The exuberance of Indian origin singer Jessie Hillel

By Indira Laisram
Jessica Hillel

If the lockdowns have allowed people to take a pause to whatever they are doing, for Jessie Hillel, 20, born to Malayalee parents and based in Melbourne, they have helped morph her career path into an exciting one. As a singer, she won a major award last year and she has just released a new song (more on that later).

Jessie Hillel, who goes by the name Jhm (pronounced Jim), finished high school in 2019. Her plan for 2020 was to write songs, produce and release them when the lockdown happened. The live music scene struggled and there was not much opportunity for musicians. “It became a situation of either you do nothing and wait, or you learn the skills yourself,” she reflects.

So Jhm got down to utilising her time listening to other people’s music, reading and walking ‘within the timeframe’ allowed. The cumulative effect: producing music demos on her own. It was a big learning curve in terms of all the things she had to learn herself, she admits. But what she came out with in the end are at its most earnest.

When Fed Square in collaboration with Creative Victoria announced the ‘Fed Live’ competition for Victorian musicians in October last year, Jhm had something near ready. Artists were required to record a performance and the videos were shortlisted to 10 entries by Music industry Panel.

Jhm (pronounced Jim)

Interestingly enough, Jhm stumbled upon the ad only three days prior to its due date. With only few days before the deadline, there was not much time to make a video and a new song. Fortunately, she happened to have a song she was working on for a university assignment early last year. “I thought why not just make the video side of things. My dad suggested to just put up an ad on Fiverr and see how it goes.”

Jhm ended up collaborating with someone from Nigeria and made a video in three days. “It was a lot of back and forth because of the time difference but it came together.”

The song titled The Rain, set to be released officially next year, ended up as the winner of the competition. “People voted for me and it was an honour to win and to be able to play at Fed Sq as well as the first gig of last year,” says Jhm.

The live gig in December was one of the prizes. She also bagged 5,000 dollars as cash prize and other industry prizes including career mentoring sessions with an A&R representative from Reclusive Records/Mushroom Group, a tailored publicity and radio campaign with Ditto Music, as well as a potential distribution deal which includes pitching to Spotify, Apple Music and other DSP curated playlists, among others.

But performing at Federation Square was her biggest high, she says. “There was a big crowd as people were just stepping out of the lockdown and it was lovely to see everyone as things had opened up. That stage is also on the way to my school and I had walked past that stage for four years thinking it will be great to play a gig here.”

‘Santorini’ single cover art

It wasn’t her first live performance though. Jhm, who was born and brought up in New Zealand before moving to Melbourne in 2015, was the runner up of New Zealand Got Talent when she was 10 and has always loved singing. She has played on Triple J Unearthed Radio, performed at TEDx New Zealand, to name a few.

When the family moved to Melbourne, Jhm started studying and singing classical music at the Victorian College of Arts. She recently slided into “the pop side of things with song writing and producing. I have always listened to pop music and grew up on a diet of pop CDs and what was playing on the radio. As a grown up, I started writing music more and been in that vein. It is a natural progression of things like, listening to more music and really wanting to make more things myself”.

In parallel to that, 2020 was going to be the 25th wedding anniversary for her parents. She and her sister had made travel plans but since they couldn’t do that, she wrote a song titled Santorini in replacement for travel with a holiday feel to it. “It was written for my parents. I recorded it at home and played it to them for the first time on their anniversary as well so they had the demo.”

When Jhm learnt Creative Victoria was launching a label, she submitted the same to them.

“At the start of this year, we had a meeting where all the final artists met. I played them Santorini and they said ‘yes, yes this one’. I said I just recorded it at home. But just to see how far it has come is crazy. And to have the opportunity to work with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, talented percussionists from interstate, and so many other fantastic people and to watch the track come live has been cool,” she says.

Jessica Hillel

So after winning Fed Live last year, Jhm was selected as one of the five artists to be signed to Creative Victoria’s new label Push Records, and through them released her new single called ’Santorini’, which has an adventurous mix of classical vocal techniques, layered harmonies, hip hop rhythms and orchestral flavours. In short, Jhm creates her own world of lush tropical beats with a contemporary flare.

Jhm describes song writing as a process that changes with each song. “Sometimes it feels super unconscious and therapeutic where it feels like my brain is telling me the way I feel about something as I’m writing the song, and other times I’ll start with a beat or a loop that generates a specific feeling to me and I’ll write a song around that with the intention of every choice being to push the feeling of the production more. In the end I want my songs to sound like different places and different feelings and I hope that comes across.”

Jhm, whose roots go back to Kerala, says Malayalam music, introduced to her by her grandparents on her annual holiday to India, has definitely been an inspiration. “I wish I could sing Indian and Malayali songs though.”

She is all set to release another song early next year and is working on a lot of demos at the moment. Asked if there is a pressure for representation give that she is brown, Jhm says, “It feels like it’s who I am. As I’ve grown up, I really just want to try and make everything I do as honest as it can be. And as someone that’s grown up around culture and women, this is just who I am and I just want to be better in what I do.”

True enough, Jhm understands her music in larger terms. She is on the right direction.

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