and gave it to his friend, Stuart Gorrell, who wrote the lyrics about Hoagie’s sister, Georgia Carmichael (so I’ve read at least!). Perhaps that was the end of their friendship? I love the chords and the melody, it’s so easy to sing! My brother, Matt, and I have learned so much older music (hundreds of songs from the turn of the 20th century, through the 30’s and 40’s) from our time working with senior citizens. This music informs us and enriches our writing. I am recording my EP right now, and looking for a good, older cover that’s in the public domain. I was thinking of something folky, as opposed to jazzy, any ideas?
Either one would work for me. All songwriters have an underlying theme or context to most of their work – a philosophy if you will. I noted that many of your songs have this ‘almost a real relationship’ bent, certainly a real word issue. I loved ‘Cheshire Moon’ for the honest poetic feel and imagery, although it ends sadly. ‘Somewhere In Between’ again brilliant lyrics and it ends sadly. There has to be a back-story here – how about revealing it?
Hm. Well, I don’t kiss and tell. BUT, I will say again that it’s easier for me to write about heartache than the sky being blue on a beautiful day, you know? One day, I hope to write a love song with a happy ending!
What’s next for you?
Finishing this EP Sean Watkins and I have been working on for a year. Then a 3-song project for Cleopatra Records in LA (again, with Sean recording me). After that, just promoting the new EP and trying to get it heard, and bought.
If your wish for your career could be granted, right now, what would be your wish?
The greatest thing I could think of career-wise right now would be to tour as an opening band for a better-known band. I’ve been told your first tour is far from glamorous, but I feel that would be just the right step for me.
You are very kind to your YouTube fans – even giving them tutorials – loved that. What is the one thing you want your fans to know about you that they don’t now know?
That I read each and every comment, and even if I can’t respond to them all, their encouragement is SO appreciated. When I’m feeling insecure, a kind comment on a Youtube video is like a little Hershey’s kiss. I am grateful for their time and kindness, as I am for yours, Ken. Thank you for your thoughtful questions, and listening so carefully to my music! Means the world!
Thank you Jasmine. Dave and I wish you the very best.
Right back at you!
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