Los Angeles hailing singer/songwriter Jhene Aiko [pronounced juh-nay ahh-ee-ko], 23, first emerged on the R&B scene at a young age whilst signed to Epic Records alongside the likes of B2K and Omarion, whom she met at elementary school. “LA is a city of entertainment, so everybody ends up meeting each other so you run into everybody. I think the entertainment business is like a high school,” she says.
“I was 12/13 in the beginning, singing songs that people wrote for me. I wasn’t an artist yet… After going through some things and growing up a bit – I had a daughter [with O’Ryan, Omarion’s younger brother] and stuff like that – I had more experience to really help me creatively. So this is my first time really writing my own work and putting it out there for everyone to hear.”
Musically, the soft-spoken stunner of Japanese, African American, Spanish, Native American and Dominican heritage is influenced by a range of ‘90s Hip Hop and R&B. “Brandy, TLC, Tupac, Snoop, all the West Coast ‘90s rap; I grew up with a lot of that in my house because I have two older brothers and two older sisters.
“They were always listening to The Chronic and whatever Snoop album at the time,” she says, adding further: Sade, John Mayer, Amel Larrieux, India Arie, Fiona Apple and Alanis Morisette [“her writing is amazing to me”].
SAILING NOT SELLING
Now balancing music with her three year old, who wakes Jhene up at the crack of dawn, Aiko was home-schooled to high school. “I had friends who were social so I’d just wait for them to get out of school then do all the regular kids stuff,” she says. “I was at a community college one time too. And I was always working on music. Maybe not publicly, but I was always writing in-between school and recording with different producers that I knew through my time signed to Epic.”
Was she a studious youngster? “I loved school. I’m one of those people that’s gonna be in school until I’m 60 years old,” Jhene laughs. “I like learning and the environment where you’re around other people that are learning and reading.”
“But I got on independent study even before I was signed after a winter break, when I realised I didn’t like the social side of school and it’s distractions. When I was at the school I was really a nerd, I was very secluded and to myself – I had one or two friends, and I was really into school work.”
Then, making a particularly mature decision for an 11-12 year old, Jhene recalls, “I saw that I was being distracted by the stuff that didn’t have to do with being in school. You know – ‘what do I wear?’, boys… I saw it going in the wrong direction so I thought this isn’t the environment I should be in, I knew I’d end up a totally different way.”
INTEGRITY vs INDUSTRY
Whilst getting her own new material together, Aiko received some professional feedback that inspired the title of her next project, with a typo. “A couple months before I started the Sailing Soul(s) mixtape, I took a couple of meetings with a label head. At the time I had done so many meetings that I was nonchalant about the whole thing, and was being myself,” she says.
“After I sang for him he said, ‘You should think about, when you come to these meetings you have to sell yourself.’ It struck a nerve with me. So when I made that spelling mistake it came full circle.”
She explains, “My main thing is truly staying true to myself. The sailing soul is the same as a free spirit; someone that sticks to them and is honest and brave enough to be themselves. I don’t like to force anything on myself or force myself on anyone. It’s really easy to do in the music industry but there’s a lot of people that I think keep their integrity through it all, so I just hope.”
Her signing with Def Jam had not been announced at the time of our interview, but irrespective of label deal Jhene has consistently maintained an independent ethos around her music. “I’m really happy with doing it on my own because I get to do it exactly how I want,” she says, emphasising a need for time and space to be creative.
Her popular Sailing Soul(s) mixtape featured a song called “July” featuring Drake, with West Coast lyricist Kendrick Lamar on “Growing Apart Too,” and a verse from Kanye West chopped into “sailing NOT selling.” Aiko tells SoulCulture how these collaborations came about.
“I have a mutual friend who started working with Drake, before Drake blew up when he was working on his first mixtape,” she explains. “We were working on a different song. I wasn’t even writing the hook, someone else was there writing that, and Drake heard ‘July’ – which was my song originally, a full length song just me singing it – and a couple of days later the mutual friend sent me a version of ‘July’ with Drake on it. A couple weeks later someone leaked it to DJs – I didn’t know what was happening with it – so I put that one on the mixtape but I actually didn’t record it in the time period of the mixtape.”
“The Kanye one was his verse from the BET Hip Hop Awards cipher, we ripped the audio – so it wasn’t an actual collaboration – but I would love to in real life,” she also clarifies.
It’s no secret that word of mouth plays a big role in music industry dealings, and her several collaborations with Kendrick Lamar are no different. “I’ve known Kendrick Lamar’s management for a while and right before Overly Dedicated, when I hadn’t heard of him yet, we went in and started writing and we meshed so well together,” she says. “He’s amazing to me, the thing that’s crazy to me is how he keeps getting better. I’m always impressed when I hear a song – all I’ve been listening to is Section.80.”
Looking forward to her next release, Souled Out is “probably gonna be a smaller EP, maybe six or seven songs,” with appealing Hip Hop collaborations lined up – “Casey Veggies is gonna be on there for sure. I’m trying to get Kendrick in there, he’s really busy but he owes me,” she jokes, with a few others in the pipeline.
“But It’s even more of me,” she says. “My lyrical content on this album so far has been really what I’m thinking; with Sailing Souls it was my first time really being personal with the music, but I was still speaking in general sometimes. I think Souled Out is going to be even more me.”
On her recording process: “I like to be alone when I make music. It’s really personal and I’m really sensitive to others moods. Their energy period. So when I work I like to be either completely alone or around people that I’m used to being around so I’m not thrown off by their energy. I don’t like to hang out with a lot of people. It confuses me. I don’t know, I’m kinda weird,” she laughs.
“I don’t like stress when I’m being creative. I have to really feel it. Some days I won’t feel like writing and some days I’ll just be out and it’ll just be phrases that come to me, or melodies. It happens really randomly but it’s always natural, and that’s how I know that that’s what needs to be happening at that moment. Nothing forced at all,” she says of organic music creation.
“I think we’re tired of hearing things that you can’t really relate to. I know as an artist I can listen to a song and know that the artist isn’t connected to it, and it makes the whole song a lie. I’m disconnected as much as the artist is disconnected, no matter how hard they’re acting it out. You look at it differently.
“I think Drake definitely sparked this ‘honest music’ – and I think everyone can appreciate that because you can express how you are truly feeling. For me, when I make a song it’s just for me at first. Because I just wanna express myself, that I’m feeling like this and tell the story that I really went through. It’s therapy for me and then for another person to listen to it, they can really tell it’s something that really happened. Like when you see a movie that’s based on true events it’s just so much more interesting, because you’re like, ‘I can’t believe it happened’.
Jhené Aiko – “Do Better Blues Part 2″ (Marvin’s Room Remix):
“I really think Drake ushered in, and let everybody know, that it’s OK – to really talk about that girl that you just dated…” she affirms.
Isn’t it ironic that a rapper shifted the sound of R&B? “That’s what it is: taking the lyrical content of something someone would usually rap about and giving it more of a melody and R&B feel and it just changes everything. It adds a whole other element. R&B singers have stories to tell too.”
I’ve heard Aiko described as ‘the female equivalent to Drake’. “I take that as a big compliment,” she says. “He’ll make the song very specific to him, but you wanna sing along even though you have no direct connection with his story, because it feels genuine.”
It’s fitting then that Jhene emerges with this ‘honest’ R&B movement; her own experiences away from music whilst having a family inspire her own truth in melody.
“When I was 12/13 I already had my morals, but having a daughter really puts my beliefs into full drive,” she says. “Because now I have to be her example – and I want her to look at me and be inspired to be true to herself.”
“I got more brave when I had my daughter, as far as being myself,” Aiko says. “When you have a kid you have to be fearless because now they have to come to you. When she’s scared, I can’t be scared too. I have to be able to beat up the monsters and make her not be afraid of the dark. So I have to get rid of all my fears and demons.
“I think it shows in the music too – because if I wanna talk about it then I’m going to, I’m not gonna hold anything back. I think that all came from having her. It was perfect timing. I’m a true believer in, everything happens how it’s supposed to when it’s supposed to.”