After writing songs for Justin Timberlake, Alicia Keys and Christina Aguilera, as well as touring as a supporting act for Chris Brown, Jessie J’s polished American debut seems less a surprise, when you consider that dreams are often deferred. But the past six years have been spent wisely, as Jessie J waited for her moment to shine.
The massive success of Jessie J’s underground buzz single, “Do It Like A Dude,” is due largely to her 300-plus performances in London and venues across Europe. Her tireless dedication has led to the opening of international floodgates; and Stateside, American audiences will be introduced to her work via “Price Tag” – a collaboration with B.o.B.
In the midst of a promotional campaign for Who You Are (April 12, 2011), Jessie J managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on her father’s influence, her crazy haircuts and behind-the-scenes battles over her music artistry.
Clayton Perry: On this side of “the Pond,” your success has definitely been a word-of-mouth campaign. And in these past few weeks, the States have been bombarded with announcements of your recent accolades: the BRIT “Critics’ Choice” Award and the top spot on BBC’s “Sound of 2011” poll. Even though these are massive achievements, is there a smaller – maybe unpublicized – triumph that you are equally proud of attaining?
Jessie J: Probably having people send me letters on YouTube and Twitter telling me that I’ve saved their lives, or I’ve helped them through a hard time. I always wanted my music to speak louder than just your average kind of club track. And even though “Do It Like a Dude” grabbed people’s attention, there’s a lot of my music online where you can really get to know me. I kind of see that as half art and half therapy. And when you receive messages like: “I was ready to take my own life last week and I decided not to when I heard ‘Who You Are’” – that, for me, should be on the front page of the paper. That’s the most humbling feeling you can ever have at twenty-two years old. It’s a bit of pressure, too.
Clayton Perry: In the States, “Price Tag” will be your first single. Considering its lyrical content, I imagine that your father’s life – [as a social worker] – had a tremendous influence on your repertoire.
Jessie J: You know what? I like drama. Not drama that kind of ruins energy, but drama that creates magical moments. How you can turn a stress into a good place. I suppose for me, like in twenty-two years, I know that I’ve lived a lot. I’ve traveled the world pretty much. I’ve done hair modeling and I’ve had various jobs. I’ve had a minor stroke. I’ve been in shows. I feel like I’ve lived and seen a lot, and there’s so many things that a twenty-two-year-old can relate to me with. One isn’t being signed, because I know that’s so rare for a twenty-two-year-old girl, so I feel like it’s important for me to showcase the fact that I’m human too, and that I go through normal stuff. I think it’s so important that globally people relate to it. My mom and dad, they’re such good people. Like they’re two of like my best mates. They’re very giving and loving and caring people, and I suppose I get that from them. And I suppose I just use my humor and my personality to kind of put my “diva spin” and put on some killer shoes! [laughing] But yeah, no, it’s all about life. For me, so much I hear about how much money people have and how people just take stuff too seriously. It’s not me saying that you can live for free, because obviously that isn’t the case; but I’m saying that you don’t always have to let it be about that. It’s isn’t always about how much your shoes cost. It’s about the fact that you even have a pair of shoes to walk in.
Clayton Perry: Right! A small twist in perspective can be very powerful!
Jessie J: That’s the point I was trying to make in “Price Tag.” And I think one thing, as well, that I’m happy to do is kind of expose my flaws. It’s just like a lot of people are scared to do. I feel like a lot of art has created a fantasy world of taking people away from their faults, and away from their flaws, and away from their bad days. Whereas with me, I let people dive into them and go over them.
Clayton Perry: What do you think allows you to be so free – personally and artistically? Like you said, many people shy away from being so “open”?
Jessie J: I just feel like you can never, ever allow anyone to be comfortable with you if you’re not comfortable with yourself. I say that I’m younger. I am young. But when I first started college, I started doing hair modeling and I had the most ridiculous haircuts. But I always said to myself: “You know what? I look like I’m flying on Star Trek, but it’s paying for my singing lessons!” [laughing] And I think it was those kind of experiences. They made me care less about what people thought, because whatever you do, whoever you are, what race you are, what culture you are, what you like to do behind closed doors, what food you eat, how you live your life, someone is always going to have a problem with something. And I suppose once you’ve accepted that, I just feel like you’ve just got to “do the do” and get on with it because you only live once. I don’t get embarrassed very easily. I am who I am, and I’m so aware. I’ve got my feet firmly on the ground with the fact that I know that people are going to hate me, and if they didn’t, I’d be doing something wrong, because it’s not humanly possible to have everybody love you and worship you, because that’s weird. I think it’s just having inner peace and being able to say: “You know what? I’m not perfect, but nobody is, and I’m just going to do what I can and try my best.” And I’m only twenty-two. I’m still growing up. Especially for the U.K. I feel like the U.K. needs a pop icon, a role model, someone that’s going to raise that standard. People always say: “the Americans do it, better and bigger.” But I want be up there with the Katys, the Rihannas, the Beyoncés and the Pinks. And even if one day I go: “You know what? I didn’t get there!” – at least I can say I tried.
Clayton Perry: Well, you have to start with a dream!
Jessie J: Exactly.
Clayton Perry: My first introduction to your work was “Do It Like A Dude.” And approaching the song from the male perspective, I noticed – in the explicit version – that there is one expletive that you don’t say, but spell instead: b-i-t-c-h. What are your thoughts on the word, since some women use it as a word of empowerment? And was there an artistic reason for spelling it out?
Jessie J: When you listen to the lyrics, you’ll find that they’re not offensive. They’re actually quite funny. I never wanted the song to be offensive. With me and my mate who will always say like “motherf**ker” as a joke. He’s like, “Oh, you motherf**ker.” It’s not like aggressive or angry. And that man’dem is a street term here in the U.K. for like the boys, like a group of boys. “Oh, it’s me and the man’dem.” And I’ve grown up with a lot of different cultures around me – Jamaican being one of them. It’s a street term. I suppose “Do It Like A Dude” for me is like my dedication to the U.K. There’s just so many things about “Do It Like A Dude” that I love and I hate. I’m kind of fighting it when people say: “This is not Jessie J.” This isn’t a singer’s song. I’m like: “They do know that I know that, right?” I’m a businesswoman. You have to be a businesswoman. You can’t survive in this industry if you don’t know what you’re doing to be in it, if that makes sense. It’s like anything. And there’s a lot of things I’ve learned in the last year, and the only song that I’ve ever written that was influenced by the radio was “Do It Like A Dude.” If I had put out “Price Tag” first on the Internet globally, tried to launch with that, I think it wouldn’t have got the amount of attention that “Do It Like A Dude” did. It shook up some controversy. I think that’s what you have to do. You have to put yourself out there and go, “I’m ready. Are you?” And for me, “Do It Like A Dude,” it’s an empowering song for anyone. It’s not about being empowered for women. Obviously I’m not going to sing I can do it like a girl because obviously that would be silly. The point is, it’s about feeling like you should never let anybody make you feel insecure and uncomfortable. That’s how I see it. It’s one of those things like, I can do it like you. I can do it like a dude. That’s not me saying I can do it like a man and I can scratch my genitals in public! [laughing] Am I making sense?
Clayton Perry: Perfect sense. I just know over here, a lot of women use it as a term of empowerment, so I was unsure if you were just adding extra emphasis to it, or if I was missing something, when you broke the word apart.
Jessie J: No, I just think that too many men and too many people in the industry use that term. For me, there’s some people coming back around and bringing true hip-hop back, but I feel like too much is about b***hes and hoes and chains and cars and how many girls are naked. And it’s almost, for me, “Do It Like A Dude” is a like a parody. I respect them. That’s what you’re doing. Like do what you’re doing as long as you’re not hurting anyone while you’re doing it. But yes, I think it’s just good to point these things out. I just feel like so many people are scared to say what they think. I would never have said “b***hes” because, realistically, I want to be controversial but I don’t want to be offensive. That’s why, it’s funny to me because I never sing “f**ker” on stage ever. The audience does, but I never sing it. It’s not like me backing away from it. It’s exists and it’s there. It’s that contained kind of angry humor. But I love the song. It’s a fun club track that you can have your own meaning to, all day, every day.
Clayton Perry: Well, I appreciate your insight on that. You definitely gave me a lot. Over the years, it took you a long time to consider yourself a songwriter. What reservations did you have about your talents?
Jessie J: You know what it is? It’s really hard, because you see the amount of people in this world that do something that are never able to call it their job. Like their career and their hobby combined. Like dancers that spend days in and days out dancing and rehearsing and training, and they’ll never get lots of jobs. Not because they’re not good, but just because that’s the way it goes, sometimes. And for me, just because I wrote a song, it didn’t mean I was a good songwriter or anyone ever wanted to listen to my songs. And unfortunately, early on in my career, I didn’t have this group I have now. I did have people that bullied me and told me that I wasn’t a good songwriter. And I believed them because I was fifteen or sixteen. And sometimes you’re not always surrounded with people pushing you and believing in you. My mom and dad always did, but they weren’t who were looking after my career, if that makes sense. And everybody has got insecurities. I’ve never, ever said that I don’t have insecurities. I do. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t. But I think the one turning point for me was when I wrote “Big White Room.” It was the first song I ever wrote. And I really, truly loved the song, but it was nothing that I’d sung out loud. Finally I went to my ex-manager, and then he went: “That’s the tackiest song I’ve ever heard in my life. Go and change the lyrics.” So I went home. I didn’t want to change any lyrics, so I didn’t. I went back the next day and sung it to him, and he said: “It’s amazing! It’s a hit.”
Clayton Perry: Wow!
Jessie J: And I went: “You know what? I’m just going to do what I do.” And it took me a long time to say: “I’m a singer/songwriter.” It’s just one of those things I feel like you have to have. It’s a very incredible thing to be a songwriter, and I always wanted to be one. And I think it was just one of things. I knew I could sing. You know what it is? I don’t like being given any kind of title or anything or any award or any newspaper and headline if I haven’t worked my ass off for it. And I didn’t want to call myself a songwriter just because I could. Does that make sense? Just because I’m in the industry and I sing. So I really wanted to push myself. That’s why I see myself as a songwriter, and now I can call myself a songwriter because people specifically call me and say, “Can you please write a song for so and so?” I’ve had cuts with lots of different artists, now. And it’s a lovely part of my life that I fully separate from Jessie J. It’s something that I can do for myself. It’s almost giving a gift to someone else. It isn’t always about me. And that’s what I love about songwriting. I can escape, but it’s not pressure.
Clayton Perry: Taking the exchange between you and your manager a little bit further, I know that before signing with Lava Records and Universal Republic, you were signed with Gut Records, which went bankrupt before you could release any material. When you look back on that experience, and the dreams that kept pushing you forward, what professional lessons have you learned about the music business?
Jessie J: You know what? It’s so hard, because I’ve got an amazing family. I’m very grounded and I’m very strong-headed. But when you’re sixteen, age always feels like you can’t say what you want to say sometimes because you’re ten or twenty years younger than someone that’s saying it to you. They make you feel like you don’t know anything. It’s so easy to get sucked into a bubble and being very selfish. It’s a very selfish way to look at things and give up. I am a singer/songwriter, and I do what I do. I am the one that carries Jessie J. Without me, there is no Jessie J. and I will happily say that. However, there’s hundreds of people around me that lose that if I give up. And that’s not fair, because they’ve given up a lot for me, and my dream is their dream. It’s like being a tour manager or a guitarist or a vocal coach or a sound engineer. They’re all very important roles. I’m steering off the point, but I feel like I never, ever gave up, because of my fans. Even when I had ten, and I only had like thirty people on Facebook and a hundred people following me on YouTube. To cut a long story short, I just feel like you owe it to your fans, however many you have. Every artist in the world that exists has at least a hundred fans, and every single one of those people’s lives you can change. And there have been so many times I have wanted to give up, because people don’t see behind the scenes: the hard days and the no sleep and constantly having to give things. Everything is planned. But you have to look at it in a bigger picture and go: “You know what? I owe this to so many more people and I’ve been brought up better than to give up.” And I think my health is a massive point for me. I had a minor stroke four years ago, and I was told I may never sing or walk again. And when you’re eighteen, you don’t think that’s going to happen. And you don’t sit and go: “I may never be able to do anything ever again.” And I think that just hit me to go: “You know what? You can’t take life for granted.” And you have to live every day like it’s not being given to you tomorrow and make sure that you fulfill your dreams, because that’s the most important thing is to be happy. I would do this for free if I could. I want to raise money to save people, if that makes sense. I’ve always said I want to devote my life to saving other people. I don’t want to be here to come and go. I want to be here to stay. And if that means I have to wear some crazy outfits and some crazy lip jewelry to stay in the game, I will do it because I want the music to shout louder than the outfit.
Clayton Perry: Over the past few years, several British artists have found tremendous success in the States. What do you think was the major stimulus for such a large influx in support within the contemporary music landscape?
Jessie J: I just think it’s the rawness, the honesty. Do you know what? I forget that the U.K. is like the size of Texas, if not smaller. So when you look at it like that, in the U.K., you have to be different. You can’t afford to be like no one else. There’s not space to be like anyone else. There’s one Alexander Burt. There’s one Leona Lewis. There’s one Jessie J. There’s one Ellie Goulding. There’s one Adele. There’s one Amy. I think sometimes in America, you can afford to have more than one type of artist that’s very similar. Not so much in the mainstream. Because it’s so much bigger, it can cater to more artists that are similar. And I think that’s one reason why. It’s that individuality. I mean, I’m singing with the standards of female U.K. artists right now, that I’ve been kind of floating to after winning the Brits Critics’ Choice Award. And Ellie, Adele, Amy, Florence, like they’ve set the standards so high. I’m honored to be British, and I just feel like pop icon wise, there’s no one in the U.K. that’s really sitting with Brianna and Beyoncé and Katy and Pink, and really kind of just flying. I don’t know how to explain it. You know what I mean? Just doing the kind of the show and the voice and the songs. People say to me, “You’re really raw. I can’t imagine your stage show to be like with you and a guitar.” And I’m like, “No, that isn’t it. I’m going to be like on top of a helicopter and have like fair dancers and like somersaults and shit. But like I might do some forward rolls and some cartwheels. But it’s like, why not? There shouldn’t be any limits or boundaries.
Clayton Perry: From the outside looking in, it appears that people are very receptive to the artistry that you are bringing to the table.
Jessie J: Well, people can give you the platform, but you have to keep yourself there. I’m very much aware of that. I’m very thankful for the people that have helped me out in my career and it’s crazy to me, that is whole world is created from a noise that I make from my throat. I’m very thankful that my voice is recordable, and right now, I’m just trying to live life to the fullest and bring a little light into people’s worlds. If you like it, then help me out to help you out. And if you don’t, then, don’t listen to it. Turn the radio on what you want. But it’s as simple as that. I’m just trying to enjoy all that I am. The reason I’m bringing it to the U.S. is because why shouldn’t I? I want to take that British flag and fly it around the globe. And America better be ready for me, because I’m coming! [laughing]
For more information on Jessie J, visit her official website: http://jessiejofficial.com