Raised in Corsicana, Texas, Jalesa Jessie, a.k.a. Chief Cleopatra, grew up feeling stifled by the limitations of her rural environment. In a small town best known for producing honky-tonk songwriter Lefty Frizzell and a “world famous fruitcake,” according to Jessie, she always felt like an outsider. But this outsider status has carried her all the way to the precipice of something big, with the imminent release of her second EP Luna, a follow-up to 2020’s self-titled EP and her first on Park The Van Records. Today she premieres “Afrodite,” the final single before the EP drops on March 4th.
Luna finds Jessie delving deeper into her psychedelic soul roots and more experimental instrumentation, with featured production by singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Walker Lukens and performances by Curtis Roush and Jack O’Brien (The Bright Light Social Hour). “Afrodite” evokes the joy of love – not the heady ephemerality of infatuation, but the peace of consistency and belief in its lasting power. In the chorus she sings “I ain’t got nowhere to be, but with you,” layered over riffs that float along as though suspended in air, flecks of dust captured in the sunlight of a summer golden hour.
“‘Afrodite’ is myself in cosmic form… The goddess of love, eternal and insouciant,” Jessie says. “It’s a special, carefree, universal love song that ties together the very human yet otherworldly intergalactic joyride that is Luna. It’s a romance that starts on the ground and moves beyond the stars as they align.”
There is no insecurity here; there is no question of when or if the lover will leave. There is only right now, and the choice to enjoy the beauty of the present moment, rather than worry about when it will dissolve.
Jalesa Jessie’s first foray into music was classical training on piano, learning in competition with her sister. She quickly realized she lacked the patience to sit and practice for hours at a time, but those lessons revealed her ability to play by ear.
As a teenager, she dove deep into the sonic influences surrounding her (mainly gospel and soul) as well as exploring her newfound interest in rock ’n’ roll: Talking Heads, Smashing Pumpkins, Led Zeppelin. Her parents bought her the Zeppelin discography – alongside her first drum set. “I taught myself how to drum listening to John Bonham. [My parents] didn’t know anything about Led Zeppelin, but they knew I was really into it, so… that was cool,” ,” she says with a laugh.
She moved to Austin 2012in search of greater musical opportunities, and quickly connected with guitarist Leonard Martinez, who would become her longtime collaborator. They began jamming together with a series of bands over the next few years, but when none of it panned out, the pair forged their own path and began producing music under Jessie’s new moniker, Chief Cleopatra. They released a collaborative EP, Lesa x Lenny Vol.1, in 2019.
From there, it’s been a constant up-and-up. Her biggest inspiration these days is Tina Turner – after watching the recent HBO documentary, she realized, “I wanted to be the next black female rock star.” And she’s well on her way – the band was quickly noticed by and featured in the Austin Chronicle, as well as by KUTX, performing on the station’s popular hip-hop and R&B show The Breaks in 2019, resulting in the band being invited to play the third annual Summer Jam in 2020.
Though Cleopatra’s new sonic direction echoes fellow pop experimenters Blood Orange and Thundercat, that isn’t to say it will remain that way. “I’m an outsider, I’m an underdog,” Jessie maintains, describing her own genre-bending sound. “Being a Black kid growing up in Corsicana, nobody expected me to be over here liking rock bands, so I’ve always been an outsider in a sense, or outcast, in my hometown. My music is for people with no limitations. People who want to mix all these genres together to make this universal sound, and that’s really what I’m trying to accomplish.”