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Music

Jhené Aiko takes fans to ‘Wanderland’ with mysterious show

Space Jam

Jhené Aiko performs at Teragram Ballroom as part of her Aiko in Wanderland experience on Sept. 15.

(Keith Carlsen / Def Jam Records )

Jhené Aiko is discussing the inspiration behind the intimate, secret show she just pulled off an hour ago at downtown L.A.’s Teragram Ballroom, hoping that the rain outside won’t seep through the wood roof above.

The eclectic R&B singer is doing our interview from inside a cozy but ramshackle hut that was erected adjacent to the venue especially for her spontaneous pop-up show, Aiko in Wanderland.

Last week she teased Wanderland with a cryptic Twitter dispatch. “Curiouser and curiouser,” she wrote, along with a link to enter the online lottery that would send out the invitation to Tuesday’s event. Fans didn’t know it was a concert until they arrived at the venue, the details of which they didn’t know until the same day.  

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Directly after her stage performance, fans are filing through the structure in small groups. An herbalist offers them tiny mugs of a hand-crafted energy elixir. The smell of burning sage fills the tiny room while candles give it a warm glow. There’s even a duo trading riffs on a banjo and tambourine.

The offsite fan experience is all part of her show, and is an attempt to duplicate a transformative experience she had at the Lightning in a Bottle festival in California’s Central Coast that mixes music, art, culture and spiritual health. 

“I wandered into this little tea house, there was a little stage and a tea setup and I ended up doing a little singing,” Aiko said between sips of an herbal tea that promised focus and energy. “I wanted that experience,” she continued. “I wanted people to be able to wander and discover -- that’s not something you’d normally experience at a show.”

Using her affinity for Disney’s take on “Alice in Wonderland” (she sings an “Alice” tune on an upcoming Disney compilation) as a backdrop, she built her own entire production around a high concept show that folded in mystery, theatrics and innovative visuals. She also tracked down production company the ImagineNation -- which built the tea house she fell in love with at Lightning in a Bottle -- to set up a similar structure, which they built in under 10 hours. 

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“I enjoy theater so much. I’ve been so busy working and writing but I wanted to put together an experience. I didn’t want anyone to know what would happen,” Aiko said of the special concert. “People have seen my show with the band, but I wanted to show what more I could do. I wanted them to feel a part of something.”

Fan’s at Tuesday’s concert were required to leave cameras at home (the use of phones inside was prohibited), and the singer requested no reviews.

It’s not the first time she pulled off a surprise pop-up show. Last year she took over a West Hollywood marijuana dispensary for a small acoustic set to celebrate her debut, “Souled Out.”

Tuesday’s show was far more ambitious, however.

Aiko stripped back deeply confessional fan favorites like early mixtape cut “Space Jam,” “Comfort Inn Ending” and “W.A.Y.S.” (“Why Aren’t You Smiling?” her brother Miyagi’s favorite saying and the last words her tweeted before he died of cancer in 2012) with just the piano. And she commissioned visuals that fell in line with the night’s theme, although we can’t write what they were.

The singer is hoping to take the Aiko in Wanderland experience to the markets she didn’t visit on last year’s Enter the Void headlining tour, although she’s mum on where and in what capacity. She’s holding on tightly to the show’s mysterious tone, and rightfully so -- the few hundred fans who made it into Tuesday’s show spent most of the night gasping and cheering.

“We didn’t know if we could pull it off,” Aiko admits as a fan balanced her teacup and show poster with her smartphone in order to snap pictures of the singer. “We were rehearsing right up until the show. I wanted to bring it back to having a real experience, [and] being in the moment.”

Aiko is a bit more forthcoming about new material. She closed the show with a dark introspective single titled “Still.”

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After riding a wave that included her first radio smash, a slot at Coachella, a well-received EP and debut album, plus three Grammy nominations, the 27-year-old is hard at work on the follow-up to last year’s “Souled Out.” She’s been playing around in the studio, freestyling verses -- instead of working out melodies and lyrics -- and just seeing what flows.

Known for her deeply personal narratives, she mentions her childhood, relationship with her father, death of her brother and raising her daughter amid a new level of popularity -- she winces at the word “famous” -- and depression as throughlines for her new music since it’s what’s currently weighing heaviest on her mind.

She’s even having a larger hand in producing. “It’s a little ambitious,” she says. “But it’s worth it to me.”

“It’s really just me exposing myself. There’s a lot of things happening in my life that I’m not afraid to talk about. There’s no holding back,” she said.

For more music news follow me on Twitter: @gerrickkennedy


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