The sweltering days around the Fourth of July were perfect for city kids to pop open a fire hydrant to cool off, but not so great for expensive instruments in apartments that are not air-conditioned.
That’s what Lexington native Jacob Yates was fretting July 7 in his hot digs near the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where he is a student. He was spending the summer playing cello and keyboard for Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati’s production of Next to Normal. Cast member Jessica Hendy suggested Yates bring his cello to her air-conditioned home.
“We just hung out all day, and we just started making music,” says Hendy, whose Broadway credits include Cats, Aida and Amour. “It was one of those random things.”
They started working on a rendition of Lady Gaga’s Edge of Glory with a healthy dose of J.S. Bach thrown in. Then they decided to make a video of it with Hendy’s iPhone and post it on her YouTube page.
That black-and-white clip (above), with Yates playing in a backward baseball cap and a giraffe in the background, became a minor success.
“We both really like social networking, and we started getting a significant number of views really fast,” Yates said.
Hendy elaborates, “We both posted it on our Facebook pages, and we had so many shares from friends and acquaintances who were posting it on their walls, we thought, ‘Oh, maybe we should do another one.’”
Their duo, J String, was born.
Sunday night, they bring their live show to Natasha’s Bistro and Bar in Lexington with more than a dozen pop songs set for voice and cello including the summer of 2012’s No. 1 earworm, Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe.
(Their video for that song, mashed up with One Direction’s That’s What Makes You Beautiful, captured the summer vibe: It was shot on a front porch with Hendy also playing a beer bottle and spoon and the giraffe again in the background.)
“We’re both really obsessed with pop music,” Hendy says. “For me, I come from a musical theater background, and I have sung theater songs and classical music songs all my life. To really sing pop music is such a treat for me.”
Yates, a primarily classically trained graduate of the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, says he started thinking about pop music at a fiddle camp and while doing a little work with fellow Lexingtonian and cellist Ben Sollee, who has a recording career as a roots-rock artist.
Both of them say they think the pop work has enhanced their primary artistic vocations, classical cello for Yates and musical theater for Hendy. Those forms can often lean toward technical perfection, but they say moonlighting with pop songs has helped them focus on the emotion of the music they’re making.
“Jacob and I have a rule when we’re working on music that we really want to tell a story,” Hendy says. “Most pop songs tell a story. Even if you take out the funky beat or the Auto-Tune or everything that makes it so slick, there’s always a story there. So that’s how we always come to it: What’s the story, and how can we tell it in an interesting way with a cello and a voice?”
The J String story is still evolving. They now have five videos, including a sleek version of David Guetta’s Titanium (“We decided maybe we needed to get past shooting our videos on iPhone,” Hendy says).
Their first performance was Nov. 30 at the Thompson House in Newport. Natasha’s will be their second live show, and from there, they are not sure where the act goes.
The trail for voice-and-cello pop combos hasn’t exactly been blazed.
But Hendy comes with a following in the Broadway community and the videos have attracted the attention of Broadway World and Playbill, two New York theater publications. She is moving back to New York early this year and hopes to get some gigs there for J String.
“We’re open to any and all possibilities,” Hendy says. “We’re so new at this, and it’s such a new thing. But all you need is one person to see you or hear you, and we’re hoping that will happen for us.”
Yates says, “The important thing is we started this to have fun, and if we get to keep doing it, that’s great.”