Jess Connelly’s music has a tender and smirking quality. The Manila-based, Australia-born R&B singer plumbs the depths of love with a deft hand. Connelly’s latest EP, ATM, released in October 2019, is inspired by love in the most subversive ways.
This is not your standard, lovelorn crooning. On ATM, Connelly puts her foot down. With “Company,” she asserts herself over a partner attempting to play games. Even when she feels at her most enrapt in emotion, as on “hooked / good Lover,” Connelly does not compromise her humanity in the face of love.
ATM borrows from traditional R&B runs and tones, updating them with a modern ferocity and danceable drum loops. When things slow down—“Lock” and standout “Sweet Tooth”—we get lost in the richness of Connelly’s vocal. ATM is enveloping and assertive. The project demands your attention with its milky textures and earnest writing, and Connelly is not vulnerable for vulnerability’s sake. Her work springs from an honest place—she just had to work to get there.
“I was sticking to an idea, then going to another idea because I wasn't truthful about what I felt,” Connelly tells me of writing ATM. “The project, for me, is a reminder to myself that: ‘You’re okay.’ The overall concept was the hardest thing, but it was there in front of me the whole time.”
Once Connelly was honest with herself, the project came together with ease. The title, standing for “At that moment,” is a reminder to her to live for the moment. Though Connelly struggles to cede control in her life, she is learning every day. It helps that Connelly gets herself in the studio daily, as well. She processes her emotions by continually throwing herself into her work. Considering how effective ATM is as a body of work, how it unpacks the complexities of love in such a small package, there is no question Connelly’s process is airtight.
“Settle down and get married,” Connelly says of the way her culture views relationships. “There are all these plans and building blocks, and a perfect future-life. When I realized it’s okay to not go through with that, I started thinking about, ‘Why do we fall in love?’” The “why” of love is a noble question ATM aims to answer.
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: In 2017, you told TIDAL, “I want people to feel a certain way when they listen to my music.” With ATM, what feelings were you hoping to bring out of listeners?
Jess Connelly: I always write love songs. The way I was writing songs before, it was this everlasting type of commitment—forever-love type of thing. I liked making people feel in love; that’s how I was. With [ATM], I wanted to make a “living in the present” feeling when it comes to emotion. It’s something a little lighter and enjoyable.
Talk to me about the title of the EP.
It means, “At that moment.” I spent my summer in LA, and I [went] there knowing I was going to record and write. But I realized what I wanted to feel in this music after the summer. I had other names for it, but every time I would say the name, it felt like I was still at that time. That’s not how I feel now. It’s complicated for me to explain. I had no problem with how I felt at that time, but it doesn’t represent me every time. Everything’s about living in the moment. I was brainstorming with my friends, and I kept saying, “At that moment,” and my friend was like, “Dude, ATM. You keep saying it.”
I’ve always been a control freak, and that can hold people back. There’s nothing wrong with doing or feeling what you want at that moment, even if you won’t [always] feel that way. I just wanted to be proud of that.
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The work is gorgeous and tender. How do you access the depth of emotion you write about?
I went to [LA] with a whole different idea of things I was gonna write, but I realized it takes time for me to process my emotions. That’s why I was like, “Fuck it,” and let things happen and take their course. I was trying to control everything and keep everything good, but you can’t control everything in your life. I go to the studio every day, that’s my way of trying to figure [my emotions] out.
You’ve also said you’re most inspired when you’re out of your comfort zone. How did you step outside of your comfort zone for this EP?
I spoke about different things. It’s easy to write, “I love you” type love songs. For example, with “Company,” guys can always make songs like that: “I fuck with you, but I don’t really fuck with you.” But girls can say that shit, too! It’s all in good fun. I’d never written a song like that [before].
That’s my favorite track on the project, for that reason.
In the Philippines, I see the difference in culture. Everybody can be a little wild no matter where you’re from, but it’s not publicly open for girls to speak about sex. It can be done tastefully, but it’s not normal for girls to openly have an opinion like that. And it’s not a vulgar thing!
ATM tackles the complexities of love in a small package. How did you go about unpacking such a big idea?
That’s a cool comment. I don’t know [laughs]. I was in a long relationship, which is fine and great. But when you’re young, and you do things like that… In the Philippines’ culture, you spend your time in a relationship, and you build it, then you go through with everything. Settle down and get married. There are all these plans and building blocks, and a perfect future-life. When I realized it’s okay to not go through with that, I started thinking about, “Why do we fall in love?” It was looking at myself and looking at my patterns, and [asking] why do I fall in love? It helped me better understand my emotions and emotions in general. [ATM] was for me.
What was the biggest struggle in bringing ATM to life?
I was writing every single day. I had some ideas about what the whole concept was; it bounced around in my mind so many times. I was sticking to an idea, then going to another idea because I wasn't truthful about what I felt. The project, for me, is a reminder to myself that: “You’re okay.” The overall concept was the hardest thing, but it was there in front of me the whole time.
Finally, what’s the Jess Connelly mission statement?
I think about that all the time. I don’t think I’ve figured that out yet, but as a person and an artist, I do think about my legacy. What am I gonna pass on? I have people in my life that make me wanna be better. How can I inspire or make people wanna be better people?