Meet Jenae from Hot Sauce Universe 

I'm looking forward to returning to Nightshop in downtown Bloomington Friday, January 24 on a double-bill with Bloomington's talented, soulful husband-wife duo Jenae and Jay Thomason. Their creative, funky, improvisational approach with Jenae on percussion and Jay on guitar has a jazzy quality that’s quite unique. That creativity extends to their staging, which includes a large rug, ottoman, lamp with a scarf, and other accessories. They've released a couple of singles from their new album "According to Lore," which itself drops February 19. 

I caught up with Jenae to compare notes on songwriting, vocal phrasing, and how the living room atmosphere encourages listeners to "lean-in" to their music. 

Jenae Thomason and Denise La GrassaDENISE: Let’s talk about collaboration. I just saw Reginald Robinson, a MacArthur Genius Grant composer I know from Chicago. I met him through a collaboration I had at Lincoln College. He came down and spoke to our students. We ended up working with these kids at the Presbyterian church to open our semester ending show. We were just working on the blues, you know, blues progressions and he gave us some ideas with the kids and we just started collaborating. I was hitting the melody just like you're hitting the melody with your husband, you know, singing that melody over the changes he's playing. 

JENAE: Sure. 

DENISE: And came up with this great little song with the kids and it was just a nice new collaboration. That blending of talents makes for great art, but as you know, it's a tricky business of putting together a song. 

JENAE: Absolutely. Agreed. Yeah. 

DENISE: And that process is so beautiful and fun, right? 

JENAE: Yeah. Yeah. 

DENISE: Talk about your process with your husband. Jay. 

JENAE: We jam a lot. We jam on stage. We do a lot of improvisation on stage and that's where a lot of our stuff has begun. 

DENISE: I hear that in your voice. You sound like an American pop-jazz performer. You've got that sound, but you've also got the whole, you know, jazz-soul, “Motowny” kind of sound going on too. And it’s like there are two percussion instruments going on, right? Your drumming and then the way you phrase your lyrics are also very percussive. 

JENAE: I don't think I've ever thought about it like that. I will say I'm very picky about what words I use … Jay will toss out some like ... basic, lyrical ideas for me and then I'll go, 'well, I hate those words' because I don't like the cadence of them, especially not together. And so, I'm very picky about the way everything falls and even the shapes of the sounds that come together. I'm kind of weird about it. 

DENISE: I am too. Because the sound of a particular word has a kind of a melody. 

JENAE: Absolutely. Absolutely. The shape of the word is going to affect my vocal tone. And it depends on what I'm going for. So, if I'm trying to be pointed, I can choose a pointy sounding word, then that's going to work better. So, something ease or tightness, that's going to also affect how I choose to pronounce the word, which then affects the rhymes that I use. 

DENISE: Right.

JENAE: I love that stuff. I'm such a nerd about it and thanks for asking cause I don't talk about it very often cause I don't have anybody that I would talk to about it. There's a lot of weird layers, there's a lot of depth to it. 

DENISE: Self-critiquing as you're going through. 

JENAE: Oh yeah. 

DENISE: Critiquing the work, you're critiquing your words, you're taking that wordsmith approach of really being precise about how it's going to land with the rhythm, but also how it's going to land with the vowel sounds and the consonant sounds flowing out and you're really crafty about how you do that and how you create a lot of space for your rhythms and melody ideas. And then I hear the space between you and Jay … space you give him for the listener to take in the quality of rhythm and a progression that he's bringing and the sound that he's choosing for his patches and all of that. I really dig listening to that and then arriving at how I hear you approach the lyric and the beats in which you deliver your beats in your melody. 

The atmosphere of you sitting on stage and sitting in like, you know, unlike a singer standing and singing into a microphone, you’re in a very comfortable place. Would you say that where you are rooted also brings forth this? 

JENAE: Absolutely. It does. Yeah. And it's funny, Jay and I were just talking about that because there was a chunk of time where we were saying that we need to get ourselves into like, Oh my drum requires me to be sitting, but my drum is kind of a key element of what we do. And I could see a radical move on to some other kind of percussion instrument. But like that drum itself, that kind of instrument is so rare and it's like a, it's like an icebreaker. It's a talking point, you know what I mean? It's a conversation piece that does a lot for us and it's exactly what I need to do. So, I don't actually want to give it up. 

So, we had discussed trying to put ourselves in a position where we could stand up on stage cause we were feeling like audiences are more hesitant to stand and get up and groove and we play very groovy, like danceable … At least get their shoulders going, you know and get your feet moving a little bit, get your hips going kind of music. But we noticed that sometimes, it felt like people weren't getting up and dancing. And I was like, well, of course, they're not going to stand up and dance. The band is sitting down. Why would you stand up? And, and when we're playing in venues where we're on the floor, it's a very small stage. It's different than when you're, say at The Castle Theatre where it's very elevated and you can sit, you can lay on the freaking stage. It'd be fine. But anyway, it's funny, we just played a show last night down in Champaign at Neil Street Blues. 

DENISE: Yes, how is that place? 

JENAE: It's fantastic. They are so good to us. They've treated us really, really well. And their people are expecting music and so they're there. Champaign is an interesting town. We're really liking it. We're frequenting it more often and we feel blessed to be doing that. But we had a ton of people up and dancing like we're on the same level as them. There's no stage there. It's just on the ground. So, it wasn't any of that. However, so we had just recently discussed feeling like 'nevermind we have to stand up thing' because we feel rooted where we are and it feels like, and I don't know how true this is, but it feels like us sitting down is more, ‘Come here ... I want to show you something’ as opposed to ‘I'm here to entertain you.’ We are, but it feels more intimate. Does that make sense? 

DENISE: It makes sense. We're making art. 

JENAE: Yes! Come and take a solid look at what Jay's doing with his fingers. Take a solid look at what he's doing with his freaking toes. You know, he's doing a lot of work up there, a lot of intricate work up there and I just feel like the sitting, it seems a little silly, but sitting seems to lend itself for people to really come in closer and actually take a look. 

DENISE: I like that. 

JENAE: I like it too. 

DENISE: And you're not like sitting with your legs crossed. 

JANAE: Nope, I’m spread eagle (laughing) 

DENISE: And again, that runs counter to, many female singers on stage. Often you'll see women on stage in dresses, you know, and with a microphone like that. 

JENAE: I wear skirts, I just wear big, long flowy ones 

DENISE: Alright, I guess I'm not as paying attention to that as much as I'm paying attention to the kind of 'box style' presentation. It feels like the percussion instrument is ... it is a box. So it's like seeing that and seeing that image and then Jay … it's just an interesting image. And then bring the physical images … the lamp. 

JENAE: The lamp is, is like a really … it's become a really important part and the scarf on top. It’s become a signature thing. And it's funny because we have the rug, we have the table, we have chairs which now have evolved to collapsible storage Ottomans that we use cause they're the right height to where I can get my knees where they need to be without having to raise them up on something. Cause I used to have to put my feet up on an old suitcase and then for a while I was using encyclopedias. As you can imagine, that's kind of a hassle to load in and load out. So, we pared everything down and found these Ottomans that are the right height and so it looks like a living room and it's cool. For one thing, the rug is ... we got married on that rug. 

DENISE: Oh, how special. 

JENAE: But we had already been playing on it and then we were like, yeah, let's get married on this rug. 

DENISE: That’s good energy. 

JENAE: Yeah, exactly. 

DENISE: So you bring that energy every time you perform?

JENAE: Yes. Yes. And I love that you appreciate that, that you, that you recognize it is absolutely an energetic thing. And it's the same with the other pieces, but it’s also, like I said, a conversation piece, you know, it gets to where you can't not look at it. It doesn't look like a setup. If we're far away and we haven't started yet or we're on break and people just showed up or whatever, you can't not go, ‘why is there a lamp on stage? Whose lamp is this? I don't recognize that,’ you know? But every piece came out of necessity. It was not a plan at all, which I, I'm grateful for. I love organic occurrences that end up being really important. So, we started bringing the rug because we needed an easier way to transport the stands, so we just roll them up in the rug. Also, it helps us to cover cables, so it keeps things looking a little nicer and cleaner. 

DENISE: That's a good idea. 

JENAE: Yeah. The table holds the mixer. We need that for the mixer and for beverages. We always have all the different kinds of beverages, tea, water, alcohol and then any other accessories. We've got this beautiful tiered thing that holds all of the things … tuner … my little pair of shakers, the ring box cause I can't wear my rings while I play. Otherwise, I burst my hands open and they bleed and there's blood everywhere. 

DENISE: Oh, my goodness. 

JENAE: The first time that happened I was horrified. I was like there's, there's blood, what is going on? And then I realized that I had formed a little blood blister right here where my finger meets the rest of my hand and where the ring was. Anyways, the lamp happened because we needed a little bit more light on stage and the chairs happened because we would play at places that only have like bar height chairs. And so that wasn't working. So, we just brought our own. The scarf happened because the light one night was just a little too harsh. I happened to be wearing a scarf, so I dropped it over there and I've never worn it since. 

DENISE: That's pretty 

JENAE: it's just been traveling with us and yeah. So, it's all practical. It's all practical stuff. Yeah. But you know, luckily it all came together and has created this, this signature look. 

DENISE: It's been a lot of fun. I like the Janae style. Keep it up. I look forward to hearing you. 

JENAE: Thanks, Denise. All right, let's do it again. 

DENISE: Absolutely. This was fun.

Denise and Hot Sauce Universe perform January 24 at Nightshop in Bloomington. Denise takes the stage at 7:30, HSU at 9:00.

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