Jessie Malakouti: What Pop Should Sound Like
I must have looked like a ten-year-old on Christmas as Jessie Malakouti walked me down the hallways of Jim Henson Studios. Before this, I had only seen the building from the outside. As the pop singer led me towards the studio where she had been recording for the last few weeks, I tried my best to not look too obvious as my eyes darted inside every room with an open door. Just knowing I was wandering the halls of the space where legends like John Lennon, Oingo Boingo and The Rolling Stones had all recorded some of their most influential tracks was enough to give me goosebumps. The recording studio we arrived at belonged to Justin Stanley, a music production wizard who has worked with artists like Beck, Eric Clapton, The Vines — and now the strong-willed pop star who was offering me water in her sweat pants. Justin, who has this sort of "Dave Grohl" thing going on, walked us into the back of his recording studio so we could all squeeze in and listen to some of Jessie’s latest recordings.
This was the definitely the best Thursday I’d had in months.
Jessie’s story is one that I had been hearing a lot lately. A hopeful young artist with a passion and drive that earns them the opportunity to sign with a label and begin touring, only to find out later through a series of unfortunate events that their 15 minutes in the spotlight was cut down, by no fault of their own, to about 2 minutes and 15 seconds. Where Jessie’s story differs from most of the record industry’s cautionary tales is how she decided to handle the end of her first shot at stardom.
"A bunch of stuff started kind of going wrong for me in terms of… well… everything felt like it was going wrong for me at the time actually," she said. "The album I had recorded for the last year and a half to two years felt like it was never going to come out. I would listen to it and feel like I had totally changed as a person and started to resent some of the music because of how long I had been sitting on it. I mean, I was 22 or 23 at the time and I had written some of the songs when I was 20 and I just feel like you go through so much change in those years as a young woman. You start to see things totally differently. So I just couldn’t relate to my own songs the longer [my label] waited to put them out. At the time I was on an indie label and as a pop artist… it’s just too hard to try and figure out how to put out a pop record on an indie label. I felt like a painter with a bunch of paintings stuffed away in her garage for no one to see. That’s not what I want."
I am willing to admit that I know very little about the music industry, and I know even less about what it takes to be or make a pop star. I needed to ask why a pop star has a difficult time coming out on an indie label versus a major label.
"Dollar signs," Jessie replied matter-of-factly. "The bigger labels sort of have a monopoly over the radio stations. People don’t understand that radio is still really important and it costs a lot of money to get airtime on the radio. It’s also political, but in the end it has a lot to do with money. So you can build all this buzz independently like I did. You can develop a core fan base of 50,000 people across the country like I did. You still might not have the ability to break through radio."
Jessie has built a following with little to no presence among the common pop artist stomping grounds. She toured as the opening act for Britney Spears and hadn’t even dropped a record yet. After the tour ended, the frustration of not having an album to showcase during what could have been a major turning point in her career reached a boiling point with Jessie. She was fed up and beginning to give up.
"My manager was always super cool and supportive through all of everything that was happening and really believes in me even when I sometimes don’t," she said. "So around Christmas time when I was starting to feel like ‘Ok, this isn’t going to work, I guess it’s time to go get a job at McDonalds,’ he said to me: ‘Look, why don’t you write about this? Why don’t you write about the frustration and everything that you’re going through? Why don’t you go into the studio and put this into your music?’ That’s something I had never really fully done before. I was always writing about dancing and parties and, you know, ‘I have a crush on you’ and that kinda stuff. I still want to incorporate some of that into my new album because I still love pop and having a good time, but I also got really introspective and a little dark with what I was writing about. I just finally needed to talk about some real shit. I think when things get messed up in your life you have to find a way to keep going. The way I found to keep going when I was about to give up and jump off a bridge was to just get back in the studio."
I had heard some of Jessie’s music in the past and although it was pop as fuck, which doesn’t tend to be my thing at all, I still knew there was a place for it in my playlists. I have seemed to find similar places for Katie Perry, Madonna and Kylie Minogue, all of whom seemed to have influenced Jessie on the creation of her latest album. The songs she played for me seem to have more of a personal message built inside of them, you can see that there is real emotion in a lot of the songs and you can hear her story being carried on top of an army of dance beats.
I left Jim Henson Studios that day feeling like I had just met someone whose career was on a countdown to a rocket launch. I had only had that feeling a few times in my life. Shortly after this interview took place, I caught up with Jessie and found out that she was offered a deal to join Virgin Records. So I guess all that stuff I was saying about not understanding what it takes to make a pop star isn’t really true, cause I saw that in Jessie the moment I met her.
Photos By: Chris Swainston
Art Direction: Kalvin Lazarte
Styling: Dagmarette Yen
Hair: Crystal Pray
Make-Up: Gabbi Pascua