Saturday, May 4, 2019

A Conversation with Jennifer Cella

Jennifer Cella has been gracing us with her expressive and powerful voice for close to twenty years now through the music of Trans-Siberian Orchestra and her work with dance-music producers Anton Bass, Jason Nevins, and Anthony Fonseca (aka Monikkr).  Though out of the public spotlight for several years while she began raising a family, Cella has recently come roaring back with two new bands that she not only sings lead on, but also is involved with creatively.  I recently caught up with Jennifer to discuss her time with TSO as well as her own bands Beauty in the Machine and Cover Girl.

Photo courtesy Marianne P. Stone

Dan Roth:  By way of some background, I'd like to ask about your first recordings. In 2001, you were high on the Billboard dance charts with "Begin2Rise" and then later that year, a featured vocalist on the Karmadelic full-length album, Flip Your Mind.

Jennifer Cella:  That was when I had started working with Anton Bass.  He had a deal with Jellybean Records at the time and those were my first real recording sessions.

DR:  This is when you were known professionally as Jayella?

JC:   [Laughs]  The dance world had a lot of artists using one-word names and I needed to find a way to shorten mine.  Cella is still a shortened version of my given name.  My real last name was too long and too Italian to use.  The record was coming out, so we threw a couple names in the air and we went with Jayella.   It's one of those things that I shake my head and roll my eyes at when it's brought up. [Laughs]  

DR:  You sang and co-wrote two songs on that Karmadelic record, one of which led off the album and was co-written with Anton and keyboardist Carmine Giglio, "Things I See". Was this the first time you had a hand in writing a song?

JC:  I had dabbled in song writing but this was the first time I had any success with it.

DR:  With you seeing some success in the dance world and having a couple records out there, how did you get involved with Trans-Siberian Orchestra?

JC:  I had an agent at the time who was submitting me for Broadway auditions.  That was where I thought I wanted to go with my career.  I had gone to the Tisch School for the Arts and a couple other schools and studied acting and musical theater; that was always my focus. I was getting really burnt out on the rejection.  In that business, you get a hundred "no's" before you get a "yes".  I had started to shift my focus more to music and I was in a cover band on Long Island. What I loved about that was the instant gratification.  You rehearse for the gig and then you go do the gig - you don't audition for the gig; you go and perform.  I was really falling in love with that.  I was done with auditioning and really didn't want to do that anymore.

My agent got me this audition with Trans-Siberian Orchestra.  They were using a Broadway casting agent back then.  I really did not want to go; I was really done with auditions and had no interest.  My agent pushed me to do it, explaining to me that it was more of a "rock thing" and they were asking for a Pat Benatar song for the audition.  I was like, "Alright, I'll do it."  Paul O'Neill wasn't in the room when I auditioned, only David Krebs and Taro Meyer.  I sang "Love is a Battlefield" and Paul came into the room about halfway through the audition. When I was done, he looked at their clipboard and they had put an 'x' through my name; they were going to completely dismiss me. Paul wrote "yes" next to my name and asked me to sing a Janis Joplin song.

I got what I thought was a callback, but it was basically Paul and I sitting in this rehearsal room and he was telling me about this awesome gig. I didn't know that I got it, but that was Paul's way of telling me that I got the gig.  I was really excited, but I still didn't know what I was getting myself into. At that point, the Show wasn't what it is today and nobody knew what it was going to turn into.

DR:  Did you know going in that this was for a lead vocalist position in the cast?

JC:  Actually, this was an audition to be a background singer. That quickly changed once we got to rehearsals and Paul started changing some things around.  He took "Promises to Keep", which on record was done by a children's choir, and reworked it for me to sing live. He really shook things up for me and I am grateful for that.

"Promises to Keep" followed by singer introductions  - TSO with Jennifer Cella from Jennifer's first tour (2001).  

DR:  "Promises to Keep" certainly was a staple of the set for many years.  Were you the first to sing that?

JC:  Yes.  It was written for a choir and Paul was looking for material to give me in the show. 

DR:  When you went on the 2001 TSO East tour, was that your first real tour?

JC:  Yes.  I had done some regional theater in Tennessee, but this was my first real tour.

DR:  The cast was such a melting pot of performers, with musicians and singers with metal, theater, R&B and club experiences.

JC:  And we all really bonded as a family back then. I first got to know many of them when we drove down to QVC to film an appearance before the 2001 rehearsals even began.  That's when I met Mee Eun Kim, Chris Caffery, Bob Kinkel, Mark Wood and Alex Skolnick.  We all piled into a van and drove to QVC and I was the new kid on the block.  I believe I sang "Dreams of Candlelight".

DR:  For your seven years on the tour, you were always on the East production.  Did you ever have the opportunity or desire to sing with the West cast?

JC:  I never had a choice, but I was happy that I was on East because that meant my family and friends got to see me perform.  It would have been nice to work with the people on the other tour, but honestly, we quickly become a family on the East, especially back then.  There was such a complete bond because everything was still so new, and we were building this all together.

DR:  I understand that back then, Paul O'Neill spent more of his time on the East tour rather than the West dates.  Did you get a lot of direction from Paul?
Jennifer Cella with TSO - Toledo, Ohio, November 29th 2007
Photo Courtesy James Marvin Phelps 

JC:  Yes, Paul was around our tour a lot. Paul's vision was always that it was one band and one show.

DR:  On the TSO records, you sang lead on five of their songs over the years. Often Paul dialed in on a particular way he saw or heard a singer and it seems like he used you for songs that needed that tender, emotional touch.

JC:  Yes, Paul saw me as the female vocalist with maternal instincts and as the one who could sing the rock ballads.  He always got me to express emotions in the songs that I sang. The songs that he would write for a female had a depth to them and he would often model them after that 80's rock sound.  He found that I could deliver those and that was area of my voice that he loved.  I was classically trained, did musical theater for years and was also in rock cover bands so I could do it all.  Paul really didn't want to explore the more legit side of my voice at all.  He found that little section of my voice that he loved the most and took it from there.

DR:  "Christmas Canon Rock" is certainly the song that you are most identified with, sort of your "signature song".  Do you like that it is what has become your legacy from your work with them?

JC:  Oh, definitely!

DR:  I want to ask about that note you hold at the end of the song.

JC:  When we recorded that in the studio, I just went for it.  Paul didn't tell me to do that, but I went for it and it turned out to be amazing and we kept it.  After I did it, I sat back and thought, "Oh shit.  I'm going to have to do this every night on tour." [Laughs] Doing it in the studio is one thing, but doing it live every night on tour...some nights you might just not feel the greatest, or have a tickle in your throat, you might be tired, you have adrenaline flowing - all that stuff that plays a part in the physiology of your voice.  It was something that I was very conscious of when we recorded it.  If I'm going to do this in the studio, I must do it live every night.  It was so rewarding to hear the applause at the end of that note.

DR:  The performance that you did for QVC has now been viewed almost nine million times on YouTube. We know the band are playing to the recording, but are the vocals live?

JC:  Yes, the vocals were done live, and the music was the recording, but the guys were still playing over it.  It was the same way we did it on Regis & Kelly.

DR:  "Christmas Canon Rock" featured - besides your stunning vocals, very prominent "hair flips" which have become a bit of a thing that TSO is known for.  Was this song sort of a ground zero for that?

"Christmas Canon Rock" - TSO with Jennifer Cella (lead) and Danielle Landherr, Heather Gunn (background) (2007)

JC:  No.  The hair flips came from when us girls were singing backgrounds off to the side and we were just there without choreography.  I started flipping my hair as sort of a "rock move" and that became our thing.  When we were doing Canon, we had to do something while standing there during that canon melody and turning our heads on the beat is what we came up with. [Laughs]  It's funny, I still do that in all of my performances.  It was who I was before I was in TSO and it sort of exploded  in TSO.

DR:  You sang two songs that were very quiet ballads, "Different Wings" and "Remnants of a Lullaby".

JC:  Sometimes Paul would take what I thought were my worst vocal takes and he would use them because he heard a vulnerability in them.  For me as a vocalist looking back, I sometimes think, "I could have sung that line better" or "Why did he use that take?".  Paul liked to capture the rawness and the emotion that he heard and felt.  Both songs were just Al Pitrelli and I in the studio. "Different Wings" in particular is such a pretty song and I remember singing that to my son when he was born and thinking how lucky I was to have a lullaby like this to sing to him.

DR:  You finally got to stretch out a bit more with a song from the Nightcastle album, "Father Son & Holy Ghost".  There is this intense 90-second section in the middle of the song where we get to hear that rock growl that you have and you rapid-fire that section of lyrics, starting with “The night it keeps burning While twisting and turning”.  How hard was that to sing?

JC:  It was really difficult, actually.  It is a hard song to sing because of that.  Paul knew my capabilities with breath control from Canon and he went with it.  I am breathing in there of course, but it is challenging.

DR:  The most recent song you had released with TSO was "Past Tomorrow" which is a somewhat stark, minimal piece of music, with just the keys and piano behind your voice.

JC:  Paul tried a lot of people on that song. It started out as a very, very different piece of music.  It was a very over-the-top, Broadway-ish kind of song with this high belt vocal and completely different to how it turned out. We were in the studio and about 99% done with it; we just had some background vocals left, when Al started changing it and put it in a minor key.  We then took out the entire chorus which had the phrase "Past Tomorrow"  in it and really just changed the entire feel of the song.  We started layering my vocals and doubling the harmonies, and it was coming out great.  I am really, really happy with how this one came out.  Of all the songs that I have sung for TSO, this is the one that I had the most creative input on.  It was a very cool experience to be involved in the transformation of a song that we just took two weeks to record and then sit there with Al and Paul and work out this totally new arrangement and made it really a different song.

Jennifer Cella with TSO - Nassau Coliseum in 2007
Photo courtesy Donna Searing McDonald

DR:  It's great that you continued to record even after you stopped touring in 2007.

JC:  Yeah, Paul always wanted me on everything, and I was thrilled to continue doing that.  In fact, I was working on a song for his next project when he died.  In the days leading up to his death, he had me working on demos for his next project. I was working with [Talent Coordinator] Danielle Sample on getting Paul exactly what he had wanted. I was actually waiting on a call back from Paul the day that he died to hear what he thought of what I had sent in. The call that I got was not what I expected obviously - very shocking.

DR:  Was it a hard decision to leave the TSO tour after seven years?

JC:  I was ready to start a family and I was afraid that if I waited too long, I wouldn't have that opportunity. As much as I loved the touring, I also wanted to be a Mom.  You have to make choices in life, and I didn't want to look back one day and find that I waited too long. To this day, I miss it.

DR:  Looking back at your time with TSO, what did you take away from your time?

JC:  So much.  You don't get to perform in front of 20,000 people unless you're in a group like that. It is something that most musicians don't get to experience. I really learned from every bit of it.  One thing that Paul really taught me was connecting with people. He cared deeply about the experience people took away from the shows and that sticks with me to this day. We were up on stage with the opportunity to make an impact and I feel really blessed that I was able to make an impact on people's lives.

DR:  After you left the tour, you were out of the public eye for the most part.

JC:  Yes.  I wasn't out there touring, but I wasn't going to stop singing because I was a Mom.  I was involved in a wedding band which was great money and helped to keep my chops up.  I actually really grew a lot in that job because you get requested all kinds of material and you have to be able to do it. With singing, it's really "use it or lose it" and I still got sing every week  to make sure I didn't lose it.

DR:  Over the course of the last few years, fans started seeing you on stages again, collaborating with some of your TSO bandmates like Alex Skolnick and Dave Z.

JC:  That was so much fun and nostalgic.  I have the utmost respect for all my TSO bandmates so any chance that I get to play with them is amazing.  I'm really glad that I did those dates with Rubix Kube; those are memories that I have with Dave that I otherwise wouldn't have.

DR:  Let's talk about your current band, Beauty in the Machine.  That is a collaboration with Electronic Dance Music icon Anthony Fonseca (aka Monikkr). How did you two get together?

JC:  I knew Anthony as far back as when I was working with Anton Bass in Karmadelic.  Anthony and I were signed to the same management and were always moving in the same circles.  In fact, I sang lead on a bunch of songs for the Jason Nevins album (2004's The Funk Rocker) and Anthony was involved in one of those songs as well.  At one point, he and I formed a band and were going to record and play out.  This was around the same time that I was making the decision to leave TSO and start a family.  I wound up taking a step back from that band as well.  As time went on, we didn't really talk as much as life just took us in different directions.  After Paul died, I had posted something online which prompted Anthony to call me.

Anthony had a band that he started called Beauty in the Machine which he had abandoned a couple years earlier.  He had one song written from that time which is called "Again".  We actually got together, re-worked it, changed the key, and re-wrote some of the lyrics.  That came out so well that he presented me with a snippet of a song that he had started writing called "Morning After" and I finished that.  Things were really clicking between us musically and he asked me if I wanted to do this and I was feeling really thirsty to do something creative. I worked with him in the past and knew how talented he was, and it looked like Anton was going to be involved with it as well.  I was looking forward to writing on a creative level and really developing something.  Two years later, here we are on this journey.  It's been slow because we are self-funding it, and sometimes I have to take a step back for family responsibilities and obligations.  It is going slower than if we had done this ten years ago, but it is fun and really rewarding.

DR:  Apart from those songs on the Karmadelic album that you had in writing, is this first time since then that you have been involved in the songwriting process?

JC:  I wrote and recorded a Christmas song that I put out myself, but I spent a lot of years not exploring that creative side.  Motherhood is a lot of work and really took me out of the loop of a lot.  Now that they are a little older, I have some freedom to dive back into stuff like this and it's been great!

DR:  How is your collaboration process between the two of you?

JC:  A lot of times he will come up with a musical track and ask me to add a melody and a lyric. What has worked out best is that he will come up with a track and we will do a writing session together, just bouncing ideas off of each other.  We wrote "13 Days" in about two hours. Another song that we recently completed, "Hold On", we wrote in less than two hours and that is my favorite so far. I was at his studio for three hours and in that time, we were able to write the song and record the demo with background vocals in that time. It's still got the beat, but it's a little darker and has a lot of heavy grungy guitars in it.

DR:  You both have that dance background, but the music that you are creating is more of an electro trip-hop sound, reminds me a bit of Massive Attack.  Does that sort of music come natural to you?

JC:  I have my toes in a lot of different genres and I do love a beat.  But I also love a good rock vocal. Obviously, Anthony does bring with him his dance music experience, but he also was in a rock band years ago that coincidentally opened for Savatage a few times back when Alex was in it; so, our backgrounds really gel well together.

DR:  The first song that you released was "Morning After", which is kind of ethereal and stark and really captures a feeling of loneliness.

JC:  Anthony had the track written and the first stanza [sings "You looked into my eyes, I was hypnotized"] and I wrote the other verses and the chorus. Honestly, I wrote the rest of the song while I was at my son's baseball game.  I had my earbuds in and a notebook and wrote the lyrics while watching the game.

DR:  I understand that there will be a dance remix of that one?

JC:  Yes.  We did a gig on New Year's Day at the House of Yes which is a dance club.  We felt that we needed to rework some of our songs to fit that crowd, so he remixed it and it translates really well for live performances. That version has so much more energy so that will probably be the version that we do when we play out.  The Remix for "Morning After" will be released on May 21st  with an accompanying video on May 28th (Edit: Now out here:  I can't wait for everyone to hear and see it! It will be playable and viewable on our website along with all of our music.

DR:  Both of your singles so far have music videos and big rollouts for them.  And now with adding the visual element to the shows, is having that visual presentation to your music and presentation important to you?

JC:  It is an aspect that we want to develop.  We want our shows to be an immersive experience. We want people to come out to listen to music but also to see a show.

DR:  I was pleasantly surprised to see a real drummer as part of your live band configuration, as it is drum programming on the recordings. And, not only do you have a drummer, but it is John Sawicki who really takes the live performance to another level.  How did you know John and why did you pick him for this project?

JC:  John Sawicki and I go way back; he was in the cover band that I was in before I joined TSO. He has always been one of my favorite drummers. When I left to go with TSO, John left to be part of Stomp.  When we talked about bringing a drummer in, John was just a perfect fit.  His percussion set-up has been evolving also, he now has kick drum set up so he plays that standing up and his snare is mounted to his percussion set-up. It's a more visual aspect and sounds really cool. He is also my drummer in Cover Girl.

DR:  What is next for Beauty in the Machine?  Two songs have been released so far, with many more written and full live sets are happening.  Any timeline on when a full EP or album will be ready?

JC:  We just got a monthly residency at The VYNL in the East Village; last Wednesday of every month. We do have a plan to release an EP.  It was supposed to be out by now, but we got derailed by the video of "Again"; we weren't happy with it and that put everything on hold.  I hate to put a timeline on it, but we are on track for a Summer release for the EP.  It's coming, I promise. [Laughs]

DR:  Tell me about your Cover Girl band.  You are obviously doing covers, but you are calling it a "mash-up band"?

JC:  Well, we do a lot of straight covers, but we throw in some mash-ups that might be unexpected.  For instance, we will start with "Seven Nation Army" and go into "Sweet Dreams" but keeping up the bass line from "Seven Nation Army".  It comes out awesome.  The first gig we did, I was so scared because I didn't know if people were going to get it or understand or if people were going to like it.  So far, everyone seems to be loving it. Sometimes they look a little confused - they'll hear us start off with "Every Breath You Take" but I go into singing "Stand by Me".  It's just a different experience and shows you how fluid music is from one song to another. It's doing covers but in a creative way.  We also pay tribute to some iconic bands; we do a Led Zeppelin medley, a Nirvana medley that are really craftily done.  And John Sawicki is our drummer in this band too!

DR:  Nice.  Jeff Allegue is in the band also.  Did you know him from your TSO days?

JC:  I didn't work with Jeff in TSO.  I knew him more as Paul's friend and he was always at the New York Shows.  Jeff laid down some guitar tracks in the early days, before I got on board, so we never actually worked together with TSO.

DR:  Thus far, you have been playing gigs just on Long Island.  Any plans to expand your area a bit?

JC:  Right now, we are building a following and going into good clubs.  We all grew up on Long Island played in bands on Long Island.  There is a really strong music scene on Long Island.  People go out to hear bands and there are a lot of good places to play. We all bring in people from our reputations and history on Long Island.  It just makes sense right now to stick to that area.  Eventually we will play some gigs in other places.

DR:  Last question I wanted to ask about is the recording that you are doing for Joe Petrucelli's project for A Sparrow's Tale. Are you doing voiceovers for the animated project?

JC:  That is an exciting project that is in development.  It is going to be animated and it could be a TV project or a video; it could go a couple different ways. It's a story about a sparrow who wants to learn how to fly, but every song is also a music lesson.  It's a cool immersive way of teaching music without kids knowing that they are learning music. I'm singing the parts of Allegra, the mother sparrow.  It's coming along; it has some really good people behind it but is really early in the developmental stage.  It's a cool little project and I am looking forward to seeing it come to life.

DR:  Great!  Thanks for taking the time today.

JC:  Thank you!

For more information:

Jennifer Cella:

Beauty in the Machine:

Cover Girl Band:

Sips & Gifts: