These are strange times we live in, where the gift of an emoji heart from a Philly rapper on Instagram can elicit such a reaction IRL. “Lil Uzi [Vert] sent me a message!” Jorja Smith gasps, sitting upright in her chair. “You don’t know how much I love him, honestly. I can’t wait to play ‘XO TOUR Llif3’ in 30 years to my kids!”
We’re having breakfast in Peckham, one week after Clash’s cover shoot when the 19-year-old had just dropped new track ‘Teenage Fantasy’. Over the weekend, Jorja left her teens. “I’m so sad,” she begins, explaining how she’d been home to Walsall, the West Midlands, to celebrate. “I wasn’t sad, what I did was so sad - I was like, ‘Mum, I want some pics for my birthday.’ So I did my make-up and made her take pics, because I had a really cute outfit. I ate a roast dinner, got changed straight after, and took the dog for a walk.”
It’s a far cry from her evening a few months earlier, where she was on stage at The O2 in London alongside Nicki Minaj, Skepta, and Popcaan. Jorja’s life has been moving at a pretty insane pace. She’s appeared twice on the new Drake record, collaborated with Kali Uchis, and sold out international shows before her 20th birthday. Now she has Uzi’s admiration to add to that list.
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One giveaway to Jorja’s gradually exploding stardom is a constantly ringing phone, which she politely taps to silence with a dark red nail. “I fill my wine glasses so full - all the way to the top,” she continues, distractedly. “It was nice, though, I hadn’t been home for ages.”
The aforementioned track was penned during her school years, while babysitting, and the Xtina-like humming you hear in the intro is the actual recording of a 16-year-old Jorja. Like all her output, it’s laced with an autobiographical, personal quality - coupled with a smoky, Parisian jazz club vibe. “I was so happy about [‘Teenage Fantasy’] because it’s one of my favourites,” she beams. “It’s nice to see how it’s still relevant now.” Her lyrics speak to any young person tumbling headfirst into the trials and tribulations of love: “Want it when we can’t have it / When we got it we don’t seem to want it.”
Paris was the location Jorja chose to shoot the video, loosely basing the narrative on the time she and a friend ran away from home on a train to London for a house party. “I told [my parents]: ‘Just before you watch - me and Sandra did this…’” They were like: ‘We know!’ They knew all along.”
Her Jamaica-born father was in a neo-soul band called 2nd Naicha, and along with her mother, a jewellery designer, they encouraged a young Jorja to “follow my dreams”. Her mum used the arts and crafts fairs she attended to show off her daughter’s talents. “Sometimes I would, just when I was there - I’d sing a tune, really quietly,” she says. Now the tables have turned and Jorja shows off her mum’s talents. Around a year ago, on a Clash shoot, she wore some of her jewellery pieces, asking if we could credit Jolene Smith. Her mum is even immortalised on the cover art for ‘Teenage Fantasy’, a trilby covering her face. Her dad would - and still does - offer writing advice, although she adds with a satisfied grin that on a recent writing trip to LA “he was like, ‘I can’t critique it!’ I was like, ‘Good!’”
The fantasy of being a singer began well before Jorja’s teens. She started performing at the age of eight, playing piano and singing in school choirs, and writing music at eleven (she has ‘11’ tattooed on one finger in cool Gothic script - it’s her favourite number). Despite worshipping Amy Winehouse (“‘Frank’, I can listen to that from beginning to end. I know it off by heart”) and having a Justin Bieber poster adorn her bedroom wall, she developed an acute love for classical music. “There's this one called ‘The Forsaken Maiden’ by [Hugo] Wolf. That’s sick,” she says. “Then ‘An Sylvia’ by Schubert, I used to sing at school. Or ‘Panis Angelicus’, that’s in Latin, that’s really beautiful.”
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That classical influence has found a way into her sound, with ‘A Prince’ incorporating a pitched-down sample from Henry Purcell’s ‘A Prince Of Glorious Race Descended’. “I used to sing soprano, so I like adding jumpy, operatic sounds,” she explains, pointing to the beginning of ‘Something In The Way’ as an example. “It’s my little flavour...”
Following its Baroque intro, the track erupts into an early-Noughties-style R&B bounce, and Jorja also counts artists as diverse as Mobb Deep, Damian Marley and Erykah Badu as influences. On ‘Blue Lights’, a track that tackles the topic of police brutality and prejudice towards her black male friends, she lifted Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Sirens’ bars: ‘Don’t you run / When you hear the sirens coming.’
“I don’t like preaching to people, shoving things in their face,” she says on the social commentary of ‘Blue Lights’, “but I stand up for what I believe. I always want to make something with a meaning. Not just crap!” she jokes. She wrote her A Level coursework on the topic ‘Is Post-Colonialism Still Present in Grime Music?’, analysing Dizzee’s video that saw him being chased by people on horseback clad in red foxhunting coats.
Moving from the Black Country to London after leaving school, Jorja took a job at Starbucks, writing to Soundcloud beats and uploading music in-between shifts. “Sometimes it did feel a bit lonely because it’s so big,” she says on making the transition to the capital. “Especially when I’d come home on Friday night, smelling of coffee, I’d see all these girls with their dresses on, going out, and was like, ‘Man, I’m going home to sleep!’” Pouring lattes eventually bored her: “I used to go into the stock room and sing in there or give myself fake interviews, just to pass the time.”
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When big male artists work with female artists they’re always like, ‘Oh they’re seeing them.’ But if they work with a male artist, they never say anything.
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She posted her first track (‘Blue Lights’) and within a week, it had notched up 100,000 plays. Frappucinos would be a thing of the past. Jorja has been cleverly economical with her work, choosing to hold back rather than dump the 21-track mixtapes so many artists are quick to do these days. “D’you know what I’d say to anyone starting out? There’s no need to rush anything. Just be happy with everything you’re doing.” In the same vein of the likes of Stormzy, who has achieved mainstream domination while refusing to sign, Jorja’s choosing the path of independence, too. Forget a major label micro-managing her visual aesthetic; Jorja shot the video for ‘Where Did I Go?’ herself on her aunt’s staircase, and has reached out to friends to design her cover art.
These days a Drake co-sign might seem worth its weight in gold, but Jorja almost turned down the chance to be on ‘More Life’. “He sent me this song,” she explains, “covering ‘Superman’ by Bucie, and Black Coffee - but at the time I didn’t relate to the song. I was like, ‘I don’t really click with it’. But then some shit happened in my life, and I listened back and was like, you know what, I actually relate to these lyrics! So I asked him: ‘Is the song still there for me?’ And he was like, ‘Yep!’”
But collaborating with Champagne Papi comes at a price. “Drake ‘secretly dating British singer Jorja Smith’,” screamed the headline of the Daily Mail. “DRAKE’S HOTLINE THING,” The Sun yelled.
“Hilarious,” she says, in-between mouthfuls of avocado. “D’you know what’s funny? My friend said: ‘Why doesn’t anyone say him and Giggs are dating?’ When big male artists work with female artists they’re always like, ‘Oh they’re seeing them.’ But if they work with a male artist, they never say anything. Giggs and Sampha are both on ‘More Life’ too - but they’re just friends, you know?” She puts on a mock voice to imitate the hypothetical tabloid headline.
“It’s just interesting,” she continues. “[Drake’s] really cool. A really good person to work with. That went down. But, the papers said really good things about me. They were bigging up my music, so it wasn’t bad publicity.”
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After his Birmingham show, where he brought Jorja out on stage, they jointly hit up the Walsall Co-op to buy sweets, much to the shock of Jorja’s friend from church behind the till. “It was actually wine gums and tampons!” she says, laughing. “Basically I needed tampons and was gonna go to the corner shop and he was like, ‘Oh, we’ll take you!’ There weren’t many people, so I guess that was nice for him. He just felt like he was popping to his local shop!”
It’s hard to imagine, as a teen, being subject to a slew of needlessly nasty, hate-filled comments on the web, but it’s an unfortunate side effect to Jorja’s career going stratospheric. “When I did the song I got loads of [Drake’s] wives - you know, the ones that are ‘married’ to him, saying: ‘Don’t put another hoe like her on your record’.” But Jorja brushes off the hate like a pro. “I’m like my dad,” she says, “I just don’t... mind? Cos I know it’s gonna happen. And if you’re telling me flaws about myself that I already know, I think that’s great.”
Right before starting breakfast, Jorja had neatly removed a set of braces, and she points at them. “I put a video out and my teeth aren’t perfectly straight, but some of the comments were like: ‘She’s really pretty but her teeth are really bad… British people have such bad teeth… She needs to fix her teeth,’ and I’m like, ‘Honestly! I already know this! Thanks!’”
‘Beautiful Little Fools’, a track whose cover art sees a tiny Jorja wearing a pink feather boa, borrows its name from a quote in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It was no coincidence that Jorja dropped the track on International Women’s Day; the song’s message is how the media can taint the idea of what beautiful means to young girls. “I wanna empower myself and hopefully that will empower other people. I think if people see you being proud of who you are they can be like, ‘Oh! I can do this too’, you know?”
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There’s nothing wrong with being sexy or whatever because as you get older, you embrace it more - you learn how to embrace it.
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“I have little cousins,” she continues, “and I remember when [Rihanna’s] ‘Work’ came out, they didn’t know what the fuck she was talking about! She’s talking about sex in that song and they’re there going like: ‘Work work work!’” I love that song, but they’re there copying her dancing! I want parents of kids to be happy that they’re listening to my music. Cos I let my dad listen to my music. He’s one of my biggest fans.”
“I want to be a good role model,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with being sexy or whatever because as you get older, you embrace it more - you learn how to embrace it. I want all ages to be able to listen to me and it be appropriate and not have their parents be like, ‘Why is she doing this dancing, she’s six! Cos this music’s everywhere; you can’t hide kids from it. But they learn, as they grow.”
She’s the kind of person to share skincare tips on Twitter (vitamin E cream/exfoliating every morning, if you were wondering) as much as a plea to get down your polling station and vote. “One time i put mascara on in year 9 and looked like Tracy Beaker when she put on Adeles make up if u kno that episode,” she tweeted, managing somehow to feel like a megastar and your best friend at the very same time.
Before slipping a pair of enormous sunglasses back over her eyes and stepping out into the 30-degree heat, we have to ask: is there gonna be a Jorja Smith full-length any time soon? She nods emphatically.
“It’s kinda done! I just got these Champagne problems,” she sighs. “I’ve got too many songs. But a lot of them I wrote a while ago, and they’re just... You know what, you’ll hear it! It’s honest.”
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Catch Jorja Smith at London's Brixton Electric tonight (July 19th).
Words: Felicity Martin
Photography: Nhu Xuan Hua
Styling: Rudy Betty