In the Tuscan hills, Jerome Hadey is building an escape from the music industry
Rural Tuscany is as far from a pop music hub as it’s possible to get in western Europe. Plagued by unreliable internet and accessible only via long winding roads that would intimidate any non-Italian driver, it’s the last place you’d expect someone like Jerome Hadey to start a record label.
Last year that’s exactly what he did, launching Villa Lena Recordings from the Tuscan agriturismo he runs with his wife, Lena, for whom the label and villa itself are named. Nestled among forested hills, an hour’s drive either way from Pisa and Florence, Villa Lena was created as an escape from the chaos and competition of the music industry where Hadey had spent most of his life. Part organic farm, part hotel and part creative retreat, it’s the embodiment of the millennial idyll; a welcoming home away from home for friends of Jerome and Lena, as well as creatives of all stripes. Over the years, everyone from Devendra Banhart to Francis & the Lights have spent time at Villa Lena to escape the chaos of the industry and focus on their craft.
It’s been a long journey for Hadey to get here. Born in Strasbourg on the French-German border, he cut his teeth in the local hip-hop scene, running a small label that released compilations of MCs from both sides of the border. Then one day, Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA called, looking to work with some of the MCs Jerome had befriended over the years.
What followed was a whirlwind of odd jobs in and around the music industry, including a stint with Daft Punk’s management, a DJ career in Paris and year in LA working with Hans Zimmer. Then after a disastrous deal with Universal, Hadey decided he’d had enough and turned his back on the music industry, ostensibly for good.
As Hadey learned though, it’s impossible to quit music, especially when RZA is the godfather to your son. A few years later the opportunity to start Villa Lena presented itself and while leading the restoration of the villa’s vast grounds Jerome quietly reserved himself a former pheasant-breeding cottage which he turned into a studio for himself and what would become the roster of Villa Lena Recordings. Jump forward to this summer, and he’s just released his debut album, JHADEY and has opened the Villa’s doors to NTS and a host of aspiring new talent for the start of what promises to be another vital chapter in his already storied career.
Can you tell me the story of how Villa Lena came to be?
My parents-in-law bought this property in Tuscany. It was completely abandoned and destroyed at the time. I was at a point in my life, it was around 2010, where I was disgusted with the music industry because of my experience with major labels, so I decided to get involved with this place because it needed some fixing and it gave me an opportunity to spend some time in the countryside.
I was coming here once per week and fixing it up. I thought it would just be a temporary project, to fix the place and fix myself at the same time, but I really fell in love with it. So with my wife, I came up with the idea to set up these three things in one; an artist’s residency, a hotel and an organic farm.
The idea was to create a place for our friends where they could enjoy themselves. My wife is an art gallerist, and we have a lot of creative friends, so we wanted it to be a place where creative people feel at home. Tuscany being the birthplace of the Renaissance we thought it wouldn’t be a bad place for that.
How long have the residencies been running?
We started officially in 2013. We have 8 to 10 artists a month, plus their friends and other people, so far we’ve had about 600 artists in residency here. Each one leaves us a piece, so we have a collection of about 1000 pieces of art. It’s always a mix of crafts and disciplines, so we have painters, musicians, dancers, designers, architects, chefs, florists.
Because we had a lot of musicians here, they started to ask ‘why don’t you do a label?’ ‘can you help with my music?’ At the beginning I was too busy with this project so I couldn’t deal with it, then I was too busy with my illness. Now that I’ve recovered I can start to help musicians.
"If RZA tells you you’re supposed to be making music, you don’t really have a choice"
What were you doing before Villa Lena?
I come from Strasbourg, on the French/ German border. I was very involved in hip-hop and urban culture there, the German side of the border was very active. I started a label in ’96/7 and started DJing. I ended up working with RZA in 2000 on The World According to RZA. I did production on that album, and we really got along, so he offered to pay for my studies to go back to school. So I went to university, did a business degree and during that time, I did an internship with Daft Punk’s management. That was when they were releasing their second album, so that was amazing.
From there, I went into film music. I was a music supervisor at Remote Control, which is Hans Zimmer’s company in Santa Monica. I worked there for a year and learned a lot about how to make music. I made the soundtrack to Babylon A.D with Wu-Tang Clan, System of a Down and George Clinton. My main teacher is RZA, which is why I have a rough approach to music, but working with Hans Zimmer and his composers was a huge lesson. The process of film music was a huge school for me.
Irfan, from Breakbot/ Outlines, joined me and helped me out there and we recorded a second album as Outlines that was signed to Universal music in 2008/9. That was a great experience; it was exhausting, though. It took us about five years to make. Then everything went sideways with Universal, and we never released it. I stopped making music because of that. It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with cancer in around 2016 and that I started again. RZA told me I had to and if RZA tells you you’re supposed to be making music, you don’t really have a choice.
How did you originally link up with RZA?
RZA wanted to do an album with European rappers, but the problem was that the labels couldn’t get ahold of their own rappers. So one day I got a call from RZA’s manager, and they said: “we’ve seen the compilations you’re doing, they have all the people we want on RZA’s album, can you contact them?” I ended up working on the executive production of that album. I got the phone call in April, and three weeks later I was in the studio making that album. That was life-changing.
He’s my son’s godfather now. We’re really close. He’s one of the greatest people I know. He’s very similar to Daft Punk in the sense that these are all people who don’t care so much about success in the traditional way. They don’t suck up to people. Harvard has been asking him to lecture for years, and he’s never done it, but when I got sick he jumped on a plane straight away, and he’s written stuff for me without me even asking. I think it’s important to know who your friends are.
It seems like those kinds of friendships have been key to your whole career.
There’s a Russian saying I like; ‘It’s better to have 100 friends than 100 rubbles’.
You tour-managed Wu-Tang Clan for a bit as well?
Yeah, that was the craziest year of my life. I just did one tour, they asked me to do more, but I politely declined. That was maybe 2007… we did a big tour through Europe. I think it was 28 gigs in 31 days – no tour bus. We were taking flights every day, and I’m extremely proud to say we never missed a show, we were on time for every one.
I mean they’re great guys, but you have the eight members of Wu-Tang plus cousins and friends and merch guys, so we had about 20 people. Only three of them had phones that worked in Europe and none of them had their watch on European time, so you always have to tell them in New York time when they had to be on stage. I slept for two months after that tour.
Do you have a favourite memory from the tour?
I don’t know if it’s my favourite, but this is the craziest. We went to a festival in Switzerland, Wu-Tang were closing the festival.
Now, Wu-Tang are being paid in dollars; it’s the only currency they accept. They’re supposed to get 50% upfront and 50% on the night of the show. The people who run the festival were scared that they wouldn’t show up so didn’t want to pay the other 50% until they’d performed, Wu-Tang didn’t want to perform until they had it. That turned into a three-hour negotiation, and it was agreed they’d get the money when they were on stage.
So now, it’s 8 or 9pm, all the other stages close. There’s about 25,000 people waiting, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Ice Cube are waiting side of stage. [Wu-Tang] come on, Raekwon picks up the mic and says “Jerome, we’re on stage, get the cash.” I had to run under the stage, get the cash, count a huge amount of money and strap it to my body. I walk on stage, lift my shirt and say “I got the cash, you can perform” and after 25 minutes of people screaming “Wu-Tang” and standing around not having any idea what was going on, they started to play.
You’ve just released your debut solo album – how do you feel about that process?
I was shitlessly scared and panicky, to be honest. I’m super happy about the music, but it’s very stripped down, so it feels like exposing myself to the world. I really tried to show my true self. It’s a pretty scary process, to be honest. At the same time, it’s very soothing, and it’s helped me to come back to myself. I think in life, you move away from who you are because of various experiences and traumas, and this brought me back.
Do you think recovering from cancer was part of it as well?
Through the cancer, I realised all these things that were holding me back were artificial and non-existent, just mental constructions. So a lot of those walls I’d built inside my mind fell down, and I think making the project has made sure those walls stay down.
On another note, when I had my cancer, initially I only thought I had a few months left, so I wanted to do something for my kids. I started to write a book for them about lessons of life and things like that. Then I thought it would be too rigid, and I wanted them to have space to have their own thoughts and ideas, so a better thing to give them would be emotions. So that’s why I made this album, to put in these mixed emotions you have in life, and give them to my kids. That was the main motivation for making the record.
How do you think you’ve managed to do so many things at once during your career?
I think what really helped to structure me was the kids; they need to eat at a certain time, they need to wake up at a certain time, so that really bought rigour into my life.
There’s a lot you can do in 24 hours if you don’t have drug problems or play video games. There’s a lot that will take you away from doing it, but you can do a lot. I still play video games, and I drink once in a while. The key to everything, in the end, is to be surrounded by good people.
That’s the ultimate, most difficult thing in life, to surround yourself with good people who will help you move forward and not drag you back. It takes a lot of energy and patience and experience to be able to get there. I’m not that young anymore, it’s horrible to say that, but I’m 38. Most people did what I’m doing 15 years ago, but I’m doing it now with all this experience, which is why I think I can do more than I would have done then.
JHADEY is out now on Villa Lena Recordings.