For those living in a bubble, or those who just enjoy staying ignorant, the record industry can be a cold and unkind place to reside at the best of times. The dog eat dog mentality has seen some of the most promising careers fall by the wayside.
However, there are those who continue to fight the power, ride it out, and make the best of a bad situation. Sitting down with SoulCulture, Joanna Noelle Blagden Lavesque, better known as pop starlet JoJo, is one of said people.
Starting her musical journey at the age of 12, signing with Blackground Records – made famous by the likes of Aaliyah and Timbaland, her self-titled debut album was released back in 2004. Selling millions of records worldwide, JoJo went on to become a pretty big deal.
The thing is, her last official release was 2006’s The High Road.
Going backwards and forwards with her label over the years, JoJo’s frustrations are very apparent. “It really whacked me to be honest with you,” she admits. “It’s frustrating. It’s unimaginable. Sometimes it’s very difficult to deal with. [It’s hard] to be patient, to be understanding, to not want to just freak out and scream.”
However, seeing the good in everything she adds, “At the end of the day I love what I do. I’m in a situation, in a contract, so I’m going to make the best of it. I’m just going to make myself happy creatively and just do what I absolutely love.”
With a seven-album deal and only two released, there’s a lot of work to be done. So when exactly is her third album dropping? “You know what?” she asks. “I’m not in control of the dates. I’m strictly in control of what goes on creatively. So, does it look like we’re making great progress and moving towards releasing it? Absolutely. However, I let Blackground handle the dates.”
Taking a breather, she goes on to add, “I’ve been working on this third album for the past six years so it’s taken on different forms. I’ve literally recorded hundreds of songs. Like I’ve said before, this is not me being a mad scientist in the studio trying to cook up a masterpiece that’s taken me six years. It’s not my doing. I would have already released several albums if it was up to me.”
Joking around, we ask if her new album will be titled Detox. Laughing out loud she responds, “No. I’m not calling it Detox. It’s not finished. I was actually in the studio until late last night. We’re kinda heading in a new direction. I really wanted to make sure I took my time and made a cohesive record that took you on a journey from start to finish and demonstrated that first foray in to that new atmosphere that I want. So I’m taking my time with it and just focusing on promoting my single ‘Demonstrate’.”
For those not familiar with ‘Demonstrate’, it’s the latest offering from the Boston native produced by Noah “40” Shebib. With a low-tempo vocal arrangement and a signature 40 emotionally-driven instrumental it’s obvious she’s definitely come of age.
When asked about the other producers on the album a few names we all know and love were discussed, “As far as who is on the line up now… 40, Boi-1da, Da Internz. There are some known producers and ones that are up and coming.”
Revisiting the title of the album, JoJo states, “I guess I haven’t really, completely decided for myself yet. You know what I mean? I haven’t had that personal conversation where it makes sense to me yet. I don’t even know if I’ve written that song that sums up what I want the album to be yet. So I’m just taking everything as it comes and seeing what feels right.
“I just want this album to feel good. There’s so much craziness in the world, so much to be stressed out about, and so much to be worried about so I really want to celebrate life, have a good time and feel good. I want to give people something to sing about. That’s what I want.”
JoJo’s humble beginnings started with pop. It now appears things are changing. “It is a different sound in comparison to my first to albums,” she explains. “It’s definitely moving in the direction of where I am going with ‘Demonstrate’, as well as in the direction of my personal taste in music. I think for a while I was told that it wasn’t ok to like the music I liked or lean more towards the hip-hop and R&B direction, but I’m not afraid at this point to be myself and play with that. So I’m definitely venturing more in to the music that I love, that my friends enjoy, and I really wanna play more with hip-hop.”
Not too concerned with her fan base changing due to her slightly different musical direction, she makes a point that she’d never walk away from her original supporters. “There’s a part of me that’s absolutely approaching it as a new artist, but I would never neglect anyone that has been supporting me from the beginning. I’m so thankful so much so that this new album is for them as much as it is for myself.”
However, while showing obvious love for those who helped her achieve her dream, she hopes for a new audience also, “I hope for a new fan base too. At the end of the day I can’t overly concern myself, or my creative process, worrying who is going to like it more. I’m really just trying to make music that makes sense to me as a young woman, and to those listening that are my age.”
Getting on a reminiscing tip for a brief moment, JoJo revisits some old MTV videos and gives her opinion on the music industry as it is now. “I was actually just watching some music videos the other day from the ’90s and early 2000s,” she chuckles to herself. “I realised how much fun it seemed like everyone was having. There was more money at peoples disposal.
“I think there’s a lot more stress now. I think that people are being a lot tighter with their pursestrings. I think that people are afraid to take chances just because there is so much more at stake.” Looking at the less glamorous side of the industry she also adds, “People are losing their jobs. People are losing their careers. You know what I mean? It’s like the fun has been taken out of it.”
Instead of dwelling on the past, JoJo makes it known that she’s still a fan of music today, “What I’m really playing the most at the moment is the Robert Glasper Experience album Black Radio. I love that!” Getting more and more excited as the conversation goes on, she name checks a few others, “I love Frank Ocean’s new album. It’s so inspiring. Theophilus London. I really like Miguel, I think what he’s doing is really fresh. Jill Scott, D’Angelo. I really enjoy that kind of music. I also very much enjoy what’s going on with house music at the moment. I love DJs. I think there’s some really aggressive and exciting things that are going on.”
She goes on to name Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange album as her favourite album of 2012, so far; “Particularly as a songwriter he just opens my mind up to different possibilities… In ‘Pyramids’ for example he has four different songs inside of that, and the way he seamlessly combined it, and the way that he paired the music to support his storytelling is so brilliant and so inspiring.”
With every positive there’s a negative, and with every good there’s bad. With the music industry in a stage where you can make it big from your bedroom just as much as you can from the boardroom, and with autotune making stars out of the non deserving, this is put to JoJo.
“I hear what you are saying,” she discusses. “But at the end of the day everybody brings something to the table, and even if we feel like certain artists aren’t deserving because they don’t have, quote/unquote, raw talent or whatever, they obviously have something that’s appealing and I can’t be mad at that. I think there’s something for everyone. Honestly, I respect that.”
Touching upon Justin Bieber with JoJo is a no brainer being that she was the youngest solo artist to have a number one in the United States. Responding to the claim that she was the first child star to do it big, as it were, she states, “I’m absolutely not the first child star to have a huge following. Aaliyah was 14 when she came out, as was Leanne Rimes. Those are just the two that come to my mind now. All the way back to Michael Jackson. Bow Wow came out before me and was a huge star.”
Then to the Bieb’s, “As far as the level that Justin Bieber has reached [I think] it’s incredible, and [I feel] it’s a part of his destiny and a part of what’s supposed to happen in his life. I think that my past is not one of going straight to the top and staying there necessarily. I think that my journey is seeing the top, going through a lot, and seeing the bottom.
“I don’t know if I would have been a good person had I sustained the success that I was having as a child or if I was in Justin Bieber’s position. I don’t know if I would be a person that I liked today to be honest with you because when you’re never told no I don’t think that’s a good thing.”
Taking a second to think it over, she adds, “Because I’ve had this down time, this time to get back to reality, live a fairly regular life and go through love and loss and falling on my face but not in the limelight, I think that’s made me a better artist and a better person today.”
While JoJo may not have had an album since 2006, she did release a mixtape last year, but that wasn’t all. Her popularity hit an all time high and increased overnight once the release of her Drake cover ‘Marvin’s Room (Can’t Do Better)’ hit YouTube; now with over 30 million listens.
Adding another name to her current playlist, JoJo admits she’s a huge Drake fan; “I have so much respect for him. I think that he’s so bold and so honest. He helped shine a light on a different type of man in Hip-Hop. It’s ok to be sensitive and to have feelings. I think that’s really cool.”
When the question is put to her about the rowdy rep that Hip-Hop has – and does she think there’s a place for Drizzy – she swoons, “That’s what I like about him. He’s not one dimensional. So he can sing about going to the club and womanizing, and say… I think there’s a line in ‘No Lie’ where he says, ‘I fucked her once well that’s enough for me.’ He can have that side to him. But then he has that sensitive side to him also which I think is really… I know a lot of men in their twenties who share that same type of mentality, whether it’s good or bad. But he’s speaking reality.”
For a brief moment JoJo is left speechless when told that the line she has just quoted from the 2 Chainz record ‘No Lie’ is supposedly about Rihanna. After a long silent pause, and sensing the tumbleweeds might be on their way, she says, “Well… I don’t have anything to say about that.”
Admitting that she’s a bit of a hip-hop head, which may surprise quite a few people due to her age and pop roots, there’s no end to the singer’s excitement when discussing the genre. “It’s a great passion of mine,” she excitedly states. “I’m constantly studying too. I wanna know who inspired my current favourite rappers, so I’ll go back and listen to a lot of (A) Tribe (Called Quest) or De La (Soul). That’s really exciting for me too. I love catching up on the music that maybe I was too young to appreciate originally.”
When asked what it is about the genre she says, “My initial draw to hip-hop when I was a child was the fact that it was like poetry. I’ve always written poetry. I’ve always been drawn to it. I think that’s why I was really drawn to hip-hop. I also liked characters and hip-hop has a lot of that. You know? I loved Busta Rhymes, Diddy, Q-Tip and Ludacris. There’s a lot of personality in hip-hop.”
Aside from music, JoJo has been known to dabble in a bit of acting. Whilst known more for her role in the Robin Williams movie RV, her first role was on the once popular The Bernie Mac Show. Interested in finding out about her time spent with now deceased comedy legend Bernie Mac, JoJo claims that her mother was a fan of his politeness. “I remember my mom commenting on how nice he was to her and everyone around him,” she explains. Continuing, she adds, “He was wonderful. It was my first time on a big set like that on a big television network and it was really cool. He joked with us, he was just a big, joyful, funny person. Honestly… very very nice.”
Ending our conversation, we’ve learnt that JoJo is still very much making music on a regular basis, loves to use the term, “At the end of the day,” and is a certified hip-hop head. With new material on the horizon, and last year’s mixtape still available for free download, fans definitely have something to look forward to.
Where does JoJo see herself in ten years? Easy. She simply wants to be happy – “I want to be happy. I want to make a great living singing and touching people. I want to be touring. I’d like to own property in many different places. I want so much for myself that I really don’t know where I’m going to be in ten years but what I’m really trying to do is take it day by day and make interesting music that means something, will challenge people, and can be something that I can be proud of.”