In June 2021, Jena Rose put out her only single of the year. “Checkmate,” a fizzy pop earworm, earned the independent artist a legion of new fans and by the end of the year, she had over 500,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. In fact, the song had racked up 3.6 million streams by December, catapulting the Texas native to the top of our ones to watch list. Ahead of getting ready to take on 2022, Jena Rose caught up with LA Confidential to reflect on the success of “Checkmate” and dive into the new music she has coming this year.
Your single “Checkmate” had quite the year. What was it like to see those numbers on your Spotify Wrapped?
It was surreal. I was just on a fan Zoom last night and someone asked me what's the biggest surprise of this year? And I feel like the surprise— it's a great surprise— is how well “Checkmate” has done. I'm just so grateful. It's had such a long life and now it's getting radio and it's been on iHeart’s Most Requested Live for seven weeks now. So it's going really well and I'm so happy and grateful.
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Do you see “Checkmate” as a big statement of who you are as an artist or do you think that moment is still to come?
I think it's a huge identifier of who I am as an artist. The video that we did was such a big moment of my career, to have that put that out as a representation of who I am and I'm so, so happy that that's out there and let people get to see who I am as an artist. But I also have so much more music coming soon that also represents me. I'm just so excited to showcase all these different sides of who I am as a person and an artist.
As a songwriter, I, personally, write songs for other people to take and connect to just like I used to do as a young girl growing up listening to music. I would take songs and relate them to my own life. And I remember how special that feeling was to do that as a listener. And so as a songwriter and an artist, I want to be that for someone else. So “Checkmate” spawned from watching The Queen's Gambit over quarantine, like I know so many of us did, and just really being inspired by chess. I grew up playing chess with my dad and loving it and seeing how the strategy of chess can relate to real life and real life experiences. And in chess, you always have to be multiple moves ahead and you have to be so strategic, which I feel like a lot of us do in relationships in our life, whether that is friendships, romantic relationships, family— everything has strategy to it. And so that is the relation to chess and the Queen's get inspired me so much with that.
As an artist, why the big pop star direction?
I actually started just on my piano and my guitar just playing and writing songs and taking influence from Adele and Sara Bareilles and a lot of 70s and 80s artists and bands. I honestly was scared to step away from the piano and the guitar because they were my safe spaces. And on stage, I just felt very comfortable there. And once I was pushed outside of my comfort zone to try and get out from the instruments, as well as incorporating them into my music still, but really feeling like an all-around pop artist has made me feel so grounded as an artist and I've definitely felt like it's who I’m meant to be.
Your next single is called “Digitally.” What can you tell us about it?
I'm super excited about it. It's a really fun one and it's about love in the digital age that we're in right now and how important human connection is, but that that human connection can’t only be digital and through a screen. And it's very present in the moment that we're in, given the ongoing pandemic and isolation that we've all been going through. It's a love story about a girl trying to tell herself that connections through a screen are enough, but they end up not being enough.
I feel like the production and the style of the song has to do with the concept a lot, and that's why there is so much talk-singing and staccato. It's very different from “Checkmate,” still in the same realm, but very different based on the concept that it is.
A music video hasn't been shot yet, but it's gonna be shot very soon and I'm super excited about it. The concept plays with how all this might lead if we keep going to the path of not having real relationships and community and caring about each other, and how that's so important. It kind of is a dystopian-style video of where this all might lead if we don't focus on these real connections.
What is your songwriting process like?
It really depends for me. So how I grew up, I would write on my piano and guitar and I'd start with playing chords and melodies on the piano, and then that would turn into melodies in my voice and then that would turn into lyrics and then they all mesh together and that's still how I write a lot of the time. But now I do more co-writing and going in with producers and collaborating. I love to collaborate, and so I do that a lot. And that's mainly the producer will start playing or just start making some sort of beat and then the songwriter and I, or just me with the producer, will start brainstorming. Or maybe I have a concept or a lyric, and then that turns into more and it just kind of spirals from there.
@jenarosemusic Part 2 coming soon! Link in my bio to go comment! #checkmate ily guys & thank you for your support!! #fyp Checkmate - Jena Rose
Your future EP is called Baby, Maybe. What can fans look forward to about its release?
I can't wait for people to hear it. It's a lot in the same realm as “Checkmate” and “Digitally,” but there's also some ballads on there, and ballads have always been some of my favorite things to do. I'm excited about those, as well as some other songs that I'm just super pumped for people to hear.
I think showcasing the different sides of music was really important to me making the project, and so that's why I wanted to include ballads and we also included a lot of ‘80s production and cool, different, fun elements to the songs. I want it to say that I am a well-rounded artist and that I’m showcasing instrumentation and different sides of me that I haven't showcased before. So I think people are going to be really happy to listen and I hope that they get to know me more through this music.
You are signed to independent label Gem Street. Can you tell me what it's been like to rise in the industry as an independent artist?
I think it has benefited me greatly, as well as put some challenges in front of me that I've had to overcome, especially being a young independent artist. I started in the industry pursuing music when I was 12. I've been doing music my whole life, but at 12 I'm like, “Wow, I really want to do this.” So I started going at it, and of course, no one's really going to take a 12 year old seriously. And so for me, I was like, “Why not? I'm doing this, I'm passionate. I want to be taken seriously.” So up until the time I was like 17 or 18, no one took me seriously.
I felt like it was very hard for me to get my voice out there as a young independent artist, but being independent has helped me greatly and I do have a great team around me that pushes me every day and helps me so much. And I'm also grateful to keep a lot of the control. You hear a lot of horror stories, and so I'm very grateful that I've had the career that I have.
What else is important to know about you?
I always like to add that I am Cuban American. My dad came over from Cuba, and that's a really important part of my life and I hope to include Spanish into my music someday as well and really focus on bringing that side out of me and for people to relate to me as a Latin American artist.
I think it's inspired me so much and my style of music, as well, because I grew up hearing Cuban music in the house. And that style in Cuba, there's music on the streets everywhere and it's so vibrant and such an amazing culture and the people are so amazing and the sense of family— there's just so many incredible aspects to it that I've incorporated into who I am as a person and an artist and a musician and having that culture and that spark in my music.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Photography by: Courtesy Jena Rose