A Brit Award, collaborations with two of the biggest artists in the world and she’s only just turned 21. Stylist finds out what Jorja Smith plans to conquer next.
Jorja Smith has no plans to mark her 21st birthday, even though there is much to celebrate and the guest list might include Drake and Kendrick Lamar. “It’s just another birthday,” the Midlands- born singer says [she turned 21 on 11 June]. “I don’t really like birthdays.” Smith might sound like a party pooper, but as the breakout star of British music she can be forgiven for not putting her celebrations top of the to-do list.
We speak as she’s in the midst of a whirlwind promo tour for her highly anticipated debut album Lost And Found, released on the back of a Critics’ Choice Brit Award (previous winners include Adele and Florence + The Machine) and next-level endorsement from hip-hop’s biggest male stars (Drake was so impressed with her, he made a surprise on-stage appearance at her first Toronto gig last August in support). So maybe it’s worth raising a rum and coke, her drink of choice, to that?
“I guess this one is a good time to celebrate,” the singer reconsiders in a soft voice that bears traces of her Walsall roots. “Because I’m 21 and I’ve done so much already.”
It’s only two years since Smith caught mainstream attention with her track Blue Lights, a politically charged deliberation on police brutality. But music has long been part of her story. She grew up in a musical household in the West Midlands. Jazz and reggae were always on the stereo; her Jamaica-born dad was lead singer of neo-soul band 2nd Naicha. Smith’s heroine is Amy Winehouse; she’s previously described Winehouse’s debut Frank as the soundtrack to her life.
Like her idol, Smith has crossover appeal. Her voice – all dripping honey and smoky sultriness – is equally at home stretching itself around an aching ballad such as Let Me Down, her collaboration with Stormzy, as it is cutting through pulsing dance production alongside global superstar Drake on his stellar Black Coffee collaboration Get It Together. Smith was personally requested by Drake for the track – an offer she turned down once before accepting – and was also headhunted by Pulitzer Prize- winning rapper Kendrick Lamar for their recent link-up on his curated soundtrack for Black Panther.
All this is enough to go to a Midlands girl’s head. Her fans are equally as keen, obsessing about her skincare regime almost as much as her music (FYI, her seemingly flawless skin comes from a combination of Neutrogena face wash, Vaseline and – her staple – The Body Shop’s Vitamin E cream).
And yet speaking to Smith, she remains remarkably unruffled by the fame she’s found herself caught up in. “You’ve got to get on with it,” she insists, when talk turns to the spotlight that’s only shining brighter…
You recently described your songs as “classics”. Are there any topics you cover on the album that resonate across generations?
Love. Everyone’s been in love, whether it’s with your parents, your best friend, boyfriend, girlfriend… your pet [laughs]. Everyone’s experienced love and loss. Love resonates because everyone goes through it. Even people who are unloved; it’s sad but that [feeling] still comes from love. Love is universal.
There’s a big discussion surrounding colourism in entertainment right now. What do you make of the conversation?
It’s hard to talk about because I will never be a dark-skinned black girl [Smith is mixed heritage, Jamaican-English]. I’m just me, can’t help it. Zendaya said something about this that was really interesting, how she’s Hollywood’s acceptable version of a black girl. Throughout history it’s always been like this – it’s not fair.
Now I have a fanbase in America and am more global, I’m included more in these discussions [around issues like] colourism. I’m trying to read more and educate myself more on the [topic] so I can talk about it when I’m asked. I’ve got a book called This Bridge Called My Back [by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E Anzaldúa] which is about black women and race that looks very interesting.
You’ve received a lot of attention for your appearance. Does that ever get tired?
[Smith affects a high-pitched voice] “She’s only doing well because she’s pretty” [laughs]. People focus too much on how you look, which pisses me off, to be honest. I think half of Twitter doesn’t even know I sing, they just see me as a pretty person. I see stuff sometimes where people are like, “What does Jorja Smith even do?” When it comes down to it, good music is always heard. I put out my first songs and they didn’t have me in them. I just put them out.
In the past, you’ve said you don’t read comments about you on social media. Why?
There’s no point. The internet is weird, no one’s got a face online. People don’t think you have feelings because you have so many likes on a picture or faves on a tweet. Imagine walking down the street and 30 people coming up to you with at least three saying, “You’re so ugly”, or “Your music’s crap”. The internet is a separate world you can get lost in, it’s best not to read too much into it.
You were talking earlier about being pulled into discussions about colourism by your global audience – is there more pressure now to plug into different conversations across the world?
No, because I don’t need to say anything – that’s not my job. I write songs to make people think, feel, reflect. That’s what I do. When I was 11, writing my first songs, I didn’t think I’d [be faced] with all the questions I am now, you know?
You often write songs with others, including your boyfriend [producer Joel Compass]. What’s it like working with someone else on such a personal outlet?
I like it. If there are two minds you come up with stuff you wouldn’t have by yourself, it’s really interesting. I write a lot with Maverick Sabre. When I started coming up to London I’d write with him. When you’re on the same level with someone and know them well, writing is just like unlocking different things.
Do you ever write with your dad?
On Teenage Fantasy he said a line and I put it in. I’ve never done a session with my dad though. I need to properly write with him. But he always gives me feedback on my stuff. I take it on board but sometimes I’m definitely also like, “No, what do you know?” I did that more when I was younger, but I’ve got better at writing, I guess.
Most singers say performing live scares them to death but you actually prefer it to studio recording. Why is that?
I’m better live. When you’re re-recording a track you’re trying to perfect a demo that, to be honest, was probably perfect the first time you did it. That was how you felt at the time [of the demo] and it captured all that emotion. Whereas when you re-record, you’re trying to copy that and make it better. Sometimes it doesn’t sound better. I like mistakes, that’s what makes it real. So when I perform, I’m in the moment.
When you first moved to London, you were undiscovered and worked at Starbucks. What was it like being a young person in the city trying to make money?
I was in my own head most of the time. I didn’t have many friends. I was lucky because I lived with my aunty and uncle so I wasn’t paying loads of rent. I didn’t have a lot of money but I could get by. I’d go to work, come home, write songs and do the same again the next day. I did a lot of stuff by myself but that’s just me. I like being by myself.
What about now? Where does Jorja Smith go to let go in London?
I like a certain club but I can’t tell you the name otherwise people will turn up [laughs]. It’s an artistic performers club. Listening to the sort of music that starts a runway show and a little bit of dancehall with a rum and coke in hand – that’s where you’ll find me.
Lost And Found by Jorja Smith is out now on The Orchard Worldwide
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