Soul singer Jen Awad melds the grittiness of punk rock into Aretha-style R&B
When the rising L.A. soul singer Jen Awad performs her standout single “Break a Man,” some of her fans take it as kind of an instruction manual.
“It don’t take much, just a little trust,” she sings, in a deep and throaty alto halfway between Tina Turner and Amy Winehouse. “It started out, yes, a false pretense / See you always thought you were innocent … gonna show you how to break a man.”
Given today’s upheavals around gender and power dynamics, it’s tempting to read her single as a well-earned misandry ballad. Awad’s totally fine with that, but she swears she meant it empathetically: It doesn’t take a lot to break men, so take some pity on them.
“I wrote that after reading this Esquire magazine feature about ‘100 Ways to Build a Man,’ and I was bawling at all these moments, like ‘Have a catch with Dad.’ I was sad about it because I grew up around so many men who were broken,” Awad said. “It’s more about fragility, that it takes nothing to make men broken. But I love the different interpretations of that song — that it can be empowering for women in the #MeToo movement or be something men can identify with.”
That’s a generous sentiment from a female soul singer in a time when her peers are reckoning with R. Kelly’s predations, among other long-overdue course corrections. But Awad’s sound is kind of like that: generous yet assertive, a blend of throwback-ish sentiment and modern aesthetics. When so many of her R&B peers are going sleek and minimal, Awad is way out in front, holding almost nothing back.
“I always wanted to sing like Aretha, but I’d been going to all these metal shows and I didn’t know if it was the right move,” Awad said. “But it felt like a rite of passage, to keep the grittiness and performance of punk rock in classic R&B.”
Awad, who headlines the Echo’s Monday night residency for the rest of January, didn’t get much sonic influence from her Egyptian and Peruvian parents, who weren’t especially musical (she got into ’90s punk and then soul music all on her own). But she did inherit a certain brashness and outsize personality from them.
“I think the gaudiness of both cultures may have inspired my aesthetic,” Awad said. “Egyptians are very loud, and when they get something new, they want to show it off. They’re big on flaunting, and if you go to an Egyptian wedding, the women are wearing glittery tops and everyone’s dancing. And Peruvians love bright colors; even when you go to a funeral, that’s what you wear.”
That theatricality is a huge part of her performances. By day, Awad owns and designs for several clothing lines, including a self-titled women’s label and a menswear line, 900, that supplies the stage get-ups for her backing band. While working on her own music, she became an in-demand tour outfit designer, with custom work showing up on Kali Uchis, Bebe Rexha and Keyshia Cole, among many others.
At her Echo performances, she puts just as much thought into the visuals and coordination of her live set as she does into rehearsing the music. That attention to detail and desire to put on a show is, for her, “a sign of respect. This is me thanking you for your time, that I’m going to give you what you came for,” she said. “When James Brown performed, everyone dressed up. It’s putting a distance between the audience and performer. It’s the whole point of why I design clothes; it changes the atmosphere when you put something on.”
When she starts singing, that atmosphere spans generations of soul music. Her influences run from Cocoanut Grove-era jazz singers like Etta James and Sara Vaughan to the hip-hop-steeped era of Lauryn Hill, Raphael Saadiq and Winehouse.
“Hungover” is a swampy bit of Muscle Shoals-style R&B, a little regretful about a big night out but mostly reveling in the freedom that put her in bed with a brutal headache. “Love Is Dead,” her breakout single, is a little more mournful but boiling over with gospel harmonies and an incandescent vintage glow.
“I was born too late,” she sings, perhaps to an old fling or maybe to soul music itself. “Ain’t nothing new / I miss loving you just like some nostalgic fool.”
“The only mission I have in performing is to feel stuff and feel OK about it. We’re all submitted into being indifferent about everything today, and it’s not OK,” she said.
Awad takes that job seriously. But her zesty live shows are also kind of a personal challenge to L.A.’s reputation for being a little chilly and pent-up at shows. Maybe she is, in a way, trying to break you a little bit when she walks out there.
“Even last night when I was playing, I could see one dude with his arms crossed,” Awad said. “I was like ‘I’m gonna work on you for a bit. I put a half pound of extensions in my hair so you could enjoy yourself.’ ”
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When: 9 p.m. every Monday in January
Where: The Echo, 1822 Sunset Blvd., and Echoplex, 1154 Glendale Blvd., L.A.
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