Think of iconic musical siblings, and a few acts that made music a family affair may come to mind: K-Ci & JoJo, the Jackson 5, Chloe x Halle — even Aly & AJ. Now there's Ivana and Jessica — also known as VanJess — the contemporary R&B sister duo raised between Nigeria and the States.
VanJess made their name with a number of viral covers and mashups on YouTube before cementing themselves as established artists with their debut release, Silk Canvas, in 2018. Like the rest of us, in 2020, our faves found themselves grounded by the coronavirus pandemic, and out of that came their sophomore project; Homegrown, with its DIY spirit, is dedicated to the place we've all spent the most time in the last year.
We talked to the sisters about creating their EP in quarantine, staying sane in lockdown, celebrating milestones, and more.
Hey, ladies, how’s your day been?
Jess: Today has been peaceful but also chaotic. That’s the energy right now, but we’re well and we’re thankful.
Glad to hear you’re well. Let’s talk a little about your new project, Homegrown. When did you start putting the tape together?
J: We’d started it before COVID. We always wanted to put out another project, but it definitely only developed into this EP during lockdown.
How long did it take to put it all together?
Ivana: We had a lot of the songs already. We talked about it and I guess it was its own organic process. We had "Come Over" and decided to make that a single, and from there we thought, Let’s make a whole project. It came together and all sounded good and that’s when we decided to call it Homegrown.
I wanted to ask: Where did the name come from?
J: It was originally going to be the title of our first project, Silk Canvas. At the time we’d been struggling to be taken seriously as artists in the music industry. People didn’t wanna work with us, so there was a lot of stuff we had to do on our own, and Homegrown was the perfect title. That’s the best description for VanJess — started at home, recording at home. Last year we found ourselves back in that same space. With lockdown and the state of the world, we found ourselves going back to creating and writing at home by ourselves. So it was full circle.
So you guys have a whole studio setup at home?
J: That’s how "Come Over" came together. We initially wrote that song in 2016, but last year we recorded it at home, then tweeted a teaser, and we decided, you know what, let’s finally put this out as a single. We recorded the rest of the vocals here at home, our little home studio is even in the song credits. "Come Over" set the tone for everything else on the project.
You’ve got a few features on Homegrown. Did you have to do everything remotely or did you have the opportunity to get in the studio with other artists?
I: We got to go into the studio with Devin Morrison and that was a really fun collaboration. Devin is so talented. He wrote a song and we were like, Hey, this would be a dope one to collaborate on, and that’s how "Boo Thang" got on the project.
One track I’ve been quite obsessed with is "Curious" with Jimi Tents and Garren.
I: We managed to get in the studio for that one too.
It definitely sounds like you were all vibing in the studio together.
J: It was a vibe. We were at Jay Kurzweil's studio — someone we work with a lot — and Ivana invited Jimi over to work. We’re vibing, and he had an idea for the hook. We thought it was so dope. Later we had another session with Garren, who’s incredible — such an amazing writer. He heard the song and was like, "Lemme do a verse on this." He killed it, so we thought to ourselves, Why not have both of them on the song? The result was amazing.
I: That song was kind of a jigsaw puzzle. We took our time getting the right arrangement and it came together.
I've been rinsing the song out — it's probably going to appear on my Spotify Wrapped. What songs have you ladies currently got on repeat?
I: "Sky's the Limit" by Biggie. That's a really dope song.
J: "Modo Turbo" by Luísa Sonza, Pabllo Vittar, and Anitta. The video is crazy. I love the song so much. I've definitely rinsed that one out — it's the perfect workout song.
Have you been doing home workouts?
J: Absolutely, that's gotten me through this whole time. You go crazy sitting up in your room. You can't move. I'm a very restless person, so I can't sit still.
What about you, Ivana? What have you been doing to keep sane?
I: I've been taking care of my mind, sitting in my backyard, looking at the plants, taking walks, long showers... Taking care of my skin also brings me a lot of peace. I've been discovering myself by riding my thoughts out and praying. All of that is what got me through quarantine last year, but we're in another this year, so I'll keep applying the same things.
J: So far this year has felt really weird. It's still so early, but it already feels like we've lived months of it. I feel like I'm still recalibrating to what the flow of this year is gonna be, but there's no rush.
Unfortunately, it doesn't look like the pandemic's going away anytime soon. How do you see yourselves adapting in the long run when it comes to your work?
J: In a normal state of things, when you do a press run, you're kinda running around, there's a whole lot going on. Being able to do remote interviews and have conversations where everyone is in the comfort of their home has been nice; to some extent, I've been enjoying this new way of working. It sucks not getting to meet people in person, but I've found we're still able to really connect with people.
One way I've been connecting with people remotely is through Clubhouse. Are you guys on the app?
J: That app came out of nowhere and gave us a new space to connect. There's been a few toxic moments, but there's also been some entertaining ones. It's so nice to connect with people you normally would never get the chance to speak to.
I: I've been perusing a little on Clubhouse. I love the music talks — I was in a fascinating room with Mase. I love the spiritual rooms talking with people about how they're coping through things. Then there's the educational rooms on finance. I like to listen in and learn.
J: Sometimes you don't wanna talk; you just wanna listen. It's very insightful.
That must be an interesting change in dynamics with celebrities usually being the ones on stage, to now being in the audience.
J: It's cool to hear what people have to say, but we don't feel like celebrities.
Why is that? How do you define being a celebrity?
J: I'm such a normal person, so it's hard for me to see myself as a celebrity. I know there's people who look up to me and my sister, but I'm always stanning so many incredible people. We're just normal people. Sure, we create music, but we don't see ourselves as being above anybody in any way. I talk to our fans like friends.
I: We're all the same; we can't idolize people. We're not supposed to put that much emphasis on another person. We're only human, and humans disappoint.
J: Think about the people we're supposedly meant to idolize — like, a president — someone like Trump? Just because someone's in "a position of power" doesn't mean they're someone you should idolize or look up to.
We went into the deep end, but let's come back to the music for a moment. 2021 marks 10 years since your viral "Thinking About You/Headlines" Frank Ocean and Drake mashup — how does it feel hitting that milestone?
I: It really hits when you say it out loud like that.
J: The fact that we're still here and we've had so much growth is incredible. We know so much more now. We've lived and learned so much about ourselves as creatives. I feel proud.
In that time you've gone from making covers to people now covering your music. What’s that like?
J: It's definitely a trip and an accomplishment. That makes me feel super proud. We never get to acknowledge that.
With this being a year of milestones, now is a pretty good time to acknowledge it.
I: When you're constantly going and going you don't get to pause and congratulate yourself. This year I'd love for Jess and I to give ourselves the chance to celebrate these things. I think we deserve that.
I think so too. Looking back on your YouTube videos makes you realize how much has changed, especially the fashion. Scrolling through your Instagram I get '70s soul, Afro funk, and Pam Grier/Foxy Brown vibes. Talk me through your style.
J: We're working with incredible stylists Ugo Mozie and Daver Campbell — they're a duo, just like us. We connected with them because it's important for us to represent our Nigerian heritage in our aesthetic, and not in a performative way. We want to let people know us like never before — showcasing that we're Nigerian American, showcasing that we're brown skin girls with natural hair and we embrace it. Ugo and Daver have truly helped us bring that all to life for our photoshoots and performances.
You've put out some pretty amazing live performances recently. What’s it been like recording them?
I: It's been super fun, but we definitely miss having that interaction with an audience and feeling the crowd. We missed performing, so having the opportunity to still share that is cool. We're all adapting in the industry and trying to find ways to get our art across. Hopefully things will change, but one can only hope and pray.
Coming back to the tape now. Some of the vocals gave me TLC, Erykah Badu, and Janet Jackson vibes. Talk me through some of your influences — who's shaped your sound?
I: Brandy, Toni Braxton, Whitney, Janet, TLC obviously... We grew up watching their videos and being so inspired by the music. All the divas inspired us.
What about the influences from your Nigerian side?
J: Absolutely. We lived in Nigeria, so we were surrounded by it growing up. We sang in church, all these Igbo spirituals that had a big impact on the way we sing. Igbo hymns are so happy; you'll have so much joy in your heart when you hear them. Then of course there's Fela and all the iconic Nigerian artists. The energy, the jazz, the funk, and the eclectic nature of the music shaped us.
If you could collaborate with any contemporary Nigerian artists, who's on the top of your list?
J: Number one would be Burna Boy.
I: Odunsi or Wizkid would be tight.
Speaking of collabs, you guys have worked a lot with Kaytranada. What's your working relationship like?
I: Kaytranada's such a dope artist. He's so cool. It's super easy to work with him. The way we ended up working with him on "Dysfunctional" was super random. A session of his with Mary J. Blige got canceled, and our A&R was like, Do you guys wanna come through? We were ready and available and that's how we got "Dysfunctional."
J: We really hope we'll get to work with him again. With the state of the world right now, it's so hard to get to work in person.
For my final question, how about you guys summarize Homegrown for me in three words?
I: The moment.
J: We are the moment.
Homegrown is available to buy and stream now.