Date of Interview: 02/17/2010
Jay Fenix is an up-and-coming producer, who gained massive industry notoriety, when Melanie Fiona’s #1 hit – “It Kills Me” – received a GRAMMY nomination for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. As the single spent seven weeks atop Billboard’s R&B summit, Fenix’s musical fortunes rose as well. Currently, he is working on projects with Fantasia, Musiq Soulchild and Chrisette Michelle.
With the future looking ever so bright, Jay Fenix managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on his childhood hoop dream, Quincy Jones’ legacy, and his classical training at Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
Clayton Perry: As I scanned your biography, I noticed that in addition to being a classically trained pianist, you are also a drummer and an organist. Which instrument was your first love, the keys or the drums?
Jay Fenix: The drums was actually my first instrument. Growing up, my godbrother and I used to fight every Sunday over who would play the drums at my grandmother’s church. We still laugh about that to this day. I remember how we would try to get to church first, so that we could beat each other to the drums! [laughing] One day, I got frustrated and told him, “Man, I’m gonna to play keys!” When I was younger, I would go with my cousin to her piano lessons and I asked my mom if I could start taking piano lessons. She made a way for me to do it and from there, man, I’ve been on it ever since.
Clayton Perry: What led you to begin your musical journey at your grandmother’s church? How old were you at the time, and were you pressured by her to play?
Jay Fenix: I come from a musical family, so at a very early age, I developed a strong passion for music. My grandmother strongly encouraged me to develop my talents, but never pressured me. At the time, I was only eight or nine years old. But she does love seeing me on that organ though! [laughing] I’m very thankful for that extra push that my family gave me, even though I had my mind set on playing in the NBA! [laughing continues] Besides music, basketball was my true love.
Clayton Perry: So how did you ultimately decide between the music world and the sports world? At what point did you focus all of your energy into your music career?
Jay Fenix: Like everyone young boy, perhaps, I thought I was going to be in the NBA! [laughing] My parents kept me in basketball camp during the summers and that’s all I would think of. My dreams were cut short, during my first years of high school, because I developed a bronchitis, asthma type of respiratory problem and it was preventing me from playing effectively. My parents were taking me to doctors, but they couldn’t quite figure out the problem. After several months of dealing with that I got frustrated and begged my parents, to allow me to transfer to a high school in the D.C. area named Duke Ellington School of the Arts, whose notable alumni include comedian Dave Chappelle, R&B singer Tony Terry and opera singer Denyce Graves. I auditioned and made it! And from there a new course in my life had been set. But even after all of that I still had hopes and dreams of playing basketball. After graduating from Duke Ellington I went to Syracuse University for college. While there, I still wanted to try my hand at becoming a walk-on for Jim Boeheim and the Orangemen! [laughing] Needless to say God didn’t allow it to work out that way. But I’m not complaining! [laughing continues] Even though my basketball dreams didn’t work out, I gained valuable experience and a strong foundation of working in the studio and producing tracks with my mentor, Sep Herbert. Music and producing started to overshadow my basketball dreams.
Clayton Perry: When you look back on your early years, especially when you were playing in the church, are there any particular lessons that you found guiding your professional experience? Or do you find yourself pulling more from your Duke Ellington experience?
Jay Fenix: Both, my church and Duke Ellington experiences were vital to my development not only musically but as a young man. My family and teachers like, Davey Yarborough and Lynne Gray at Duke Ellington weren’t only feeding my musical abilities but teaching me about life and helping me to stay grounded. In addition I was also fortunate to gain valuable experience by going on the road as keyboardist for artists like Stephanie Mills, The Melissa Etheridge/Rosey tour, and Jennifer Love Hewitt. And from a producer standpoint , I also learned a lot working under Jazzy Jeff and Seven Aurelius.
Clayton Perry: I’m curious to learn more about those last two experiences. I’ll start with your road tours. What impact did they have on your artistic development?
Jay Fenix: Road tours are great because you can see how the music affects the people in the audience. It’s an energy that’s unbelievable! Witnessing that on the road made me say I want my music to translate to people like that.
Clayton Perry: And moving to your production work with Jazzy Jeff and Seven Aurelius. At what point did you transition from being a touring musician to being a studio musician/producer?
Jay Fenix: Several years ago I started working with my boy John Harris. He gave me my first real start as far as working with a production company. He introduced me to Jazzy Jeff. After my short stint there I went on the road for a few years and then an old friend by the name of Kenny Ferracho introduced me to Seven. Between Jazzy Jeff and Seven, I learned the value and importance of setting a trend for yourself, especially when breaking new acts. Thankfully, a few years later, I was able to be a part of a team that worked with Melanie Fiona as she found success.
Clayton Perry: “It Kills Me” is not only a beautiful track, but it is one of those rare performances that resonate with music lovers across the gender line. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to see her perform at the Apollo, and the whole crowd really got into it—both men and women. How did you become attached to her particular project?
Jay Fenix: My managers, Michael “Make” Mentore and Tony Perez were talking with Michael Michelle, who manages the songwriter Andrea Martin, one day and they thought it would be great for Andrea and I to collaborate. We did and the rest is history! You know Andrea’s track record! She’s had numerous hits as a songwriter. It was really a match made in heaven. And Melanie was the icing on the cake. Her voice and her passion just carried the song over the top.
Clayton Perry: The track definitely has a throwback vibe. Is there a particular era of music that you draw a lot of inspiration from?
Jay Fenix: I grab from EVERY era! But back in the ‘90s, there was a lot of emotion and feeling, no matter if it was to make you dance or cry, or be happy or sad. You really felt that music! Even with the samples, there was a lot of texture to it. And I think a large part of the success that came with “It Kills Me” is due to the fact that it has a lot of texture and feeling.
Clayton Perry: Is there a particular album or producer from your childhood that you feel set a bar for your production work?
Jay Fenix: I want to have Quincy Jones’ type of impact. As far as albums go, one album that really set the bar was Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall. That album and Thriller, set the standard for me as a producer. It’s hard not to love and admire Quincy Jones. I don’t know too many people that could really stand in his shoes. The way Quincy brought those albums together was ingenious. And in the long run, I want to cross ALL spectrums of music and film like he did. I want to get into screenplay writing and orchestrating music for films. I don’t want to get people to think that R&B is the only thing that I do, and I definitely want to expand the Jay Fenix brand.
Clayton Perry: By the way, how did you come up with your stage name?
Jay Fenix: I’ve been called Jay since I was a child – for a couple of reasons. I’m a junior. And the other reason was I could light you up for 40 with my “j” [jumper] when I was ballin’! [laughing] So, “Jay” has always been a part of me. The “Fenix” part came about one day when I was sitting around the house thinking about a name that I felt could best describe me musically. So I happened to be reading some Greek mythology and I came across the myth of the phoenix, and how it would set itself on fire and reappear better and stronger than it had before. That’s how I want my music to be. Each time you hear something from me, I want you to say: “Wow. He keeps taking me higher and higher and higher.”
Clayton Perry: As a D.C. native, in what ways has the city shaped your production style?
Jay Fenix: Growing up in the ‘90s, especially during the whole early Bad Boy era, with DC-bred [Carl E.] “Chucky” Thompson being a MAJOR part of that Bad Boy sound, that live, soulful, rhythmic sound has always been in the DC air. It goes back to Chuck Brown, [“The Godfather of Go-go”], and the period where notable artists like Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye and many other acts spent a lot of time in the DC area.
Clayton Perry: Following in “Chucky” Thompson’s footsteps and receiving a Grammy nomination so early in your career, what has been the most drastic visible change in your career, as far as the expectations that have been placed upon you?
Jay Fenix: Well, as you would expect, more people recognize you for your work. But I think, more so, there is a certain validation that I have in their eyes now. The only expectation is to keep making GOOD music!