Longtime Mitrovica Rock School member Jelena Zafirovic has been the front woman and lead song writer of two ethnically mixed bands, Sublime 6 and Rootless. She is now working on her first solo album, Melancholia. We asked Jelena about life as a musician in Mitrovica and what inspired the album.
Can you tell us something about yourself and your background?
I was born in Croatia during the time when my parents were moving a lot, and then we moved to Mitrovica where I became a war kid in 1999 with the rest of my generation. After the bombing stopped and throughout my teens, charity organizations became a big part of my life. Just like the Rock School, they aimed to make peace between us Serbian kids and the Albanian kids, and so they took us places where we would attend all these creative activities together: music, dancing, acting, drawing, etc.
I was really into the American pop music and dancing at the time, so I used to form these dance groups with the girls I’d meet; I would come up with choreographies for us and then we would perform at these activities together. Later on, I would join our local Street Dance where a lot of R’n’B and Hip-Hop was involved. At the same time, I was attending the Music High School in Mitrovica where I played classical music on the piano. It was mainly during high school that I also became interested in the rock genres and playing guitar. I think the only consistent thing for me throughout all those years was song-writing. Back when I didn’t play any instruments, I only had lyrics that I wrote and the melodies in my head.
What inspires your music and lyrics?
Initially, song-writing became sort of like a diary to me, but my inspiration can go from personal experiences to something that has nothing to do with me, as long as I feel connected to it. If I see a movie or a series, or play a video game that has this amazing story and I get emotionally attached to the characters, it boosts my inspiration.
Which artists do you admire? Why?
I admire those who are honest in their work, regardless of genre and mannerism. I’ve always loved the song-writing of Dexter Holland (The Offspring), Shakira, Aaron Lewis (Stained), Chris Cornell (Soundgarden & Audioslave), The Donnas, Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), The Killers, RHCP, The Ramones, The Cranberries… And then in the newer age I’ve come to love Taylor Momsen (The Pretty Reckless), Lana Del Rey, Marina & The Diamonds, Biffy Clyro… I think that they each have/had a unique way of expressing themselves and I hope to reach out to people with my music the way they did to me.
We know you for your high-energy style, yet your first album is called Melancholia. What can we expect?
As far as the overall sound is concerned, you can expect melancholic vibes, but if I compare it to the sound that used to be with the bands I was a part of, I wouldn’t say that this sound I created myself is low-energy, just a different energy. When I create with other people, it’s important to me that we get inspired by each other, even if I write the whole song and present it to them, their input is as important and valuable, because it becomes their story, too, and we get to tell that story to the audience together. That way our individual energies are joined and it powers up the stage. That difference alone is enough when it comes to creating completely by myself.
Other than that, the main idea behind the album title is the anxiety disorder that I’ve been dealing with throughout my life. Most of the songs on the album have been written while I was under a major influence of the anxiety, and so it only made sense to me to use it as the main theme and kind of get it out of my system. I know that this kind of subject is a taboo for some people, but it is the reality of many people’s lives and I believe in the betterment of using the negative in creative ways. It’s not only therapeutic; it also lets people know that they’re not alone in feeling the way they do.
What’s your experience as a musician from Mitrovica? Any advice for young musicians who are just starting out?
The biggest lesson that I learned as a musician so far, especially in Mitrovica, is that no one will invest in you unless you really want it and work for it on your own first. It’s great to have a group of people to push you forward and make things happen for you, but the achievements that should matter the most are the ones you earn on your own.
Another thing that I think is crucial is what kind of (and how many) people you surround yourself with, especially in a small town with big egos. If social status and being “cool” is not important to you, then my advice would be to stay humble, listen to your gut but also be open-minded and aware that you can learn something from everyone, it’s okay to make mistakes, don’t judge by appearance, don’t be obsessed with appearance (including your own), always have your own back before you turn to others because the most trustworthy person in your life is you, and know that choosing to be a decent human being goes a long way.
You’ve attended the Mitrovica Rock School from an early age. Can you say anything about your experience there?
Between all the projects I’ve been a part of, the Rock School has definitely made the biggest mark on my life. This is where I started to sing and write songs more professionally and where I learned the basics of playing the electric guitar, but more than that, I learned the different ways of singing, writing and playing instruments. This is also the first place where I was trained to work in bands and developed a thicker skin in the music world. It has also taught me of the endless possibilities, that nothing is impossible as long as you give it a try. I’ve met people from different worlds (geographically and mentally) with whom I shared my deepest thoughts and feelings, through the music and through friendship, and no other experience can compete with that.
In your experience, is it easier, harder or the same for female musicians to carve out a career for themselves?
It is definitely harder. I think it’s hard for most people to not be superficial when it comes to unconventional activities, so to speak, like, for example, me being one of the rare females in north Mitrovica to play guitar, write songs (and in English), perform alone, and do basically anything that a “regular girl” wouldn’t do, and this is because those people accept the standards that the general media imposes, whether they want to or not. I always have people giving me these long looks whenever I walk down the street with a guitar on my back, or I am dressed a certain way, and I’ve even had these people call me out on it, whether it’s cat-calling or expressing out loud how conceited I am for carrying a guitar and an amp down the street, as if I’m doing it all just for show. And this comes from both genders, it’s like it offends them to see something other than a woman carrying groceries or putting makeup on her face, or a man doing construction work or parking his big expensive car in the middle of the street.
On the other hand, some people may show major interest in you and your performance, but for all the wrong reasons and your music has nothing to do with it. If the only reason for their involvement is a superficial one (like, they think you’re pretty and/or “cool”), you can expect to be taken advantage of and then thrown away if not needed anymore, unless you see through their intentions on time. But, there is a way to not letting this affect you in the long run, as long as you don’t follow anyone’s rules and your goals are better than doing anything for the sake of money or reputation.
And most importantly: When can we expect the album and where will it be released?
I don’t have a specific date for the release, but I only have one more song to record, after that – the hardest part is done, so it’s going to be soon. My plan is also to create a digital booklet that will consist of the song lyrics, photos and any creator notes, which I would put together with the songs in a digital package that will be free for download, and the download link will be available on my Facebook page, Instagram account and YouTube channel. I wanted to make it more special for the people who have been actively listening to my music, although anyone will be able to download it for free, but I also plan to upload the songs to YouTube later on, for the casual listeners and also so it could be shared online.