An Interview With Jean Zenan
Jean Zenan releases eclectic debut album A Perfect Sight
I hope that the album A Perfect Sight will inspire people as much as it has inspired me, and will lay the foundation for all the music and songs yet to come.” – Jean Zenan
Known for his electric live performances, catchy lyrics and his unique ability to fuse different genres of music such as Rock, Pop, and Jazz, into his own original songs, South African singer, songwriter, composer, pianist and producer, Jean Zenan, is about to blow listeners away with his debut album, A Perfect Sight.
I caught up with Jean to talk about his first full-length album:
You’ve recently released your debut album, A Perfect Sight. Congratulations! This has been quite a journey for you. Tell me a bit about the process; When did it start and how does it feel to finally have the final product in your hands?
Yes, it has been quite a journey for me. It started about 30 years ago after I was first introduced to the piano. I immediately realised that I had a love for music and for playing. I went a little bit beyond my regular piano lessons and started experimenting with playing by ear, doing all the usual pieces that young players will try and attempt. But besides that I went through the normal piano training until I got to high school where I actually quit the lessons, and started playing or working out the pop and rock songs that I enjoyed listening to on the radio back then. I also then started singing together with playing, which I think laid the foundation for what I would turn into as an artist. I always thought of the musicians and bands who I was trying to copy as my tutors, even though we were ages, thousands of miles and even lifetimes apart. After writing my first song, I knew that I had to leave them behind, and take all that they taught me as reference, to create my own original sound and songs.
After school and writing that first song (which opened a porthole to so many more) 15 years past before I got to the point where I had some recording equipment to stop making demo’s, and start recording my first full-length album.
It all began when I decided to make a four-part vocal harmony for the song “My Angel”, as well as sing all the parts myself as a trial run. I used a studio microphone, and my parents’ linen closet at their home, to do the recordings. I then sent it to a producer-friend of mine to get some sort of confirmation of the recording quality, and after he replied with very positive feedback, a huge light bulb lit up above my head, and I made the decision to use the resources that I have, as well as musicians that I was connected to at the time, and produce the first album myself,. To finally have this long-term goal in my grasp, after almost a decade and a half of writing, composing and dreaming, was one of the most exciting moments of my life.
I have to say, I did not expect it to take me another three and a half years before completion, but the road through recording at an instrument shop, a garage, two home studios, a linen closet, then a proper studio, a professional mix, and mastering at Abbey road studios in London, turned out to be an unforgettable life changing experience, which fulfilled all my expectations. To finally have the completed album in my hands? What can I say? I honestly don’t have the words to explain what it feels like to achieve such a goal after so many years of persisting, dreaming and working hard, never losing faith. Quite “a perfect sight”.
What a journey! So, how has the album been received so far?
I would love for my answer to be “really well”, and I believe that from the few people that have responded, I don’t think I am too far off, but it’s kind of difficult to say in these early days. You see music, and especially new music needs time to grow on people. For example, I’ve had friends and family obviously telling me how much they love it, but it’s when they message or phone me again to tell me how they can’t stop listening to it, that I know it’s doing, or going to do really well once out there. So I’ll keep on being patient and give it time to pan out, and do it’s thing.
And what did you hope listeners will take from this album when you recorded it?
I hoped that when it spread all over the world and reached people, that they would give it time to grow on them so they could enjoy it, sing it in the shower, listen to it in their cars, on their phones, radios and all other devices. Also that they would get and relate to the songs with the messages they bring, so that it could help them through similar situations of which the songs speak.
You’ve completed a degree in music. Does your background in music make it easier to compose your own songs and produce an album?
Yes, it definitely helped a lot, but to be honest, more with the production side of things than with the composing, or writing the songs I should say.
All of the songs on this Album (except the Intro) and most of the songs that will be on the next four albums or so, were written long before I got my qualification in music, therefore I’m not sure if anyone can really learn how to write and compose songs from scratch through doing so. I believe that it begins with raw talent, a gift at birth, an ability or feeling that needs to be developed and practised for years.
You can however develop this “God-given-talent”, by studying and analysing other compositions, to learn about specific structures, chord progressions and playing them to improve your skill. I think every songwriter and musician has to do that. But it is finding your own voice and style through all of this referencing that separates you from the crowd. it is of the utmost importance to always find a way to be different, and I’m not sure if any degree can give you that specifically.
I’ve never followed any specific structure, in fact I’ve always tried to avoid them, just so that they can lead me into the direction they want to go, and as a result not all sound the same. Sure I’ve developed a certain style over the years which is present throughout, but songs and songwriting should never be forced, ever….In my opinion, true original works are living things, and they need to be given the freedom to be what they want to be, even if it requires just a basic progression or only three chords, it should go where it wants to go. There is a lot of luck involved I think, so you have to set them free and not bind yourself to any rules, only use them as guidelines. As songwriters, we should remember that we are the instruments songs play through in order to enter this world, and that we have a responsibility to set ourselves free from structured rules in order to allow progression.
As i’ve said, the qualification in music definitely helped me more with the production side, as opposed to writing the songs. For example the recordings in regards to arrangements of instruments and vocals, as well as the production and studio techniques. The networking of people when involved in any department of music is a fantastic aid for collaboration, which is a great resource. Also learning how to enhance the songs written almost ten years prior, by adding nice voicings and tensions to warm up and colour in ordinary harmonies and chords, was indeed helpful.
But still, more than the music, the lyrics and the message of the songs I find extremely important and very close to my heart. I don’t think you can learn how to do that specifically, It’s something that comes naturally. I am therefore so blessed and humbled by the fact that I am so lucky, to be able to do so.
And who else worked with you on this project?
Even though it was a solo project, I had a whole group of people that worked on it with me. I had Eddy Kruze on guitars, Franx on bass guitar, Carel Wagenaar on drums, Siobhan Lloyd Jones and Ronald Davey on strings. Then there were the technical guys; Sam Bear Morrison who engineered the piano recordings at Musica instruments, Ferdinand Babst who engineered the Electric guitar and lead vocal recordings at UNITIVE studios. Mark Belling did the final mix with me, and then Geoff Pesche at Abbey Road Studios in London did the final master.
I can hear a strong Queen influence on the album? Who or what else inspires or influences your music?
I was influenced a lot by the Brit Pop-Rock genre form the mid century up to the 2000’s. People like The Beatles, David Bowie, Elton John, Pink Floyd, Queen, Radiohead, Muse, Depeche Mode and many more really inspired me to do what I do. I am a fan of some American Pop-Rock artists like The Beach Boys, Michael Jackson, The Foo Fighters and Nirvana as well. I have a great affection for 70’s disco and funk, some Jazz, Reggae, and I even love Opera and Classical music which I am sure influenced a lot of my music.
It is a fact however, that it’s really hard to do something completely different and unique these days, and Music has evolved and circled-around so much through the decades, that a true feeling of “everything has been done” is really not too far fetched.
Therefore, I see my music as a mixture of different genres and influences, cooked together in one pot to create something brand new and original, which is then served on a different plate, seasoned with original lyrics and vibes, and accompanied by a different ensemble of instruments together with my voice, which in the end, produces something that I think is a “some-kind-of-zenan”.
Tell me about the album cover and the title? What inspired it?
The album cover was designed by my friend Deon Pienaar, who is a brilliant photographer, designer and outright creative. The idea for the cover was inspired by the title of the Album “A Perfect Sight”, which was inspired by the title track “Perfect Sight”.
The picture is distorted in a way so that it almost looks 3D, not the 3D that we are used to today, instead the effect of the classic red and blue/green glasses we used to read those 90’s Ninja Turtle 3D comics, or at least that is the books I remember reading them with. This is a symbol of the decade in which my music ventures really began.
Through the blue red and white layers of the picture, the variety of musical elements are represented.
The title “A Perfect Sight” together with the artwork, not only honours the title track, but also the distorted world we are living in, and how we are trying our best to overlook it and create a sort of “perfect sight” to blind and protect us from some of it’s realities, even though it is still beautiful in many ways..
Like I mentioned earlier, it also represents the journey that I had to take to produce and finish this album.
I’ve heard that your live performances are quite something! Where can we see you perform next?
At this moment I am focusing on marketing the album and the songs, but I can say that I am busy planning and compiling a full stage production which will include all the songs and more. So I will keep my website updated with any news on live performances etc. I have to say that I absolutely can’t wait to take and rock every stage possible on a regular basis, be it with a full production or even just me on piano, it really doesn’t matter.
So, this is just the start! What’s next for you?
Yes, this is just the start, so obviously it is quite difficult to get my foot in the door, but it’s only a matter of time before I do, and that will crack open and set the stage for so many big things to come. All the songs that I’ve written through the years, including the ones still to come, need to go on Albums, many live performances, great music video and film ideas as well as a few other production surprises that I have been planning and working on through the last 19 years, will now become a reality that will continue long into the future.
Can we listen to your music online, and/or buy it? Please share a link!
My debut Album “A Perfect Sight is available on all digital platforms, iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify, Deezer and many more. You can also visit my website www.jeanzenan.com with all the links and information on album streams, sales, videos, blogs and live performances.
Download A Perfect Sight