Kristen here for your next Musiq Scene spotlight! This time, let’s shake things up. So far, we’ve covered artists from the rock, indie, pop, and electronic worlds, to name a few. These womyn have been kicking ass and taking names both in the music and queer scenes. But how do the songs, albums, music videos, and performances all come together? A major part of the music journey is facilitated by producers.
To get a better look at the role a producer plays, I spoke with Jess Fenton, Producer/Engineer/Mixer at Fenton Music Productions. Currently based in Berkeley, CA, Jess is most engaged in indie-alternative-folk-electronic-rock-pop music. In our chat, she opens up about the importance of clear communication, coming out in the new millennium, and her overall aspirations as a lesbian producer.
When and how did you first get involved in music?
My involvement with music started when I was around ten years old. I would sneak my mother’s acoustic guitar into closets and secretly teach myself how to play using a chord book I found in the case. I never stopped playing. However, when I was 15, I bought a four-track and became hooked on music production, and it has since become my number one passion.
How do you decide which artists to work with? Do you represent any queer artists?
I try to work with artists who are clear communicators and have a desire to push the boundaries within any genre. Being able to communicate and establish a trusting relationship up front is critical for me to feel confident when working on someone else’s music and trying to take their sound to a new level. As far as representing queer artists – I represent myself! Also, I play guitar in Teresa Tuan’s feminist soul band.
Did music have an influence in your coming out? If so, how? Does your identity influence your work?
True story: Jennifer Lopez came to me in a dream and said “you’re gay.” I literally woke up the next day and was like “Oh, it all makes sense now. I’m gay!” So technically yes, music did play a role in my coming out. However, on a broader scale, music—as a writer and listener—gave me a backbone during the challenging process of coming out.
On the surface, I wouldn’t say my identity influences my work as far as being a lesbian goes. I don’t mix a song “like a lesbian.” But I default to compassion and make a serious effort to understand my artists and their visions, to hear them out and get an idea of where they’re coming from – because that’s all I want too – for others to hear me out and try to understand where I’m coming from even though they may not morally understand my sexuality.
It’s also worth mentioning that coming out in the early 2000’s before homosexuality was more accepted, before we had rights to marry, to healthcare benefits, [and] to be open in the military, I was forced to commit to my true self, to my worth, to my rights as a human being – all of these beliefs set me up for success as a business owner in the male-dominated, challenging, creative field of music production. The same principles apply, and luckily I’ve got years of practice and know how to maintain that mental stamina.
What do you hope to achieve as a producer?
I’d like to get to a place where people will hear a song and know I produced it. Kind of like Pharrell, Timbaland, or Jon Congleton. Have a signature sound that adapts to each artist I work with. With that notoriety I’d like to inspire girls and women to get into music producing and audio production. I just want them to know that it is an option despite the current state of male-domination. We can level that out.
Why is music important to the queer community?
My answer to this could go on for days! Music gives us a voice and secures a place for us in the mainstream. When you have an artist like Lady Gaga releasing tracks like “Born This Way,” we feel acknowledged, accepted, respected, and loved. When you have successful bands like Tegan and Sara talk openly about their sexuality, we are inspired to simply be ourselves (whether you’re a musician or not.) These supportive, high-profile artists pave the way for up-and-coming LGBTQ artists and for people to be accepting of their own sexuality.
Given challenges facing our country and community, in your opinion, what is most needed for the queer community now? How can the music scene further that goal?
We need to fight like we’ve never fought before. Amp up our efforts through serious action, not just words. When we have a President who refuses to acknowledge Pride month, we must celebrate longer, louder, and harder. The music scene can certainly play a role through setting up shows that donate a portion of profits to LGBTQ organizations or integrate live music into political rallies that support our cause. We can write and release music that sends a message of strength and/or resistance. Artists should continue to be out and proud, to not give into any fear and set an example for others who may be feeling insecure. We must commit to supporting each other, to take action and to follow through.