MILK.XYZ International: Jorja Smith Talks Drake, McDonald's, & "On My Mind"
With her newly released collab track with Preditah, titled “On My Mind”, certifiably blowing up, and a North American tour happening now (Drake surprised her fans in Toronto with a cameo), Jorja Smith is on fire. We chatted with the London soul songstress about her personal music, collaborating with Champagne Papi, astrology, McDonald’s, and the importance of balancing day jobs and creative passion—all while she was moving into her new flat in London before tour. Listen to “On My Mind” below, then keep scrolling for our full chat with London’s finest.
So I’ve read that you’ve been doing music for a while—you had a music scholarship. What was that experience like?
The music scholarship was at my high school—it just meant that I used to go to choir; I’d have to sing at Christmas in a church. I did choral music. I did graded singing lessons, like singing Classical, German, Latin, French. It was really fun and did you know what? Sometimes I was a bit bored about learning all the history of music and stuff, but I’m definitely so glad I did it because it’s helped a lot. I still use elements in my music now, from what I learnt.
Do you think having a formal education in this field is necessary?
Yeah. Do you know what? It made me just want to write more music even more because I just didn’t want to stay in school. I didn’t want to go to university. I just wanted to write and sing. Definitely. It is important. Because you know people are like, “school doesn’t do anything for music,” but it teaches you a lot. You know?
What do you think were some of the most valuable tools you took from that experience?
Patience, but to be honest, I’m still not very patient, but it’s cool to just wait until schools over to go home and write. You know? I learnt that.
In terms of your background, who would you consider to be your greatest influences?
Music wise? Amy Winehouse, Damian Marley. Those are the two I used to listen to all the time… and Mos Def.
Who’s inspiring you right now? When you listen to a song do you listen to it on repeat or kind of just listen to whatever’s on?
So, at the moment, I’ve been listening to Charlotte Dos Santos—I think she’s Norwegian, but she lives in New York, and then Ama Lou who’s from London. She’s amazing. And to be honest, I normally don’t even finish a song because I keep pressing back so it’s funny because Ama Lou has this song called “TBC” and I’ve watched this video and I swore I watched the whole thing, but I hadn’t because I kept like going back and refreshing it and then finally one day I just didn’t do that and I was like “omg, I’ve missed like half of the video” because I just kept on going back. But yeah, I listened to them a lot—let me just go on my phone—and then Mina Rose, who just put out a new song today called “Lemons and Limes”. She’s really cool.
What about those people attracts you most? Why do you keep listening?
One, their voices are beautiful. And lyrics—what they’re saying. Ama Lou, her song [“TBC”] begins with, “Burn my hotel down” and as soon as I heard that I was like, “Woah,” and I couldn’t stop listening.
In an interview with THE FADER you said, “I don’t like to write about myself. I like listening to people.” Where is the best place to listen?
What I meant is just like through conversation. I’m young, I’m 20 now, but when I was 16, I’d never had a boyfriend, I hadn’t experienced a lot so I mean talking to my friends and people that are older than me. I’d just gather up information that I could write about.
How do you successfully achieve such a level of personal connection to other people’s experiences?
I’ve always been good at writing stories. I used to, when I was younger, make up scenarios and act them out. So I mean, I’m good at empathizing with people.
As a young person, I know you’ve had to balance day jobs and your passion. What would you say to other young people that are struggling to find a balance between these things?
I used to work at Starbucks before everything, and McDonalds also which is funny. Don’t rush! There’s no rush. That’s what you have to think in your head. Honestly, don’t rush anything. If you have to work a crappy job, do it—because you’ll learn a lot and you’ll meet great people and there’s so much to write about. Just never rush anything because everything always falls into place. Don’t compare yourself to anybody else. I used to compare myself, I used to look at Justin Bieber and be like, “I want to be 15 and touring the world and be a superstar!” but now I realize you know I’m happy what I’m doing has worked out this way because that’s how my path is. So yeah—don’t compare yourself and don’t rush.
Is there an experience in one of the jobs that you were like, “omg I could write about this” or something that sticks out to you?
I’d always have melodies that would come to me at work and I’d just go to the back and sing them into my phone and then just come back out and make more coffee.
Can you tell me a little bit more about your creative process?
When I’m writing, normally. I always have so many melodies in my head so I’ll just be humming them or singing random lines, like kinda freestyling. I like to start from scratch, so either with chords on a piano, or someone else playing them or a beat—I don’t normally like beats to be honest, I prefer chords, but it depends on what mood I’m in also because tomorrow I could be like, “Yeah, I prefer writing with beats.”
But today, just piano. I just hum along and say some words and then sometimes just a word. For example, hmm let me think…if I get saying the word “freedom” and base it around that. You know? There will be a word that will come out and it becomes the topic. Sometimes, if I’m just singing, it’s just a sentence and it makes sense and I don’t need to write it. Usually just freestyling and it makes sense.
So how does that process change kind of change when you collaborate with people? Do you like collaborating?
Yeah. I write a lot with Maverick Sabre, when I was coming up to London and when I moved here and we’re quite similar in how we write so we bounce off each other. Really easy. I guess I’m just myself when I’m working, when I’m writing, so it doesn’t really change that much.
What was it like working with Drake?
That was cool. Well, I recorded my vocals in London. I didn’t record it with him. But he’s really cool and just really down to earth.
Do you have a lucky charm?
I’m a Gemini and my mum made me a Gemini pendant but it’s turned to like my kind of charm, but we’ve just put it on my website now, so people can get it. Cause see, my mom makes jewelry and I have this Gemini pendant that I always wear. Well not today, today I’m wearing “Jorja”.
Do you believe in astrology?
Yeah and no. You can’t just judge people because of what their star sign says, but yes because I’m a lot like a Gemini.
In what ways do you have the Gemini attributes?
I’ve definitely got more than one personality. Definitely can be a bit crazy. I think we all are sometimes.
True. What was the first song you ever wrote?
It was called “Life is a Path Worth Taking” and I wrote that when I was 11, but before that when I was 8, I used to write loads of stories. In primary school, I wrote this nativity play for my church. We sang “Silent Night”, but the first song I wrote was “Life is a Path Worth Taking” and it was just about making the right decisions.
Would you release any of the earlier songs you wrote, now?
The songs that I’m putting out now, a lot of them I wrote when I was 16, like “Teenage Fantasy” and “Beautiful Little Fools”, but I guess I could look at the ones from when I was 11 and maybe rewrite them.
How do you think your music has evolved sonically and lyrically since then?
A lot. I’ve learnt a lot more. I’ve been through a lot more to be honest. I think I’ve just listened more. I guess I’m just getting better, I don’t’ know how to explain it. I’ve definitely matured more in my sound; my voice has changed. Just from singing more it’s got better.
What’s the most surprising thing about being on stage?
Oh my God! People don’t know, I can actually see you! I guess I don’t know if I’m like I pose and yeah I smile at my friends and they’ll be like, “You looked over in my direction!” and I’m like, “Yeah if I look at you and smile, I’m lookin at you!” Somebody cried at my show and I always find that a bit sad, but happy at the same time because at least I can get emotions from people.
So having performed in different countries and from intimate settings to festivals—where do you feel most comfortable?
Definitely my own show, rather than a festival. But every show is so comfortable because everyone is so welcoming. I really loved the US tour. My first show was at SOB’s in New York and that was amazing. They’re just very welcoming. I don’t know, just smiley. They want you to do well, you know? That was really nice, in New York.
Have you noticed difference in crowds?
In London, everyone is like really hard to please. No one kind of moves about, at all. When I was in Glasgow, in Scotland, they were really cool and really friendly. In America, the three shows I had—Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York—everyone was just like really welcoming and warm. Every show has been good. I haven’t felt like, “ohh I don’t want to be on stage.” I can’t wait for this tour! It’s in like two weeks, I’m so excited!
Are there any rituals that you have before—what gets you in the headspace to be ready to go on tour or before a show?
Me and my band started doing a little prayer before, which is really, really nice. Before we get on stage. My drummer Femi, he does a little prayer and it’s just really sweet. Because you do have to be thankful, you know. You have a gift, and it’s nice to be able to share it with everybody because not everyone can.
I have a new tune coming out [On My Mind]—sometime this month—but definitely in 2018 there will be a new album. More new music this year, but no big project.
Featured image courtesy of Ellington Hammond
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