New To Us – J Fernandez

Considering our history, I can think of nothing more American than an immigrant.
Conor Oberst

On both sides of the pond- if we believe the right-wing media – we have terrible problems with immigration; of course, that is, to speak frankly, bollocks. Both America and the UK are nations built upon immigration, a group of people with no more rights to the lands they occupy than the people they seek to keep out. A group of people, laden with fear of the unknown, riddled with prejudice by the way they were brought up and the way they have been manipulated to believe that nationality is a real thing, not an imaginary human construct, designed to develop imaginary borders and place divides between people who are all, if you trace their heritage back far enough, from the same place anyway. Race is a construct, borders are a construct, nationality is a construct!

If you need some proof that immigration and immigrants are great, look no further than the musicians and music they’ve brought us. Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman, the grandson of Ukrainian and Lithuanian Jews, and if you go a step further back, his paternal grandmothers origins are in North-East Turkey. so arguably America’s most famous ever musician is from a family of Turkish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian immigrants. Joan Baez might be New York through and through, but she’s the daughter of a Mexican father and a Scottish mother. Hope Sandoval, the stunning voice behind Mazzy Star, is from a family of Mexican Americans in Los Angeles, and Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha is second generation Japanese-American.

Britain’s immigrants are equally brilliant, The Clash’s frontman Mick Jones is the son of a Welsh father and a Russian-Jewish mother. Mathangi Arulpragasam better known by the stage name M.I.A may have been born in Hounslow, but her father is Arul Pragasam, a Tamil activist from Jaffna in Sri Lanka, where M.I.A herself grew up. There’s an Australian living in Brighton by the name of Nick Cave, and this chap called John Lennon who was the son of an Irish immigrant as well, but you probably haven’t heard of them.

The rich musical tapestry that has developed over time is down as much to the constant movement of people as it is to anything else, would Beirut sound the same if Zach Condon hadn’t grown up with the sounds of Mexican musicians in Santa Fe? Would Devendra Banhart’s music be as fascinating without his Venezuelan background?, And would Jazz, Blues or Rock ‘n Roll even exist if it wasn’t for Black immigrants moving to the United States? Immigration should be seen as one of the worlds great triumphs, sometimes we just need to wake up and realise how much good global mobilisation does!


J Fernandez is the work of Justin Fernandez, and he played the vast majority of his debut album himself. However he did enlist the help of friends Matt Fields (saxophone) and Michael Gillilan (additional drums) to fully replicate the sounds in his head.

Loosely speaking, J Fernandez makes psychedlic-pop music. Guitars reverb coated and echoing, organs that go from low bassy drones through to detailed meanders through the instruments high-end, drums that go from Real Estate-like catchy pop beats, through to free, loose almost jazzy textures and liberal doses of anxious, free-from saxophone playing. The vocals are heavily processed, but beneath the manipulation there’s hints of Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue, whilst the rich layering and syncopated round singing recall Grizzly Bear.

Justin relocated to Chicago around the turn of the millennium to do a job we’re quite jealous of, working for mapping company Rand McNally, but he was born and raised by his Filipino immigrant parents, in the city of Little Rock, Arkansas. The largest city in Arkansas, Little Rock takes it’s name from a small rock formation along the river, named “La Petit Roche” by the French in 1799, and is the “friendship-city” of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, which is apparently is like being twinned with somewhere but even less important! Little Rock’s most famous residents were Bill and Hillary Clinton, although Bill was actually born in nearby Hope. Famous musicians from the town are a little thin on the ground, with former P.O.D guitarist Jason Truby and Greenday’s back-up guitarist Jason White about as famous as it gets, although the cities crowning glory is surely the truly awful goth-rockers Evanescence.

Following singles for Lake Paradise Records, 2013’s No Luck/Fading out and Atelier Ciseaux, 2014’s Memorize Now, Justin is now signed to Joyful Noise records and released his debut album Many Levels Of Laughter on June 9th.

For starters there’s the fact that J Fernandez’s debut album Many Levels Of Laughter has quietly slipped under the radar to be one of the most interesting and brilliant debuts of the year. Beautifully crafted and deeply creative it’s a superb collection of ideas that have been superbly realised.

The album, recorded and written in his rudimentary home-studio, located above a stained glass-window workshop in Humbolt Park in Chicago, is a reflection of his new found home town, but still influenced by his background, he writes like an outsider exploring a city, with lyrics that document a variety of experiences from mushroom trips to visits to the dentist.
At only a minute and half long, with it’s Grizzly Bearish vocal harmonies and tinkling pianos, Markers is a beautiful wordless chorus of a song; Casual Encounters is an organ and bass led psych track in the mould of Hookworms, only with less drones and a freer jazzier style, giving it the sense that it could collapse in on itself at any minute, it resolves to a stunning chorus, Justin singing, “please don’t listen to me” in a complex set of vocal rounds that’s equal parts Animal Collective and The Beatles.

It’s an album that seems to have no comfort zone, or go to sound, Filled With Joy is a full-blown jazz interlude, with free drums and rich loose saxophone, alongside some beautiful warm bell-like piano, it’s as if Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich turned up and only played for a minute and half, before Justin started cutting in with sharp, crisp guitar chords. It fades neatly into the excellent Holy Hesitation, here vocals are rapidly delivered, “focus on what you’re not” he demands as the free anxious saxophone remains and the drums fall in and out of grooves, shifting from one loose pattern to the next, the whole track breaks down to a repeated guitar note and drones of organ before the guitars, drums and keys explode back into the mix, a blur of wild textures of sound that just hold together as a cohesive whole, it’s all rather thrilling!

There’s moments of joy throughout; the easy piano playing on Souvenirs, the warm, hazy Tame Impala-like vibe of Read My Mind and arguably best of all, the closing track Melting Down. It’s six and a half minutes of repeated keyboard arpeggios, low warbling drones and rich, textural vocals, repeating the phrase, “I try to hold my breath but you snore when you’re asleep, how do you sleep so well?”. The whole track is underpinned by an underlying tension and an uneasy instability; it wouldn’t sound out of place on Animal Collective’s classic Merriweather Post Pavilion, which is high praise indeed.

Why Not?
Tense, anxious and jazzy, that’s enough to make people reach instantly for the aspirin, but for all it’s rich complexity it’s remarkably accessible, for someone so new at this music malarkey it’s really rather accomplished.

Many Levels of Laughter is out now on Joyful Noise. 

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