Born and raised in Red Bank, NJ, Cenza (chen-za) is an NYC pop singer with an edge inspired by classic divas like Cher, Lady Gaga, and Judy Garland. Cenza writes music and lyrics and co-produces all of her music. She is a classically trained piano player and is self taught on guitar. Cenza is the alias of critically acclaimed actress Emily Keefe.
What is your earliest memory of music? And, how did you get started in music?
My earliest memory of music was at my grandparents house. My Nana always had music playing, and she loved country music, folk music, show tunes, and jazz. She really fostered my love of music at a really young age -- I don't remember a time when music and old movie musicals weren't a huge part of my upbringing. I don't know if this is my absolute earliest memory, but I have a strong memory from when I was about 4, sitting on the floor of my grandparents' living room watching Judy Garland sing "Over the Rainbow" in The Wizard of Oz for the first time. I think that was when I fell in love with singing and wanting to be a story teller. I started taking piano lessons when I was 7, and trained classically until I was 14. I taught myself some chords on guitar. I really started singing in front of people through performing in musicals and at singing at church.
What was the first song you ever wrote? What or who inspired you to start writing music?
I remember being in elementary school and having a lot of drama with friends. I decided to write a musical about friendship. I only wrote one verse of one song, and I will spare you. I wrote some songs in high school when I wanted to be Taylor Swift, but up until after I graduated college I was too in love with the music I already knew to want to write songs of my own. Stevie Nicks and Lana Del Rey made me want to write good lyrics, but I wanted to be a bit more of a performance artist with my music. I wanted to wear wigs, sing lots of different genres, I figured, no one who does that really writes their own music, right? And then I remembered Lady Gaga existed. She's a huge inspiration to me because she writes and produces her things, is an amazing singer, and also a phenomenal actress -- she (and Cher) showed me that you really can do it all and you don't have to put yourself in a box. You don't have to be one thing. That's when I decided to just hit the ground running and make whatever music felt right to me in that moment without the pressure of feeling like I needed to brand myself. And then Cenza was born.
Do you play any instruments? If yes tell us about it. If not, do you work with a band or studio musicians? Do you produce your tracks or work with a producer?
I play piano quite well, and also acoustic guitar to accompany my singing. When I go to work on a song with an outside producer, I always have a fully produced first draft I am presenting. I'm not an experienced producer by any means - there's a lot I have to learn and a lot I want to learn about production. But I'm very good at sequencing a song for the first time, finding the arc, and understanding the emotional journal of the song as a whole. I am so thankful to have people like Michael Abiuso, Ryan Brahms, and Jean-Luc McMurtry in my life now, because they are true producers that make my ideas sound full and enriching, and also add some really cool elements that I might not have heard at first. And of course mix/master everything.
What is your favorite part about being an artist (performing, recording, writing, playing)?
Performing. There's a huge part of me that still really doesn't like recording my music. As a consumer, I prefer to listen to live music. I think this comes from my stage roots. I just love the imperfections of live performance, how the process and the product happen at the same time, and you get to exchange energies with an audience. Recording is so tedious to me. As I do it more though, I am realizing that there are more similarities in recorded music and live music than I initially anticipated. I also really love writing, but it is truly draining. I usually write songs in about 30min, but they are a really intense 30min. I really go places emotionally and sometimes, when I'm going through something, I avoid writing because it's too much sometimes. But there's nothing like waking up in the morning having a new song in the docket.
Do you have any advice for young women pursuing music?
Don't put yourself in a box, just create what you want to create in that moment. So many people have put their ideas on me about who I need to be as an artist -- you can be all of them or none of them. I just try to do what is true to me in that moment. Oh, and take your time with things! Don't release things because you feel a time crunch. Process > Product.
For readers who have never heard your music, can you suggest one or two songs to start with?
Well, there's only one out! "City Lights" is my premiere single, released on April 24th. So give it a listen, it would mean the world to me. My next few singles are all very different from each other, so tune back in later for some more stuff. I'm really excited to share what's next.
Where can fans access your music? Listen on Spotify.
Find on Apple Music