In the music of 22-year-old singer/songwriter/guitarist Jess Kent, so many distinct elements come together to create an undeniable sound all her own. An England-born artist who has played guitar since age seven and spent her childhood busking with her brother, she’s also a self-taught producer with a natural skill for crafting boldly nuanced electronic music. Now based in Sydney, Kent’s mastered a potent approach to rapping that pairs her rapid-fire flow with lyrics both defiant and vulnerable. And in her breakout hit ‘Get Down’, Kent brings her melodic ingenuity and edgy sensibilities to a reggae-infused piece of alt-dance-pop that’s unforgettably vital.
The lead single from her forthcoming debut EP My Name Is Jess Kent, ‘Get Down’ recently emerged as the most frequently played song on national Australian radio station triple j and won the adoration of such superstars as will.i.am and Coldplay. With a brash energy born from her lifelong love of bands like Blondie and the Clash, ‘Get Down‘ also shows the emotional complexity of Kent’s artistry. “It’s one of those songs that’s an accumulation of a lifetime of thoughts,” says Kent of ‘Get Down’, which she began writing as a teenager in Adelaide. “Most of the lyrics are written from a place of feeling nostalgic and missing my friends, and thinking about all the fun we used to have just kicking around.”
Just as the sound of My Name Is Jess Kent gracefully fuses hip-hop and alt-pop and beat-heavy electronic music, the EP embodies an irresistibly powerful range of feeling. ‘The Sweet Spot’, for one, matches reggae-inspired rhythms with Kent’s reflections on holding true to her dreams, while ‘Low Key’ channels her soulful vocals into a breezy meditation on love and expectation. Switching gears for a moment of pure escapism, ‘Bass So Low‘ is a futuristic party anthem that pays brilliant tribute to Missy Elliott. And on ‘Trolls‘, Kent offsets the song’s dreamy synth with her gutsy stance against the destructive side of social media. “That song came from thinking about how my generation feels this need to share everything all the time, and how the online world can become quite dark very quickly,” she explains. “It’s meant to be a little self-remedy—like saying, ‘Who cares?’, and reminding yourself that that’s not real life. It took me ages to figure that out for myself, so if I can get that message out to someone who might have struggled otherwise, then that makes me happy.”
In her lyrics, Kent reveals a candidness that owes much to the journal-like process at the heart of her songwriting. “A lot of times I’ll start writing and just keep going without even thinking about what I’m putting down,” she says. “That’s how I keep the songs coming right from the heart.” In shaping that stream-of-consciousness writing into her sharp and lucid lyrics, Kent mines a great deal of inspiration from the confessional spirit of classic singer/songwriters. “To me James Taylor is the ultimate in songwriting, because he can just play a song on acoustic guitar and it’s still so spellbinding,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be anything outlandish; it can just be something so true, and that in itself is what’s captivating.”
Born in Derby, England, Kent got her start in music thanks largely to her dad, a blues-rock guitarist. “Some of my earliest memories are of going to gigs or the nights when my dad’s friends would come over to rehearse,” she says. “They’d all be playing in the kitchen, and I’d drop in to make some toast and listen. There was always music in our house.” First learning from her dad at age seven, Kent soon moved on to studying guitar at school and—once her family had relocated to Adelaide, Australia—began busking with her older brother, who played drums. “We’d busk all the time and started scoring gigs at pubs and parties and fairs—anywhere we could, just to try to keep the ball rolling,” says Kent, who also began writing songs before the age of 10.
After high school, Kent headed off to college to study communications, but quickly had a change of heart. “I realised that if I wanted to make something happen with music then I really had to give it a shot, so I packed up and moved to Sydney with just my guitar and a suitcase,” she recalls. Once in Sydney, the then-18-year-old balanced busking and booking gigs in local bars with building up her original material and working a day job in retail. “I was super-broke—all I did was work and practice and try to write songs,” says Kent. “I didn’t have any specific plan, but I knew that if I kept playing music and putting myself out there, it might eventually go somewhere.”
Making smart use of her limited resources, Kent steadily refined her voice as a songwriter and musician. “I was in this room with just a bed and a chair and guitar, so I’d just jam out and tell all these stories about what I was observing and experiencing,” she says. Once she’d carved out a selection of songs, the industrious Kent began posting snippets of her self-recorded tracks as videos on Instagram. Those videos caught the attention of veteran music producer/executive, Andrew Klippel, and Kent soon began working on a batch of demos that included “Get Down,” cultivating a rhythm-centric musicality that blended naturally with her hip-hop-inspired vocal approach.
Within days of uploading ‘Get Down’ to triple j Unearthed (a digital radio station and platform for discovering and sharing new music), Kent had her first major success when the track was thrown into full rotation on triple j. ‘Get Down’ also won the triple j Unearthed competition, which landed Kent a spot on the lineup for Field Day 2016 (a New Year’s Day festival featuring the likes of Disclosure and Pusha T). In the meantime, Kent landed a deal with Capitol Records and continued work on her debut EP, collaborating with producer Nicky Night Time.
Naming her festival-closing appearance with Flume at last July’s Splendour in the Grass as a personal career highlight, Kent’s carved out a high-energy live show that finds her accompanied by a female drummer. “Coming up in the industry, it felt very much like a boys club, so it’s really cool now to be able to be around a community that’s both boys and girls,” she notes. And in her music and songwriting, Kent aims to build a greater sense of unity by tapping into her own eclectic background. “I feel like all these little jigsaw puzzle pieces have combined to make who I am now as an artist—like all the things that were always different about me, I’m now choosing to embrace,” she says. “I’ve been able to find so much freedom in not worrying about what people think, and I want to spread that message to as many people as I possibly can.”