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Jorja Smith brings 17th-century swagger to 'A Prince'

UK R&B's brightest new star talks fairytale rises as she unveils the lovelorn follow-up to ‘Blue Lights’

Jorja Smith knew she was going to be a singer aged eight, at Sunday school in Walsall. “One Christmas I wrote a nativity play,” she laughs. “But nobody turned up on the day of the performance apart from my brother and my cousins, so I just read the whole script onstage and made my brother pretend to be one of the animals at the inn. Then I sang ‘Silent Night’, which was the first time my dad heard me sing. He told me he knew from then I had something special.”

Her dad, a singer with a neo-soul outfit called Second Nature, knew what he was on about. Since the opening night of her self-penned nativity, Smith has worked diligently at her craft, from her first song “Life is a Path Worth Taking” (written in year seven) to transitional teenage efforts like “High Street”, inspired by a documentary she watched on The Specials’ “Ghost Town” and the boarded-up shopfronts of her native Walsall. Discovered as a serious prospect two years back, Smith shuttled back and forth between the Midlands and London for recording sessions, juggling her songwriting ambitions with A-levels in music, media, religious studies and English lit.

Most recently, she made the jump to London full-time after finishing school, and announced herself to the world with “Blue Lights”, a deliciously downtempo slice of R&B written as part of a school project asking students to dissect the legacy of post-colonialism in grime. The track won high-profile admirers including Skrillex and Stormzy on its way to racking up half a million plays on Soundcloud in January, and came with an affecting video that explored the roles that society expects black men to play.

Now Smith is back with another new track, “A Prince”, which draws on a different kind of royal fanfare – it turns on a sample of Henry Purcell’s “A Prince of Glorious Race Descended”, written for the Duke of Gloucester’s sixth birthday in 1695. Pitched down and exquisitely paired with Smith’s smoky, jazz-tinged vocals (with a guest verse from Maverick Sabre), it sounds like something Danger Mouse might have cooked up if he’d ever got round to working with Amy Winehouse. For the video, Smith asked Royal College of Art grad Yao Xiang to come up with an animation to fit this moody portrait of a fairytale turned sour. Six months later, she came up with this strangely beautiful, penguin-inspired odyssey.

We picked up the story of the song - and everything else in between - with Smith.

Hi Jorja, your new song samples a recording of a Henry Purcell composition, how did that come about?

Jorja Smith: I heard it in my A-level music class! I was like, ‘This is really good… Sir, what is this?’ and I jotted down the name of the track – well, not ‘track’, haha, I don’t know what you call it – and went back and looped it and pitched it down. The song begins with me counting, that’s just me getting ready to sing. It wasn’t supposed to be like that, but it sounded cool so I left it in there.

Was there a particular prince you had in mind when you wrote it?

Nobody, that’s the thing. I just wrote about issues other people told me about and pretended they were my own, which is something I do a lot! I like empathising with people, and I think I’m able to get into characters. I like being someone else. ‘A Prince’ is not about me, but I can pretend for the three minutes of the track. It’s great being able to do that, ’cos I enjoy telling stories.

How does the writing process work for you normally?

When I’m writing I’ll just say random stuff that doesn’t make sense and then a certain word that I keep saying will stick out and I’ll write from there. With (‘A Prince’) I had a title, so I guess I already had an idea. The song has a kind of fairytale thing going on, which I got from (Purcell’s) music – like, there’s a line on there that goes, ‘He won’t even let me leave the house past 12.

How did you come to work with Yao Xiang for the video?

My manager found a load of animators (for the video), and she was the one that stuck out. (Her work) is mad crazy, but that’s perfect for me, it’s very abstract. I didn’t say how I wanted it, I just played her the song and said ‘This is what it’s about, do your thing,’ and she did! It’s so sick – it took over six months for her to do, she hand-drew every single frame. It’s very detailed, you have to pay attention to every single frame or you’ll miss things.

You grew up in Walsall, what was that like?

It’s a small town, there are creative people there but there just aren’t many possibilities. Now that I’ve moved (to London), when I go back, it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s not a lot going on here.’ But when I was growing up I didn’t know any different, so I’m glad I grew up there.

Are your parents from there originally?

My dad’s parents are from Jamaica, and my mum’s parents are from Yorkshire, I dunno why they moved here. But (my mum) has lived in New York and Turkey, she’s a jewellery maker. I come from quite a creative family, everyone’s just doing their own thing! I actually don’t wear jewellery, except for a ring and a bracelet that my mum made for me.

How did your music first get discovered?

Someone sent my manager a video of me just singing when I was about 15, 16. He came up to Walsall to meet me and my dad, and I just kept writing and sending them stuff, and obviously they liked my hustle!

What about Maverick Sabre, how did you start working with him?

Maverick is good friends with my manager, who played him one of my songs, and he really enjoyed it. Me and Mav are really similar, he’s like a big brother to me, We started writing together when I was 16, I’ve learned a lot from him. But the vocals on ‘A Prince’ I recorded at home in Walsall, I didn’t rerecord them. So we gave this track to Mav to see what he thought, and he wrote that verse.

What’s the trick to writing a good lyric?

Umm, I dunno! There’s this 15-second video of me performing a song that (someone put) on Twitter, and it’s got this lyric which everybody seems to have gone crazy about: ‘Even though I broke myself, I broke me for you / always flying back to misunderstood.’ I remember one girl commented on it so I went on her profile and the lyric was in her Instagram bio!

What else inspires you outside of music?

I like watching films. There’s this amazing guy called Wong Kar Wai. One of my favourite quotes is from his film 2046, it goes “Love is all a matter of timing, you can’t meet the person too soon or too late.” I wrote a song based on that. I did another one based on a quote from The Great Gatsby called ‘Beautiful Little Fool’. It’s what F Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, said when their daughter was born, she said, ‘I want her to be a beautiful little fool, because that’s all girls can be in the world,’ and Daisy (Buchanan) says the same thing in The Great Gatsby, so I based a song and that. (Social constraints for girls) are more hinted at now, it’s subliminal – even in films, there are traditional roles for men and women.

Your music has already been compared to Amy Winehouse and Lauryn Hill, is that a lot to take on board?

(Amy and Lauryn Hill) are a bit too big to be compared to, I don’t think anyone can be compared to them. Especially Amy Winehouse! It’s mad because I listened to them so much growing up. I saw the film (Amy) four times - she was amazing, it’s great to see how she used to write. One of my friends said it reminded her of me. Like, there’s a bit where Amy says that writing is an outlet for her, and she didn’t know what she’d do if she didn’t have that, and that’s the same with me. There’s just so much going on in my head, I’d go crazy if I couldn’t write. So I’m thankful that I’m able to get it out like that. They’re great comparisons to have, but hopefully the more I do my music, the more people will be like, ‘Jorja sounds like Jorja.’