Jojo Is Back, And You'll Want To Hear What She Has To Say
When word reached the millennial women of Milk Studios that Jojo was in the building, pandemonium ensued. Well, not exactly pandemonium—we are professionals—but there was a palpable buzz in the air, and a lot of jealous looks and whispers as I walked by with her. Celebrities come in and out of here all the time, but Jojo is special. Jojo is ours. And most importantly, Jojo is back.
Born Joanna Levesque in Massachusetts (she has a shamrock tattoo in honor of Southie), at 13 years old, Jojo became the youngest solo artist to release a number one single on the mainstream Billboard chart. “Leave (Get Out)” became the breakup anthem of an entire generation, and Jojo was huge. But then she disappeared. Her label, Blackground Records, refused to put out her third record, and then refused to let her out of a seven-album contract. And thus began the teenage pop star’s eight-year-long legal battle.
Unable to release an album, Jojo put out free mixtapes and a few covers, including an incredible version of “Marvin’s Room” (a personal favorite). But eventually, her lawyers found a way out: based on laws regarding working minors in New York and California, they determined that she couldn’t be held to a contract for more than seven years. So by January of 2014, Jojo was free, and signed to Atlantic Records. Fans had stayed loyal; while the height of Jojo’s fame came well before the rise of social media (“Leave” was released in 2004), a #FreeJojo campaign raged on Twitter for ages.
Then, in August of last year, the singer dropped what she dubbed a “tringle.” It consisted of three singles released simultaneously: “Say Love,” an emotional ballad; “Save My Soul,” a heart-wrenching take on addiction; and “When Love Hurts,” a catchy dance song. Videos for the three songs have wracked up millions of views on YouTube. She didn’t stop there, either: December saw the surprise release of an EP, the house-tinged #LoveJo2. It seems that after years of being unable to release material, Jojo was hanging on to a lot of pent-up creativity.
In person, the singer has tons of charisma and energy, which makes sense; as someone who’s performed for practically her entire life, Jojo certainly knows how to be “on.” She’s friendly and warm (though not literally—we shot our photos outside in the snow), and loud. She frequently breaks into little spurts of song, testing out her legendarily huge voice. And she cracked jokes throughout our entire shoot, making a freezing January day genuinely pleasant.
After giving her a minute to warm up, we sat down to talk about men in the industry, the Internet, and how the eight-year lawsuit may have actually been a positive thing. We’re so glad that #FreeJojo worked.
You must be so happy to be done with this lawsuit.
I’m so excited to be on the other side of it. I’m grateful. I was told for a very long time that I’d never be able to release music again, so it feels great to prove some people wrong and to move on with my life. Now I’m able to start rebuilding and to connect with my fans, make new connections, and just get back in the pool that is music.
How did you feel about #FreeJojo? That was pretty big. Was that encouraging?
The Internet has been so encouraging to me, just such a warm place. And it can be a real nasty place, but honestly there is so much love that I felt via my social media—it really kept me going. So the #FreeJojo campaign was started by some of my core fans that have stuck with me since the beginning, and it gave me the strength to take up a fight that just kind of sucked to do alone. So I wasn’t alone, and that was a great reminder.
You’ve covered a lot of male-centric R&B songs, like “Marvin’s Room” and “Planes.” How do you feel you bring the female perspective to that side of the industry?
Well, very naturally. I am a woman, I feel things through my feminine lens. But just how Drake is talking about the women he is sleeping with and talks to them directly in songs, I want to talk to the men I’ve slept with and the ones I’m in a relationship with, and how I feel about it. Maybe talk shit about them or talk shit about myself. I think in 2016 we’re a lot more fluid in what gender is, and what is a woman’s place and what is a man’s place. And I’m really interested in working through that, because at 25 I feel more empowered and confident [than ever] to be myself. I don’t really feel like there’s anything I can’t say or speak about.
That being said, have you experienced a lot of sexism in the industry? You started at a very young age—has that been an issue for you?
It’s not something that I think about all the time, but I’m sure if I really picked things apart there would be certain things. But certainly when there’s older men in their 30s, 40s, 50s telling you how you should look, what you should represent, what type of photos you should take, what type of songs you should be singing, it can be frustrating.
Earlier, while we were getting you dressed, you saw a TMZ article in which the author admitted to feeling uncomfortable seeing you as an adult. Do you come across that a lot? People perceiving you as a teen star?
I actually don’t. I really don’t. Maybe this person just wasn’t aware that I’ve put out music recently and it’s totally fine. It’s just creating awareness and I don’t feel any type of need to make a huge statement and be like, “I’m grown now,” or to oil my body up and pose nude, because I’m 25, I’m not 18 anymore. I’m pretty comfortable in my early-mid 20s. I just don’t feel like I have anything to prove, so if that makes them uncomfortable that will be their own journey, but that doesn’t affect me. I don’t give a fuck.
“I think that having that humbling experience of reaching great success, and then kind of having it pulled out from under me, was a good thing for me.”
It’s like you got to skip that whole “I’m a former Disney star, time to take my clothes off” phase. Do you ever think that in that regard, the lawsuit may have been a positive thing?
Yeah, because I didn’t have to fall on my face repeatedly, as you do in your teens and 20s under the scrutiny of the spotlight. So I kind of got to make my own choices and, quote unquote, mistakes on my own time and go through that and figure it out for myself. Whereas I do feel for people like Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus, because they don’t have that luxury of doing things without being seen or talked about. So in a way, I think that was positive. But I’m always going to look at whatever it is and try to take something positive from it. I don’t want to live my life feeling angry or resentful.
So I do think it helped develop me into a more whole person, because when you’re famous from a young age and people are telling you “yes” and you have a lot of excess, it can be a real shit-head as you grow up. So I think that having that humbling experience of reaching great success, and then kind of having it pulled out from under me, was a good thing for me.
You did achieve fame at such a young age. What was that like?
It was everything that I had dreamed of. So the fact that it was coming true for me, it just felt like a whirlwind. And I had been working a lot since I was six years old: singing professionally, doing TV shows, commercials, performing live… And so it felt like it was the next step and I felt like I was beginning [to build] a foundation for the rest of my life. I’m so thankful for the opportunities that [my success has] afforded me, but I need to prove myself once again. I’m a new artist in certain ways because so much time has passed and we live in a time where it doesn’t matter what you did ten years ago. So it’s about me laying things brick by brick once again.
I always want to ask people that are from Massachusetts this question: how do you feel about Boston accents in movies?
Did you see the Seth Myers video—
Yes! The Boston accent movie trailer! I was just thinking about that!
I thought it was fucking awesome. I loved it. You know, sometimes it can be distracting, sometimes they’re great. There are different variations of Mass accents because my dad’s side of the family, who is from New Hampshire, they have New England accents. They drop their r’s. It’s all little subtleties that make us how we are, like I actually sing with more of a Boston accent than when I talk.
That’s so interesting.
I don’t pronounce my r’s when I sing. It’s weird.
Finally, what are your plans for the new album? What are the sounds that you’re embracing now?
I was experimenting with house. “When Love Hurts” was a song that Atlantic had brought to me that Benny Blanco had done. You know, I put my voice on it and house music really is something that gives me life. It makes me feel fabulous, it makes me feel victorious—I love it. But now as I’m wrapping up the album, I don’t want to abandon my roots, which really is soul music, R&B, and hip-hop. So there will be tinges of that on this album. I just want to insert my identity more into it.
From 2007 to 2014, I was trying to release an album. I did so many incarnations of an album, but now that I’ve been signed to Atlantic I’ve started from scratch with the recording process. Then my A&R, who [had initially] signed me, left and went to Interscope, and I was caught in limbo once again. So the time has not [fit into] the time frame I wanted it to be, but I cannot rush to put out something I have been trying to put out for so long. It just has to be right. I want all systems to go. That’s why I signed to a major label, because I want the push.
Jojo’s tringle is available on iTunes. Catch her this Thursday on Late Night With Seth Meyers.
All photographs taken exclusively for Milk by Jenna Putnam
Makeup: Kento Utsubo
Hair: Shu Yamaga
Styling by the Milk team