Jessica Fichot will be here next week for the final performance of our FREE Summer Series and we cannot wait. Sit down with us as we chat about songwriting, video games and the challenges of being an indie artist in today’s music scene. And check out her performance on August 31 at the Hult Center. The show starts at 5:30 and is absolutely FREE!
The following text is a transcript from the Jessica Fichot episode of the Hult Center Podcast, recorded on July 7, 2023
Hult Center: You are listening to the Hult Center Podcast, and today I am sitting down with Jessica Fichot and she is performing at the Summer Series on August 31st, which is our free outdoor event. So come on down on August 31st at 5:30 to the Hult Center and check it out. Jessica, thanks so much for talking with me.
Jessica Fichot: Thanks for having me.
Hult Center: Of course. So we’re going to start right from the beginning in case people aren’t familiar with your work. So it is extremely eclectic and it’s an amazing mix of different world sounds. So where did you start? How did this all come together?
Jessica Fichot: Well, I grew up in France, and after I moved to the US I went to college for music in Boston, and then I moved to LA and the music I had ignored as a child, the French Chanson, you call the French music. I started to get more into it after I discovered a lot of bands who would sing here in Los Angeles, who would sing in different languages, particular Spanish and English. So I got interested in rediscovering the language I had kind of ignored in my youth, and I wasn’t ignoring it because I was speaking it every day, but I was ignoring it for music. It just seemed kind of lame to me. And so after I moved to LA I was like, “Everybody else is doing music in English. I want to do something that’s different.”
And I started to listen to older songs in French. And so that got me started with the French music that I started writing, rediscovering the song, French language, I had ignored as a kid. And then my mom is originally from Shanghai from China, and so I was like, “Okay, my Chinese is terrible, but I’m going to learn a little bit [inaudible] and learn some songs in Chinese.” And then I started writing some songs in Chinese with the help of a lyricist, and I got into that as well. And living here in California, I started speaking more Spanish and I started singing some songs from Mexico doing some covers in different languages.
So that kind of got me started in singing music in different languages. So French is kind of the main language I write in for my band, but I sing also in English and Mandarin Chinese and in Spanish. And I love that people find my music eclectic. I think sometimes people, when I describe my music saying it’s in different languages, that it has some Chinese, that it has some French, people think of it as, without hearing it, as music that’s going to be a little bit difficult to access. But I like to think it’s very harmonically, very simple. A lot of the melodies are very catchy, and I like to think it’s very accessible music really.
Hult Center: Yeah, I think it is for sure. It’s not overwhelming, it’s just in general quite pleasant to listen to, I would say.
Jessica Fichot: Oh, well thank you. I like to hear that, yeah.
Hult Center: Did you study at Berkeley College of Music or-
Jessica Fichot: Yes. Yes, I did.
Hult Center: Okay, very cool. For people that don’t know because we’re on the West Coast, Berkeley College of Music is, I don’t know, one of the best music colleges in the country, I would say.
Jessica Fichot: Well, I had a great time and it was a while ago when I went there, but I definitely enjoyed my experience there.
Hult Center: What are the challenges that you faced as an independent artist, and how have you overcome these?
Jessica Fichot: Well, I don’t know that I have overcome that, it’s a constant challenge. I mean, I think it’s always tricky to… Like I said, when you’re an indie artist, and I hate to say it, but unknown indie artist, it’s always tricky, first of all to book the gigs and also to get people to the shows. And it’s still something I struggle with, but I work with an agent now. She books these really cool venues like the Hult Center, for example. It’s not something that would be easy to access for a lot of independent musicians. But because of the style music I do, because it’s cultural and also because you guys have a free summer concert series that’s accessible to the public, it’s cool to be able to play these kinds of venues. In terms of the challenges, I mean just financially as an indie musician, it is tricky.
And I was thinking actually, so this concert I’ll be playing at the Hult Center is part of a three gig tour that I’ll be doing in August and September, and Oregon has been actually one of the first states I toured in. The first obviously was
California, after I put my band together over a decade ago. And then I started touring up and down Oregon. And it used to be that I used to be able to do those tours because I sold CDs. Of course, now it’s different. I still sell some, but not quite as many. I think as an indie musician, I’ve been able to do music full time by doing a lot of different things. So I tour with my band, also my first gig as a musician was I used to write songs for ESL program, songs for kids to teach English as part of educational programs. And I also do interactive music for video games, for indie video games. So I do those three things as my music core.
Hult Center: Yeah, an investor might say that you’ve diversified your portfolio.
Jessica Fichot: Yeah, exactly.
Hult Center: I have questions about those other things, but go ahead and continue, sorry.
Jessica Fichot: No, no, that’s about it. I mean, I think being a full-time musician is challenging. I think it’s challenging for everyone who tries to go in that field. But really diversify your portfolio and also adapting to the changes. Like I said earlier, when I was first, first touring, it was really merch sales that made me able to go on tour. Now it has to be a little bit different. I’ve upgraded a little bit the types of venues I play and the type of touring I do. I don’t sleep on people’s couches anymore, although that part was fun. But yeah, you have to adapt.
Hult Center: Yeah. Yeah. It’s interesting because no matter the level of the musician, no one really speaks highly of streaming, but it’s become the complete norm.
Jessica Fichot: Yeah, and I think it has advantages too in terms of… I mean, it is a challenge to find a way to make income as an indie musician. And streaming hasn’t helped my CD sales.
Hult Center: But accessibility, I guess-
Jessica Fichot: Absolutely.
Hult Center: … anyone in the world can now hear your music really easily. So it’s got positives and negatives.
Jessica Fichot: Of course.
Hult Center: So what was the motivation to work with children’s music and things like that? Is there a personal connection or was it an opportunity just as a musician that you saw that you could work with?
Jessica Fichot: It was really just opportunity. I mean, the way I see it with my band, I don’t consider that we do… we do music for everyone that’s open for families. It’s not necessarily children’s music. What I do, writing songs for educational programs, that was the first gig I got out of college. I started writing music for children’s theater that was local. And I remember it was local in Boston, and I was so proud of having a job as a songwriter, even though it paid $25 a song, it was like, “This is awesome.” And I think it helped me develop my craft as a songwriter. I think I really liked being able to write unapologetically simple songs.
And I think sometimes it’s a little tricky for musicians who have studied music, sometimes we are a little afraid to write simple. I love simple melodies, I even like simple harmonies. Yeah, I came across it because an opportunity showed up or arose to write music for children for this theater and later for ESL programs. There was a publishing company in Boston that hired me out of college to write, I think my first gig was 20 songs that were a part of books, so to teach, “Oh, this lesson’s about farm animals and this lesson…” So I started with that, it was my first gig as a songwriter, and it just kind of fell in my lap. But then I think I developed that craft of writing really simple music.
Hult Center: Yeah, no, that’s interesting. It’s like you had to churn it out, but then you’re also developing this craft at the same time. Yeah.
Jessica Fichot: Yeah. I mean, I hope so. It’s still work in progress. It’s still hard. I’ve been doing it for so long.
Hult Center: Of course.
Jessica Fichot: And writing a song also with no deadlines… I’ve been working on an album that’s been almost done for three years on a fourth album, and it doesn’t get easier in terms of writing a song and just finishing it when nobody’s pressuring me to finish it.
Hult Center: I get that, yeah.
Jessica Fichot: Yeah. It took me a long time to do all my albums. I have three that are released. I’ve released one for a video game that I wrote. But this fourth one, I thought, “Okay, well, I’ve done three at this point. This one’s going to be easy.” And it hasn’t been. It hasn’t been easy to finish, for sure.
Hult Center: Yeah. I find the worst is when it doesn’t sound the way you imagined it because if it’s your fourth, you want it to be a little bit better here and there. You want to improve upon things, so then you’re over listening to stuff to a certain point, and it’s like, “Do you make it worse or better?” It’s hard to say.
Jessica Fichot: Absolutely. I actually wrote a song about writing songs, and it’s going to be on the next album, but I’ve been performing it for a while now, and I talk about this process in this song where it is such a struggle. And I struggle and I have a few ideas, and then there’s a moment where I think, “This is the best song I’ve ever written, and I’m actually a genius.” And then I just kind fall into this, “I’m not sure, no, I’m just going to throw it away.” And just kind of this self-doubt. And after a while, after you’ve worked on something for so long, you don’t have any perspective anymore, so you don’t know if it’s good or not. Sometimes I do songwriting workshops, and one thing I advise to people and advice that I don’t take myself is to show the song. When you have something, find somebody you know and trust and make them listen to what… have them listen to what you have, because I think you have a little bit more perspective sometimes that way.
Hult Center: Yeah. Yeah. That’s another question, you’re psychic. You’re hitting my questions before I can ask that. So let’s jump into that. What other advice would you give aspiring musicians and songwriters other than, have people listen to your music?
Jessica Fichot: Yeah, when you’re not feeling secure or when you’re not sure, it does help to have another ear. I would say another advice I would give to musicians or anybody in that field is to have a little bit of a sense of humor about yourself. I mean, there’s going to be sometimes… I mean, it’s almost a joke, how you can go from one day where you not just are feeling down, but you’re doing this maybe very difficult gig and it feels it could be kind of humbling. But then the next day you have this amazing thing that happens and maybe you’re playing this really amazing venue. Or maybe even you have a group of fans who show up and they’re like, “Oh, I’ve been listening to your music for years.” It can feel really good, but enjoy the ups and downs, I would say.
Hult Center: Good, that’s nice. Let’s circle back to video games. Is this another opportunity, or are you a video game nerd yourself? How did you get into that world?
Jessica Fichot: Well, I’ve always played video games, specifically PC games that I grew up with. I was talking to my friends the other day, the difference between a nerd and a geek. I don’t know, I mean I play games. I would be hesitant, I mean, I don’t know if I would qualify as a gamer, but I’ve been playing games all my life, and I love indie games, the games that I played as a kid. Now there’s kind of a revival of the style in the indie world. And so I started to write for games. I took an online class actually at Berkeley online a few years ago. And then to learn specifically about sound design and especially interactive music, so music that works. It’s almost more important that the music works for the context as opposed to the music being good. If you have good music that just keeps on looping in a game, it just kind of drives you crazy.
The music shouldn’t feel overwhelming if you’re playing a very calm game or maybe just exploring the world, learning about this type of music that’s more atmospheric, doesn’t feel like it’s bothering you. That was tricky. But also how to integrate it in the game. I don’t know a lot of programming, but there’s a middleware software where you can integrate the music in a game. And also when you’re writing the music, you have to figure out, “Okay, how is this actually going to work?” Like, here we have a loop here. When your big boss arrives, maybe the music changes. How is it going to change in a way that it doesn’t feel like it’s changing, it’s seamless. All this is, it’s quite tricky and gets a little bit technical but it’s fun.
Hult Center: Yeah, because you’re doing music cues, but they can’t rely on just one solid piece of music because someone could walk from one end of the screen much slower than someone else. So to get to the boss fight, for someone it might take five seconds. For someone else, it might take 10 seconds. So that cue still has to work.
Jessica Fichot: And for some people it might take five hours.
Hult Center: Yeah, exactly.
Jessica Fichot: Yeah, either way it has to work, and that’s definitely one of the challenges. But it’s also fun like to find… Because I work on, so far, really very indie games, I have control over how I want the music to work, and every game has a little bit its own system. So the last game I did, I wrote the music for, it’s called Grow Robot, came out… Oh, when was it? I guess almost a couple of years ago now, a year and a half. And it worked with layers. So every level maybe had one layer, and every room would have an additional layer, and the layers would kind of fade in and out. So different games have different systems.
Hult Center: Yeah, that’s awesome. And when they work together seamlessly, it’s like when you’re playing a game, you don’t even notice it kind of, but your brain does.
Jessica Fichot: Exactly.
Hult Center: Because sometimes I find myself, I’m like, “Oh, I want that video game soundtrack.” And it’s not like you were listening to the video game soundtrack, but it was a part of your whole journey in that video game. So it’s a pretty unique experience to-
Jessica Fichot: Yeah, exactly.
Hult Center: … experience music, yeah.
Jessica Fichot: Yeah, sometimes you feel it more than hear it.
Hult Center: Yeah. Yeah, that’s a good way to describe it. Video games have a unique power. I think we kind of lose… There’s so many violent video games that are just focused on that. The art of video games, which we’re seeing with indie developers, it’s very important. And I think it’s much more of an art than people are giving it credit for.
Jessica Fichot: I mean, it’s funny because I am so much in the indie video game world. I actually feel at this point, I haven’t worked on a game very recently, but I’m still part of that community. I mean, I think quite a friendly community, and when I talk to people who don’t know much about video games, I find myself defending the medium quite a lot because I know the types of games I play and the types of game that can be made. And it’s definitely not only violent shooter games.
Hult Center: What are some themes that you like to explore in your music? You talked about writing a self-aware song about writing a song, but for people that maybe don’t speak French or things like that, what’s your subject matter in general when you are singing?
Jessica Fichot: Yeah, that’s a tricky one. I mean, I’ll write whatever I feel inspired by. This album is a little different because in the past I did write a lot of songs about love, specifically loss of love. And it’s not like I don’t have any loss of love songs in this slowly upcoming album, but I have a little bit less. I always tell people there’s a debate among songwriters, do you write when you’re happy or do you write when you’re depressed or sad? And I think I write more when I’m maybe not happy, but content. But thinking about the times when I was not, because the moments when I’m actually very sad or depressed or melancholic, I will not have the energy to write a song.
But thinking about those moments afterwards, at a time when I’m actually feeling comfortable with my life or just joyful and I have this drive to write, then I’ll usually revert back to those more introspective moments and write about that experience. So loss of love had been a topic in the past, there’s still some of that. And songs about travel sometimes, but I can’t quite pinpoint a particular subject. There’s a lot of different ones. And even actually in this, like I said, slowly upcoming album, I recount a story that somebody told me that’s actually not my experience, but I thought it was very moving and-
Hult Center: Nice.
Jessica Fichot: … it’s just some things that inspire you and things you feel touched by. Yeah.
Hult Center: That’s cool. I personally just throw spaghetti at the wall and just put words together that kind of fit. Whenever I do this and I’m like, “Oh, that kind of makes sense.”
Jessica Fichot: Do you write lyrics and music?
Hult Center: Yeah, yeah.
Jessica Fichot: Okay. Which one do you write first?
Hult Center: I do them simultaneously.
Jessica Fichot: I get that.
Hult Center: Yeah. So if I am writing a vocal melody, going along with some guitar part, words will just come out, and then those words might make it through the whole thing, sometimes they don’t.
Jessica Fichot: Right. I’ve done this too, sometimes they’re temporary because you want to sing something. And I also think for me, I mean, I always find it fascinating, people can write different ways. I don’t think there’s one right one, but for me, I’m not an amazing instrumentalist, so it’s better for me to write with my voice because if I wrote, for example, on the piano, I would be limited by my piano skills. Whereas if I write with my voice and then try to figure out what the piano’s going to do, or even hire somebody else to do it could work a little bit better. But I often write with concept first. So it’s lyrical concept and groove concept. I mean, that could happen simultaneously. It could be just like, “Oh, I really want to write a song about writing songs, and I think it’s going to be really uptempo and probably a little jazz manouche style, and the words are going to be very fast.” And then I’ll write that.
Hult Center: Yeah, cool. That’s always interesting to hear people’s process. And how do you engage with your audience? Do you connect with them on a personal level? Are you just kind of in the shadows and what’s your style?
Jessica Fichot: Well, because I sing in languages that people in the audience don’t necessarily speak, and actually I feel very comfortable with that. Sometimes when I sing too much in English, that makes me a little bit self-conscious, I like singing in these languages. If people or some people in the audience are like me, I like to listen to music. I don’t necessarily understand, or I don’t necessarily understand every single word, but I like the sound of it. And so because I sing in these other languages, I’ll talk. I usually talk a little bit about the song, whether it’s the content of the lyrics or just how I came across it, if there was any history to it. And I find that for the most part, unless I’m doing really background music, because I do some gigs and I play background music, that I feel like people really connect with the little stories.
So that’s one of the ways I engage. The other thing is I do a lot of songs that are quite lively where people can clap or just possibly dance if they know some dance moves. But recently I found that I… actually just in the last month, I played a lot… I think I played a dozen school assemblies here in Los Angeles where I played for kids. And I discovered there’s some songs, any song where there’s any kind of interaction, even if it’s clapping or a song gets faster and faster at the end, the kids really liked it. I was like, “Okay, this is really interesting to see these songs.” Those kind of interactive songs tend to work well. And I’ve added some songs that have a question/answer feel, where I’ll sing something and then the crowd repeats it or yells it back. And it worked really well with the kids. And even if it was in different languages, even I do this song in Chinese and the kids were singing it with the Chinese lyrics.
Hult Center: That’s cool.
Jessica Fichot: Because it was very simple and… Yeah.
Hult Center: Yeah, I like that.
Jessica Fichot: So that’s another way, yeah.
Hult Center: Jessica, where can people find your music and tune in?
Jessica Fichot: Well, I have a website, it’s www.jessicasongs.com. I use the website Jessica songs because people don’t always know how to write my name, which is Jessica Fichot. And I also have Instagram and Facebook and YouTube, Jessica Fichot music. So that’s-
Hult Center: Great, awesome. So come on down to the Hult Center, Thursday, August 31st at 5:30 for our free Summer Series show with Jessica Fichot. It’s going to be great.
Jessica Fichot: Thank you.
Hult Center: Thanks so much.
Jessica Fichot: Thank you.