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Girl with Micro Braids

MAY 18, 2020

2015 Berklee grad Jen Aldana never imagined herself as a worship leader and Christian songwriter, but she feels strongly that it’s what God has called her to be. She has an amazing testimony, a heart for people, and a deep love for many genres of music—all of which has informed what she creates, including her newest single "Trust in You." In our interview (during which we discovered we lived in the same dorm room nearly a decade apart!), Jen shared about the moment she knew she would be a singer, the advice she would give her younger self and current Berklee students, and her personal struggle with the quintessential Christian-kid savior complex, as well as how she’s learning to overcome it.

How did your musical journey start? When did you know it would be your career? I knew when I was a little kid! My parents had put me into a private Christian school in first grade. My teacher would play Disney songs while we were doing our work, and one day I was singing really loud to the music. She stopped the music and asked, “Who was that?” And I slowly raised my hand—I was a really shy kid—and she had me sing for her again. We’d do these plays twice a year about a Bible story, so she ended up calling the music director of the school and saying, “You need to give this girl a solo.” I was seven years old; it was the first time I ever performed, and I’ll never forget it because in my heart of hearts I really wanted that solo. Ever since that day I thought, “I want to do this.” So I ended up taking voice lessons, and I also joined a non-profit music organization in East Boston called Zumix. I took my first songwriting lessons and was in a cover band, as well as a separate garage-rock band with some of my friends. I guess the rest of it was history after that moment in first grade.

How did all of those experiences lead you to Berklee? Zumix is really what led me to Berklee. I started my Berklee journey through Five-Week—there were some recruiters who came to Zumix through Berklee City Music, and that’s how I first started being a part of the Berklee community the summer before my junior year. It was great to be on-campus as a high schooler, because I got to meet professors and become comfortable with the campus before actually applying to be a student. As a senior I applied through the City Music program to get a full-tuition scholarship, and it was honestly the only way I was going to go to Berklee. I couldn’t afford it at all, but it was my dream school...I was Berklee or bust. So I worked really hard to submit my portfolio, and I got accepted to the school and ended up getting that scholarship to attend. It was definitely a huge blessing; I know it was so God. But really, I was on campus for six years. I love Berklee and Five-Week, doing all these showcases and meeting lots of people, was what started it for me.

What were your best experiences at Berklee? So many! I’ve had people reach out to me and ask me what they should focus on and look forward to Berklee. For me, honestly, beyond education, it’s the community and the people that I met. My favorite part was definitely all the friends that I made from all over the world and the community that I made—we may not talk every single day, but they’re my friends for life. One of my closest friends from Berklee lives in Norway, and we still keep in touch—she’ll come visit me and I’ll go visit her. I had a friend who I pushed to date his girlfriend, and I just got their wedding invitation. These people have changed my life, and I wouldn’t have met them if it wasn’t through Berklee. I also met my producer through Berklee; you just make lifelong friendships there, and it’s awesome!

Tell me about your faith journey! My parents had put me into a private Christian school, but I didn’t grow up in the church. I grew up in a pretty broken home—my parents argued a lot, and I really struggled to find my place in the world at a really young age. I struggled with depression starting when I was 11 years old and became suicidal at 12. Even though I was in a Christian school, learning about the Word of God, I didn’t necessarily believe that God loved me or that He had a place for me on this earth. I became an emo kid in order to cope with my feelings: I started listening to really dark music, dressing in all black, and wearing a lot of skulls. It was my way to relate to the feelings that I had inside.

While I was at that school, the youth pastor from the church that also met there came into our sixth grade class and told us, “You guys are 12 years old now, so you should come check out the youth group—we’re going to give away an iPod Video!” This was a long time ago, but back in the day an iPod Video was like the iPhone 11. Everybody wanted one, so we all went to youth group. I walked into the door dressed all “inappropriately for church”—I remember I was wearing some sort of black crop top with these tight skinny jeans. If I had walked into the wrong church, I would have been looked at funny and they would have told me to go home and change. But I’ll never forget the loving eyes of the first youth workers that greeted me. That’s when I knew this place was different. They were also playing Flyleaf, which was a popular Christian rock band back in the day, and I thought, “This is church? What is this? I feel like I can identify with this!”

Then after we played all these games and we were all excited, the youth pastor preached from Jeremiah 29:11. He said, “God wants to give you a hope and a future; He has plans for you.” That was the first time I had ever heard that in my life. I thought, “God has a plan for me, to give me hope and a future? Little old me?” But I really believed it in my heart and knew it was true. It was the first time that someone had told me that I wasn’t a mistake, which I had believed for a long time. That was the day I encountered the Holy Spirit. So I continued to go to church on my own; when my parents wouldn’t drive me, I would walk. I was so desperate and so hungry for God, so hungry for a purpose in life. And I’ve been walking with the Lord ever since.

I used to listen to a lot of heavy metal and stuff like that—the style of music I liked didn’t necessarily change after I became a Christian, but I started listening to Christian rock and Christian metal instead. I never had plans to pursue a life doing worship music or Christian music, but I always did love to lead worship when I was younger and got saved. I’ve always loved worshiping God, but it really wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I felt a tug to pursue doing Christian music. It was definitely a God thing; me and God had to have a lot of conversations about it, because it wasn’t in my plans and I didn’t want to be restricted artistically. I didn’t want to feel like I couldn’t fully be myself. But time after time I’ve felt God confirming “yes, I want you to lead worship and sing songs to Me.” And I said “okay, I’ll be obedient.”

Initially I was going to move to Nashville to pursue music after Berklee, but I ended up staying in Boston to help start a church plant called Impact Church. We’re five years old now; we started with 50 people, and now we have over 1000 members, which is crazy for Boston. It’s so crazy to see such a hunger for God in the city I grew up in. I’m really glad that I stayed. In the midst of helping start the church five years ago, that’s especially when I felt God telling me to write original Christian music, hence the music video and the songs, and I’ll have an EP coming out this summer as well. I’m just so grateful to do what I do. And man, God has just given me all the purpose that I have in my life, or else literally I don’t know where I’d be.

Who inspires your music and your sound? I love this question! I’ve always thought about it, what I’d say if someone were to ask me. I’ve always tried to cater to the person who’s asking, but in reality, I’ve been influenced from all the emo-rock bands that I used to listen to, to the worship leaders, to so many different genres like Latin music and R&B.

Vocally, Brendon Urie from Panic! at the Disco was always a huge inspiration to me. I had seen them back in the day when they first came out live, and I thought “this guy can’t just sing on the record, but he can sing even better live.” His voice is insane! I would practice to my Panic! CD and try to mimic everything he did. It was the same with My Chemical Romance, because Gerard Way was a vocalist I loved. After that, I attribute a lot to Magic 106.7, a radio station in Boston, that my mom would always play on our way to school. They’d play all the ballad classics from Celine Dion to Whitney Houston, and I would definitely practice singing over those artists’ songs. I’m Colombian, so I grew up listening to Latin American music and that’s inspired me. Then as far as worship goes, we would sing Hillsong at our chapel services, and Brooke (Fraser) Ligertwood from that team is one of my favorite artists. She has different identities as a worship leader and a solo artist, but she’s my favorite. I love how she has been able to do both worship and non-worship music as one person.

I identify with that so much; I’m being obedient and love writing Christian music, but it’s so new to me, and if I’m being honest I’m more comfortable doing original non-worship music because that’s what I did for most of my life. Brooke is a huge inspiration to me, because she’s been able to do both genres and occupy both spaces with so much grace.

I’ve given that idea so much thought—that just because God calls you to do something like writing worship music doesn’t mean He wants you to give up yourself. Amen! It’s something I’ve wrestled with for a long time, especially even just doing the type of music I’m doing now—I wondered if it meant that I had to abandon the other side of me. It’s a whole identity thing, where the fact that I love writing songs of worship is true of me, but I also get sad. When you think about the Bible, you have Lamentations and then the book of Ecclesiastes, where Solomon is literally saying “everything is meaningless.” There are so many moments of sadness and lament in the Bible, so how is that not true of us as people and artists? I’m learning that for myself and finding my own voice in worship now. It’s been a journey for sure, and I’m excited to learn so much more.

What inspired “Trust in You”? So this is a really dear song to me. I wrote it when I was going through a really tough time: I was two or three years into serving at Impact, and I was heartbroken after the end of a very long-term relationship, and I had just gotten out of Berklee. And you know how it is when you’re at Berklee...there’s all this pressure to do something huge. People start asking the questions of “what are you going to do after this? What’s next?” It’s a crazy daunting question, so at that point I was like “God, what are we doing? I’m being obedient but where is my life really going? I feel lost in my career, my relationships, and in general as a person.” But even in the midst of that, I felt the Lord pressing me to write songs of worship to Him in the middle of it all.

I didn’t think that made any sense because I wasn’t in a happy go-lucky place and I didn’t feel like I had anything to give. But thank God for mentors; I talked to one of mine and she said, “Jen, there is so much more power when you speak these words over your life even when you don’t feel them. There’s a greater testimony there than in a perfect place where you’re super happy. It’s just more powerful.” So I decided to give it a shot, and that’s where “Trust in You” came from.

In the chorus it says “whenever one door closes, there’s another one You’ll open / I’ll trust in You. Whenever one door closes, there’s another one You’ll open / I’ll rest in You.” At that time, those were words I was speaking over myself and my life in order for me to just wake up the next day. I had to hold onto that and tell God, “All these doors have closed, but I’m just going to have to trust that You’ll open another one.” I was also looking at what He’s done in my life, with the scholarship to Berklee and all the connections I made there, and I told Him, “You’ve done it before, and I just want to believe that You will fulfill Your promises over my life again.” So that was the inspiration for it; it was almost like writing it to get myself out of that rut and hoping that one day as I shared it, it would also encourage other people in a similar place.

It’s just a decision—just like faith, believing in something that we can’t see. That year really tested my faith and trust in God, so I’m really grateful for the song. It ministers to me time and time again. It’s funny because when I’m opening up to my friends about certain things even now, they’ll tell me “you wrote the song, you gotta listen back to it real quick!” And I have to say “yo, you’re right!”

What advice would you give to Christians who feel called to create, but are struggling with feeling like it’s their responsibility to save everyone even though it’s not? It’s a lot of pressure. Especially during my Berklee career, I was that person as well, especially because my family wasn’t saved and I felt like I needed to save my whole family as well as everybody else. It’s almost like a savior complex, but in the end has so much less to do with our music than it does with our hearts. Jesus is the only Savior; we can do our part by sharing the truth of His love and preaching the Gospel in a way that’s not forceful or intimidating, but I think the best way we can show Jesus to others is by what we say and what we do with our lives. Our actions will always speak so much louder than words. If we’re more concerned with talking about Jesus, Jesus, Jesus to people and don’t actually get to know them or who they are, I don’t think it’s going to be that effective.

I think one thing we’re meant to do is attract people to Christ, and having this mindset of “I just need to share the Gospel with you! I just need to tell you about Jesus!” doesn’t do that. I’ve noticed it to be true in my life as well; I would post something encouraging that I’ve learned at church, or share a verse or a little bit of my testimony online, and people would message me or literally just show up to my church because of it. When I would ask why they came, they would just say. “You made it sound so good.” And was just being myself, loving people and being loving.

People are watching even when you don’t think they’re watching, and right now our biggest tool for evangelism and ministry is social media, since we can't meet up with people. So even if your post gets one or two likes, those one or two people that liked it could really be needing to hear whatever you just posted. A lot of times more people are watching than actually interacting with your posts, so a lot of times people have asked me about my church without me ever bringing it up, just because I constantly post about it. They’ll ask what it’s about and what we believe, and they’ll bring it up to me. They’ll notice how kind I am or say certain things like “you know, there’s just this joy about you.” That joy is Jesus that lives in our hearts! We’re shining that by continuing to actually do what the Bible says—being kind, selfless, loving, forgiving, and not calling people out on their problems.

I love this quote that’s something along the lines of, “I want to be a people known for what we stand for and not what we’re against.” I think that has been so huge for me in my walk with the Lord, how I’m able to encourage other people in their faith, and how I answer others’ questions about’s the love of Christ. I always have to give credit back to Him, because it’s Him and not me.

If you could go back to your freshman year at Berklee and give yourself advice, what would you say? much. I wish I would have had a mentor or therapist sooner, someone to just talk about my problems with instead of depending on my boyfriend for support. I was so distracted and overwhelmed with the amount of talent at Berklee that I felt like there was no point in me being there, so I would tell younger Jen that her voice has a place in the world. Practically, I would also tell her to get better with time management and to not be ashamed to make school a priority. I was trying to be so spiritual, joining so many extracurricular things related to church and ministry that they distracted me from academics, and to this day it’s one of my biggest regrets. I was so occupied with trying to save the world, and that wasn’t right.

I would tell myself to be open to new experiences—but I feel like my Berklee career taught me to be. I would also say to get involved with clubs. I almost dropped out, but the Berklee Christian Fellowship was a big part of why I didn’t, because they became my family. They’re the people I still keep in touch with today. Being part of a faith community on-campus was huge; it sustained me all throughout college. And there’s so many connections to be made, so I would encourage her (and you) to make as many connections as you can, especially with people that you wouldn’t necessarily often talk to. Get out of your comfort zone and meet people from different cultures and backgrounds who play different instruments. It’s just so worth it.

How do you #getinthegroove? I like to get inspired to create by studying different art forms other than my own. It’s tough for me right now, because often I’ll go to visit museums when I’m feeling down or have writers’ block, or just need a boost of inspiration and light in my life. I’ll spend hours studying art at the Institute of Contemporary Art or the Museum of Fine Art or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum—there’s just so many awesome places to see art. Spending time in nature is also really, really inspiring to me, and I feel like God really speaks to me as well when I’m in nature.

Honestly, one of the biggest ways I get in the groove is by driving! I literally wrote the chorus of “Trust in You” while I was driving. I was humming, and then I thought of the lyrics and realized “oh, this is something! I like this!” I don’t know if it’s because I’m rid of all distractions or what, but I love long drives. They really help clear my head and help me reach this place artistically that I just can’t at home.

Follow Jen HERE, and watch the video for “Trust in You” HERE.