In this profession, we are rarely lucky enough to talk to people whose stories are not only worth telling, but do so naturally.
And I had that luck, for the second time in my career, this week when I was able to sit down and talk with Nella Rojas, a Venezuelan singer and music producer currently based in New York.
From the comfort of her home, and with the naturalness that she conveys in her work, Nella told me the story of how a girl who was a fan of English-language pop became one of the most important singers on the Latin American scene today.
A Natural Calling
Born on the Venezuelan island of Margarita, Nella Rojas always knew that singing was her thing. “Despite having been in a choir, I felt I was never paid attention to. I felt ignored,” she tells me from her home in New York. “I remember I always asked for a solo and my teacher said no.”
The need to stand out went hand in hand with that natural call from those born to make their passion a profession and that, in the case of this Venezuelan, would be a radical change in her life story.
However, it was one album in particular that would set the tone.
“I remember, on the trips I made to visit my brother who lived in Barcelona, one of the places to go to was a record store. I could spend hours there. And it was Christina Aguilera’s Stripped album, the one where she breaks away from pop and does something a bit more jazz.”
Digging among the multiple hits of the 2000s pop icon, Nella dedicated herself, in an almost obsessive way, as she confesses, to repeat a thousand times, to imitate and learn every note, every movement, and every gesture.
“The good thing about this is that I got hooked on one of the singers with an incredible vocal range, and with admirable vocal acrobatics. Among them were also Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, all those singers known for their voices.”
Moving from Aguilera to jazz was quite natural, as she recalls. Artists like Etta James, Sarah Vaughan, and Louis Armstrong helped her not only to tune her vocal cords but also to learn English.
“When I came home from school, instead of wanting to play Nintendo, I would lock myself up for hours and hours with the music on,” she recalls, still trying to hide what she was learning in a self-taught way.
“The moment when my father began to believe that what he was hearing was my voice was a day in singing class. When he went to pick me up, my teacher deliberately went down to get him, while I stayed in a room singing. When Dad arrived, she said, ‘Do you hear that voice?’ He said, ‘Yes, it’s beautiful.’ ‘Well, that’s your daughter,’ my teacher said. He couldn’t believe it.”
From that moment on, people at home began to realize that it wasn’t just a hobby.
Time to Leave Home
Since Venezuela, like so many other Latin American countries, is a centralized country, a large part of the young people made the pilgrimage from their homes to the great universities of the capital.
Nella would be no exception.
At 17, she moved to Caracas and, after convincing her parents that she was “serious” about music, she agreed to get a degree while continuing to educate her voice.
“I studied at the Escuela Contemporánea de la Voz with Alejandro Zavala, the best singing teacher I have ever had. However, even though he tried to get me into Venezuelan and Brazilian music, I didn’t get hooked. I always felt very estranged.”
At the same time, she was studying Social Communication at the Monteávila University. But a year after doing both, she decided to “organize the priorities.”
“I sat my parents down and said: ‘Very nice career, but I want to change priorities,” she recalls.
The family consensus was that Nella should find a good school, and that turned out to be Berklee.
A Sacrifice That Pays Off
It was thanks to the recommendation of her harmony teacher that Nella decided to try it out at the home of musicians like Diana Krall, Juan Luis Guerra, and Quincy Jones.
“I told him no, that Berklee was for geniuses, for the gifted. But I decided to give it a try. I studied like crazy, went to Boston, went through the whole admissions process and got in.”
This moment was key for the singer. Not only had she been accepted at one of the most important schools in the history of music, but she had done it with a song by Ella Fitzgerald, even though the iconic Venezuelan musician Aquiles Baez had recommended that she do it with a Venezuelan merengue, sung a cappella.
“I told him no, that I didn’t sing Venezuelan music, and that I didn’t want to do anything I didn’t know how to do, let alone a 5 x 8, without an instrument,” she recalls.
Despite not having received any kind of funding, her family made an effort to support her during the first semester in Boston, after which she managed to get almost a full scholarship and become, as she recalls, “one of the most recognized Latin singers in the university.”
One of life’s paradoxes turned out to be that, despite her reluctance to sing Venezuelan music, it was precisely a Venezuelan merengue that would open the doors and ears of people like Ilan Chester and Gilberto Santarosa.
“That’s when you tell yourself that things happen for a reason. It was a moment that made me connect with my roots, to find again the music where I come from. I found a connection with the lyrics and with the rhythm, with the harmony, that I had never found before. Also with the honesty, which I think is very necessary to sing, to make music, because I think people appreciate it, people know when you’re really doing it and when you’re faking it. That’s why, from that moment on, everything I do and everything I sing I do because I want to, because it comes naturally, and because I feel it.”
One Meeting Changes the Course of Things
Getting to Berklee wasn’t so easy.
“I was surrounded by singers who sang three times as much music as I was supposed to be able to sing,” she recalls with laughter, saying that while she was comfortable with jazz or pop, what she really wanted, like that little girl she once was in Venezuela, was to stand out.
“I wanted to be recognized and have people call me to sing.”
It was curiously thanks to an American that her opportunity would come.
“He was a musician who played the mandolin and who asked me to sing ‘La Negra Atilia’ at his recital. When I listened to it, when I read the lyrics and that it spoke of the city of Porlamar, where I am from when I heard the melody – which is super difficult and super complex because it was originally written for mandolin and then Henry Martínez wrote the lyrics – I fell in love. I started learning it, so much so that I started singing it in my concerts. And through ‘La Negra Atilia,’ well, there have been many surprises and many joys like Javier Limón hearing me for the first time”.
The famous Spanish producer and composer is not only a professor at Berklee, but has made a name for himself through his work with musicians like Diego El Cigala, Bebo Valdés, Paco de Lucía, and Andrés Calamaro.
“Even though we were friends and he had heard me sing before, this was the song that caught his attention. He came up to me and asked: ‘Where did you come from?’”
Thanks to the fact that the composition is not very far from flamenco, the musical paths of both would be united in a project that today has the form of an album.
Nella remembers the words of her now producer when he told her that “he became Nella for two years.”
“He told me he saw himself in the mirror and couldn’t find himself. He wrote all the lyrics thinking about me,” says the singer about Voy, her first album composed in collaboration with Limón.
Songs like “Me Llaman Nella,” “Volveré a Mi Tierra,” and “Voy” are now part of the Latin American music repertoire, and have become hymns for the Venezuelan diaspora.
Back to Her Roots
This process of personal discovery allowed the singer to rediscover her roots and merge them with that original concept she offers us today – a mixture that, amid laughter, we were unable to define in our conversation.
It was thanks to social networks that she has been able to connect with thousands of Venezuelan fans and followers all over the world, those who accompany her at every one of her events when she travels.
“I think the type of music and my lyrics have made it easy to spread the word,” she confesses. “I feel they’ve found a little bit of light, because of my voice, because of the lyrics or maybe because of the fact that sometimes I sing Venezuelan songs that I feel have marked my career.”
In this way, Nella has received the baton of Venezuelan singers who have also marked entire generations, such as Ilan Chester with whom she had the pleasure of collaborating on one of the songs on her album.
“I don’t feel that I sing Venezuelan music as such,” she confessed. “I don’t think I’m a folk singer, but you can find it in my concerts where I always sing songs that I feel marked that moment. I honor that moment when my roots came back to me.”
The Power of a Woman’s Voice
Today, Nella Rojas has been recognized at home and abroad as one of the most powerful voices of her generation, joining singers like Natalia Lafourcade, Mon Laferte, and Linda Briceño in a unique musical phenomenon: the revolution of the female voice.
And the struggle is twofold.
“For me, there was something that was very important. It wasn’t just that you were a woman, but that you were a singer,” she explains.
“Sometimes among musicians, among instrumentalists, they refer to singers as singers and not as musicians. And for me it was very important precisely for that reason, at Berklee, to study voice but also to make a career out of the production and composition part, to be able to be in a studio and not be discriminated against, as often happens. The fact that you are a woman changes many things; the fact that you are Latina changes even more. And then, the fact that you’re a singer makes them assume that you’re just a voice and that’s it.”
“For me it has been important all this new movement that has happened with people like Linda Briceño, like MV Caldera, Mariana Vega Rosalía – who says she is going to work non-stop until we see more women in a studio than men. For me it’s very important the whole process that’s going on and I think it’s very natural.”
Along with her colleagues, Nella confesses to witnessing a generation of “warrior” women, activists and talented women with similar visions, whose experience of living in New York has prepared them for everything and united them in an invaluable support network.
“As I read recently, ‘I want to be the woman who fixes the other one’s crown, not the one who takes it off,'” she said. “I think if we don’t support each other, it’s very difficult for others to believe in us.”