Nexus Meets… Pena Hughes-John
Influenced by the likes of Tori Amos, Skunk Anansie, Kate Bush and Bjork, UK singer-songwriter Pena Hughes-Jones has a steampunk sound with a unique edge. We speak with Pena, also known as Alutepena, about her EP Lockdown, discovering live music and much more!
What is the backstory to the EP Lockdown?
The backstory to the main song, ‘Lockdown’, is as follows: From January 2020, there were two stories that were dominating the news, the first being Brexit, the other this “unknown” virus that had made its way to Europe from Wu Han. As time progressed and with more news reports emerging from its effects in the hospitals of Northern Italy, followed by the inevitable lockdown in the UK, I started to document the lockdown effects on all our lives. Many things we had taken for granted like going out, seeing fellow musicians performing, socialising, drinking, meeting friends, festivals – life is about to change. When before we would meet, hug, shake hands, hold hands, now it’s virtual hugs, distancing, face masks and sanitisers. So in April, I decided to document the inner frustrations that all of us were going through; the things lost like Mother’s Day, summer hols being postponed or cancelled, staying at home and life, in effect, being put “on hold” in favour of the world of Zoom and virtual gigs online.
‘Dreaming of a Dream’, the second song on the EP, was written many years ago and I decided to add it to the EP because whenever I performed this song many people found the ‘Dreaming of a Dream’ hook enjoyable to sing. Many of us have a dream where people were not targeted or hated just because they are different to us. Where countries do not look to bring war onto other countries- It is really a statement to say that we all have this dream of peace and we should make this dream come true for the sake of future generations.
‘You Will Never Meet Another Maria’ is actually a semi-instrumental version of the song ‘Nympho Maria’ recorded several years back. Those who have listened to this song remarked how much they enjoyed listening to it. I still had the tune in my head and I just wanted the excuse to re-release it. I changed the title so as to escape the explicit label to the track.
What was the writing and recording process like?
I found the writing process to be a form of escape, especially during this pandemic. ‘Lockdown’ was initially written as a slow ballad and first written on guitar (I’m not really a guitar player). I then recorded a rough home recording of the song and brought what I recorded into the studio where it was polished and additional guitar parts were recorded. The recording was initially to a drum loop with real drums added prior to the final mixdown and mastering.
‘Dreaming of a Dream’ was recorded from scratch at the recording studio. The saxophone and Hammond organ were added remotely by a musician friend of mine from his recording studio in Dorset and later added to the mix.
Both ‘Lockdown’ and ‘Dreaming of a Dream’ are taken from my forthcoming album, whereas ‘You will Never Meet Another Maria’ is not.
What do you hope people will take from Lockdown?
That despite the cliché “we’re in it together”, we generally are with many of us going through the same frustrations and loss of freedoms because of this. It depends on all of us to unite together, stay safe and eventually we will see the end of this pandemic. A time when all of us will be able to enjoy the things we used to prior to the lockdowns.
Which is your favourite and least favourite track on the EP?
There are two joint-favourites on the EP: ‘Lockdown’ and ‘Dreaming of a Dream’. ‘You will never meet another Maria’ would come in slightly behind but it’s only because I have heard this song so many times from when it was first released as ‘Nympho Maria’.
If you could change one thing about the EP what would it be?
Not to change the EP as such, but in hindsight, as with the album, I should have forwarded previews of the songs to a small group for their collective feedback on the EP in terms of genres. Genres are a necessary evil these days in terms of what category my music falls under. As I cross over many depending on the song, this has always been a subject of confusion.
This is your first release in three years, why weren’t you releasing material during that time?
Prior to the EP, I was releasing songs regularly accompanied with respective videos. I was also performing at festivals here and there, open mics, gigs. However, as time went by, I wanted to focus my energy on putting an album together, or in my case a double album. I’d also reached the stage where I re-evaluated myself as an artist and was not 100% happy with my brand. Being in the studio, writing and recording gave me some much needed time out from releasing any new songs. It also gave me ideas as to my branding for I was beginning to lose my way in that regard. I have no regrets from not actively releasing anything because it gave me that much needed time to discover my own identity as an artist, as well as the music direction that I need to follow.
The lockdown also gave me the opportunity not to gig or perform. I found prior to the lockdown that my songs and music was becoming stale. I did not spend much time in the studio and started to become bored performing the same songs over and over again. I had song sketches piling up but did not have time to complete them. The lockdown gave me that much needed time to get those songs finished and to revamp others. It also gave me the opportunity to record alternative versions of songs that I had overlooked in the past.
What advice do you have for emerging musicians at the moment?
I would say not to give up. Yes, there is a lot of hard graft involved. You’re going to get rejection. You may end up shelling out a lot of money to fulfil your dream. You may get to a point where because you feel you didn’t achieve what you want [yet] that you may want to throw the towel in. This advice is for all musicians of all ages: “It is never too late to be in music. The music scene caters for all and not just the ‘young’ musicians, despite what most media would have you believe!”
Do you have any future plans?
Yes, I have several things going on at once. There is the second (and final part) of my double album which I’m working towards; both parts of the double album being available in “old-school format” (CD) next year. Part 1 of the album – the online version – is due for release towards the ending of January. Once the double album is finished, I’m looking to work on a mini “theme” album which I’d been putting off for several years. I’m literally getting as much as I can recorded whilst we are in lockdown mode so that when the festivals and live events open up again I will have a good range of new songs to add to my set list.
Do you have a message for our readers?
Be true to yourself, believe in your ideals and kick the Doubting Thomas to the kerb!