Singing with Jennifer Hudson, part of seven-piece band We Used to Make Things, a regular on Dusky and Gorgon City tracks and in the House Gospel Choir, Jan-ai El Goni talks life as a vocalist…
Jan-ai Patience El-Goni, 31, lives in Islington, north London
You grew up in north London, what was your upbringing like?
I grew up in Kentish Town with my mum and little brother and sister. My mum was a single parent with bipolar disorder, so I had a big hand in bringing up my little brother Ife and sister April, to the point my sister used to call me mum. It drove me crazy!
I remember feeling like I had a lot more responsibility than my classmates and friends, so as soon as I hit 16 I left home and never looked back.
What music do you remember listening to as a child?
My mum used to play West African music quite a lot, and lots of different reggae songs, but I listened to Mariah Carey’s Music Box at least a thousand times growing up. I loved that album…
Singing along to Mariah and other female vocalists like Toni Braxton and Lauryn Hill made me realise I could sing, and gave me an emotional outlet that in hindsight was my way of coping with a very stressful upbringing.
At what stage did you start singing?
Probably at around nine or ten. I sang Killing me Softly by the Fugees in my year six leavers’ concert and nearly everyone cried… That freaked me out because I wanted to make people feel happy, not cry when I sang, so I think I convinced myself I wasn’t that good, and didn’t sing in public again for a while.
Was music a big part of your school life; was singing/performing encouraged?
I was in pretty much every school play or in the choir in years seven-nine in school. I loved the rehearsals and getting to sing with other people and learn songs from musicals. We did a production of Little Shop of Horrors that was brilliant. I was a street urchin, but wanted to be one of the three main girls so badly.
My teachers and friends encouraged me to sing more, but I’ve always lacked confidence, so found it hard to not feel nervous or awkward. Also, people still cried when I sang to them so I tried not to do it too often as it still freaked me out that this was the reaction I got.
Did you go to uni, or straight into work? If the latter, what doing?
I did a foundation degree in performing arts at London Metropolitan Uni, but I chose to do it through Wac; a wonderful arts company in north London, that meant I got to study things like breakdancing, classical Indian dance, R&B vocals and jazz and blues.
On my 26th birthday I handed in my notice and decided I was going to try and be Beyonce
The curriculum there was mainly catering to Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) students from low income backgrounds, so I felt understood and supported as well as interested in the subjects. I still struggled with confidence so wasn’t as jazz-hands-in-your-face-look-at-me as some of the other students, but I learnt to hold my own.
When (and why) did you decide to make singing your full time job?
After uni I got a job as a receptionist in a leisure centre and worked there for five years. The work wasn’t very challenging, I felt like I was getting stupider by the day and was utterly depressed, but couldn’t work out why.
I had joined a band by then, and was doing some singing with friends who were producing and djing and got infinitely more joy from the few hours I spent being creative than I did at work. On my 26th birthday I handed in my notice and decided I was going to try and be Beyonce. I’ve since realised that won’t happen… I will meet her one day though!
Leaving that job and trying to become a full time vocalist was one of the best decisions I’ve made.
For how long have you been involved with We Used to Make Things, what’s your role, and how did it come about?
I met Ben the drummer when I was about 17 through his ex-girlfriend who taught me how to roll a joint. He was putting together a band and wanted to see if I would be a part of it.
I was apprehensive at first, but as soon as Matthew and I sang a harmony together it just worked… That was eight years ago and we’re still going strong. I would call myself the vocal coach of the band. Harmonies are very important to us and our sound.
You sing vocals for electronic dance music as well as the more acoustic WUTMT – where does your heart lie, musically?
I just love to sing! I probably listen to more acoustic/pop/R&B when I’m on Spotify or on my iPod, but I grew up in the days of So Solid, Jungle and drum’n’bass and my first raving experiences were to dance music, so dance music is also part of who I am.
I’m trying to develop my solo style to fit somewhere in the middle, but this is a work in progress… when I finally do make an album I want people to be able to hear all of my influences.
You featured on Dusky’s first album and sing with Gorgon City. What’s been the most exciting gig to date?
Doing the Jools Holland show and the MOBOs last year was incredible, but being onstage at the Roundhouse, singing to a sold out crowd and having my brothers and sister there – I felt like I was on top of the world!
I’ll never forget seeing my big brother in the crowd, smiling from ear to ear, and the pride in his voice when I spoke to him afterwards. He’d never really heard me sing until then. I don’t think he believed I could!
You’re rubbing shoulders with lots of big names in music, any who’ve left you star-struck?
I basically lost my mind when I realised I was going to be doing backing vocals for Jennifer Hudson. Then in rehearsal when she said the words: “girl, you’ve been holding your own” in relation to me singing with her… Nothing and no one after that moment can convince me I can’t sing! Best moment of my life.
The fact I can watch it back, and see myself letting go and enjoying myself is even better. I was singing with JHud, didn’t get a note wrong, didn’t work myself into a tizz and actually look like I’m enjoying it. That was a big breakthrough for me.
You reacted strongly to the news story about women being turned away from a nightclub because of the colour of their skin. What is it like to be a black woman, living in London, carving a career in music – do you ever feel you’re discriminated against?
In a weird way, I think being a black British female vocalist has worked in my favour. No one really questions my ability. I think some people assume all black girls can sing. I’ve definitely never felt discriminated against at all when it comes to music, but I do think there is a whitewashing of ‘soulful’ voices…
I just want to make a living doing what I love and sing my little heart out onstage in front of lots of people
I think there is a trend at the moment in the music industry of pushing and investing in white artists with soulful voices over black artists. When I was younger, there was a thriving black British music scene with soulful singers like Beverly Knight, Omar, Damage, Craig David and Desi’ree in the charts.
As much as I love artists like Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran, I feel they maybe occupy the space where some black British artists used to be. Although saying that, artists like Kwabs, Laura Mvula and Lianne La Havas are doing some wicked things for black British music at the moment.
Let me just finish this slightly controversial answer by reiterating I’m not throwing shade at Sam or Ed, I have bought their albums and I love their work, it’s the men in suits and boardrooms that control these things, not the artists.
How is it to work alongside six white men when performing as We Used to Make Things?
I love my band because of how diverse it is. We have someone from nearly every continent and our ages range from 22-44. Our musical influences are as wide ranging as Destiny’s Child to Jungle via the Kinks and the Beatles. I’m the only girl in an eight-piece band and I love it.
Race and sex are issues we talk about a lot, and social commentary is a big part of our lyrical content, but I suppose we are proof that music can bring people from all different backgrounds together. I think class is something we argue/debate over more than race and sex. They’re all gentlemen really.
How do you feel before a performance, do you get nervous – if so, how do you combat the nerves?
I used to get unbelievably nervous before and during gigs, but not so much anymore. As long as I’m rehearsed and I know what I’m supposed to be doing, I only get mildly nervous now. I get super focused before a gig, then loosen up by drinking a vodka tonic or glass of wine just before. Probably not the best idea, but it works for me!
Who are you collaborating with/singing for at the moment?
I’ve just joined the House Gospel Choir, which is making my LIFE. I’ve never been so inspired and enthused or felt such joy singing in a choir before. Our first gig is on 17th December at Richmix and I can’t wait.
I’m also in the process of signing a publishing deal, so hopefully that will open some doors for me. I want to go in a slightly different direction musically so want to work with more soulful, hip hop based producers.
What’s the dream, career-wise?
I like the idea of having a family of singers/performers onstage, so eventually being a part of something like Basement Jaxx or Rudimental… or a mama! I’d love to be up there with Beyoncé singing: “If you like it, then you shoulda put a ring on it” – that would be a dream come true. Really I just want to make a living doing what I love and sing my little heart out onstage in front of lots of people.
Offstage, I’m working on trying to be myself. I can get caught up with thinking I need to be a few stone lighter, or a few years younger or cooler. That’s why the debacle with the girls at that club got to me.
I know that my value lies in more than my skin colour, gender or physical appearance, but I’m susceptible to society’s pressures. I’m trying to not care so much about what other people will think of my choices and trust my instinct both creatively and personally.