- Words Russell Dean Stone
Deep in the hills of Tuscany, isolated from the chaos of the world and the music industry, sits Villa Lena. In the last few years, everyone from Devendra Banhart to Francis & the Lights has come to stay and create in the six hundred-hectare estate.
More than the obvious appeal of a creative retreat in rural Italy, the awe-inspiring scenery, the even better food, the abundance of cheap wine, there’s something in the air at Villa Lena that attracts artists like these and keeps bringing them back. Home to an ever-shifting roster of painters, sculptures, musicians, writers, chefs and florists, all chosen by Jerome, Lena and the foundation’s skeleton staff, it’s an escape but one that’s focused on being a space to create quality, meaningful art. Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, a close friend and former colleague of Jerome, and now the Godfather to his children, is back and forth all the time. When we arrive on a warm night in mid-October, after a winding forty-five-minute drive from Pisa airport, the DJ and music director of Louis Vuitton, Benji B has just left.
Now Jerome and a hand-picked group of up and coming musicians are launching Villa Lena Recordings, a record label that aims to project some of Villa Lena’s magic out into the world. It’s an outlet for Hadey’s own music and for musicians who have either come through the residency or who Hadey has found online and decided they would benefit from a few weeks or even months of creative freedom in Villa Lena’s studio.
The first of those musicians is J. Caesar. A producer, keyboard player and singer from London, Caesar specialises in a genuinely unique take on modern soul music, injecting old school slow jams with party-fuelled psychedelia. At Villa Lena, they’ve taken to calling it ‘Space Cadet Soul’.
Born in London but raised just outside of Watford, Caesar has been playing keys since he started primary school. At fourteen he bought a mini Korg and founded a hardcore pop-punk band, two years later he discovered drum and bass and not long after that he moved back to London and discovered the world of creative talent that lurked within the city. An actor as well a musician Caesar embedded himself in the city’s creative communities and the associated party lifestyle, releasing club ready soul jams as Jim Caesar.
Now after a tumultuous couple of years that saw him scrap his debut album, fire his manager and change his name, J. Caesar is releasing the second-ever record on Villa Lina Recordings, The Wisdomics EP (out 9th November). Written between London and Italy and recorded over a two-month stay at Villa Lena, it’s a sharp introduction to Caesar’s wild-eyed soul. Over three tracks Caesar tours Barry White slow jams, drug-induced existential crisis and kinky sex, debuting a lavish self-produced sound that’s as danceable as it is bedroom appropriate.
Premiering on Notion today, the EP is a shimmering start to the next chapter of Caesar’s career and a standard bearer for what to come from the newly formed Villa Lena recordings. We went to Italy to speak to him about the project, the time he thought he’d died and his new home away from home in Tuscany. Listen to the Wisdomics EP below and read our chat with J. Caesar after the jump.
How did you first come into contact with Jerome and Villa Lena?
The first contact was about two years ago. I came over with a group of friends who’d all met Jerome (Hadey) before, we set up our collective side project thing called Abuja 336 and me made a song called ‘Violet Hour’. That was just made in one night. I’d met Jerome here, but he wasn’t really around very much during that time, and then back in London, he asked me to go and sing on his project Never for Money Always for Love, to sing a song he’d already written and recorded with Francis & The Lights.
In his place in Kensington, Jerome had set up a little studio in his shed, and I’d go over there, and the deal was I’d play the keys, and he’d resample me and use that on his productions. In exchange, he’d leave me in there on my own, and I was able to start making shit. Around that time, hanging out with Jerome and doing his stuff, he just told me I need to produce myself, and he’d had this idea to set up a label to help people, and he had the studio here so he said: “you should come in the summer for a few months”. I was part of the residency, each month there’s nine artists, and I was here for two, so I was part of two groups. It was kind of my advance. It was really sweet.
How did the Wisdomics EP come about?
It was around the time I started producing, and I could actually see that I’d found the path again, I was feeling lost making this album before. In 2016 I lost my little brother, he slipped and fell from a balcony, it was a real tragedy. It was a horrible thing to happen. I made an album I made using the grief and pain of that, which was good for me to make but I think, in hindsight, it had thrown me off kilter for a year and a half. I needed to make that project for myself, but when I scrapped it, I needed to scrap it. It was just for me.
Around the time of making Wisdomics, I could see myself getting back on track, I knew I was coming out here in the summer, I’d started producing, I knew Jerome, things were making sense a bit more. Then I had this trip when I thought I had died, it was less scary than when people think they’re dying because I thought I had already died and that it was fine because I was with all my friends and they were angels, taking me to my final resting place. So that was where the title track came from.
Can you break down the three tracks on the EP?
The three songs on the EP are based around that time of coming out of insecurity to security. ‘The Line’ is about a period of time when I seemed to be ending up in a lot of kitchens taking a lot of cocaine, not to a dangerous point, not to a habitual level but people weren’t going to clubs or dance parties, and we were just ending up in kitchens and seeing through the night. The song’s half about getting people to give me free cocaine – “love me, save me for free, love me, show me the line” – and then the other half is through that, trying to find someone or something that actually does love you and save you and shows you the line of when you need to stop. That was at the time when I’d just started a new relationship and things were going well, but it had its issues.
‘Springsummaluvva’ I wrote out here because my girlfriend at the time was coming out to visit and she was coming on Friday the 13th. It was Thursday the 12th and Jerome had just told me that it was mercury in retrograde, that’s where the into to song come from; the day before this evil day and the day she’s visiting. The relationship was good, but there were tensions, so it was a big thing happening on Friday 13th, but I knew we’d end up having wild holiday sex, so I wrote this smooth Barry White slow jam the day before she came.
The EP holds a significant time in my life. It’s transitional, it was a real time of rebirth for me. Just owning my shit, it was part of the reason I changed my name from Jim Caesar to J Caesar, I’d fired my manager and was moving forward. There’s been a growth here.
How did being out here at Villa Lena shape the EP?
I did all the vocals here and mixing, I did a lot of editing here as well. Actually, to be fair I finished a lot of the lyrics here, I just had the hooks before. I struggle to keep a good flow in London. I’m quite conscious about not having a London sound, I want to connect to different people. I think in soul music now, there’s a lot of amazing writers and singers, but it’s so overdone. I was talking to a friend of mine, and we were talking about the COLORS Berlin sound, there’s so much of it. Once you get passed Jordan Rakei there’s no point, he’s fantastic, but everyone else is like, ‘we get it D’Angelo’s amazing’.
What’s Jerome’s role in all of this? How much has he influenced the EP and the process?
Jerome is what I’ve always needed in that he is the perfect A&R. He has facilitated everything, he’s had the influence by knowing that I needed this space and allowing me to do it but he’ll come in and listen. He’s a good pair of ears. He knows so much music that I trust his opinions, so he’ll just tell me to try something.
I think the magic of Jerome is that he’s not so involved but he is the core of it he’s not seeing this as a Naughty Boy style project bringing in these artists, he’s really trying to nourish talent he believes in. The biggest thing is his belief in my abilities because I didn’t have that before. He can facilitate that as well, and he knows that. He’s a very charitable guy in all senses of the word, and generous, he knows he has the resources that can genuinely help people he thinks are deserving of it. If he says he’s going to do it, or he’ll try at least.