It wouldn't be an overstatement to say that Nayanna Holley was raised on music. The daughter of long time Michael Jackson vocal coach and backing singer Dorian Holley, Nayanna literally grew up on the musical road. This environment created a life long love of music, leading to a college degree for Nayanna in Jazz Studies and post-college work as a backing singer for artists such as The Roots, Sheryl Crow and Justin Timberlake. The breadth of this formal and real world musical education undoubtedly plays an important role in shaping Nayanna's self-released, Kickstarter-initiated debut album, On Love & Fear.
While it certainly has soulful elements, On Love & Fear is, by intent, much more than a soul album, adding touches of jazz and a heavy helping of 70s styled singer-songwriter pop in the tradition of artists like Janis Ian or even James Taylor. Holley writes or co-writes eight of the album's ten songs, and she brings a particularly feminine view of love, relationships and introspection to the disc. She also brings along surprisingly strong musicianship, working with producer Chris Bruce to deliver far richer instrumentation than is typical on an independent release (how many pop indies have a string section?). It all gives an aura to the disc that is both intimate and, at times, lush.
On Love & Fear starts out in terrific fashion with "Faith," arguably the disc's finest cut and a song that would fit nicely on a Sheryl Crow hits album. Holley quickly displays an extremely radio friendly voice and phrasing, all enhanced by folk-like vocal harmonies. In another time not so long ago, "Faith" would have been a smash hit; unfortunately, it begs the question as to whether there is broadcast radio format in 2012 that is daring enough to play a kind-of-folk-kind-of-soul song, regardless of its obvious merits. Holley next moves into slightly jazzier territory on "Never Let Go," another beautiful cut on which she trades volleys with Tracy Wannomae's flute. The disc continues on its winning streak through its first half on the adult contemporary track "Collide" and the slightly more adventurous soulful jazz cut "Black & Gold."
A gentle album such as On Love & Fear can live or die with tempo and pace, and the disc loses a bit of both on the second half as it moves into a few too many slow, introspective cuts that begin to give a downer, Lifetime Network movie kind of feel. Fortunately, Holley's vocal performances continue to be engaging through this section, and the album recovers nicely on the "conquering my fears" closing song, "Let It Be."
There are some albums where I clearly understand I'm not part of the target demographic and risk just not "getting" what the artist is trying to accomplish (I hear you, Young Jeezy and Katy Perry). So when listening to Nayanna Holley - an artist bringing such an unadulteratedly feminine view and approach to her music - I feel so....male. Fortunately, even with my XY chromosomes, I can find a lot to like in On Love & Fear, an album that shows more thought in composition and, particularly, in performance, than we typically receive from big budget major label artists, much less friends-fans-and-family financed projects. Nayanna Holley is a real talent who shows on her debut album that she deserves to move from the back of the stage to the front. The underserved adult female audience -- often searching the internet for artists bringing the kind of melodic, intelligent music that modern radio ignores -- will find in On Love & Fear a young new singer to champion. And this guy will be spending a lot of time listening, too. Recommended.
By Chris Rizik