Jessica Vaughn on Surviving Music and Building a Better Business

Photo by Shari Hoffman

Whether you know it or not, there’s a good chance you’ve heard Jessica Vaughn’s music. The Los Angeles artist, producer, and executive got her start performing as Charlotte Sometimes, a name that earned her a deal with Geffen Records and a spot on Season 2 of The Voice. Since putting that project to bed, she’s released music under more than 20 other names, specializing in dark pop hooks and kinetic beats, often to license for film and TV. Maybe you heard her song “Trouble” in an episode of the Charmed reboot (under the name Jessy Jones) or “This Way” in an episode of Criminal Minds (performed by her band, Vanyze), to name just a couple.

For the more personal tracks, she goes by LACES, as on her new single, “worship,” out today. It’s a piano ballad and a cinematic portrait of romantic obsession–Vaughn’s performance captures the bittersweet desperation that makes that age-old drama so compelling every time.

Many of Vaughn’s projects, from licensing to label services to creative direction, fall under the purview of her own media company, Head Bitch Music. As somebody who knows firsthand the exploitation and abuse women, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized groups face in the music industry, it serves as a way for her to control her own creative destiny and use her power for the good of vulnerable artists.

Before the release of “worship,” Vaughn had a brief conversation with The All Scene Eye by phone from vacation in Palm Springs. In it, she opened up about growing into more evolved songwriting and more honest ways of presenting herself, plus the continuing fight for a safer, more equitable industry.

This is the first time you’ve had a break in a bit–how are you holding up given pandemic conditions and just everything that’s been going on?

Yeah, living through Apocalypse Now without Buffy when you need her is definitely a challenge. I think this has been a collective trauma for everyone, between the pandemic and a much-needed social revolution. It’s definitely odd times. I thought I would have a lot more free time; that hasn’t happened for me. There’s an interesting thing about working from home, right? If you already have, I guess, the work ethic, it’s like the work never ends. It’s now just a 14 hour work day. It’s my husband’s birthday on Sunday, so we finally were like, “Okay, enough is enough. If we don’t take a break for ourselves, we might either murder each other or murder someone else,” and I’m just trying to live a murder-free life right now. [laughs]

You’ve written, recorded, and released music with tons of different names, different bands, side projects and things. I’ve heard that you have about 20 different names going right now?

[laughs] I do.

But one of the biggest is LACES. Can you tell me about that particular persona and how it was born?

Yeah, I’ve been in the music industry professionally since I was 16 years old, so, for a hot minute, if you will. Yes, I dye my grey hair. [laughs] But I started out as this artist that I named Charlotte Sometimes–Charlotte is my middle name. I did it for many, many years, and when I tried to start writing for other artists and just try new things, it seemed like everyone decided who I was already. It was like, “You’re Charlotte Sometimes. This is the kind of music that you make. This is all you’re ever going to be.” It was really hard for me to get new sessions and have people think of me as anything other than just an artist. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with being just an artist, but I always felt like I had so much more to offer than just one vertical–one lane. I made this persona, LACES, as a way to break free of Charlotte Sometimes, and any time I released my own artist music, it would be under LACES. People expected a certain thing from Charlotte Sometimes, and I feel like that expectation isn’t there with LACES, so in the beginning stages, it was a little bit darker, a little dark pop, and definitely just finding your womanhood, in a way. Obviously, LACES has evolved. I’m a grown-ass woman now who’s married [laughs] and a business woman, so I feel like my music has evolved to be a little more listening and more of a conversation, observation, and less, “Hey, this is my story and this is my feelings.” It’s more like, “Oh, isn’t this interesting?” on the way to growth.

How does that happen for you when you’re writing a song? How do you come to that place of, “This is a conversation that I’m having.”

I’ve always used music as a tool to better understand the people around me and myself. It’s just like any tool for self-care, in a way, where you’re journaling, or maybe you’re doing yoga–that makes me sound like such a basic white bitch, but I promise I’m not that basic.

I just did yoga before this call, so I’ve got nowhere to talk.

Did you? [laughs] Namaste. You know, I’ll sit down either at the piano or my guitar, and I really think that melody will start coming, and then lyrics, and all of a sudden, I’m like, “Oh, I didn’t know I felt that way,” right? Because you bottle up all of these emotions, and all of a sudden, you’re giving yourself space to release them and understand them, similar to–it makes me sound like such a yogi. I really don’t do that much yoga, but when you’re doing, like, pigeon pose, and you end up crying, and you’re like, “What was that about?” It’s kind of the same thing. It’s a relief. It’s an expression of something that you’ve been holding on to, and then you have time to better understand it once you’ve released it.

Tell me about your new single “worship.” Where did that song begin?

It started out as an experiment to see if I can still write alone. This industry is so collaborative–as you mentioned, I have all these projects, and I write a lot of music for film and television, and I also run my own custom music house, and I’m a director at a music publisher, so I find other artists. I feel like that space is always a space of collaboration, and while I love that, you kind of forget where you start. Like, what are your own thoughts? You’re always in a place of compromise because you’re working with a teammate, and I think that quarantine forces creative isolation. [laughs] I forgot that I had the tools, that I was capable of exploring a story of my own. 

I think the longest relationship we have is with ourselves. We so often neglect nurturing that relationship and getting to know ourselves on a deeper level, and I think quarantine has forced everyone to be in either a couples retreat or a forced self-isolation retreat [laughs] where we have to get to know ourselves. That has been extremely uncomfortable for most people because growth is uncomfortable, but when I wrote “worship,” I felt like it was a song that just poured out of me, and I’ve always been drawn to the darker side of love. In the past, I would get really wrapped up with somebody–you know, like, that infatuation, passion, written-in-the-stars obsession. It’s probably because of all the teen shows I grew up watching. I’m looking at you, Roswell. I’m looking at you, Buffy. I blame you. But [laughs] I think ultimately this song is about a choice. Are you going to lose yourself in somebody, or like, are you going to promise them the next life?

I didn’t know that I was writing a song about falling in love with a narcissist, but as I said, once I write a song, I figure out what I wrote it about afterwards, like your subconscious is trying to tell you something. I stepped outside of that, and I was like, “Oh, this song is actually about falling in love with a narcissist,” which is really just falling in love with yourself because a narcissist is mirroring you. That’s why if you’re an empath, or you’re a sensitive person, you can be drawn to narcissists because they are mirroring that love that’s really hard to get from people who don’t feel that deeply. All of a sudden, you feel super safe and super loved, and you’re like, “This is so powerful.” And then you realize that person doesn’t actually exist because they’re a gaslighting piece of shit. You were really just falling in love with yourself, because they were mirroring how you want to be loved.

To me, that’s so interesting, and I feel like besides my wonderful husband–we were talking about this, that before him, I would only fall in love with narcissists and abusive people, and I feel like it was because they were so good at mirroring things in the beginning, where I was like, “Oh, but they understand me! They feel as deeply as I do. They’re so passionate.” But real love isn’t like that. Real love is slow, and healthy, and it grows. It can be uncomfortable and ugly, and it doesn’t show up the way it should. “worship” is about the idea of this infatuation–this storybook love. You’re like, “Let me worship you.” That’s not really love, right? That’s a different type of love that’s like, “I’m obsessed with you.” That’s never going to end well. [laughs]

You’ve alluded to the fact that you do a lot of other work in the music industry. You have this umbrella for all those projects called Head Bitch Music, as a label, and creative direction, and all kinds of other avenues. How did that come to be?

Well, I figured if people were going to call me a bitch, they should be able to write a check to Head Bitch. [laughs] But you know, I’ve been in the music industry for 16 years or longer–I don’t know. I stopped taking math my junior year of high school, so don’t quote me. The industry is evolving, and there’s more space for women, but when I started out, it was really tough. I feel like I was told there could only be one, and it was a very isolating and lonely place to be. The more I was in it, the more I realized I didn’t have a lot of power or agency over my own career because I had a bunch of dudes telling me what to do all the time, or telling me what I was capable of, and they were the ones helping me make money. So I thought to myself, “I really need to find more power so that I can change things for other artists and gain some respect and agency for myself.”

When you start out as an artist, you don’t realize how much you don’t have control over your own career, even if you are independent and you think that you do. Especially now that I’m on the opposite side of things and I work for another music publisher, I see the way that people talk about artists, and they would all be horrified. I was sick of complaining about how shit this industry is without actually trying to do something about it, so I decided to take that power back. I was like, “I need to have my own company so that it can be transparent.” I also feel like once I called myself Head Bitch Music, people stopped calling me a bitch. People just started calling me a boss. And I was like, “I have not changed anything.” I just changed branding. I was like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m a boss!” And everyone was like, “Oh, yeah! You’re a boss.” It was like, “What?” 

There was a lot of that, and then just making sure I was lifting other women up and educating them, because to me, knowledge should be accessible, and it’s power. I’ve learned a lot of terrible, hard lessons, so I wanted to be able to share that with other women and queer-identifying folks as well as any marginalized person. I felt like they don’t get a say a lot of the time, so I wanted to be able to protect them as much as I can.

Now we have, like, 400 titles we’ve released under the label, and I have some artists signed to us, and then I also do custom music, so I work with a ton of different companies like Hasbro and Viacom. And then I also realized I needed to be an executive, so I took a job at a music publisher. I’m Director of Sync and Creative at Heavy Hitters Music, and I do feel like the more stuff that you can grab for yourself, the better, because the more likely you are to be able to change things from within. It’s a slow process, but I feel like you can’t change it if you’re not in it.

As somebody who’s experienced a lot of different sides of the industry and who has come into that role of having that power, what do you think needs to change for people to have better, more equitable, and less abusive experiences?

I think we need more whistleblowers. I feel like what happens is that the music industry isn’t really–maybe the AFM and stuff like that, if you’re a session player and you’re playing on TV, but really, songwriters and artists, we are not protected. So you’re going into this industry completely unarmed and you’re trying to survive in an industry that you love, right? Because you love making music, but you have to be so careful because there’s a predator everywhere you go, and if you call it out, your whole career could be ruined. People are too afraid to have your back because they’re afraid they’re going to lose their opportunity, their seat at the table. So I feel like the industry as a whole needs to hold themselves accountable, and also be okay with losing everything.

That’s a hard, hard thing to do, and I don’t necessarily blame people for being so quiet when they feel that way, but the only way we’re going to have real change is if we let go of that fear and hold the bastards fucking accountable. [laughs] I’ve always been a little controversial. A whistleblower, if you will. But I feel a responsibility to good people in this industry to stand up for what’s right, and if that means I lose everything one day, that’s okay to me because I did the right thing. And I can say that because I’ve already had a career, so anything else is just, “That’s awesome, I love that I’m still in this.” But there’s somebody out there that’s so much younger that needs me to look out for them, and I don’t mind taking the blow.

I feel like most women on the road–at least that I’ve spoken with in the music industry–have been sexually harassed or assaulted in some capacity, or had to deal with some sort of sexism. I mean, you don’t go on tour and have 11 guys on your bus–when you’re in a van, seven dudes in a van, [laughs] and open up for only men, and not have an experience with sexism or sexual assault. It’s just not gonna fucking happen. Especially in, like, 2008. When I talked to my management about things that I felt uncomfortable about, they basically sabotaged my career. So it’s a real fear that people have, and it does happen, but I think we just have to keep holding people accountable.

I’m not necessarily for cancel culture. I am for holding people accountable and putting pressure on them to grow and change, and if they don’t, fine, they can be cancelled. But I do feel like some people just don’t know that they’re being fuckin’ terrible. I mean, if they’re assaulting you, then yeah. You can cancel them. Go ahead. [laughs]

If not cancellation, what should people do?

Well, I think they need to educate themselves, right? They might have said something sexist or that just wasn’t politically correct and then they were educated to know better–so, when you know better, you should do better, and then create space and hold space for those people that you pushed aside. Sometimes that means resigning. Sometimes that means getting a more diversified roster of talent, allowing more people at your table to then have a voice. There’s a lot of different ways without cancelling people.

I feel like when you sit down and you have a conversation and somebody wants to understand how they can be a better person in society, we need to allow them to show up imperfectly, hold them accountable, and keep educating them. I don’t necessarily think it has to be from the person that is a victim to this other person, but there’s knowledge out there. It’s called Google. You can find out fucking information. Check out some books. There’s organizations out there, and when in doubt, maybe reach out to these organizations. There’s an amazing organization called Peace Over Violence–this has to do with domestic and sexual violence–and they have some amazing resources.

Maybe they said some ignorant things about people being assaulted, right? Like, on tour. Maybe they said “They were asking for it,” or something stupid. I don’t want to talk to that person, but there’s information on why that language is harmful. And if somebody doesn’t know why that language is harmful, and then they know, and they’re like, “Oh, I did not realize that I’m very misinformed.” [laughs] You know what I mean? That’s happened. I have friends that have said stupid-ass shit like that, and now are some of the biggest advocates and allies to this cause. So it’s hard for me to be like, “Okay, that person doesn’t deserve another chance” when they just were misinformed. 

People don’t just come out of the womb with all of the education and all of the knowledge. They come with the information that was given to them as they grow up. If you’re a sheltered person or you were raised by ignorant people, chances are some shit out of your mouth is going to be ignorant. It’s your responsibility to change that for yourself and do better.

On a more celebratory note–in this conversation about raising up voices that have been excluded from the industry, you’ve been talking more publicly about the fact that you identify as bisexual. When did it occur to you that that was something you wanted to be more open about?

I feel like I’ve always wanted to live my life authentically and transparently. Honesty is so important to me because it gives others an opportunity to explore that within themselves, and I think we could all do better with less shame. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I’ve never hid that I’ve identified as queer and bisexual, but I’ve definitely used the fact that people think I’m straight, you know? I’ve been using that as a sense of privilege.

I didn’t want people to know when I was signed to Geffen because I was afraid of–I don’t know. I honestly don’t know what I was afraid of. I just–one, I didn’t think it was anyone’s business, and two, I felt like people wanted to see me a certain way. And I think there’s a weirdness around people who identify as bisexual. People think that because I married a man, then I “picked my team” and all this other crap, which is a load of bullshit. Or, like, that I can’t just be happy with my partner. It’s all so silly and so misinformed that sometimes you just don’t want to have that conversation. You get sexualized a lot more as a bisexual woman, and I was shy about that. 

But I do feel like if you do not shine a light on your spirit, it can lose its shine. I do realize that we should celebrate all parts of ourselves, and as a queer woman who has been in this industry a long time, I feel a responsibility to anyone who identifies as a woman or a queer person. I have a level of privilege because I’ve been in this industry a long time, and I have a level of power, so if I am not honest about who I am and what I stand for, then I’m not really creating room for those other people, and that’s not fair. That doesn’t feel right to me, so I’m going to try to live as authentically and open, and–whatever. We can make all the hetero, Christian, republican people uncomfortable. I already do anyway. 

Mmhmm, no avoiding that.

Might as well just keep adding to it. [laughs] I’m just going to get louder and gayer. “Am I queer enough for you?” No, I just–it’s important that I show others that you can identify as queer and as a woman, stand for equality, try to do what’s right in this industry, and still succeed.

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