P. Jae Stanley got her start in music in the same place so many other black American vocalists did: at church.
“Music is in, through, and wrapped around my whole life,” the Washington native says. “I first started singing in public in the church choir.”
Stanley is the voice and lyrical soul of the Saigon-based musical group P. Jae Stanley and Swackhammer. The band plays the FCC Phnom Penh on April 3.
Born in Fort Lewis, Washington, Stanley moved with her family to Germany, California and then New York before finally settling in Waco, Texas, in the American south.
With each new locale, the army bases and sometimes the language changed, but Sunday mornings remained constant no matter where she went.
She cites Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack and Dionne Warwick as influences.
“But if I had to name only one singer who has moved me the most, I’d have to say it’s two singers: Aretha Franklin and Mahalia Jackson. They both have so much power, and soul, and emotion, and spirituality all wrapped into one.”
The Queen of Soul and The Queen of Gospel, as Franklin and Jackson are respectively known, and their soul-shaking vocals proved a mixed blessing.
The strength in their voices inspired Stanley, yet at the same time overwhelmed her, and for years she struggled to accept the power of her own talents because she kept comparing herself to those two all-time greats.
“And of course there simply is no comparison,” she says. “I finally realized that. I simply have to do what I do best, and let it be its own style.”
Stanley was 6 years old when she picked up her first instrument, a clarinet. She learned music theory and how to read music. And eventually, she began playing the guitar.
But Stanley doesn’t really think of herself as a guitarist.
“I wouldn’t define myself as a guitarist, so describing my ‘style’ of playing would be pushing things a bit far,” she says. “A better description is a singer/songwriter who accompanies herself on rhythm guitar. I can’t really say I have an identifiable style of guitar playing.”
Stanley’s influences include Bonnie Raitt, Indie Arie and Ruthie Foster.
Aside from Stanley, the band’s line-up consists of Eric Swackhammer on vocals and bass, Milo Rezinifoff on jazz saxophone, Scott Walden on drums and vocals, and Tran Minh Duc on vocals and lead guitar.
Stanley moved to Vietnam in 2009 after visiting the country a few times with her husband Jason, who now works in Saigon.
P. Jae & Swackhammer plays four different sets aimed at pleasing the audience at different times during the evening.
For Stanley, getting up on stage is a burning passion.
“For me, there’s no greater feeling than when I’m singing, and I look out into the audience, and the audience is either singing along, or dancing along, or in some way we are having this connection,” Stanley says. “We are together, enjoying the music and the moment. That’s what I love.”
P. Jae Stanley and Swackhammer is playing at the FCC Phnom Penh on Saturday, April 3. The show begins at 8 p.m.