When I met Jessica Connelly in an isolated office somewhere in Magallanes, she was the same person I exactly imagined from her Instagram feed. Her hair brushed up, her face contoured but not heavily made up, with just the right shade of rose gold painted on her lips. She was wearing a shirt thrice the normal size for her built, the word ‘dime’ written on it. It was partnered with baggy pants, high-cut pink Converse sneakers, and a Gucci clutch bag with a strap.
It was clearly an unflattering outfit, and may look distasteful for some, but with Connelly’s face and confidence, the whole ensemble weirdly, just, fits.
The confidence that exudes from Connelly though isn’t like what Nicki Minaj or Demi Lovato surmise. Despite the street wear and the swag, Connelly’s presence is not intimidating. Beyond her social media façade, she’s all-smiles, and quite bubbly, in real life.
She said, “I really don’t feel comfortable wearing what is the norm, you know what I mean? I know people are probably thinking that I’m weird ‘cause I like wearing big, baggy pants and big t-shirts and sneakers all the time. That’s what I’m comfortable in and that’s okay. I’m fine with that.”
Growing up, Connelly was not this self-assured and strong-willed. When she was still in high school in Australia, the Fil-Aussie remembers being a loser, that when she left school to be a singer, people in her school were surprised that she actually sings.
More than anything, it has always been Connelly’s goal. There was no Plan B. It was not just a dream or a hobby. Looking back, she owes this mentality from her parents, who never, not even once, told her that she couldn’t.
“I think that’s really honestly what it is. I remember my half-brother asked me, probably when I was six, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?,’ I said I want to be a singer. And he said, ‘what if you don’t become a singer, what are you going to be?.’ And I was confused. ‘What do you mean I’m not going to be a singer?’”
Her parents exposed her to music at a young age. Coming from Wollongong, she and her mother would go to Sydney every weekend, an hour drive from where she lives, so she can take singing lessons and know what it’s like to record songs in a music studio. Her mother thinks that the local singing school isn’t good enough for her, even though she thinks that as a child, her voice was horrible.
Growing up, she listened to Britney Spears (until before the pop star shaved his head), Aaliyah, Boyz II Men, Tupac, Biggie, and Nas. She considers Sade as an inspiration. While everyone was listening to Fall Out Boy and using eyeliner, Connelly was vibing with sul, hip-hop and RnB classics.
From Wollongong to Manila
Coming to the Philippines was not really something that Connelly had planned. What seemed to be another annual vacation in Cebu with her family turned out to be a one-way trip.
“I ended up loving it,” she says. “At first I would cry but then I made friends and then I moved to Manila.”
“In Australia, I was not anything like I am now. I think why I love Manila so much, and I know so many people give up on it especially at a time right now, it’s because I definitely grew into the person that I am now from the local music scene that I am in.”
Connelly’s popularity didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it was years in the making. If you search her name on YouTube, random clips from the reality TV show “Pinoy Big Brother” would show a younger her, sporting a long, black hair, singing parts of songs like Tamia’s “Officialy Missing You” and Brandon Hines’ “Look Me In My Face.” She was told that it was the only way to make it: become an “artista” first before you’ll get the chance to record an album.
But throughout the whole show, snippets of Connelly singing were never aired on television. Instead, after getting evicted in the house, she went on to act small parts in shows like “Angelito: Batang Ama” (2011) and “Paraiso” (2012). It didn’t last before Connelly decided to make her mark in the music scene on her own.
Making people know that she’s a singer and not just another half-breed mestiza trying to make it in showbiz was probably the most frustrating for the 24-year-old.
“I never wanted to be a leading lady. I was very young also when I did that. It’s just not appealing to me. ‘Cause I wouldn’t be happy. For what? For people to tell me that I’m pretty? I’m okay. I’d rather people tell me that they love my music,” she said.
Connelly started as the front woman for the band “Synima.” Three days into joining the band, she did her first gig ever in Route 196 in Katipunan, Quezon City. It was a bad performance. She forgot the lyrics of the song and was too shy to entertain the expectant crowd. She recalled staring at herself in the adjacent mirror from where she stood, doing nothing.
But from there, she has come a long way. There are no failures, only lessons. After deciding to go solo, Connelly has already collaborated with different local producers whom she also considers as friends. Lustbass, crwn, and eyedress among them.
Last year, Connelly released “How I Love,” a four-track EP in collaboration with crwn. When I told her that the project was “bitin,” she said that was what they’re aiming for: to satiate the hunger of fans, but not enough to fill them in, leaving them wanting more.
The Connelly-crwn duo started in a Bacolod festival where both of the artists were set to perform, and through mutual friends, the two came up with “Under Blankets.” The song gained Connelly a relatively strong following. It catered to Filipinos who are into low-key, edm-ish soul music, who often search their music in YouTube channels like Majestic Casual, Eton Messy, and Regal Bass. Connelly’s music has deftly obscured the line that distinguishes local to international music, which, in her opinion, does not need to exist.
“The masses would benefit so much from being exposed to real music and real artistry and I’m not throwing shade here. [There are many local artists] creating their own content, making their own music, all of that stuff. I see that everyday with my friends and that’s what I’m fighting for,” Connelly said.
Being her own songwriter, manager, promoter, and publicist, her strong opinions that she often air through Twitter, become avenues for non-supporters to hate her. But Connelly knows herself more than anyone – a self-discovery that she owes mainly to the Philippines. “Screenshot this shit,” she tweets at one point. “If you refuse to want to understand and dislike me for petty reasons without knowing me, then stay off my page.”
Smooth, vibey, and chill
Connelly likes creating moods through her music. Imagine a late-night drive at 2 a.m. with your friends, windows rolled down and you are all just smoking. Imagine hanging out by the beach in La Union, the waves kissing the sand over and over and over again. Or imagine drinking at someone’s beach house, with more chilling and less rowdy dancing. It’s with these kinds of vibes that the singer connects her songs.
Her lyrics are nothing deep, but are usually conversational. But it’s Connelly’s sexy and melodic lower register, her Fil-Aussie accent, together with on point productions that put her listeners into a daze.
Connelly usually writes her songs at home or on the spot while working with producers. She considers herself her worst enemy, and going through her lyrics over and over again will only make her hate the whole thing. Like any perfectionist, she tends to overanalyze her music.
Luckily for fans, Connelly likes to randomly go back to her tracks that she ended up not liking during the first cut, and maybe, she’ll be releasing some of them. The singer is in the process of creating her next EP to be released some time early next year. This time, with more tracks.
Before we end the interview, Connelly poses for a few shots with our photographer. She has perfected the smize, and knows when to work her jaw angle. But it’s her smile, the candid ones, that really light up the room.
Connelly’s brand of aesthetic – the looks, the slurs, the music, and the vibe – has finally come full circle. After the one-way ticket from Australia, the PBB stint, the bad gigs, and everything in between, Connelly has found her way home.