Jess Novak: CNY’s blues rock Wonder Woman

Jess Novak virtually rocks 2020

SU alum Jess Novak thrives as a full-time musician despite COVID-19 restrictions at venues.
Published: November 21, 2020
Jess Novak
Syracuse-based musician Jess Novak has been playing virtual and socially-distant shows throughout the pandemic.

Jess Novak stands in her at-home office — violin in hand, with numerous Wonder Woman posters mounted on her wall. She adjusts the camera, tunes her violin and preps for her performance. Novak is a blues-rock musician from Syracuse, New York, and playing shows is a bit different for her these days

“It’s funny because between my Twitch streams and outdoor stuff, I’m performing more now that I have in months,” Novak said. “I’ve played music for people in Ireland and India on Twitch, which is wild.”

The singer, guitarist and violinist has become a staple in the Central New York music scene over the years. Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Novak has been playing outdoor, socially distanced private parties throughout the summer and fall. And when she can’t book a show, she’s playing one from home through the streaming service Twitch. 

“I’ve been streaming three to five times a week since the pandemic began, and it’s been crazy because people from all over will tune in,” Novak said. “Then they end up tuning into more shows, which is great, it’s created a sense of community.”

The transition to lockdown was tough for many musicians, but Novak was unphased by the challenges COVID-19 placed on the industry. Career transitions are nothing new for Novak.

The New Jersey native came to Syracuse University in 2009 to study music journalism through the Goldring Arts Journalism masters program in the Newhouse School. After a brief stint in New York City after grad school, she made her way back to Syracuse and has been a resident here ever since.

But Novak wasn’t always set on becoming a musician, she started off as a music journalist, working for publications like Relix and the now-defunct alt-weekly Syracuse New Times. Then at 26, Novak shifted from writing to performing as her main gig. 

Novak now performs with multiple bands — the Jess Novak Band, Safe Word, which is a duo with her boyfriend Ben Wayne, and as a solo artist.

Wayne and Novak’s relationship blossomed from their mutual love of music. “I met Jess just because I really liked her band, I would go to her shows and we became friends in the music scene here,” he said. “I was a fan first and then her friend.”

When Novak makes music with Wayne, she said it becomes more reggae-influenced, with edgy lyrics. But for her music individually, her biggest inspirations for her music come from pop goddesses like Gwen Stefani and Fiona Apple as well as classic rock artists like Cream and Jimi Hendrix, which her older brother introduced her to growing up. 

“I remember when I was a kid, I told my mom I wanted to play my violin like Jimi Hendrix,” she said. “Because I listened to [my brother’s] music and thought ‘I want to play like that!’”

Her bandmate in the Jess Novak Band, guitarist Anthony Saturno, sees Novak as not just their frontwoman, but an expert.

“She carries herself very professionally when we’re performing,” Saturno said. “She knows exactly what comes next when we’re on stage, even if we’re just kind of jamming. When we get rocking, she’s just a powerful leader, it’s amazing to see.”

This intuition might come from Novak’s respect for her bandmates. She said her guitarists like Saturno are major inspirations for her. Another muse of Novak’s is the DC Comics icon Wonder Woman. A cardboard cutout of Gal Gadot in her best Wonder Woman costume stands in the back of Novak’s office, making regular appearances in her Twitch streams.

“I’m a huge nerd, I love superheroes. Wonder Woman is my favorite DC character, and once people caught on to that they just kept getting me these Wonder Woman things, it’s the best,” Novak said. “They’re like ‘you are Wonder Woman!’”

Wayne echoed this view. To him, Novak is a real-life, musical version of Wonder Woman.

“As much fun as we have standing in front of that microphone, people don’t realize how much that girl works her ass off,” Wayne said. “Not many musicians in this area can find a way to stay relevant. It’s not a very big town, it’s not known as a music town, but Jess always finds a way to keep getting gigs and keep people coming to the shows. I don’t think anyone here is better than her at this.”