- Mon, 2011-03-07 14:10
Jessie J has kick-started 2011 in style. First up, she won the BBC's Sound of 2011 poll, followed this up with her UK number one single Price Tag, quickly saw the release of her debut album moved forward due to huge demand and shortly afterwards, found her well painted nails clasped firmly around the coveted Critic's Choice Award at the 2011 BRIT's.
Here at I Like Music we were lucky enough to sit down with Jessie for a lengthy chat, prompting a four part exclusive interview covering the beginning of her career, writing songs for Alicia Keys, performing with no shoes and her huge plans for the future.
In part one we go right back to the beginning; how did it all begin for Jessie J? From her time at the BRIT school through to her first post on YouTube, we delve into the dedication, drive and passion that has kick-started a whrilwind 2011 for the 22 year-old Londoner.
“I Like Music because…it saves lives. That sounds really deep, but I mean in a sense of however you’re feeling, whether you need to cry or laugh or dance around; that 3 minute or 4 minute song can just completely save your life.” Jessie J
ILM: Let’s go right back to the beginning. When did this all start, what’s your earliest musical memory?
Jessie: My first music performance memory I’ve actually got on DVD – I think I might put it on YouTube cos it’s just so funny! My first words were Jam Hot…”You’re listening to the boys from the big bad city…” Haha! My first musical performance memory was my sister playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the recorder, I was three and I was singing. It was at a caravan park and it was an open audition for anyone on holiday. I just totally forgot the words and started laughing and I looked how I do now but with a blonde version of my hair…
ILM: When did you realise that you wanted to pursue a career in music?
Jessie: I think the moment I decided that music was for me was when I was in Whistle Down The Wind when I was about 11. I was going from school to do a musical every night, I could hang out with adults and just be on stage and have that buzz… I started to realise I could make my hobby my career. I could get paid for it and I could pay my parents back for the ballet shoes and the costumes. I think that’s when it hit me that I wanted to do it, even though I was quite young. It was also round that age that people started to realise that my voice was a lot stronger. I don’t know if it was good then or if I was just really loud. I think I was just really loud!
ILM: You’re a graduate from the famous BRIT School! How did you find your time there?
Jessie: The BRIT School made me grow up. I auditioned when I had just turned 16 and I had to travel in from Romford to Croydon every day. I did 6 trains and I had to get up at 5am every day for 2 years. It made me really independent, to be able to do that every day and travel and know where to go if the Central line was closed. It was a big daunting thing for a young person. I remember not really being able to have a social life. Everyone else at school would live there. I commuted because I needed to have that home thing. I had to leave The BRIT School four months early because I had a minor stroke. Luckily I still got my four A’s. I was so proud! I was like “YES! I must have worked hard.”
ILM: Looking back, what were some of the biggest things you learnt?
Jessie: At the BRIT School there were so many opportunities. You could audition for girl groups and things and learn your craft while you were still at school – you got to put it to test instead of being like “right, I’m learning, let me go out and audition.” You could do it whilst you were there. I auditioned for a girl group whilst I was at The BRIT School, that’s where I got discovered. Then I was signed to Gut Records and so on and so on…
ILM: A girl group wasn’t for you?
Jessie: We were never allowed to write music. When I decided to leave I wrote my first song, that was like two days after I was signed to Gut Records. I went into the meeting and they were like “do you write songs?” and I was like “yeah yeah, I write songs all the time!” I was thinking, oh no…! Then I wrote my first song, Big White Room.
ILM: Your very first song! How did it come to be?
Jessie: I remember sitting down in my old house and going “ok, just think like it’s a poem with melody.” It was really scary. I think it’s the hardest thing to be a song-writer – you can write songs all day every day but it doesn’t mean that anyone wants to listen to them or that they’re good. For me Big White Room was a big milestone. Just because I had written a song and could think “I wrote this, I made this, this is mine.” I remember singing it to people for the first time and they were like “this is really good” and I was like “is it?” It took me a long time to believe in myself as a song writer.
ILM: As you said in your Critic’s Choice BRIT Award acceptance speech, you’ve been doing this a long time. You were signed over six years ago. What did you learn during your time at Gut Records?
Jessie: I was signed to Gut Records for two years, while I was signed to them I toured with Jools Holland, Cyndi Lauper, Macy Gray, Girls Aloud, Sugababes, Taio Cruz… and they all had totally different audiences. For Jools Holland we had to strip our stuff down just to me and Ben, my guitarist who’s been with me 7 years. With Macy Gray it was PA and two BVs (Backing Vocalists), and it was totally different. It taught me so much about myself – to be able to adapt to different audiences, different styles of music, to cater for such a vast audience, a global kind of sound.
ILM: Gut Records eventually went bust. What happened next for you?
Jessie: When Gut went under and I wasn’t managed or signed, I toured with Chris Brown. He booked me from YouTube! That was probably the biggest and the scariest. When I look back now I think “woah!” I can’t believe I actually did that! I went there, just me and my mate with an iTunes burnt CD wearing really high shoes and then I performed in front of 10,000 people. We did like 6 shows together across Europe. If I had to do that now I’d be like “what am I gonna wear, I need make-up like this…!” I just love the fact that it was just so organic. People still remember me from those tours now. I don’t think a lot of people get the opportunity to do something like that when they’re not in the limelight, no-one knows who they are, they’re not being watched by the whole world like I am now. It was kind of a development deal in disguise. So that was a very big point in my life.
ILM: Did you attempt to get re-signed?
Jessie: Yeah, I tried to get re-signed in the UK and no-one wanted to sign me; people were like “we’ve got too many girls” and I was like “cool, it is what it is, everything happens for a reason.” So I went to America to do a writing trip. I was there writing for a while and my manager at the time was like “we should do some gigs, let’s do a showcase here and there.” So I did a few showcases and within a week I was sitting with L.A. Reid, Clive Davis, Jeff Fenster and I just thought, “I hope that the UK don’t think I’ve run away!” It was the most amazing thing but I didn’t want people to think that I’d ditched Britain and gone “I’m going to America, up yours!” I was taking British music to America to say “what do you think?”
ILM: Well, it seems the experiences throughout that time paid off. Six years is a long time though, it must have involved a lot of hard work?
Jessie: Yeah, I’m kind of missing out the struggle. Obviously it’s so good to come in going “and then this happened, and then this happened” but all of those things didn’t lead to what I’m doing now – I haven’t been doing what I’m doing now for the last six years. In that time I had to grow up. There were a lot of tears and a lot of moments thinking “I can’t do this, I’ve got no money, I don’t see my family and friends, I don’t sleep, what am I doing this for?” The only reason I ever carried on was for my mum and my dad and my family, because we’re a family of fighters – my mum and dad taught me never give up, I’m a go-getter. And also my fans – if it was one of them or 15,000 of them. I just thought if I could inspire one young girl or one young boy then that’s why I was doing what I was doing. I always used to get messages on YouTube really early on.
ILM: When did you first start engaging with fans online?
Jessie: I put up my first video on YouTube when I’d been in LA for three months by myself and I was really down. I was just like “I have no idea who I am anymore, I’ve been shoved around a thousand different studios, I’ve written over six hundred songs for my debut album and I’ve had to whittle it down to fourteen, I don’t think I’ve got any melodies left.” LA is an amazing place but it’s very cliquey, people have their friends and as soon as they heard my voice they knew I was there for something, I ended up [puts on American accent] ‘talking like this’ by the end of the trip, because then people wouldn’t ask me so many questions. So I kind of learnt to have this decent American accent, I don’t think it’s that bad!
ILM: The first video was to your own song, Big White Room, the first song you’d ever written!
Jessie: Yeah! And my label were like “don’t do it, wait” and I was like “no! I wanna skip you out, skip management out, skip PR out, skip anyone else out and go straight to the people, straight to my fans, straight to an honest opinion.” And I’m glad I did it, because some people hated it and I loved that, and some people loved it and I loved that. I never wanted to be in between with people going “hmm, not sure.” Either hate me or love me, they’re two passionate feelings and that’s what I want.
ILM: You’ve engaged a lot of people with your YouTube videos. What is it you like about that medium of performance, that online connection?
Jessie: I got addicted to putting up videos on YouTube because it gives you that quick, instant ‘what do people think.’ And yeah, I wasn’t putting up covers, it was my own original stuff. That was the best thing because people were like “hmm, not sure about this, we prefer this and we prefer that.” I think YouTube taught me that people loved not only me singing but me talking – I think I’m quite funny, I think people point and laugh more than join in though….but yeah, I enjoyed that connection, like a friendship – this personal thing that me and my fans had that no-one else had really discovered. So that was that, it kind of just barreled on and I got more and more fans and got booked for more and more things.
ILM: Do you regret your time in Amercia?
Jessie: No! No! I wrote Party In The USA, I had the opportunity to write with Justin and for Alicia Keys and then it just started to spiral into this amazing thing. That’s a big part of why I’m so happy about signing to America, because of the opportunities that you get out there. I started to enjoy it a bit more. Even though it was hard and people said to me “why weren’t you a star, why weren’t you winning BRIT awards 6 years ago?” And I’m like “because the label didn’t get me.” It has taken a long time. I had to fight for my songs, for Stand Up, Casualty of Love, Big White Room and Mama Knows Best – there were times when they weren’t even sure they liked Who You Are. I was like “come on!” I don’t want to be a throwaway – like “I’m going to a party and I get free clothes!” and all that crap. I’m about music; I’ve studied it and I love the technique and inspiration stuff.
ILM: It’s been a long journey…
Jessie: Right now, sitting here talking to you, it’s crazy to think I’m here because of two strips of muscle in my throat. To be number one the second week in a row… winning the Critic’s Choice and having the critics behind me but also having the fans behind buying my records….It’s just unbelievable. That’s why I got so tearful at The BRITs. I was just like “hold on a minute, I’ve been watching other people do this for so long and now it’s me.” It was the weirdest feeling, I just wanted to be like “come on! Get in!” just going mental, but I couldn’t. And I haven’t really thought about it since, I’ve been so busy since The BRITs. Now I can say that I sleep to sleep because my dreams are my reality.
ILM: You've said you had over six hundred songs ready for your debut album, how did you decide?
Jessie: Oh I always write songs! I at least try and write four or five songs a week, even if I’m really busy, even if I’m just writing lyrics down or ideas or titles…And with the album, to be honest with you it was more about the songs that people told me they loved. People said to me “what’s on the album?” I was like “go on YouTube.” I’ve never hidden it. This album for me, I had to get my fans involved, I had to let them have an opinion and teach me. Because even though I’m a singer I’m still learning every day, I’m constantly observing people, observing my fans.
ILM: Do you watch other musicians in the same way?
Jessie: Yes, but in the sense that when I go and watch Rihanna in concert, I do watch her, but really my main focus is the audience. I’m watching them to see what they react to. You have to have a business head on as well.
ILM: How would you describe your debut?
Jessie: I wanted to take a risk – I wanted people to know that it wasn’t just Do It Like A Dude and Price Tag, it’s not like 14 versions of that song. Releasing Do It Like A Dude and then Price Tag, people already know the album is not going to be same, same, same, same. There are ballads, reggae, pop, there’s rap a little bit. It represents how I saw life going from a 17 year old to a young adult. Being a teenager and the things you go through. You make mistakes. I told lies. I remember once I had a hash cake by accident! I wanted to write about it because you have to live and learn, you have to make mistakes.
ILM: What affect do you hope to have on your audience?
Jessie: I wanna be almost half artist, half therapist. I want to be an inspiration for young people through my health. I want to just be that ray of light, so they can go “I wanna be like her.” I want to embrace that, that’s what I’ve always said. And I don’t care if it sounds cheesy. I want to devote my life to saving other people’s through my music. I’ve never been academic enough to be a politician but I think my music speaks to young people and I think that will thread through.
ILM: When you begin to write a new song, how does it typically come together?
Jessie: I like to write with melody and lyric at the same time. For me it’s about delivery and emotion. For me, the melody should team with the lyric as much as the lyric should team with the melody. And I’m still learning!
ILM: You’ve worked with some big name producers on the album. What does it take to turn a strong initial idea into a number one single?
Jessie: People always ask me how I write songs and to be honest, I don’t have a specific way. Working with someone like Dr Luke, you’ll get to his studio one day and there will be this massive beat booming and you’ll just get a vibe for it straight away and you start free styling. Or he’ll have two little chords on the guitar that he’ll just run round. Or I’ll come in and go “I’ve got this idea called Price Tag right? [sings] Money money money” and he’ll be like “ok, what do you want it to be about?” I’m someone who throws things out, and people like Luke and Claude and Toby are good at bringing it all together, but it’s different with everyone.
ILM: What do you look forward to the most about playing live?
Jessie: I love live the most out of everything. That’s why I started doing this. I love the photo shoots and interviews and stuff but really, I’m a singer and I love singing. With playing live, I love that it’s my time; whether you play ₤3 or ₤60, you’re there – it’s my half an hour, my hour or my forty minutes, this is my time.
ILM: It seems like performing is in your blood…
Jessie: I remember being in my hotel room going “I need to do a gig!” And yeah, performing is my drug. If I don’t gig for a couple of weeks I get a bit like “I need to sing!” Ben knows and he’ll just come round and sit in my dressing room and play, or when I’m doing promo and he’s off, sometimes he’ll just come and sit with me and he’ll play so I can just sing because I need to do it.
ILM: How do you prepare for your live shows?
Jessie: I never rehearse! I hardly ever rehearse anything! We rehearse the bulk of the songs, but even my label will be like “what you gonna do tonight?” and I’ll be like “he he, that’s for me to know and you to find out!” I like the fact that there’s that spontaneity, I might lay down on stage or take my shoes off or put lipstick on my face or get someone on stage or bring someone out, and no-one knows! That’s what I think is so beautiful about live…that it’s live!
ILM: Have you noticed a big difference in crowd response during your recent gigs, compared to your time supporting artists whilst signed to Gut Records?
Jessie: Yeah, the most amazing thing is the people singing along! I’m so excited about the album coming out early; my album comes out on the 28th and my tour starts on the 31st, so hopefully everyone will know the words by then. I’ll have 2000 backing singers every night; I’ll be like “sing it!” Haha! Even the little tour that I did a few months ago was like an arena tour on the sly – there were 300 people singing every word! The sound systems weren’t great so I was like “I can’t even hear myself so you lot just sing it!”
ILM: What can we expect from the tour?
Jessie: Haha! People always say “what can we expect, will there be, like, a trapeze?” and I’m like “no!” It’ll be me, my band, an audience and good songs. That’s all you need. I want to bring rock and roll back! And I’ll never mime. I’ve never mimed! I don’t think people realise how hard my songs are to sing, I don’t make it easy for myself! I think my next album’s gonna be an octave lower! Haha! But I love to sing and I should be good at it – I always say, you wouldn’t want a heart surgeon to perform an operation on you and be apologetic for their talent. I don’t wanna go on stage saying “hi guys, I’m not sure if I can…” I wanna go and be like [shouts] “YO! YEAH! Let’s do this!” I want to make you feel comfortable that I’m going to deliver. I wouldn’t want a dancer to come in and say “I’m not quite sure about this, but I’ll try.” You have to be confident in what you do.
ILM: What’s your advice to young artists?
Jessie: It’s really hard. I don’t ever disregard the fact that however hard you work, it doesn’t always guarantee it’s going to happen for you. You have to just believe – if you don’t believe in you then no-one else will even bother to look at you. I have shoved myself at any open mics, any gigs, the amount of stuff I’ve done… I mean, even up to now, I’ve probably done 80-90% of all my gigs so far for free. I only get paid now to pay my band, and so I still don’t get paid half the time. You have to just go “right, if this is what I wanna do, this is what I wanna do.”
ILM: With so much going on, what’s your advice on staying focused?
Jessie: Surround yourself with people that you can trust. Surround yourself with people who let you be you. Compromise, but don’t ever lose what makes you, you. Write from the heart. Just believe in yourself, just make sure you stay happy. Always remember that there’s someone worse off than you and there’s always someone working harder than you as well. For every ten CDs you send off, there’s someone sending off another hundred. There’ll always be someone that’s two steps ahead of you and there’ll always be someone that’s ten steps behind you. You have to find what makes you comfortable.
ILM: You’ve been working inside the music industry for the past six years. What’s your advice on dealing with labels?
Jessie: I remember my label being like “we can’t release now because so and so’s come out”, and I’m like “there is always going to be a load of so and so’s. If you believe in me and believe in what I can do then let’s go and do it.” Just get yourself out there as much as you can. And film everything! There’s one thing I’ve learnt! I’m so glad that I did footage from years ago so when people say to me “oh you’ve copied so and so, you’ve done this and that” I can say “go on YouTube and you’ll find me singing the same songs with the same haircut five years ago.”
ILM: It’s become your signature look!
Jessie: Yeah! Ha ha! I’ve just exaggerated it– [touches hair] this is my comfort blanket, I get up and blow dry this every day! Look, I’ve got these bits that I’ve got to grow out now cos someone cut my fringe too wide and I looked like a lego man…! Now I look like I’ve got some weird step hair thing going on… Er…but yes, you’ve got to have fun. Write it all down! Make sure you write everything down. Take pictures! Make sure it’s a journey – the journey is way more important than where you end up.
ILM: What are your future plans?
Jessie: The opportunities that are flooding in right now are amazing. I want to start charities up. I want to earn money to give money away. I want to do whatever I can. I’ve just secured a gig with Tinie Tempah. I’m supporting him for the Teenage Cancer Trust at the Royal Albert Hall on my birthday. My birthday was the only day I had off this year pretty much, and now I’m working – but I’m working for a cause. I’m not doing it for any other reason other than the fact that I want to support the cause. I want to do campaigns, I want to dress up, I want to do product campaigns, I’d love to have my own TV show, I’d love to have my own clothing line, my own perfume – everyone wants their own perfume, right? I don’t know what I’d call it though… Jazz Hands, Jessie Jazz Hands, no… Ha ha! I want to just keep doing what I’m doing, writing music. I want to create an amazing tour. One of my dreams is to be at the O2 by the end of this year!
ILM: Wow. Amazing....
Jessie: You’ve gotta dream big. I’d written a list of all the things I wanted at the beginning of last year and half the things on that list have been ticked off! Now I’m like right, I want to get a little friend for my BRIT. I’m hoping that’s going to be a Grammy so they can hang out… There’s just so many things I want to do. I just always think never say never. Like Justin Bieber’s new film. That’s really good! Ha ha! Check it out.
ILM: Well, it certainly seems to be heading in that direction. Pop music in 2011 has been dominated by Jessie J so far! It must have been a whirlwind...
Jessie: People have been saying to me “how do you feel, you’re on this ride?” And I’m like, I’m still queuing up! I haven’t got on it yet, I haven’t even got my ticket. I’m not even ready. I’m not going to let now be the busiest time. I’ve got a lot more to do yet.
ILM: You seem to take it all in your stride…
Jessie: Yeah. Well…I hope people realise that it’s not easy. There’s a lot of pressure and expectation on me right now but I can only be me. There’s only 5’9” of me, I can’t be in six countries at once! I don’t always look amazing because I’m a human. I have cellulite and I got my teeth whitened. Basically, I’m just a 22 year old girl that likes to sing.