There aren’t too many artists that can hang with JoJo vocally. The singer took the world by storm when she dropped in 2004 with her hit singles “Baby It’s You” and “Leave (Get Out)”. Soon after that, she dropped “Too Little Too Late” and solidified herself as one of the emerging stars in music. Unfortunately for the next decade, JoJo was stuck in a bad contract and had to rely on mixtapes to keep her music career going. All of that seems like ages ago as JoJo is onto bigger and better things now. Earlier this year, she won a Grammy for Best R&B Song (“Say So” with PJ Morton) and she’s also set to release her upcoming album “Good To Know”. YouKnowIGotSoul had a chance to interview JoJo to discuss the new album as well as the creative process behind the standout record “Lonely Hearts”. We also talk about her growth as an artist as she reflects back on the work that she did with legendary producers such as Static Major on her debut album.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Your single with PJ Morton “Say So” was your first Grammy and awards are always nice, but what did that song mean for your artistry?
JoJo: I think the lesson with that record was that it’s a great idea to trust myself and follow my gut because there was no label politics or anything involved in that record other than two artists who respect and appreciate one another. It was about the love for music and I think it’s such a wonderful time making music. If genres are important to you then it’s a really great time for R&B. There’s so many different ways to express the influence of R&B on your artistry. It was great confirmation that now is not the time to run from who I am. It’s time to step into who I am.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You’ve been able to experiment with so many different sounds throughout your career. As an artist, is it tough to decide what direction to go in?
JoJo: Over the years, I’ve played around with a lot of different styles of music and I’ve felt at home in a lot of it, so it has been hard because I think that people need something to grasp onto and be able to label it and say “I know what this is”. When you do a bunch of different things, it’s hard to put it in a box so I think I’ve streamlined what I like best more recently and it’s definitely moving away from anything that feels bubblegum or too perfectly formulated or historically Pop. I think for a long time I was just trying to find what felt best on me. I think my inward journey was reflected in my music and trying to figure it out.
YouKnowIGotSoul: I think “Mad Love” was a good reintroduction for you after being away from the public eye for so long, but to me “Good To Know” feels like where you’re at today and where you’re going moving forward.
JoJo: Yeah, it’s the progression with me having more fun and honing in with a smaller group of creatives as opposed to going out and collecting songs that don’t really have a cohesive quality to them. I was just so dissatisfied with that experience of looking for songs instead of creating a body of work. All my favorite albums are bodies of work and something that makes sense from front to end. I just wanted the opportunity to do something like that.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Throughout the process of creating this album, when did you realize this is what you wanted to do? I know early on during the creation of the album, you were in the studio with Jermaine Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox.
JoJo: I’m not too huge on genres or labeling things and yet I understand the importance of it. With that being said, to explain the sound I wanted to people, I knew I needed to bring up the term R&B and I knew I wanted to make a pilgrimage to the greats and try some things out. To have incredibly invaluable conversations and talk about the state of R&B and the future of it, I’m so grateful to have people like Jermaine Dupri or Bryan-Michael Cox. I’ve known those guys for a long time and they have a big influence on me and so many other people. I think going to Atlanta and not only working with them, but working with up and coming people, it definitely over time shaped the outcome of what the album was. I allowed my feelings and what I’m listening to shape it as well. I would go into a session and talk about what I was going through. Even though I was single and consciously abstinence through this process, I was feeling very sensual and I was really getting to know the divine feminism within me and experience my own power for the first time. It was a power in being single even though I was feeling shamed and guilt. I was feeling a whole lot and I think R&B has this power to really touch us. I think it was an extension of the feeling and supporting the lyrics and story with certain sounds.
YouKnowIGotSoul: On your song “Joanna” that you put out last year, it was so honest and vulnerable. That was a record I would have wanted to hear on “Mad Love”, but it came out a few years later. How hard was it to write that song?
JoJo: I wouldn’t have been able to put it on “Mad Love” because I wasn’t in the place to write it then. I was still trying to be perfect and I was still trying to act like I was less bruised from personal and professional experiences than I really was and I wasn’t capable of that level of vulnerability yet. I think that getting in sessions with Rose Gold and Nat Dunn and showing journal excerpts, getting into meditation and experiencing different uncomfortable truths about the way I felt about myself and the way I would let other people’s opinion to shape me over the years. It can be painful and uncomfortable work, so I wasn’t in the place to do that with “Mad Love”. I’m so glad “Joanna” came out and honestly I was even apprehensive to play it for my label Warner because I just didn’t know how that song, which is so personal, would translate to people who aren’t me. I didn’t think they would understand why it was important to me. They got it right away and that was such a reassuring feeling for me. They were like “It’s important for you to tell your story and I think it’s the first thing you should put out” and that’s exactly how I envisioned it. I wanted to get it out of the way.
YouKnowIGotSoul: On “Proud (Outro)”, your mom says that you have a tendency to look at your past instead of staying in the present. From all that happened with yourself and your previous label Blackground, do you feel like you’ve truly moved on from that situation spiritually?
JoJo: I’ve moved on, but I still told my story so many different times and probably the fact that I had such massive success at a young age and I’m a part of people’s childhood, they want to go back and talk about that music. They have questions about why those first two albums aren’t available and I don’t have it in me sometimes to be like “I’ve already explained myself. I don’t need to do that again”. That’s not the type of personality that I have, so I find myself going back and bringing up these old things that I’m personally very much over. Yet it illuminates that there’s still a shed of “I hate that I still have to talk about this. I want the music today to speak for itself”. That’s my goal in the present and moving forward, but really what my goal is internally and spiritually is to allow myself to feel annoyed or upset and be okay with that. I don’t ever want to be paralyzed with my feelings again. It wasn’t just my label either. I think it’s important to look at things holistically. It’s never just one thing. There’s so much that goes into every decision and every outcome. I don’t want to villainize anybody. When I think about that and obviously I would rather not, but I do think about it because it comes up. I love those people and I wish nothing but peace and success for them.
YouKnowIGotSoul: We announced on Twitter that “Small Things” would be a smash, but our personal favorite is “Lonely Hearts”. Talk about that song.
JoJo: That was a song that I wrote in Toronto with my girl Lowell who is a dope Canadian songwriter and Doc McKinney when I was camping out there at House Of Balloons. I knew the importance of being on my own for a solid year because I had never really been single. I had jumped up from relationship to relationship and I started dating with I was 14. I knew I had to go through this uncomfortable experience of sitting with my thoughts, being lonely and getting to know myself. I wasn’t sure what my boundaries were and what was truly important to me independent of anybody else. Maybe this is work that a lot of people do in their early 20’s, but I guess we all have to do that at one point or another. I just finally put myself through to experience it. I had just recycled relationships, gone back and kept doors open. I always had a comfort zone to go back to because I felt so much unpredictably in my personal life that I loved the predictability in my personal life. I realized I was doing something myself a disservice. That’s where “Lonely Hearts” came from. It came from conversations with my people in Toronto and I started singing. A lot of these songs started as freestyles and we developed them from there. I got on the mic that we had in the main room and I started singing this melody that sounded very 90’s R&B to me. The chorus goes “How can I work on me when I’m working your body?” and I started thinking about how I love the idea about being able to have casual sex, but it’s never ends up being that casual. I can’t have any of these types of friends and I just need to be by myself fully. That’s where it came from.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You rerecorded your first two albums last year. I think it was awesome not only for the fans, but also for the producers that worked on those albums because they’ll be able to finally see royalties for the work they did on those projects. Looking at your first two albums, you worked with a lot of people we would consider legends today like Static Major, Sean Garrett and The Underdogs. What did you take away from those studio sessions that has helped you with your creative process today?
JoJo: I was definitely a sponge soaking up everything that I saw and that they did. I think about working with The Underdogs. They really taught me about harmony, stacking and how I like to run a session. Speed was something that was really important and having a quick engineer. Now I have a couple of engineers that I work with pretty much exclusively because we have an understanding and a relationship. They know that I’m going to need a bunch of tracks and that I’m going to go “Okay, one more time!”. I learned that at 12 years old from The Underdogs. James Fauntleroy was a part of The Underdogs at the time and he worked on “Baby It’s You” and “Never Say Goodbye” if I’m not mistaken. It was a creative factory and you can never understate the importance of really getting to know the artist and figuring out who they are. Sean Garrett was good at that and Static was the first person who basically ever encouraged me to trust myself to write a full song by myself. I was 12 at the time. He went to go pick up some food and left me and my mom with the engineer. He was like “Why don’t you write to this track?” and I wrote this song called “Bad Boys”. He helped me figure out the harmonies, backgrounds and showed me how he interpreted a song. I’ll be forever grateful for that education because there’s no better education than making something. That’s just the illest crash course ever. I’m so lucky that I learned from someone like Static.