Jana Herzen: evolution of a singer-songwriter to label ownership

Over the last few years one of the more impressive new record labels devoted to jazz music, in today’s decidedly diminished jazz imprints market, has been the Motema label. I first met Motema’s driving force, Jana Herzen, several years ago as she prepared to release Randy Weston‘s sextet date “The Storyteller”, recorded live at Dizzy’s in New York. Earlier this fall Jana, who is also a singer-songwriter, released her own second Motema date, this time in collaboration with bassist Charnett Moffett, and produced by noted jazz artist manager Mary Ann Topper. A bright woman, who clearly cares deeply about the music she releases (last time I saw her she was sitting on the floor just under the stage of Dizzy’s Den at this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, digging Motema singer Gregory Porter‘s passionate set along with an enraptured, packed house). So I wondered, what’s up with the dual career of label owner/singer-songwriter? Clearly some questions were in order for Jana.

Where are you from and how was your love of the arts nurtured by your background?

I was born at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington DC, and moved to Stanford University at the ripe old age of 6 months. My father was working at the NIH when I was born, and moved when he got a professorship at Stanford. My parents, who are immuno-geneticists, together have run a mom and pop laboratory at Stanford all of these years. In addition to their deep love for science, my parents also had a deep love for the arts, which was expressed in a variety of ways. My mother was an avid record collector which led to me hearing all kinds of music as a child (everything from Bach to Beatles to Miles to The Doors). My mother also is quite a good musician herself. She loved Pete Seeger and the Weavers and we often had hootenanny style jam sessions at the house with the various post doctoral students from their laboratory as well as sundry members of the anti-war movement who seemed always to be hanging at the house. (Anti-Vietnam war, that is.) My mother’s mother and uncle were responsible for nurturing my mother’s passion for music. Her uncle Irving Robinson, was a cantor, a civil rights activist, an opera singer and a good friend of Paul Robeson. He was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. My mother;s mother, Minnie, played piano quite well and back before there was recorded music, the people in her neighborhood used to gather ’round her piano to hear her play all the new sheet music as it came out. I dedicated this album [2012’s “Passion of a Lonely Heart”] in part to her because of how much she really lived for a good song.

How did you go from the life of a theater professional (and what did you do in theater) to singing and label ownership? Given the 21st century atmosphere for record labels, wasn’t that a daunting prospect?

It would be easier to answer what I didn’t do in theater. I stage managed, did lighting design, directed, acted, wrote grants, mopped floors, sat on the board of directors, and, perhaps most influentially, worked as a dramaturg for Manhattan Class Company which was formed to help playwrights workshop and produce their plays.

Motema pretty much grew out of my desire to promote my own music and that of drummer Babatunde Lea. After putting out my own record, and trying to promote it, I started exploring how the business worked (and didn’t work) and I started looking for solutions. As the old saying goes, if you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own. So that’s pretty much what I did. It’s been a work in progress since I started it in 2003. Of course it was a daunting prospect, and it still is! But it is a wonderful challenge, and it is super gratifying. The music that we put out means a lot to me and, so it’s really a labor of love.

How did you wind up basing your operations in Harlem?

That’s an interesting story. At first our office was based in an ‘incubator’ space on 23rd Street. Then we moved to Chinatown. Then, in 2005, I signed Marc Cary. Marc and his partner at the time, who was working for Motema in marketing, were casting about Harlem looking for a studio space to rent. They came upon Langston Hughes’ landmarked home for rent. They suggested to me that I join them in their venture by putting the Motema offices on the top floor, having two studios on the second floor and putting a performance space into the first floor. What more classy address for a jazz record label could I have than Langston Hughes’ home, thought I. So we moved up there. We had an adventurous couple of years there, and there were some amazing concerts and poetry nights and parties that happened there, but eventually the situation fell apart due to some shenanigans on the part of several people in the house. When it was clear that things were getting out of hand, we moved our offices into a brownstone on the next block and there we are to this day. It was really amazing to work in that house though. You could feel Langston’s spirit in there. I miss it.

What are your aspirations for Motema?

I want Motema to be known as a company that promotes brave, brilliant musicians with a fierce individual vision. I’d also like for the film community to discover that we have a treasure trove of cinematic jazz and world music just waiting to enrich their film soundtracks. And, I’d like to keep discovering what the Motema infinite heart has in store for us all. Every day is a new musical adventure. I love to look at our event page and see all of the places in the world that our artists are performing. I think of Motema as a hub of love, and all of the artists are out there spreading that love in myriad wonderful ways. I am always looking for ways to help the artists reach their own individual dreams and goals. It’s very satisfying when we help them reach those goals.

How do you go about developing relationships with artists you wish to record for Motema?

It all happens very organically. Mostly they knock on the door, we talk for a while, I listen to what they’ve done and what they want to do, and if it seems like a good match and there is room on the schedule, I say, ‘come on in.’ As I am a musician, it is very easy for me to relate to the musicians on the label. As I am also an entrepreneur, I have a pretty good idea of what is right for the label and I do my best to steer the ship towards artistic and financial success. It’s a pretty big ocean to cross, but we are getting there.

Talk about your own career as a performing artist.

I have performed as a musician on and off since I was 5. In my teens and twenties I pursued acting as well as doing many types of backstage jobs, including script writing. Though many people have believed in my talent through the years, it was never easy for me to promote myself. In my twenties, I gained a tremendous amount of experience in the theater, both on stage and off. My studies and experiences taught me so much about humanity. During that time I also started writing songs. Eventually, I decided to leave the theater in order to try my hand at having a career as a recording artist. I came to realize that my deepest and most personal dream was to perform as a singer/songwriter, so I challenged myself to follow my dream. I love to play the guitar and sing. My guitar has been my constant companion since I was 13. The majority of my performances have been in intimate settings: in livingrooms, small clubs, and around campfires all around the world. I have also performed quite a bit on the streets in New York, London, Paris and Australia. You can learn a lot about performing by playing on the streets. Before I started Motema, I was performing quite regularly in San Francisco,, but since founding the label, I’ve had just a few really choice engagements. I look forward to getting back out there again and sharing the music that Charnett and I have rehearsed.

What was your intent with your second release “Passion of a Lonely Heart” and how would you
describe the record?

My intent was to share these songs in an authentic and engaging way. I hope people feel that we have succeeded. This program is an intimate song cycle of love and longing. Songs that I’ve written through the years that were longing to be heard, so I finally arranged to let them out of solitary. The duo arrangements that Charnett and I have come up with grew organically out of our rehearsals. Charnett is one of the artists on the Motéma roster who I love to promote. I feel that these recordings not only showcase my performances, they also allow Charnett’s playing to come to the fore in a way that is not possible for a bassist in a larger ensemble. Charnett will release a solo record in February that brings him even more into the spotlight. What’s great is that we’ll be able to tour together to support both projects, which satisfies both the musician in me and the A&R part of me who signed Mr. Moffett for his distinctive talents.

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