Pay Attention to Jorja Smith
Photography by Charlotte Hadden
Fashion by Hannah Elwell
If you had never seen a photograph of Jorja Smith you’d be forgiven for assuming, whilst listening to her speak, that she is two or three decades older than her 20 years. She’s intelligent, mature and level-headed. Her conversation is full of the wisdom I wish I had possessed at the tail-end of my teenage years, and then some. But, of course, it’s impossible to ignore the face that goes along with the personality.
When she walks into The Ned hotel on a rainy Thursday morning in London wearing an entirely yellow outfit (oversized hoodie, Famous Stars & Straps puffer jacket and a Goyard tote) with a bare face and her hair braided back, she is impossible to ignore - a beautiful contrast to the plush pink velvet seats and bottle green marble tables we’re surrounded by. As she shuffles into the booth next to me, it’s like meeting with an old friend: “I’m so sorry I walked right past you, I was trying to get a table but they were telling me I couldn't sit anywhere”, she says, launching into a description of her morning and plans for a new music video she’d be filming in Ukraine the following day. She occasionally let slip a sign of her youth, showing me wig references for the aforementioned video via Jordyn Woods’s Instagram account – “this looks so bossy!” – and it’s this, the intensity and excitement of youth mixing with her sage understanding of life that allows her music to transcend trends and genres.
Jorja’s small but perfectly formed back catalogue of singles released over the past two years, all independently, has gained her recognition from superstars such as Drake, who gave her an eponymous interlude on his MORE LIFE mixtape (in a similar vein to the one he gave the then up-and-coming Kendrick Lamar way back in 2011, on his TAKE CARE album) and who has continued to support her with collaborative live performances on both artist’s tours. I suggest to her over breakfast that it’s a true sign of appreciation for someone to show love for an independent artist like her, because there’s nobody behind the scenes telling them they have to promote it. She sips her tea, and replies “It’s true - if you don’t like something, you don’t have to share it. I’m not a big artist so for someone like The Weeknd [to share my music on social media], and even Ghetts – he was singing to me on his Instagram the other day, you don’t have to do that at all.” She continues: “It’s just good that more people are hearing my music. And it means people are talking [about me], which is good.”
The appreciation of her talent from her peers has acted as a springboard for her various collaborations, the latest batch of which sees her on “On My Mind”, a UKG inspired track with legendary grime producer Preditah and “Tyrant”, a Latino pop-R&B earworm with her US counterpart Kali Uchis. Known for her soulful vocals and heartfelt delivery, “On My Mind” was somewhat of a departure for Jorja, in terms of BPM more than anything. She admits that “if the music is slightly different to what I’d normally be working on then it is a bit more of a challenge” to write to, but her deep-routed sense of self stops her from feeling intimidated, explaining: “people asked me, ‘are you nervous about putting out ‘On My Mind’ because it’s so different?’ and I’m not, because you could play that on piano, you could play it on guitar. It’s still my voice – and it still sounds the same.” As proof, her YouTube uploads are now home to an acoustic version of the track, where her silky vocals turn the party banger into a tragic tale of lost love set to minimal acoustic guitar.
Although her YouTube channel viewing figures start at three million per video, there are some ghosts of a younger Jorja floating around the website, uploaded prior to the “JorjaSmithVEVO” channel’s existence. As a teen, her and friend Immy – “he’s so sweet” – would get together to sing and play guitar (still in their school uniforms), covering tracks by British artists such as Labyrinth and Katy B, which Immy would later upload on his channel. Still online now, they seem to be largely untapped by an otherwise rabid fan-base, sitting at less than five thousand views. Jorja doesn’t mind that the videos are still online, picking up her phone to show me another (even older) cover of her singing Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’”, uploaded by her cousin. She laughs as she scrolls through her search results, remembering “it said in the description ‘nasty comments will be deleted!’” Eyes still fixed on her phone to find the right link, she explains her peace with the pre-teen Jorja’s continued online presence “you can see [from the early videos] that I’ve been singing for a minute. This video is from when I was like, 11”, she looks puzzled before admitting defeat, concluding that “it might have been taken down… that’s actually so sad.”
What’s interesting is that, unlike many young artists who have more style than substance and cultivate an artifice of unattainable perfection, Jorja is equally as at ease with herself now and as she was 10 years ago. There’s no hint of embarrassment or downplaying of the little girl with the silver scarf around her shoulders, singing her heart out in her parent’s living room; and there’s a wonderful freedom in that. Nobody can hurt you when you refuse to be ashamed of yourself.
Continuing on this theme, Jorja delves further into the inspiration of her younger years: “When I was 15 I used to listen to Justin Bieber, I had a picture of him on my wall. People don’t know that about me. I wished I was on stage with loads of fans touring the world that young, too, but now when I look back it’s like, you know what, we all have a certain time for a reason.” This is a mantra she holds on to, and is something she has drummed into her fans when given the opportunity: “at Outlook Festival, a girl came up to me and was like ‘I don’t want to keep you for a minute but I’m a musician, have you got any advice?’ and I said ‘don’t rush anything, don’t compare yourself to anyone else, just go with the flow.’” Going with the flow appears to be a rule that Jorja lives by, and is an invaluable asset to any creative who is under constant scrutiny and pressure – be it to write another best-selling book, finish another painting or in Jorja’s case - release a full record. It’s clearly not something she is too concerned about, as she nonchalantly informs me I can probably find a video of this track or another online, recorded from the audience at live at a show, when we chat about the track list for her upcoming record. She’s not precious or secretive, yet seems to enjoy the sense of community that comes from her fans knowledge of these (as of yet) unreleased numbers.
The EP (PROJECT ELEVEN) has been a long time coming, especially considering that it’s made up of “a lot of songs I wrote when I was between 17 and 19 [years old]”. A perk of remaining an independent artist (despite the inevitable interest from major labels to snap her up) is working to your own schedule and not forcing anything out into the world that just isn’t ready to be there yet. Jorja explains the reason she has waited so long, and it’s simply that “there was something I was missing [on the album]”, which a trip to Los Angeles earlier this year helped to remedy. She continues, “I take my time. If I don’t feel like writing, I won’t write. I need to feel inspired.” One of her role models in terms of artistry and song-writing [“I’m not idolising the drugs and stuff”] is the immensely talented and taken-too-soon Amy Winehouse – and you can see it in the way Jorja performs, she, like Amy, feels every word that she sings. Jorja’s description of Amy’s artistic beauty could easily be a description of herself, too: “she was very vulnerable and honest. You could really believe her, she just said everything she felt.”
Where Winehouse dealt with her emotional trauma in ways that lead to her downfall, Jorja has found a way to filter the pain constructively. Whilst discussing the difficulties that she has faced in her personal life, she pauses for a beat and looks down into her cup of jasmine tea before meeting my eye to firmly state: “my issues can get into my songs, but never into me.” And I believe her, her strength and conviction is palpable, her resolute attitude built from occasions where the lines have blurred in the past. She cites an example of a slip in her performance of ‘So Lonely’ on the BBC. “When I watch that, I can see I’m so disconnected. I’ve watched the performance twice and I look like I don’t want to be singing. Which is really hard, because that’s my life.” Conversation with Jorja meanders constantly, takes tangents in different directions and is peppered with laughter – even amongst the more serious topics. Throughout our chat, she apologies profusely for a cough that she can’t get rid of, telling us about her doctor’s appointment the previous day [“I did four blood tests! I was watching it, I love it, I really wanted to be a vampire when I was younger. I used to watch TWILIGHT and I’d be so jealous.”] before diving straight back to where we were, finishing her train of thought without skipping a beat: “Some people have bad energy, it’s so draining, and it made me tired of everything all the time. This is why I’m still ill. I ignored myself.”
I guess you can call yourself a true artist when your main priority is not your health but your vocation. Jorja lives to perform. Her career highlight thus far? “Being able to sell out all of my shows - in America and over here. That’s what I do music for, so I can perform it to all those people that want to come and see me and take away an emotional feeling when they leave. To touch people. Because they’re the ones who keep things going, the fans.” Here again the sincere meets the endearing as she notes in disbelief “One girl got the train all the way to Toronto from New York to watch me!” She is overtly grateful to be in a position that allows her the privilege of visiting new cities and taking in various cultures, as well as crediting it for her level-headed nature: “The more you see, the more you can understand, I feel.” She pauses for a moment before adding: “I think I used to be a know-it-all when I was younger but now, I just pay attention and I’ve learned a lot.”
Moving from her hometown of Walsall, an industrial city in the West Midlands that sits a few miles out from Birmingham, to London was a learning curve in itself: “Coming from Walsall, people from London probably wouldn’t realise but moving from such a small town to here, it’s a big thing. And I just went by myself and was like ‘see you later’.” Although the U.K. is a small island, each city has its own distinct identity, and a three-hour drive can be as alienating as a different country to someone picking up and moving away from the familiarity of a lifetime spent in one place. It was a bold decision for the teenager to make when she left her friends to (as cliché as it sounds) chase her dreams. Thanks to social media, however, that physical distance can be dissolved in a FaceTime call. The internet is vocal in its adoration of Jorja, and unlike many of her contemporaries, the comments on her platforms are full of love “everything is so positive, it’s always like ‘keep doing what you’re doing’ and I am, so me keeping doing what I’m doing is my reply to everybody.” She is also, apparently, notorious for not delving too deep into her online inboxes, laughing “you know what’s funny, someone tweeted ‘Jorja’s not even in her DM’s like that’ because I’m honestly not, I don’t look at things.” Keeping this barrier up can be a tool of self-preservation against negativity, which is a trait she, unsurprisingly, already has instilled:
“I think I got this from my dad, if someone’s got something bad to say about me I don’t really care. I can just brush everything off. It’s only when someone I really care about says something horrible to me. But when it’s just stuff like, internet talk, it doesn’t exist. Just think about it, the internet is another world, But it’s not real life. You learn that through school – people chat so much crap online and then they see you at school and they don’t say anything. So, it’s the same thing. The industry is kind of like school though, too, it’s like a playground. That’s why I don’t take note.”
She hits the home button on her phone, and as the screen lights up says “Ooh it’s 11:11 guys make a wish!” The time has run away with us, and the realisation that it’s almost time for Jorja’s next appointment, with Burberry no less, wraps up our chat. I have time for one last subject to broach, the topic that comes up time and time again in comments online, second only to her voice. Skincare. Before the question fully escapes my lips, she begins to reply: “I know! Everyone wants my skincare routine! My friend was really annoyed at me because she doesn’t have good skin and she was like ‘people need to understand that you’ve just got good skin Jorja!’”, she laughs before expanding on her ambitions to develop her own line of products: “I use the Body Shop. Does anybody buy stuff from the Body Shop anymore? Big up the Body Shop.”
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