When JoJo sings it sounds like pure confection: her hushed tones are a deep, slightly burned caramel, and she climbs her way, strawberry licorice strong, to ascend a graceful, cotton candy peak. But when Joanna Levesque, the 23-year-old Boston-born, L.A.-based singer speaks, there is no coy sweetness. Instead, she is thoughtful and direct, and thinks nothing of tossing in the occasional F-bomb.
Maybe it’s weird to hear JoJo swear because she’s frozen in public memory: a precocious, preternaturally talented teenager, one who at 13, became the youngest solo artist to snag a Billboard number one with 2004’s angelic guitar&b tirade, “Leave (Get Out).” After the successes of her 2004 self-titled debut, and 2006’s The High Road, JoJo seemed to vanish from public view, stuck in label purgatory at Blackground Records, which is best known for its work with Aaliyah. Earlier this year, she joyously shared her freedom with fans byInstagramming a screengrab of the L.A. Times article announcing her new deal with Atlantic Records.
But those intervening years should prove crucial to JoJo’s future success thanks to loyal fans — and the sleuthy internet — mythologizing her as the industry’s Rapunzel, a lark forcibly shut away in some towering label backroom. Before Frank Ocean made it a thing to pop off on label overlords, JoJo had already released her first unofficial mixtape, 2010’s Can’t Take That Away From Me. She followed it up with 2012’s brilliant, critically acclaimed caged bird narrative,Agapé. And there were singles, too, the most exciting of which indicated a deep desire to grow up and engage with her peers – to the extent that she contractually could. “Can’t Do Better,” was a classic R&B role reversal takeback of Drake’s “Marvin’s Room,” and then there was the Noah “40” Shebib-produced slow jam, “Demonstrate,” which built on her guitar-driven sound but with 40’s cavernous drums.
“I think this is the most important time in my life,” JoJo declares, when Saint Heroncatches up with her over the phone from L.A. She’s been in the studio workshopping, slowly, for her third album. It’s also a couple of weeks after the Valentine’s Day release of #LoveJo, a four-track EP featuring covers of songs by Anita Baker and Phil Collins. The EP is a perfect snapshot of what JoJo, the pop classicist, does well: sing through tender moments with that massive, heart-bursting voice.
You’ve talked about growing up singing, and doing TV shows like ‘Kids Say The Darndest Things’ with Bill Cosby. Do you remember what that felt like?
I was pretty fearless. I felt like I was living my purpose from a very young age. When I was really young I thought I would be a vet on the side, you know, when I wasn’t singing. (Laughs) It was so farfetched, but as kids we dream big. Singing just felt right to me. I had a few friends but I did feel like a bit of an outcast and different from kids I went to school with. I just felt like I was alive and understood by music.
A lot of people who show natural aptitude and a sense of purpose from a young age often mention feeling, somewhat, isolated as a child.
Yeah, I found people difficult to relate to for a while. I had to really do a lot of understanding, though. When people were trying to figure out what they wanted to do, I couldn’t get what it felt like to not have a passion yet or to not know. I find it fascinating because some people still don’t know! I guess the simple answer might be that it was never something I had to think about.
As a headstrong kid did you have an idea of how you wanted your self-titled debut album to sound?
I had grown up listening to all things, but not too much hip-hop. I was naturally more drawn to live instruments and soul music and big voices. I recorded that album at 12, so as I was moving into my teens I was getting into hip-hop, I started to understand it a bit more, and it started to speak more to my friends and I. Blackground had roots in hip-hop and R&B, so that’s naturally how the album shaped up. Because I was a young white girl, of course it was going to be called pop – no matter what we did with it.
Are you comfortable with that word, ‘pop’?
I’m comfortable with people calling it whatever they want. For simplicity I call it pop, because I hope my music would be popular with people. It’s the most expansive genre and covers so much ground, especially today. I know I’m always going to deliver vocals in the way I do, but there are lots of different influences in my music.
What changed between your first and second albums? Did you have more of a say in putting it together?
I went through a major life change. I was 13 when the first single came out and my mom was a single, cleaning houses for a living. We were very, very poor. So everything changed. We had money, I was in the public eye. I had my first boyfriend. And I was going through that weird time – 13 to 15 is so fucking weird! No one expected the first album or first single to do anything because putting out a 13-year-old was so risky and a lot of people weren’t sold on the idea. So when things happened the way they did, there were so many more cooks in the kitchen for the second album. A lot more opinions. I had a good time with both because I was a little kid! And I was living out my dreams.
Your sound has been quite consistent over time: a prominent guitar line, heavy bass and drums, good songwriting. I think you’ve actually been criticized for not going synth-pop.
I’m thankful that I have been able to be myself. I’m not a character, or a caricature of myself. The biggest priority for me is the song and how it makes people feel. I want it to do something. Sonically, it’s important that you feel it. I want you to make a stank face, whether it’s from the vocals or something that happens musically! And who knows what’ll happen next year? I haven’t wanted to deviate from what has gotten people’s attention in the past. I don’t want to be foolish with that. I want to keep some continuity while still exploring so I can develop a sound that people associate with me. So when someone else does that it’s like ‘That’s a JoJo sound.’
At the same time you’ve managed to flex a little and keep pace with contemporaryR&B; Your music doesn’t sound dated. What’s it been like to release all of thismusic unofficially and not reap the full rewards?
I wanted to do things that were a bit left of centre from the “Leave (Get Out)” stuff, but because I was in such a weird situation with my label I kept it somewhat mainstream because I wanted people to believe in me as a pop artist. At the end of the day, it was what I needed to do to express myself without having to give an interview. But I don’t like to fixate on it. I don’t want to feel salty or angry. The music I’ve released during the limbo stage of my life has reached who it’s supposed to reach. And as I release my third official album through the new label people will go back and discover it. That’s what’s great about the Internet – things live on forever! If people want to dig through the catalogue it’s dope that they can at their leisure.
On “Take The Canyon,” you sing, “I’m always coming over and smoking you out,because everything is better with a blunt in your mouth.” It’s pretty honest musicfor a former child pop star.
Those mixtapes were very freeing, because I didn’t go in with the mentality of, ‘Okay we need to make a hit single and make sure the hook comes in at the 45 second mark and it explodes in this way.’ I like all that stuff too, but it was a great exercise because I was taught to work in a certain way from a young age. So I got to unlearn more things and explore more as a writer and a person. And I got in touch with who I would be as a young woman without all of these hands on deck that aren’t mine.
What’s something you couldn’t do before that you’re most excited to pursue now that you’re signed to Atlantic?
To be featured on other artists albums? I wouldn’t have gotten clearance. That wasn’t even a possibility for me before, so it was an amazing opportunity to get in with Pharrell for “Freq,” on his new record. It’s exciting to be a part of these sessions, hang out with these artists, and interact with them. I didn’t know how to feel about myself without being able to put out music, and I feel like people felt bad for me. People would come up to me and say sorry about my situation and it made me feel stupid. It just made me feel wack! Now I can even have my songs licensed for TV and soundtracks – or duets! I couldn’t do duets before! So yeah, I think I’m most excited about working with people who might have been afraid to get in the studio with me because they didn’t know if stuff was ever going to come out.
Let’s talk about your voice. You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you didn’t start taking care of it until recently.
Growing up I didn’t work with a vocal coach, but in the last year and a half I’ve started working with this amazing guy, Stevie Mackie, who works on The Voice. He’s really helping me understand and develop my voice and, really, live my life as a singer. Your voice is a muscle so you have to show it respect, and monitor what you eat and do, to how much sleep you get. I wear a scarf often, that kind of thing. I sound like a crazy singer, right?! I’ve been singing ever since I can remember but I didn’t have control. I could hear things I wanted to do in my head but couldn’t execute it. I love listening to the different ways people emote through singing – in opera, and folk, and soul – and how to make your voice sound like an instrument. I’ve been studying so much and practicing, and I kind of feel like I’ll never be a master of my own voice. Til I die, I’ll be learning more about my voice and singing.
There are three covers on ‘#LoveJo.’ Were there any contenders that didn’t make the cut?
Umm, let me check the notes on my phone. Sade’s “Is It A Crime,” Billie Holiday’s “There’s No Greater Love,” and “Something In The Way She Moves” by James Taylor.
What artists, old and new, inspire you?
While getting ready this morning I was listening to A Tribe Called Quest. I’m constantly inspired by Q-Tip. D’Angelo, Erykah Badu. I love people who are just bold individuals and write in a way that’s uniquely theirs. I love the way Frank Ocean writes. And I’ve always loved James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. But I’ve been on Pandora a lot lately – I’ve been digging some of the deep house sounds on Disclosure’s Pandora. Miguel is dope. I like the way Jhene Aiko writes and she has a beautiful voice; she’s been working hard for so long, she really deserves it. It’s hard to list everything I love but I will say I think that music is in an interesting place. I like the freedom that exists.
And one more question. From Solange herself, what would you tell your 13-year-old self as a young woman in this industry?
Oh, wow. Respect your mother, be nice to her. When you tell God your plans, he gets a kick out of that, so things don’t go the way we plan them. Or, as Andre 3000 says, “You can plan a pretty picnic but you can’t predict the weather.” In retrospect, you’ll realize you grew you up, and [it] gave you perspective and a certain advantage to have gone through things. And – be careful who you trust. This industry is weird.
STORY BY ANUPA MISTRY