“It just feels like my year,” Jessie J told Neon Limelight during our phone chat with her in January. It was a bold statement to make at the top of the new year for a new artist, but from the looks of things, she’s 100% right.
The 22-year-old Londoner is quickly becoming the new artist of the year, and it’s easy to see why. In a sea of auto-tuned pop stars writhing around pantless to distract from their shortcomings, Jessica Cornish is the real deal. Her style is bold, her lyrics are honest, and her voice? Unspeakably amazing.
With her B.o.B-assisted single “Price Tag” catching fire stateside, and the sizzling follow-up “Casualty of Love” sparking further interest, Jessie is making her U.S. TV debut tonight as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Not bad for a newcomer whose debut album hasn’t even been released here yet. (Her album, Who You Are, is slated for release on April 12.)
We had to get to know more about who Jessie J is. When we spoke with her, we asked about her earliest music-related memory, who inspires her, writing for Miley Cyrus and Chris Brown, and the artist she’d most love to intern for.
Read our Q&A with the British soul songstress below:
Neon Limelight: What is your first ever music-related memory?
Jessie J: When I was 3, I sang “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” with my two sisters at caravan camp, and it was awful. I forgot all the words. That was my first little taste of it. I was really young and it was really awful. I was just standing there and I started humming and singing out of turn.
NL: How old were you when you decided singing was for you and you had a gift?
JJ: I think I got the taste to kind of like make it my career when I was like 14-15. But then I really wanted to, like, take it seriously when I was 16. I would think when you get to the age where you can kind of make decisions for yourself, I preferred to kind of take it more seriously. I got into girl groups and started going to the studio more. So, yeah. Probably about 16, which isn’t that long ago. That’s when I started embarking on this crazy journey.
NL: You’ve written songs for a few artists, but what came first for you: the desire to be a singer or to be a songwriter?
JJ: The songwriting came by default. I always wanted to be an artist. I started out in a girl group and we were signed to a record label called Gut Records, it was an independent record label out in the UK, when I was 17. I had an album ready to go; mixed, mastered, a single, a massive media campaign — and then they went bankrupt. That’s when I was left kinda going ‘oh no!’ I went around the UK trying to get re-signed and that’s why I went to America because there were so many UK female artists at the time. They kind of didn’t really have the space for little old me. So I kind of started focusing on the writing and stuff. I think that’s when I really blossomed as a songwriter, when I started focusing on it. But I was always a singer first. I would write my own songs anyway. But obviously when I signed to an American label, Sony Worldwide, it was kind of an opportunity to get the door open and have the opportunity to write songs like “Party In The USA” and “I Need This” and work with Alicia Keys. Like, that doesn’t happen here [in the UK], so I’m blessed to have that kind of worldwide support.
NL: That’s awesome. A lot of people did get to know you as a songwriter first and became interested in your music that way.
JJ: Yeah, I always said I wanted to get known in a credible way, and I think being a songwriter at 21 and having a No. 1 hit in the US when you’re from London is kind of unknown here. I’m so blessed that it was kind of the non-normal way to get known. It was an honor. It felt amazing when they called me [about “Party In The USA” hitting No. 1] and I was like ‘yeah, whatever!’ And they’re like, ‘no really!’ I was like ‘oh, wooow! The pressure’s on now!’ Now if anything goes to No. 2, I’m like ‘eeeeh.’ No. It’s all good, it’s all good. I’m trying to top it everyday.
NL: Tell me about the first time you performed in front of an audience. It’s easy to be in the studio, I guess, but to see what people think of you in person…what was that like?
JJ: I love being uncomfortable on stage. I love when people talk and are rude. I always want to comment on it. But being on stage is where I come to life. I was never nervous — I mean, I was, but I always turn nerves into adrenaline. It was a case of like ‘I own this right now and you’re going to listen to me.’ I just have to take risks and really push boundaries and be myself. I don’t even remember what the first time I was on stage as Jessie J felt like. It must have been like when I was 17 or 18. I did a tour with Chris Brown in front of 10,000 or more people a night for like two weeks around Europe with him. It was just me and my CD — and I had clothes on. I wasn’t naked.
JJ: I was just kind of running around and I think that made me an amazing performer in the sense that it was that kind of pressure and being able to own the stage with just me and in front of 10,000 people a night and without a band and dancers and stuff that’s only gonna make it better. I’m glad I had to struggle in the beginning.
NL: That has to be incredible for a new artist, going on stage and performing in front of that many people a night. Were you ever nervous out of your mind?
JJ: Oh yes. Believe me, before I would get on stage, I’d be on the toilet and then I’d step on stage and turn into some like…’ROCK OUT!’ I’m always nervous. I just block it out. And my new [goal is] to stop swearing on stage. But I curse when I’m nervous.
NL: What makes now the right time for Jessie J to conquer America?
JJ: I just think the whole writing thing, the whole “Party In The USA” thing, the YouTube videos, I just think I kind of opened the gate before the label did — I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing — but I kind of got the ball rolling so long ago. I just always wanted to do this organically. I didn’t want to be one of those artists with this massive launch and they kind of came out of nowhere and everyone goes like, ‘who is that chick?’ I kind of like the fact that people can go on YouTube and see [my old videos]. I don’t know. It just feels like my year. Every Christmas, me and my dad are like ‘next year’s your year, next year’s your year.’ And this Christmas was like ‘oh my God, no sh*t, it’s actually your year.’ The pressure, obviously in the UK, is crazy now. I can’t go out anymore, not by myself. That’s why I’m especially looking forward to coming to the US because not many people will know me. But, you know, it’s all good. I’m just taking it day by day and in my stride.
NL: As a songwriter, who inspires you?
JJ: I’ve always been a massive MJ and Prince fan. When I was growing up, my mum and dad would play Tracy Chapman, D-Train…I’m a massive 80s punk fan and I love Funkadelics and Gap Band, Rose Royce. I just love 80s music. Like, the harmonies and the soul-ness of it. The melody and the lyrical content. Right now, I’m a huge Rihanna fan. I’ve always been slightly obsessed with her. And I think I idolize Beyoncé as a performer. But, you know, it’s weird because I don’t really get inspired a lot by other people. It’s gonna sound really awful like I don’t listen to music much because I do, but I don’t eat, breathe, live, smoke, eat — I said that already — music. I kind of just go with the flow. Like I’ll see a mum with her daughter playing in the street and that will spark an idea for a song. I don’t know. I don’t want to get too much inspired by what other people are doing because I don’t like copying them…but, yeah, I love writing songs. It’s my musical outlet.
NL: Would you say you’re more inspired by life rather than other artists?
JJ: Yes, definitely. Definitely. I think that life is more real. I think there are so many artists now that, to me, don’t feel real. I can’t tell what they’re inspired by. But, like, when I watch Rihanna on stage, I always feel like she looks like she’s having fun and enjoying herself. Like she’s comfortable, you know what I mean? I don’t know. I’m just, I’m like a very emotional person and I’m a spiritual person, and I’ll take to people…if I meet someone, I usually know if I’m going to like you or not. That make sense? I kind of have a good judge of character. And I think that’s why I can kind of take little situations that happen in my life and write a song about it. That’s why my album is so honest. It kind of exposes my good points and my bad points, my funny points, my aggressive points. It’s every different version of me. I’m happy I’ve been given the opportunity to spread it around the world. [laughs]
NL: If you had your choice of a duet partner, who would be your dream partner?
JJ: Prince, all the way. Prince is like…oooh amazing! Him or Beyoncé. I think Beyoncé is the person that I think…Beyoncé, Jazmine Sullivan, Christina Aguilera, Kim Burrell, Pink…they vocally scare me, which is why I would love to work with them because I love a challenge. I would love to do a tune with Erykah Badu or Jazmine Sullivan or anyone I vocally idolize.
NL: That would be AWESOME. They’re all sick vocalists and I could so see you going toe to toes with them.
JJ: I would love to. I suppose, like, I just wanna…well, there is Amy [Winehouse] and Adele, but I just think it’s been quite a long time since a UK female has come over and been like, you know, ‘we can do it too! We’re alright at what we do! We can sing!’ I’m ready to conquer. I’m ready to get my bag packed and come over to sing a few songs.
NL: Nice! You already mentioned touring with Chris Brown before and you wrote probably one of my favorite songs of his, “I Need This.”
JJ: Aww yay!
NL: Love that song! It’s freakin’ amazing. Do you have any plans to work on his new album?
JJ: I would love to. I think Chris Brown is one of the most underrated artists. He’s incredible. I mean, I went out on tour with him and just as a performer, he’s disgustingly sick. I’m actually putting ‘I Need This’ on my album. It’s going to be my version. So, yeah. It was an honor to let him have a song of mine, and the album has been nominated for a Grammy, so, again, thanks Chris! But, yeah, I’d love to. Who knows.
NL: If you could do an internship with any artist and learn from them first-hand, who would that be?
JJ: Oh my God. I would have to say Beyoncé. Ahead of everything, I just want to see her to see if she’s real and just to ask ‘how are you doing this? How are you conquering the world like this?’ I just think she’s amazing. I would kind of sit in and make notes.
NL: Thank you so much, Jessie! It was awesome speaking to you and we can’t wait for you to get over here and take over. You’re an amazing talent and we need more of that over here.
JJ: Aww! Thank you. I can’t wait. I definitely can’t wait to put on an American accent. Can you imagine? How funny would that be if every time I come to America I put on an American accent?
NL: Let me hear some of it!
[In an American accent] My name is Jessie J. I’ve been writing for about 7 years. My debut album is called Who You Are.
Is it good?
NL: That’s awesome!
JJ: Was it? I feel like I’m trying to seduce people. It’s too sexy. I need to work on that.