Stars Align for Chief Cleopatra with the Premiere of “Afrodite”

Photo Credit: Ismael Quintanilla III 

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.”

Follow Chief Cleopatra on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Mae Powell Savors Sensory Joys with “Scratch n Sniff” Premiere

Photo Credit: Grant Cluff

It already appears that summer 2021 will be unlike any that came before, in terms of the surreality of what we’ve experienced in the last year, the joy that it’s finally over, and the underlying anxiety of when the other shoe might drop. With that arises the need for appropriate new tunes, which is where Bay Area singer-songwriter Mae Powell comes in. Today she premieres the video for new track “Scratch n Sniff” on Audiofemme, off her debut album Both Ways Brighter, out August 20 on Park The Van Records.

Produced by Jason Kick (Mild High Club, Sonny and the Sunsets), the sunny acoustic indie folk evokes the feeling of someone like an Ingrid Michaelson, but updated for a more uncertain era, a little more akin to an Indigo De Souza. She wrote it when an ex sent her an unusual care package on a trip to visit her father in North Carolina a few years ago. “We were being pen pals, even though I was only gone for a week and a half, but we were just obsessed with each other,” she explains. “I think some people would probably [think] this is weird, but part of it was a piece of paper, and he had little circles on it and was like, this is my spit, this is my blood, this is my hair, this is a kiss. Literally had put pieces of himself on this paper.” It reminded her of scratch and sniff stickers, and the entirety of their relationship revealed to her the intimacy of analog communication. “Any time we were apart we would send each other postcards and shit, and it just felt like a piece of that person, because you’re like, oh you touched it! So even though it’s been in a bunch of hands since then, it’s still different than a text or a call or whatever.”

The song feels like the honeymoon phase of a relationship, but tempers it with a very current unease and the need to remain present, a certain brand of cautious optimism. “Clinging to the thought of unattachment because I know that everything will change/But clinging to the thought is still clinging to something/The way that works is strange,” Powell sings. She says this was intentional, that the album is as much about anxiety as it is about love.

“Normally when I play shows, I’m like oh my God, I’m putting everybody to sleep, because there’s a lot more slow songs, or I’ll write about anxiety. And sometimes when you’re at a show you’re like, do I want to hear songs about anxiety right now?” she says. “It’s the start of the second half of the record, and I feel like there’s a lot of contemplation and heavy themes and airing out the dirty laundry, and then you flip the record and it’s like okay, we’re happy! It’s chill! You have to have those moments of joy.”

What really sets it apart is the video itself, an animated short from Santa Barbara-based artist Emily Hoang. It’s all smiling celestial bodies and bright colors and flowers; the lens through which Powell observes her environment is somehow cute but not saccharine. The same way you can judge a book by its cover, you can judge Powell’s music by its visual elements, which adds an extra layer of thoughtfulness and intentionality to the whole package. “I don’t want it to just be an auditory experience, the visuals are super important to me,” she explains, “and I feel like I have a vision of rainbows and cute shit.” It coalesces to transport you further into Powell’s world, where the sun shines and mindfulness mutes anxiety about the future. 

Mae Powell plans to continue to experiment with animation on future videos, something she contemplates as she prepares for the album’s August release. After expanding her three-piece band to a five-piece, including a lap steel guitarist and a keyboard player, she’s preparing for her first show in eighteen months this Saturday, June 26 at the Red Museum in Sacramento. Besides that, she’s just easing herself into the new normal and “trying to figure it all out.”

All in all, she’s just excited for people to finally listen to these songs, a compilation of one-off tracks she wrote and refined over a period of years until she felt she had enough material for a cohesive whole. “Now it’s been two and a half years of the recording release process, plus the year since I wrote the songs, so it feels like old news to me, but I forget that most people have not heard these songs,” she says. “Things change when you share them with people, and I’m excited to have them exist in a world that’s not just like, in my head, or whatever.” Based purely off this small taste, it doesn’t seem like that’s such a bad place to be.

Follow Mae Powell on Instagram for ongoing updates.