Jen Majura, Evanescence guitarist spends her time during lockdown isolated in her apartment in a German tower waiting patiently for the pandemic to be over and the return of normality. The main subject of our conversation is not the multi-platinum band she joined in 2015, but her new project, Something On 11, with the Croatian guitarist Alen Brentini. She describes their debut album as a “middle finger to the mainstream”, as the two musicians followed their inspiration and only that, without caring about following trends, stereotypes or any recipe for guaranteed airplay. She also talks about her first ever trip to Greece, Evanescence new album, Steve Vai, as well as Phil Collins connection to the album! Interview: Yiannis Dolas
Rockpages.gr: So how is it during lockdown?
Jen Majura: The restaurants, bars and cafes are closed… And to be really honest I’m trying to be responsible, I try not to go out and mingle as much as I probably would, so I pretty much keep to myself, stay at home… try to be safe, wash my hands and the only moment when I go outside is when I have to get groceries. And that’s pretty much it. So, I’m all alone all the time, which is challenging and I think I lost my mind by now… Already! Hahaha!
But, yeah it’s tough. What concerns me the most with all that lockdown rules and laws is, can I keep my music school open, or not? Because, I own a little music school you know and online teaching is just not the same as if you see a person… in person! I like to teach my kids and my students and that is like the biggest struggle with the whole lockdown situation. But, other than that I pretty much stick to myself, I live in my apartment, I have my budgie cookie and that’s all I do!
Rockpages.gr: So, you have a new project, a new band, “Something On 11”… I was wondering is this the “11” from Spinal Tap, where you know, “this one goes to 11”…
Jen Majura: Of course it is! When we thought about a band, or project name, I remember Alen and I, we went back and forth… it was like “we need something on…” you know like “on 11”, “rock on 11”, “groove on 11”, “guitar on 11”, uh… “metal on 11”, “metal to the pedal on 11”… something and we kept going back and forth, until one day I was just like “we need something on eleven”! And Alen was like “that’s amazing, that’s it! Let’s call it “Something on 11”. So ,that’s where that’s the origin of that project name, Something On 11.
Rockpages.gr: How did you hook up with Alen to do this project, this band?
Jen Majura: We were both scheduled to play a music trade show, like an exhibition, in Frankfurt, where I was pretty much in charge for the billing of the guitarists. And, I booked Jeff Waters and Guthrie Govan and Nick Johnston and then I saw the final billing and then all of the sudden there was this name “Alen Brentini” and I had no clue who that Alan Brentini was, so I looked him up on Facebook, and I chatted with him. I’m like “hey we’re gonna end up playing the same event soon next week. Cool! Looking forward to meet you and he was like “yeah, yeah cool”… So, we chatted a little bit back and forth. It was quite late at night and he was like “well, I gotta go to bed because tomorrow I have a studio job for recording my own solo stuff and I gotta fly to Germany” and I say “oh, interesting where to?” And it turns out that the studio where he recorded his solo album was 20 minutes from where I live. And I’m like “dude, this is karma! This is coincidence. I have to come visit you. So, the next day I just drove to the studio and we just spent a little bit of time together and it immediately clicked on a very beautiful human relationship kind of level.
Alen is like my brother to me. He is family to my heart… And very quickly we understood that we are friendship material. We think very much alike and the way we think about music, about writing, about composing… Of course, there’s things where we would disagree with each other, but most of the stuff is just a very easy workflow with Alen. And we became friends and at one point in our friendship I was like “why actually don’t we just do something together?” And uh… yeah, there you are… Something On 11.
Rockpages.gr: Did you do it at the same place at the same time or did you just exchange files from the internet and you worked on that?
Jen Majura: Alen is living in and based in Croatia. I am in Germany, so of course we didn’t hang out together for the writing process. It was more like he sent his ideas, I sent my ideas. He added his ideas to my ideas etc. But, for the recording we gathered right after one of his tours near Cologne in a studio where I already recorded “InZENnity”, my second solo album. We just spent time together in the studio for like a week and recorded the songs and he gave his best input to the songs that I brought to the table and I hope that I brought my best interests and best ideas to the table for his songs too. We had Felix Lehrmann on drums, who also has recorded drums for my second solo album “InZENnity”,” and also the same bass player like on “InZENnity”, Jens-Ulrich Handreka. Felix came in first recording the drums and then it was a good week, a very very creative, awesome week.
I love that bubble, when you’re in the studio. Because, when you are in the studio you’re in that bubble… The outside doesn’t matter it’s all about waking up in the morning and creating music and art, I just love that. That is like almost the best part of being a musician for me personally. We recorded for a week and I almost finished all the vocals for the album. One day, well I wanted to keep going, but the problem was there was nothing but hot air coming out of my vocal chords!!! It was like I sang too much and in the studio I was like “come on, let’s do this! Let’s record”… AAahhhg, Aaahhggg (makes funny noises trying to sing)… And my studio guy he was like “Jen, listen… go back home. Rest and come back next week and finish the vocals. You can’t sing anymore”. And I’m like “no, no i got this, i got this!” AAahhhg, Aaahhggg (makes the same funny noises). So, I had to finish the vocals a little bit later, but we finished all the guitar work and the drums of course and the bass and just a little bit of vocals were added later.
Rockpages.gr: Are you planning to take the band on the road at some point?
Jen Majura: No! Hahaha! The thing is that Alen is so busy with his act and I am gonna be so busy with Evanescence, that it’s really hard to plan a project being on the road, on tour playing shows together. Because, it’s not like b Alen and I do music together… “oh, well let’s take May, or June and we’re gonna play some shows…” I don’t think this is ever gonna happen. I mean, never say never, you never know, but I don’t think it’s gonna happen. Because we are both too committed. He is too committed to the act that he’s playing for and I am in Evanescence, so it’s kind of difficult to plan something like that…
Rockpages.gr: Okay uh… I wasn’t expecting that answer to tell you the truth! Were you tempted to make it a full instrumental album or you were meant to sing on some of the songs?
Jen Majura: The thing is when Alen and I started talking about doing something together I was like “listen we are both guitar players and we are both singers”. And when it comes for example to my private taste of listening to music I am listening to The Aristocrats… Steve Vai and Satriani and Greg Howe and who knows who? All that instrumental stuff. But, I also listen to Arch Enemy, Kreator, Lamb Of God… death metal stuff and then I also would listen to Panzerballett, or Free Kitchen or Spock’s Beard… you know like crazy stuff… Sons Of Apollo…
So, when I listen to that variety of music why shall I limit myself when it comes to writing? And I said to Alen let’s do an album where you sing, I sing… we do instrumentals, we have songs where you completely sing, where you are the main vocalist on the song and we do songs where I am the main vocalist. It’s just the whole Something On 11 album represents the mindset of showing a middle finger to the mainstream.
Because, the mainstream tells you: “you have to do this, you have to follow those rules, you know the chorus has to kick in within – i don’t know how many- seconds. Otherwise, “you won’t get airplay on the radio”… And I’m more like fuck all those rules. We just create art. From all the albums that I know, this is probably one of the most unconventional. An “untraditional” album… I don’t know, was that right? I don’t know! Hahahah!
For example, we have like a giant long badass drum solo in the middle of one song! Who does that on the record? In a live situation it’s different. But, who does that on the record? Then we have “Phil Of India”, a song where you have no chorus hook line with vocals. It’s a guitar melody which is the hook line and nobody does something like that. I was like “okay, it feels right. Let’s just do it”.
Rockpages.gr: Well, the question would be how do you make an instrumental song interesting for somebody who’s not a musician and who’s not a guitar freak to actually you know notice what exactly you’re doing and you’re playing?
Jen Majura: That’s a good question. That’s a really good question! I think I don’t know… When a vocalist is singing lyrics you have words to hang on to. That is material made for people who are not musicians, so you can listen to words, which is a language. I believe playing an instrumental track and a melody in general is nothing else but a different language. Musicians communicate with notes. Notes are the words, or the letters and the phrases and the melodies are sentences, so the music speaks to you and it’s just a language that some people are not used to speak, because they don’t play an instrument, or whatever, but it still can be like emotionally touching to them, or for them. Writing an instrumental track is just a different way of using the language of music.
Rockpages.gr: Do you have any favorite instrumental songs from other artists?
Jen Majura: Oh God! I love… First of all I love Steve Vai. I can literally sing every single Steve Vai solo there is on the planet! You put it on, I can sing it! I love The Aristocrats with Guthrie. I love Panzerbalett. I listen to a lot of instrumental music, but it’s so hard… I can’t tell that I have one favorite instrumental track out there.
Rockpages.gr: Also, the album has some weird song titles like…
Jen Majura: No, no absolutely not! I don’t know where you got that from no absolutely not…
Rockpages.gr: Like, one of my favorite tracks is “Andrew’s Hypothalamus”…
Jen Majura: Okay, so that was pretty much the first track that we wrote for this album and you know I love how the melodies go together, we play solos together and playing bendings together. That’s quite challenging because every guitar player has his own, or her own, feeling for bendings. And you play together and you need to synchronize it like… perfect. You have to be really together to play that and make it sound awesome. So, it was quite challenging and we practiced a lot and then at the end we were like “uh well, how are we gonna name this?”. And what happened was that a friend of mine, Andrew Ferris, who runs the YouTube channel “the guitar geek”, happened to record us play it together and he was the first one to put out the news about Something On 11. So, I was like “Andrew”… why not call the song “Andrew” and then Alen was like “nah, we need something else. Andrew’s something…” And we thought about it and… don’t ask me why the hypothalamus just came up!
Rockpages.gr: Also, I liked “Phil of India”. What can you tell me about it?
Jen Majura: “Phil Of India” started in a period where I just rediscovered my vinyl player. You know I love vinyls… I’m old school. I’m not a big fan of downloads and streams and that… I like the physical things, so I have a vinyl player and I have my vinyls and I just listened a lot to vinyls and I have this one awesome Phil Collins vinyl. It’s like “The Best Of Phil Collins” and I was listening a lot to that.
Whatever you listen to, whatever you consume, it influences what you write and what you put out there and I was writing this thinking that what became “Phil Of India” sounded exactly like… Phil Collins! This is a Phil Collins song! So, that “Phil” we are referring to in the title is Phil Collins! But, then the song has this giant big break in the middle and it’s my favorite break of the album, because it’s sort of oriental, indian-ish. Also, my dad is on that break and he was on the phone in the studio and he talked thai, because my dad is from Thailand. I also tried a lot of different vocal techniques like the Chris Cornell thing like the ending of the song “Show Me How To Live” where he goes like “Aaaaaahhhh”. I tried that…
I also was thinking about Lisa Gerard, who is one of the utmost beautiful vocalists for score music, film music, and it’s a beautiful break but the whole break is with an like an Indian dobra tabla kind of “doom daahk doom daahkk” (makes sounds with her voice). And that was just like India. So, it’s “Phil of India”!
Rockpages.gr: Makes sense! Did you play any traditional instruments for that because there are some eastern elements on this this or others so did you um experiment with traditional instruments?
Jen Majura: Next to the studio in Cologne there is a second hand music store and the guy sells all kinds of music instruments, cheap old guitars etc. When I was looking at whatever he sold there I made a rule: whenever I go to that studio to record I’m gonna end up in that music store next door buying something that’s gonna end up on the album. That’s the rule.
So, I bought this… I think it’s called an “ooze” like a Turkish instrument. It has three main strings, one is doubled I think, and I bought it for a couple of bucks and I just learned how to play it and tune it and it’s on that oriental part of “Andrew’s Hypothalamus”. I think oriental music is so much richer than the Western normal music. I think you guys in Greece have that same attempt of like having more flavor to the music than just “da da da da da da da” (sings) you know, it’s all the little steps in between and all these flavors and the beauty about tones and sounds. And I love that! I’m a big fan of oriental scales. The Pantuvarāḷi scale is one of my favorite scales, introduced to me by my friend Matthias Eklund. I just love the sound and the feel of it because it’s not so…now I gotta be careful how I put that… In the most Western countries you’re taught “major is happy”, “minor is sad”. There’s so much more to that just that.
Rockpages.gr: I cannot talk too technical about music, but I heard that the tempo in Greek music is not “complete”, it’s not like eight eighths, it’s like nine eighths for example…
Jen Majura: Yeah, exactly! That’s the whole thing and I love writing music, or listening, consuming music that is not binary. It’s when you listen to music that is 4-4 all the time. But, I’m a big fan of everything that is odd time. Meaning 7-9 11-13 whatever is not 4-4 because 4-4 is so predictable and just everybody does that. I’ve just never been a big fan of being just another sheep in the herd and doing what everybody else does, so yeah odd time music is totally my jam.
Rockpages.gr: So, what do you remember from coming to Greece with Evanescence?
Jen Majura: Oh man! Okay, to be really honest it was it was very disappointing… (laughs) Because, it was my first time and my only time in Greece and I was so excited, I wanted to go out like get to a local market, you know, like experience all the food and the wine… I’m a total nerd when it comes to new countries and cultures. So, the problem was it was so freaking hot that day that literally opening up the window of my hotel room felt like opening up the door to an oven! It was so hot that I had to go buy some water from a little tiny grocery store, and I remember I walked there, there were a couple of fans in front of the hotel and my shoes were melting on the floor! And I’m like “this is too hot! This is unbearable!”. So, instead of going to a local market and experience everything I just sat in my hotel room which was very disappointing!
Rockpages.gr: Next time don’t come during the summer, come in winter.
Jen Majura: I really really hope we don’t come in the summer next time! I hope the next time we’ll play in Greece it’s gonna be like a little bit less unhuman! Hahaha! Because, the weather was so hot that it wasn’t possible to go outside, but the show was great. I remember we played the festival together with I think Epica, my friend Simone! She lives close to where my parents live in the south of Germany and it was great to see her. It’s kind of like “hey you’re in Greece too!”, “hi good to see you girl”. So, it was nice, we had a good time at the festival… Awesome people and at least a little bit of local food for me the food nerd who couldn’t go to the local market… So, it was good, it’s just a pity that it was so hot that I couldn’t go outside…
Rockages.gr: Do you have anything you can tell us about Evanescence’s new album?
Jen Majura: It’s been pretty interesting. I call it like a two-phase recording; the first time recording was right after I played at Namm in LA. I flew to Nashville to Nick’s (ed Raskulinecz) studio where we recorded the first chunk of four songs and, you know, everybody went to the airport and everybody said “okay, all right see you next month, bye”… And then the pandemic hit and ever since then I haven’t seen Amy and the guys and I’m looking forward to having a little chat with Amy in like one and a half hours, because we do that every week, as much as we can. Just a video call and just tell what’s going on and talk a little bit… Girl time!
So, everything from then on was digital. I had to record at home which is different because when you’re in the studio playing something Nick gives you his input, his thoughts. He’s like “yeah, try a little bit more like this”, or “try a little bit more like that”. So, with me recording at home I didn’t have that input. I had to make the decision for myself. “Is that good enough?” “Shall I change anything?” “Is that cool?” And I just send over the tracks and the album is done. It’s gonna be released March 26th. The plan was to release it last year, but the plan was also not to have a worldwide global pandemic!
It’s a very encouraging, strong, positive album. Instead of complaining and suffering about how shitty everything is it’s more like “take all these heavy moments and let them shine and create something beautiful out of the pain that you’re feeling”. It’s a very very encouraging album…
Rockpages.gr: So, do you have any other musical ambitions? Aspirations? Stuff you want to do? People you want to work with?
Jen Majura: I say that in almost every interview… I would love to work with Nuno Bettencourt…
Rockpages.gr: Well, why don’t you?
Jen Majura: Well, I contacted him, but dude doesn’t write back! So, I’m like “oh,I would love to do a collaboration with Nuno Bettencourt. Ummh, other than that I don’t know… There are so many fabulous musicians, but I just can’t name one, it’s impossible!
Rockpages.gr: You’ve been in the business for a long time…
Jen Majura: Oh god! Yes i’m 800 years old… Okay, sorry!
Rockpages.gr: You’ve worked and played with lots of people. Would you say that there are some musician friends of yours? People that you can go out for a drink, or maybe go on holiday together, instead of just working and collaborating on something musical?
Jen Majura: Oh, totally! I’m super tight with Guthrie Govan, Jeff Waters, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, Alex Skolnick… I’m talking to all these guys it’s like we have a chat group and we just text back and forth and I consider these not only fabulous musicians and awesome people, but also friends.
I’m in contact with Ron almost on a daily basis. In this pandemic we came up with this thing we keep sending each other… a funny little carpool karaoke! So, whenever he’s in the car he’s recording himself singing a song to the radio and I would do the same thing and it’s just this friendship material stuff, you know. All these great musicians in the end are just humans and just friends.