Jess Novak, a Syracuse, N.Y.-based singer/songwriter who heads up pop-rock-soul outfit Jess Novak Band, has had her music played on radio stations across the country. She recently partnered up with Fret Zealot to teach her original songs to users.
Find the lesson for “Lucienne” here!
We sat down with Jess to talk about making it as a musician, her influences, and more.
How long have you been playing music?
I started playing the violin when I was 7, so a very long time. I started playing professionally in a band ten years ago, in 2012.
What instruments do you play?
Violin, guitar, piano. It depends. I always have the guitar and violin. Piano depends on space. When I’m solo or in a duo, I use foot percussion to keep the beat.
Where do you play?
We’re all over the place. I’ve toured the whole country. The band has been to Key West and back. We play mostly New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, occasionally Florida, or I’ll travel elsewhere. I do solo as well. Solo is more versatile. The band is more original music. The solo act I play whatever people are asking for so it varies a little more.
What would you consider the sound of the band?
I always call it pop/rock/soul – think of it like Tedeschi Trucks Band, big fat sound, kind of classic sounding.
How many people are in the band?
We vary in that too. The band can be as small as a trio – we’re usually a four piece, we can add a trumpet player, backup keys and if we want, additional vocalists. We’ve had a lot of guests sing on our albums.
Your new album came out in November – how would you describe it?
This one was more collaborative than in the past. A lot of the time I write all my songs, bring them to the band and we go do them. This one, I gave the guys the songs and everyone really changed them and added to them and some of them changed completely. This one sounds even more diverse, it has more influences in it. It’s a lot of super soulful and the lyrics are more mature. I would call it more of an adult album.
Who are your musical influences?
My brother is ten years older than me and he’s a bass player. When I was a kid, he introduced me to Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Kool and the Gang, Lenny Kravitz. I was super influenced by classic rock and that’s what made me want to play. When I was a kid, I told my mom I wanted to play the violin like Jimi Hendrix. When I got older, I loved 90s band like No Doubt. Then I found Nikka Costa as well. I love powerful female singer/songwriters. Nikka Costa and Gwen Stefani were my favorites – they’re so wild and energetic and you can feel it and see it when they perform. I feel like that was a huge influence on me.
It’s weird because when I say No Doubt – “ I don’t think anyone has ever heard us and thought “you’re like No Doubt”. But lyrically, I’m a lot like Gwen Stefani. I put it all out here and am very honest and straightforward in performing. Usually we don’t do pop punk or ska, but consistently the biggest comment I get is “you’re so energetic and so happy!” That’s like her. She is so emotive on stage. I did absorb a lot of that.
How did you get started playing music professionally?
I like to tell people, ten years ago when I started doing this, I didn’t think I could do this. I never dreamed I actually could. I wanted to do this my whole life, but as a kid, I was in orchestra and stuff, and I was never first chair. I went to school for public relations and journalism and got my Masters in music journalism. I specifically thought that if I can’t play music, I’ll just be around it. I loved writing about musicians. I was a full-time music editor/journalist, plus a radio DJ and I was also bartending. You just don’t make a lot of money in those positions. I was really burning out.
There was one day in particular that I did an interview with a blues singer. I was excited because she was a female, and 99.9 percent of people I interviewed for that job were men. I said, “tell me about writing this album, and how it was for you”. And she said “I didn’t write any of the songs – I get them, because they’re how I feel, but I didn’t write them.”
And I thought, if you won’t do it, I will. I quit my job, went on a crazy cross-country trip, came back with a band called Sophistafunk, and I just thought, if they can do it, then I can do it. I didn’t come back with a plan, I just came back with the idea that I’m going to just play music. And if no one likes it, maybe I’ll stop. But maybe they will like it.
I like to remind people, I’m not famous or anything, but I make a living playing music and teaching lessons and doing fun things like this. I want people to know whatever you want to do – play guitar around a campfire or start a business – you can do it. There are people everywhere that are proof of that.
PHOTO: @jessrock87 IG
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into guitar but doesn’t know where to start?
That was me! I bought a guitar when I was 16 and didn’t start playing it until I was in my 20s.
It’s hard! I would say get the guitar, and don’t get frustrated. It’s really hard to start. Totally different muscles and movements and memorization – not just muscle memory but thinking memory. Don’t be afraid to start and know it’s going to be hard but within a month, you can learn songs. There are plenty of Bob Dylan songs that are three chords, super simple and you can get by and impress people. It’s fun once you get past those first hurdles.
What do you think of the Fret Zealot system?
Their system makes complete sense. It probably would have changed my life if I used it when I was a kid, first learning. I teach a lot of lessons and that’s the hardest thing when you try to explain a chord for example – “put your first finger on the first fret of the B string” – by the time you’re done, they’re like “what?”. Rather than looking at someone’s hand across from you, to just see it on your fretboard is so much easier.
What are some of the challenges your students face?
A lot of it is frustration. For example, they’ll listen to a Chris Stapleton song, and I’ll ask “so what do you hear him doing?” and they’ll say “he’s just a good singer/guitar player”. And it’s like, yeah he is, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do that, you just have to work at it. Figure out what he’s doing, and figure out how to do it yourself. That’s one of the biggest frustrations or hurdles for kids especially, but adults too.
A lot of people, especially kids, have this idea like “I can’t sing” and it gets reinforced by someone or something, like if they don’t make the musical or don’t get a solo. Whatever it is, they think “it’s just not an option for me”, and that’s just not true.
What’s your favorite guitar right now?
I bought a white Rancher Falcon Gretsch just over a year ago. It’s huge, it looks funny on me since it’s so big. I love that big deep sound – it’s white and gold, super flashy. If you’re going to have a guitar and be on stage and wear it, it should look great.