When I spot neo-jazz singer Hadassah on a snowy March morning, the first things I notice are her bubblegum pink locks and black lipstick. That contrast is mirrored in her music: light and fluid jazzy melodies flow beneath dark sorrowful lyrics. Inside a quiet coffee shop on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, Hadassah and I take a seat at a small round table to talk life and music; specifically her new EP, Oakmere Drive. She has wide eyes and smiles a lot, yet her speaking voice is calm and measured—even when she’s sharing the deep personal roots of her music. Learning about Hadassah’s past, her music starts to makes more sense. The last year has been especially chaotic for the emotive singer-songwriter. In November 2014, just shy of a month before her 21st birthday, Hadassah and her two sisters lost their adoptive mother to lung cancer; she’d loved and cared for them ever since their biological parents died from AIDS when Hadassah was 6 years-old. In early 2015, she sold her childhood home in Long Island and moved to Brooklyn to be closer to her younger sister, who is a junior at NYU.
All the turmoil prompted her to make a big decision: she abandoned her political science degree to focus wholly on her music. She’d been in college during the release of two previous EPs. The first, Lexicon of Love, was born out of considering relationships in all their forms: familial, romantic, friendship. Its follow-up, Lead Balloon, conquered the mountain that is self-love. Both records reflect a completely different headspace in Hadassah’s life. While they are all equally thoughtful, new release Oakmere Drive is understandably much darker.
Throughout the change of the past year her songwriting took on a therapeutic role, and she wrote like a madwoman. Like a time-capsule, Oakmere Drive charts the love, loss, and epic transitioning she has experienced over the past 17 months. On the song “Soldier,” we hear her empower herself: I am a soldier/ Nothing can tear me down/ I fight the lion and tigers/ Mama shall miss me cause I’ll be gone for years. Elsewhere she riffs on her decision to focus on her music, singing on “Heaven’s Basement”: They sell me nine to five/ They sell me all these lies/ I know that I will never really survive.
You've had a pretty intense year, what’s been going on?
Hadassah: About a year ago my mom passed away. She passed away right before my last semester of college and I came home to kinda hold down the fort because we had a house in Long Island and we bills to pay still. So I was working a full-time job and paying bills and during that [time] I didn't write any music, like at all. [Later] I quit that job and then after that [came] a flood of emotions and that’s kinda when I started writing because I was entering a new chapter in my life. That’s also when I moved to Brooklyn, and then I got the job at Handy which made it so I could focus on music and still pay my bills, you know. So basically this EP’s just like everything that I've been thinking and feeling in the last year. It's also like an ode to my old life or old self, because Oakmere Drive is the street I grew up on.
So this EP is a musical representation of the last year for you?
Yeah, basically—[it’s] kinda like the journey I've been on. The way I write is kinda like meditation, [it’s] like cleaning for me. So the song "Soldier," it was basically me telling myself that I'm a soldier, as well as telling my mom that I'm a soldier because she's not here. [I'm] basically saying you know, like, I got this.
Has music always been a part of your life?
When I was a child, I really tried to get away from music because learning it classically was kinda scary. I tried to get away from singing but I really can't because I'm always writing. You know what I mean? They kinda go hand in hand, so I came back to it because I could not get away from writing—I write so many songs. I write almost everyday because it's not really writing for me—it's more like meditation. It's more like just being with myself, I guess.
“The way I write is kinda like meditation, it’s like cleaning for me.”—Hadassah
I really hear all these jazzy undertones in your music. Are you influenced by jazz?
Yeah. I struggled with wanting to learn classical music and being a little bit scared of it, but I feel like jazz is the perfect way for me to still be in classical music but have the ability to improvise. That's something I was more drawn to in it and I started to listen to singers who sing jazz music. One of my favorites right now is Gregory Porter. I'm in love with Gregory Porter. I don't know if you've heard him but he's amazing.
Your writing process is very free form, which almost kinda mirrors jazz. What were your experiences of music growing up?
In elementary school I listened to no secular music—it was all Christian music. I always loved music but I hadn't found the thing that made me feel empowered or made me feel like, yo, I really love music. It wasn't until high school that I started to discover neo-soul artists like India Arie and Erykah Badu—I was just like, oh my god, yes. They have definitely influenced me. Artists like that and Anthony Hamilton and anything soul. I was such a soul fan. My influences are literally soul and jazz mixed together. [There's] a little bit of trap here and there, but really it's like falling in love with soul music and jazz.
Tell me about Oakmere Drive the place.
It's the street I grew up on, yeah. One of the music videos that I plan to put out—for "Visions"—is supposed to be reminiscent of my childhood, and the love I have for growing up there. Basically kinda bringing you to the place and the space that made me me. I plan to have clips and things of when I was a child. It's so cute because I have two sisters and my mom used to dress us like triplets all the time—probably until I was like 14. So I have tons of videos just of us dressed like triplets.
And finally, how'd you choose your stage name?
Hadassah is the [real] name of Esther in the Bible. Hadassah is her given name but she took on the name of Esther so they wouldn't know that she was a Jew. I took on the name Hadassah because I felt like that was her true self. I basically wanted to show the raw—show who I really am, so I feel like that name fit.