The Making of Jorja Smith
The 20-year-old from Walsall on going from a Starbucks weekend job to Drake, Kali Uchis and Preditah co-signs.
Photo by Wassim Farah
Jorja Smith is excited; borderline giddy. The air is blowing in hot through the huge French windows flung open in her living room, and the 20-year-old from Walsall is tapping away on her phone to play me a new song. We meet on a June afternoon, when the British summer still shows signs of promise, and she has just the song to prep me for it. In seconds UK garage-inflected "On My Mind" is blaring out of her iPhone 6's tinny speakers – though, at this stage, I don't know its name beyond "a new one" featuring Preditah that Jorja labels as one of her favourites. "You know Toddla T's 'Take It Back'?" she calls out, her slightly husky voice carrying over the music. "I want the video for this to be like that," recalling the DJ's black-and-white visuals shot on an estate. Jorja's song sounds brighter to me than that, though – more colourful. But that might be because she embodies the kind of infectious energy that makes a song sound like even more of a bop when she's this visibly into it.
I've caught her at a stage in her career when you can practically hear things kick into high gear, a revving momentum carrying this once-unknown young woman from an industrial British town into that vaguely shimmery place: the domain of international hype. I mean, sure, Drake has played a large part in that, featuring her twice on his More Life mixtape. But Jorja would probably have scaled her way up to at least national UK success anyway. Her vocal talent does the heavy lifting. Her voice, after all, is what has led to so many of her co-signs and collaborations – "aaah, she's got an amazing voice" sums up South African producer Black Coffee's thoughts, after they both appeared on Drake's "Get It Together". And as someone who's a complete sucker for vocals I mark her down mentally as one of the few musicians out right now whose fluttering falsetto can push a ripple down my spine, before she twists and rolls into the throaty depths of what's technically known as her chest voice. Even though half the time she's performing songs she wrote years ago, most when she was in high school, she has… something special. In short: she can sing rings around most vocalists in pop, with an ease that taps into what so many music schools and TV talent show competitions are always on the hunt for. She's got charisma plus skill.
When I put this to her, she pauses. "It's not for everyone," she says, referring to pursuing a musical career, while we sit curled up next to each other on her sofa. She's set up her laptop across the room, with Drake's "30 for 30 Freestyle" streaming out of her speakers in the background. "Everyone is trying to do music but I think if you try too… no." She stops, almost like she's in conversation with herself in her head. "You have to try hard, because I try hard but, there's 'forcing' trying hard. You've just gotta be you." She giggles, fitfully standing up to turn the volume down, just a touch. "There's a lot of work that goes into what I'm doing, but it never feels like work. I know I haven't been doing this for years. I don't know yet how it will feel when I've got to go on a long tour, or do something draining. But at the moment I put that fun I have and love into my music. And it reflects that." You could say that, though there's something less airy than "fun" on display on her 2016 EP Project 11, and the smattering of largely mellow singles she's released since Dizzee Rascal-inspired "Blue Lights". That was the song that cast her as a bright, socially aware new arrival who used a four-minute track to comment on how stereotypes of inherent criminality cling to black men from the time they're young boys. She seemed to arrive fully-formed, ready to face the Soundcloud commenters.
But she'd been working for a good few years, meeting her manager aged 15, then "writing and building up loads of material until it came to a point where we were like, 'OK. Let's put out a song this year'." And that was in January last year. Looking back, "I didn't know how things were supposed to go, you know?" she says in the sort of enticing settle-in-for-a-story tone that a pub regular might use to spin a yarn. "I obviously hadn't put any music out before. And it kept getting quite big and stuff, so I remember asking Prash [Mistry] – who mixes and masters my songs – 'is this normal?' And he's like, 'no'" – she laughs – "'it's not.'" He was right. She seemed to be doing exceptionally well, making the leap from the adolescent Jorja who'd recorded lo-fi YouTube covers accompanied by a friend four years earlier, her thick curly hair scraped back in a high ponytail with one of those sparkly, crinkly-to-the-touch scarves looped around her shoulders.
By the time UK outlets had repeatedly highlighted how she referenced both Dizzee and Henry Purcell on separate songs – imagine, a person can exist in multitudes! – she was well on her way. Almost a year later, she was shortlisted for BBC's Sound of 2017 poll. Then: Drake. After that: a Kali Uchis feature. Now: her Preditah summer banger. The day I come over, she says she's getting ready to move out of this sun-drenched and tastefully decorated flat in leafy south London suburbia, and I ask how far she feels from Walsall. "It's difficult because I don't really go back that often. I've made new friends here but I'm not the type to have loads of friends. I like keeping myself to myself." Now that she's in the public eye, surely that will change as people start to pop out of the woodwork, ready to attach themselves to her ascent? "People love to claim they know you, or, are the reason you've got to where you are. It's so funny." She lets out a wry little cackle. "But do you know what? It doesn't affect me – people can say what they want. It is weird thinking that I have to deal with that, though."
Throughout all this, Jorja's relaxed. Looking back at her quotes later, I realise that her quiet confidence could be misconstrued as arrogance, but it isn't. She's just mapped things out in her head. She remembers working at Starbucks while still in school as her weekend job. "I used to tell customers, 'I'm going to be a singer, you know?' Or I'd play them 'Blue Lights' before it was out or anything, and they'd be like, 'this is so sick!'" There's that gentle self-assuredness: I knew I was going to make it when I was still serving coffees as a kid. As she shifts in position on the couch, absentmindedly tapping her nails against her phone and then against the fabric of her black velour two-piece tracksuit, her fidgety energy almost acts as a foil to the calm she exudes when she speaks. That smoothness carries over into her music, too. Tracks like "Teenage Fantasy", with its piano trills and ba-dum-dum bass, float along languidly even when she's belting out their soul-R&B choruses. Mid-tempo cruiser "Beautiful Little Fools" coats her now much-analysed lines on how women can do more than aspire to be beautiful in a warm shellac.
Live, that translates as lowkey performances hinged on her voice. Onstage in an east London venue a few weeks before she has me sipping hibiscus tea in her home, she's cloaked in a puffa jacket, her hair recently shorn to a tight, bleached crop. A group of women in their thirties stand in front of me, alternately squealing and turning to each other with glee and filming Jorja on their phones. "I tell people all the time, 'turn off your phone. Don't film this bit. Enjoy the show.'" That's a pretty big ask now, no? She mentions a Kali Uchis show in June, for which she came out to play their collab, "Tyrant", where fans largely respected Uchis' wish for them to put their phones away rather than spoil the new song by uploading it. Now that so much live music is experienced second-hand through screens, new acts on her level are adjusting, potentially longing for some of the privacy of pre-internet life. "I'm realising that the more I want to put my music out and the more I want people to know about me I have to deal with that other stuff. But I still want to be mysterious. I think to keep up some kind of level of mystery."
Surely, given how big a role the internet and mobile phones play in her life, that's harder to maintain? Well, not if you compartmentalise "being online" the way Jorja says she does. Though she's barely in her twenties, she doesn't really engage with the internet as much as you'd expect. Her approach to spending lots of time online fits in more with the "older' sound of her voice and music. "I didn't have a phone until I was at secondary school," she remembers, "and it was a brick, a Nokia. I really wanted a Blackberry but my Dad wouldn't let me have one so I missed out on BBM. I mean, I had MSN back in the day, but I didn't have Facebook until I was in year 8. I only got Instagram when I got my smartphone. Social media annoys me though, to be honest. I just post stuff. I don't really look."
Still, later she touches on how she's noticed an online shift in western beauty standards, away from the thin, blonde whiteness that dominated when she was in school. "I was a bit chubby, boys didn't really fancy me," she says, blase as anything. "I had a tache – I still do, but I get that done. Gotta let all the girls know it's OK to have a hairy top lip. But yeah, I remember guys used to call me 'pistachio'. I told my mum, 'people keep talking about my moustache,' and she was like 'no, you can't get it done. You're not old enough.' Cool, so I just had to deal with it. But at school most of my friends were white. I had lips, I didn't want lips." Now, she loves hers.
Jorja's just turned 20, and Polaroid photos from her birthday celebrations the other night fan out on her coffee table. Nineteen was a big year, she says, and I note how she's accomplished all of this largely on her own terms. Her manager protected her from most of the industry's ability to latch onto and exploit emerging talent, she notes. She laughs, remembering how after a recent gig "someone from some label came up to me, and she was like, 'I'd love to talk to you' and I said, 'what do you want to talk about? Do you wanna talk about signing me? Because I don't want to be signed to any label'." Another cackle.
Instead, she wants control. "What I'm doing at the moment works for me. When I was younger I didn't know anything about record labels to be honest. I didn't know anything about publishing. I only learned about the industry when I moved here. I'm glad I didn't because I think when you know too much, that's when you become clouded by it all. I've done it the right way." While she skips around from one topic to the next – acknowledging how her mind zips this way and that, depending on what's piqued her interest – her vision for her own future hardly wavers. "I'm good. I'm fine right here."
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