The Malta Independent 15 July 2024, Monday
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ĠENN, the Anglo-Maltese band, aiming to ‘keep smashing glass ceilings’

Albert Galea Wednesday, 12 June 2024, 11:07 Last update: about 2 months ago
Photo: Justine Ellul
Photo: Justine Ellul

ĠENN is a four-piece alternative, post-punk rock band with strong Maltese roots currently based in Brighton, in the UK aiming to keep smashing glass ceilings, as it comes off the back of a debut album which registered on the UK’s official music charts.

Although ĠENN has existed as such since 2019, the band was known in its early days as Cryptic Street from when its members were still based in Malta.

Two of those members – guitarist Janelle Borg and singer Leona Farrugia – were a part of that original project, when they were just 13 years old.  Bassist Leanne Zammit joined when the band moved shop to the UK, which is where they met drummer Sofia Rosa Cooper who subsequently joined the band.

Janelle and Leona spoke to The Malta Independent about the band’s identity, how Malta still influences them and their music, their debut album, and projects yet to come.

That identity question and what defines ĠENN as a band is quite possibly the hardest question to answer, Leona says.

“I suppose it has a multiplicity of genres and backgrounds due to our Maltese heritage but also because Sofia has a Jamaican-British-Portuguese heritage as well, so you can imagine the kind of cultural melting pot that influences our daily lives but also our music and the art that we do,” she says.

Janelle meanwhile recalls the band’s time in Malta when it was known as Cryptic Street, saying that “to a certain extent it didn’t feel like we fit in because of certain things, like the fact that the alternative scene was very male dominated and we were only 13 years old when we started.”

“But at the same time being here is the immigrant experience that not a lot of people talk about. Even in Sofia’s case, her parents are from an immigrant background,” she continues.

The impact of that Maltese connection is a topic of some debate within the band. “In terms of the Maltese identity, I think we’re in a bit of a liminal place at the moment, and I think that’s the experience of a lot of people and artists who move countries,” Janelle says.

“Musically, even in our first album last October, we tried to touch upon Mediterranean and Maltese folk elements in the music, and we are trying to be more actively conscious of doing that because, personally, I think it’s very under-appreciated,” she continues.

“I think as Maltese we have this huge inferiority complex that clouds our way of thinking in a negative way,” she adds.

The Maltese inspiration for Leona meanwhile runs deep: she recounts her childhood in Qormi, where she grew up with her grandparents and uncle listening to għana. “They were the type to meet up at the kazin with a virdun nestled under their arms… that was my childhood,” she explains.

“I do subconsciously gather a lot of inspiration from that style because it is my childhood,” she says.

Lyrically, Leona says that she is quite influenced by the late poet Mario Azzopardi, who she says “opened up a lot of things” for her as an artist.  She recalls how she had the chance to interview him before he passed away in 2022 and how she felt it was a privilege to have studied some of his works at school.

“I think that was an essential moment,” she says.

She points out the importance of young people being encouraged to pursue a career in arts, and said that such a thing is possible, and “if you believe in it you should go for it.”

“As a foreigner abroad, I try really hard to write in Maltese but sadly I was never good at that, but I try to think that the essence is still there.  I still have that island mentality floating about.  The sun, the sea, the town I grew up in – they are part of my identity, so despite moving countries it’s what made me and I can never forget my country, so it’s a very essential thing in our identity,” she says.

Asked about their choice to move abroad and the challenges that came with it, Janelle says that a lot of people in Malta “romanticise” the idea of moving abroad. “It wasn’t easy at all,” she says.

The decision to move abroad came after their equipment was stolen from the Rampol garage complex, where they had a rehearsal space, and because the band felt that they had reached the limit of where they could go with their type of music in Malta.

Janelle explains that they wanted to move before Brexit happened and she recalls how she and Leanne spent their University years, while Leona worked with Air Malta as a cabin crew member, travelling between Malta and the UK to build contacts.

“Literally if we didn’t pass through the door, we wanted to pass through the window or the catflap,” she says.  “We never subscribed to the idea that you can just show up and get discovered.  That was never a thing, and especially now it isn’t a thing,” she says.

“We made a conscious decision, worked our asses off – which we are still doing – and we thankfully had each other when we moved here.  It wasn’t easy at first… I remember crying every day because it is difficult,” Janelle says.

“It’s especially difficult if you don’t come from a privileged background.  People just think you’ve moved, but remember Malta is quite small, it’s pretty easy to ‘make it’ because of its density.  Whereas you come here and there are so many talented people here and you need to start from scratch without knowing anyone or having any money,” Leona chimes in.

She even recalls an occasion where she and Janelle were subjected to passive racist remarks as they walked along the beach one time.

“I think the crux of it is that moving away is not easy and you really have to have blind ambition and a community around you.  In this case we had each other, and thankfully as a town Brighton is as progressive as it gets so you can meet like-minded people and build your audience.  It’s starting from scratch and that’s the reality, I guess,” Janelle says.

“I think it is romanticised: a lot of people in Malta are saying that they want to move abroad… all that glitters is not gold, but if you’re determined go for it and try to pursue your dreams and ambitions, but be cognisant of this,” she continues.

Leona also rejects the notion that one must criticise their country, because every country has its own pros and cons. “Despite moving, personally I still miss Malta because of my family, the climate, the sunshine, how close everything is, the sense of community,” she says.

“Obviously, there’s always a brighter side to every story at the end of the day and there will be more opportunities but ultimately we would never think that Malta is not the place to be despite moving,” she continues.

“When we tour – we’ve got a tour in Germany coming up, for example – we’re very proud to say that some of us are from Malta and to try and put the country on the map,” Leona says.

ĠENN hit an important milestone last year when it released its first album, Unum.  Following their 2021 EP Liminal, Unum translates from Latin into oneness, unity, and a sense of being whole.  The band said that the album is a product of long-awaited togetherness which captures the lightning that strikes “when four distinct strains of talent – four best friends – are free to create.”

The album was also independently released, which Janelle says was a decision taken so that the band could release it on their own terms.

She said that funding received from the Malta Arts council was pivotal, but the release was a big challenge because they had to deal with a lot of new things ranging from getting the music onto Spotify to distributing vinyl to record stores.  She describes it however as “a very interesting process where we grew a lot as individuals and collectively.”

Leona says it was “quite a fun journey” and adds that “being in charge of the creative direction and visuals and having that leverage of being able to do what you want to do because nobody is controlling the project, to me was quite special because we got to choose the people we work with.”

She explains how the band got to do a virtual game, a virtual house, a 3D model to create the ĠENN house – as she calls it – and to also work with a videographer from Ukraine, Kyryl Voløvych, to produce a short film during the war which was nominated in the Music Video Category in the WeAreDn Awards earlier this year.

But above all else, Unum made it onto the UK’s Music chart, charting at 97th in album sales and 19th in the Record Store Chart upon release.

“That was always a dream that we had when we were 13: that we wanted to chart in the UK, as it’s a big milestone especially since it’s one of the biggest music industries in the world,” Janelle says.

“So for us to do that and achieve that independently… I remember seeing the charts on the Friday and I cried so much after all those years of struggle and leaving our country to pursue something, being told you’re crazy to do that… that was a stamp of approval which was a boost collectively as we tap into the next phase,” she continues.

And what is that next phase? “We are writing,” Janelle says, although the band doesn’t have a concrete idea yet of whether the next project will be an album or EP or otherwise.

She says that the band is playing some gigs in the UK and Europe – in fact the band is scheduled to play in the UK, Italy and four cities in Germany in the coming summer.

Janelle continues: “I think honestly the next phase is really experimenting, exploring, and trying to take this project as far as it can go while remaining friends and remaining…”

“… Humble and levelled,” Leona chimes in.

She says that one doesn’t really have any time to celebrate successes, because despite being happy about things you just have to keep going.  Leona hopes that the band can do something in Malta, and says that her “utopia” is to open a small safe hub for like-minded individuals to come together in.

“The success is from within because if you’re happy with what you’re creating as an artist then that is a sort of achievement,” she says.

She adds that there is the conundrum of the “corporate side” of things, “because now musicians and artists need to be social media influencers… which I don’t get… but other than that the next thing is to keep going at it, keep ploughing through, keep writing and hopefully keep gigging.”

“And keep smashing the glass ceiling in every sense,” Janelle says.

ĠENN’s debut album Unum is out now and can be purchased from Solo Vinyl & Books in Msida and www.genntheband.com.

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