‘I’d like young girls to take positivity from my music’ — the soul-pop prodigy and Drake cosign reveals her inner boldness and blockbuster sound
There are three Jorja Smiths. Or at least, there are three Jorja Smiths in the video for her single, “Beautiful Little Fools”. The first Jorja has sharp, glimmering cheekbones and an elaborate choker, her bored, lipsticked mouth painted a rich red. The second Jorja is a white-shirted waitress, cocktails balanced precariously on a tray. The third Jorja wears a black turtleneck and a bare face, in possession of an easy confidence. Released in March on International Women’s Day, it’s a downtempo track quietly criticising the beauty-over-brains mantra that the patriarchy seems determined to drum into the heads of young girls. “Designing something that is not their reflection / Becoming a beautiful little Hollywood perception,” laments her airy, jazzy vocal.
The Jorja in front of me is most definitely Jorja #3. Fresh off a Eurostar train, the 19-year-old sits in a Kings Cross cafe, dressed in an oversized black hoodie, comfy black sweatpants, a pair of Nike 95 iDs and not a scrap of make-up. Her coat, on the other hand, is pure drama – long, black and majestic, scuffed ankle-skimming leather plucked from a charity shop. (Like Morpheus’s coat from The Matrix, if it had a plush fur collar.) Her mum, a jewellery maker, made her rings. “I don’t really wear other jewellery. Except for, like, my gold hoops. Which are cheap. They’re not gold, they’re from Topshop. I wore those at the Balmain show,” she grins. She has been in Paris for fashion week – her first – and danced next to Nicki Minaj at the after-party.
Born to a Jamaican father and an English mother, Smith grew up in Walsall, an industrial town just outside Birmingham. From an early age, she took lessons in piano and classical singing, but was sometimes shy about sharing her voice. She worked in a bakery when she was 15 and still at school, but her boss knew she could sing. “When people would come in, she used to make me sing,” laughs Smith. “That built my confidence so much.”
Around that time, her now-manager saw a YouTube clip of her singing. Flash-forward four years to today, and she’s got fans in Drake and Stormzy, although she’s quick to point out that she hasn’t rushed anything. “There were three years between 16 and 18 before I put (breakout single) ‘Blue Lights’ out, where I was writing, coming to the studio, working with (English-Irish rapper) Maverick Sabre and just knowing myself first before actually putting out (music).” In the half-term holidays, she would come to London for studio sessions, staying with her aunt and uncle in Sydenham.
“Back at school, I didn’t wanna have lips, I didn’t wanna have a bum. I had, like, two black friends. I remember someone said to me, ‘You look better pale. Why would you wanna tan?’” — Jorja Smith
She wrote “Beautiful Little Fools”, a song about how “we don’t have to conform to western ideologies of beauty”, when she was 16 and still at school. But its lesson was an uncomfortable one to learn. Across the table, she leans in. “Back at school, I didn’t wanna have lips, I didn’t wanna have a bum. I had, like, two black friends. I remember someone said to me, ‘You look better pale. Why would you wanna tan?’” she cringes. I wince, too. Since, she’s learned to love herself the way she is. ‘How?’ I ask, for the curious reader, and for myself. “Just by being yourself. Just by realising that you’re the shit.” That’s why she wants to put the song out – to assure girls, in her words, that “you’re beautiful, whoever you are, wherever you’re from. It’s hard not to compare yourself (to others), but you just gotta try and think, you look how you look; be happy.”
I wonder if it feels weird singing songs she wrote some three years ago, but Smith insists she’s trying to make music that is ageless. “When I listen to stuff that I wrote when I was younger, the lyrics (are like pieces of advice) I should listen to,” she says in her matter-of-fact West Midlands accent, bemused by her 16 year-old self’s wisdom.
Still, there are songs Smith has written that she doesn’t necessarily want to keep for herself. “I really wanna write for Rihanna,” she confesses. I note that, with Drake as a fan, she’s less than two degrees of separation away – Smith appeared on “Get It Together”, a track from the rapper’s More Life mixtape in March, having shared a stage with him at the Barclaycard Arena the month before. “He brought little Jorja from Walsall out on stage,” says Smith, unable to contain a toothy smile. “That was sick.” The live turn followed on from her own tribute to Drake, a jazzy mash-up of “Too Good” and Luther Vandross’s “Never Too Much” recorded for Radio 1Xtra’s Live Lounge last year. “Listen to it!” she says excitedly, slapping the table. “Sorry, I’m a bit gassed because it’s sick.”
“I used to blame myself for a lot of things, and I apologise loads. I don’t do it any more, but when I was in the studio – and it was my song – I’d say sorry every time I got a note wrong” — Jorja Smith
From the hooky “Where Did I Go?” to the twinkling piano in the Dizzee Rascal-sampling “Blue Lights”, Smith’s polished R&B is cleaner and poppier than her contemporaries’. What she likes “can be all sorts”, she insists; at the moment, that means anything from Future’s new album HNDRXX, Gabriel Garzón-Montano’s Bishouné (“You’ll recognise Drake sampled the first tune”) and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun. “I was a bit late on Erykah Badu, but I don’t think you can really be late on music. You discover it whenever; music is timeless.”
We ping-pong about movies, too; as it turns out, she’s an art-cinema nerd as influenced and inspired by filmmakers like Chantal Akerman and Wong Kar-wai as she is musicians. She pulls up a photo she has saved on her iPhone and reads the caption, a quote from Wong’s 2000 movie In the Mood for Love. “‘Love is all a matter of timing. It’s no good meeting the right person too soon or too late. If I had lived in another time or place, my story might have had a very different ending.’”
On the subject of romantic love, Smith is more reserved. She’s more interested in discussing self-love and her resolution to be less hard on herself. “I can’t chill. I have no chill,” she says. “I get worked up really easily, but I’m a lot more chilled out now. Like, I’ve got this thing about time. I used to get so mad (at myself ) if I was late. I used to blame myself for a lot of things, and I apologise loads. I don’t do it any more, but when I was in the studio – and it was my song – I’d say sorry every time I got a note wrong.” A Britishism, she suggests, with a slight eye-roll.
“I’d like young girls to be able to listen to my music and take something positive from it” — Jorja Smith
Adults will argue that confidence comes with age, but Smith decided to take matters into her own hands by shaving her head and deleting all of the photos on her Instagram account – her buzzed, bleached blond hair symbolising a fresh start. With nothing to hide behind, a new boldness is required of her. “I’m more confident in myself,” she explains, telling me that it’s already affecting her performance style. Smith debuted the look to her mum at a show in New York; her mum pointed out that, without her trademark braids, her on-stage energy was different and more brazen. “It’s honestly the best thing I ever did,” she says, satisfied.
As for her Instagram overhaul? Awake at 3am and scrolling through her feed in bed, she had a realisation. “I make rash decisions sometimes... I was like, ‘You know what? I want all of this gone. Delete-delete-delete-delete.’ I was so annoyed because I couldn’t delete it all (at once). I kept having to wait two minutes,” she remembers.
With this fresh start underway, I’m keen to know about her ambitions for the future and the kind of artist she plans on becoming. “I’d like to be a role model,” she says decisively. Seeing her casual confidence and feel-the-fear-and-do-it-anyway optimism in action, her answer isn’t surprising. She’s finding herself, and wants to give her fans that same permission. “I’d like young girls to be able to listen to my music and take something positive away from it. When I met (DJ) MistaJam on 1Xtra, he was like, ‘I’d be happy with my daughter listening to your music.’ That’s what I want.”
Hair Naoki Komiya at Julian Watson Agency, make-up Lotten Holmqvist at Management + Artists using M.A.C, nails Kate Cutler at Premier Hair and Makeup, set design Janina Pedan at The Magnet Agency, photographic assistants Ben Breading, Andrew Moores, styling assistant Rebecca Perlmutar, set design assistant Jess Coleman, production Carla Santana at Artistry London, production assistant Chelsea Jackson