A funny thing happened last September.
A musician successful in the local scene moved to ... California.
OK, it’s not unheard of. But when someone like folk singer-songwriter Jen Hajj moved to southern California in October, it was our loss and the Golden State’s gain.
Hajj has a deep history with the local acoustic music scene, both as a performer and as a house concert host, as well as being a DJ for more than 3 years as host of KRCL’s Sunday Bluegrass Express,
She just released her third album, "Love is Everywhere," and immediately after won an award as Best/Favorite Folk Artist or Band at the second annual Intermountain Acoustic Music Association awards, despite now having a zip code that starts with 9.
Hajj is still deeply connected to the Utah scene, and will celebrate her new record’s released at a May 17 show at the Black Box at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City.
Hajj talked to the Tribune about her start, her new album, and what California and the rest of the country can expect from her.
What is your age, city of residence, occupation, where you grew up, instruments played, and any Utah education (high school and beyond)?
I am 43, I live in Carlsbad, California (after spending almost 30 years in Utah). I moved to California back on September, to be with my sweetie and to try the "West Coast Music Scene." When I lived in Utah, I was the Education Director at HawkWatch International and did music on the side. In California, I’ve been freelancing: music, teaching, art, writing...anything creative, anything that pays or gives me exposure. I grew up in Tempe, Arizona, and was moved to Utah in the mid-eighties, so I finished High School in Utah. I learned to drive in Utah. I guess that makes it my home state. I went to Westminster College for my undergrad, and fell in love with theater and performance there. Their music program was not very well-developed at the time. If they had offered a major, I would have done that. Instead, I majored in Biology. I went on to pursue a degree in music at the U, but I hate to admit I got impatient with the program there. I wanted something that I hadn’t yet defined for myself, and I was trying to achieve it with the wrong tools. I felt like a square peg in a round hole. I dropped out, which I sort of regret. There are some amazing instructors at the U music dept, and I learned a lot. I play a handful of instruments, most without virtuosity. My main instrument has always been my voice. I’ve been in a dozen great choirs (Canterbury Singers, Gloriana, Salt Lake Vocal Ensemble, to name a few) and sing with my buddies in Sugarhouse Voices, an a cappella quartet. I started writing my own music in the folk style about 7 years ago, and it has taken my instrumental ability a while to catch up with my writing. I think it is getting better, and the things I am writing right now are more intricate than anything I have ever played. I should probably say a few things about the kind of music I do. I call it folk, mostly because it is a little homespun. The definition of folk varies widely out there in the world. The classical training has had a huge impact on me and my writing, and some of my songs might be classified as "art songs" just as easily as they would be called folk musings. I write about how I feel, places that make me feel at home, and ideas that are "true" for me, or that I wish were true. Some people classify this as "New Folk." I’ve described it as the stuff you would listen to while sipping a hot cup of tea and petting a cat.
How did you learn to play music?
I think I started singing early, though I don’t remember when I started. I remember taking piano lessons in the first grade, and I stuck with that up until the time we moved to Utah. I am so happy to have had that experience. My piano teacher, Mrs. Cline, made sure all of her students learned theory along with keyboard skills. I don’t play the piano much anymore, but I still use theory every day. I started with classical music and then, much later, tried to write my own. I knew that I needed to learn the guitar, because it is portable while pianos are not. I went to some bluegrass jams at Club 90. The folks there were so encouraging. I learned the basics and used the theory knowledge I already had. It was a good grounding to write folk music.
Why do you choose to reside in Utah?
I didn’t choose Utah to begin with. I was in high school when we moved, and I felt somewhat like I was being torn from the womb. I guess the real question is why I stayed in Utah, once I became self-sufficient enough to go anywhere I wanted. I just got caught up in it. I grew up, got a job, bought a house, carved out a comfortable niche. Now that I live in California, I really appreciate what I had in Utah. Not that California is bad . It is pretty nice. But there’s the whole business of starting over — meeting people, making new friends, finding work, making connections. t isn’t easy. I miss playing for people I know.
What did you want to do and achieve with your music and "Love is Everywhere"?
I guess what I want to do, more than anything, is give people something that helps them reflect on what is important to them. I want listeners to laugh and cry with me. Love is beautiful, painful, and sometimes stupid, and we can’t live without it.
Do you have any upcoming shows or notable past performances? Where can people buy and listen to your music?
I’ve played a lot of gigs, and a handful of them stick out. I played a concert in 2012 with Randall Williams at the Leonardo. That was epic. I have played some house concerts that were really special. I just played a gig at a nudist resort. Wowie, that was fun. I don’t think I’ve ever played for more loving, open-minded people. Coming up, the CD release party for "Love is Everywhere" will be in Salt Lake City, at the Rose Wagner Black Box, on May 17. Tickets are available on Arttix. I have a backup band lined up, and they are all top-notch. Ken Sager, Mike Bolz, Bill McGinnis, Dan Waldis, Ricardo Romero, and Sam Runolfson will be there. It should be a super show. My music is available on CD Baby (cdbaby.com) or through my website. (www.jenhajj.com).
Does being in Utah help or hinder a music career and aspirations?
In the folk scene, it is all about relationships. Relationships begin in your own community. But at some point, that community has to get bigger. It is hard to grow a bigger community with Utah as a home base, because it isn’t easily connected with anything else. What’s the closest metropolitan area to Salt Lake City? Vegas? Boise? Denver? Utah is geographically isolated. With proper planning, one could go from San Diego to Seattle and have gigs every night, and not have to drive more than 4 hours per day to get to them. That’s connected. It is more difficult to do that from Utah, especially on a budget.
What do you remember about your first performance?
I’m not sure that I do remember my first performance. I put past shows behind me pretty quickly. But, as I recall, it was not much different from any other performance: it was a thrill to pull it off. I’m always just absolutely thrilled to deliver a performance that people enjoy.
Describe a perfect day.
Warm, at least 80-90 degrees. Sunny. I’m outside. I don’t need a jacket. There may be some jamming going on.
What did you learn from being a DJ?
I learned that there is a lot of music out there, and that the DJ-artist relationship should be nurtured, and most artists don’t understand this. They think that all they have to do is send the CD and it will be played. That’s not true. As a DJ, I received a lot of CDs and requests to download music from services like Airplay Direct. It became overwhelming. It got to the point where I would only play artists who were on a label or who came from a trusted agent. Of the indie artists I would play, I was far more interested in playing artists I had seen live or met in person. Occasionally, artists reached out to me in a personal way. If I liked someone, I shared their music. If it was impersonal, I’d get to it when I got to it. If it was a bulk e-mail — unsubscribe and delete. I’m sure that other DJs feel that way, too, so I’m going to be pretty careful as I send my new CD out to them.
Would you rather go to a hard-rock show or see the Symphony perform, and why?
Well, the Symphony, I think. But it really depends on what they are performing, doesn’t it? I love big choral works like Beethoven’s 9th, a cappella shows with really class acts like the King’s Singers. Thing is, I want to get up and dance or sing along [and] they don’t allow that at the Symphony. Too bad they don’t meld the participation of a rock show with the repertoire and quality of a symphony show. Oh. but they do. It’s called folk music.
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