jhené aiko is really real
The unique RnB star speaks to us ahead of her Australian tour about her fashion line, the weirdness of red carpet events and the importance of being authentic.
Jhené Aiko is refreshingly multifaceted. In a mainstream pop landscape, which still strains to force female artists into one of a few well-worn archetypes, Jhené's managed to defy categorisation and remain a Top 40 fixture. She's part of a new guard of female musicians enjoying mainstream success while refusing any one niche: she'll offer a sultry soulful track, painfully earnest RnB or gleaming radio-ready hits. She's drawn comparisons to Aaliyah and FKA Twigs, which suggests her closest peers are in the world of alternative hip-hop, but her confessional songwriting style is more akin to Fiona Apple or Joni Mitchell. Online, she shares Buddhist teachings, discusses the Fermi Paradox (a theory about alien life) and share sketches from her recent foray into illustration. That's the thing about Jhené, she doesn't see her complexity as a hindrance to her marketability: her success is built on it. Like she told us, "[My music] can be anything, because I can be whatever I want."
Jhené has had time to consider her relationship to the public, lingering on the periphery of the music industry for years. At age 13 she signed with Epic Records, appearing in the music videos of millennial boy-band B2K. There were plans for a debut album which never materialised, and eventually Jhené left the label to finish school. In her time away from the industry, she grew from a young vocalist into a skilled songwriter, and had a baby girl, Namiko (who appears in her song Promises). Jhené and O'Ryan, her child's father, remain close too. They star together in her 2014 music video Spotless Mind.
When the time came for Jhené to return, she pulled out all the stops. Her unmissable 2011 mixtape, Sailing Soul(s), featured verses from Kanye, Drake, Kendrick and Miguel. Her 2013 EP Sail Out engulfed Jhené in a wave of hype, heralding her as the next-big-thing. Alongside longtime friend (and former B2K member) Omarian, she sang the lyric of 2014, "I might let your boy chauffeur me/But he gotta eat the booty like groceries." When her debut LP, Souled Out, grabbed three Grammy nominations last year, it became official: Jhené is the real deal. Ahead of her first Australian visit, we spoke with Jhené about pressures on female performers and her focus on substance over superficial.
Hi Jhené, we're really looking forward to having you in Australia!
I'm very excited. I've heard that the food is really good and that the weather's really nice. I love exploring, so I'm really excited.
Will there be time to see the sights, to be a tourist?
I'm gonna make time, for sure. I can't travel all that way and not see anything!
You're coming to play Soulfest. How does it feel to be on the same bill as icons like Mary J. Blige and Ms. Lauryn Hill?
It feels really good, it feels like they understand what kind of artist I am. It feels good when I'm put on the same bill as some of the people I look up to. It means that people are taking my music in the way that I intended them to. Even though it's a very diverse line-up, there's these living legends who I came up listening to, and there's newcomers like me and Miguel. I think it's going to be really great.
So you grew up listening to some of the people you're now performing with! Who else did you listen to as a kid?
I grew up listening to a lot of RnB. I grew up in L.A, born and raised, so Brandi, TLC, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston. Then there was Snoop Dogg, Tupac and Dr DRE. And then I really started loving the Spice Girls, Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple. It was really a mix.
You and Miguel worked together, are you gonna catch up in Australia?
Hopefully, yeah! We worked together when I did my mixtape. I haven't worked with him since then, but hopefully we can talk about doing some more.
Speaking of the mixtape, will we be able to hear some of those tracks when you come out?
Oh yeah! My setlist definitely includes some of the old stuff and some new stuff. I like to keep it super personal - obviously my music is very personal - I like to really connect with my audience. It's one of my favourite things to do because it is such a personal experience, whenever I perform. I'm always excited to perform the older songs for people that have just started listening to my music or maybe only know me from one song. I'm always excited to get them updated on all the songs that I've done [laughs].
So it feels nice to surprise people who may know you from collaborations with artists like Big Sean or Drake?
Yeah, it does. I think that I can relate to most people, and most people can relate to me when they really take the time to listen to what I'm talking about. Even if a crowd isn't there for me, they may just know one or two songs, I like to show them what else I do. It isn't just like one type or style of music, it can be anything because I feel like that's me because I can be whatever I want [laughs].
Is it getting harder to keep your shows really personal as you become more of a household name and the crowds get bigger?
No, it's not. The things I choose to do are quite strategic and even though some of the collaborations are more mainstream, my music is not always mainstream, you know it doesn't always have a place on the radio. The live shows are where the songs belong. It doesn't get hard though, because I feel like the people who've been following me for this long journey, they know. They're there for the show to hear the songs that they love and it's not about whatever song is on the radio.
Moving off-stage, let's talk about your style, it's so cool! I know you recently collaborated with the label Pacsun -- will we see you doing more with fashion?
Definitely! With Pacsun, it was the first time I helped design and had real input into my collection. I got to feel the fabrics and one of my tattoos is the graphic on the tank top. I always like to create, I've always liked arts and crafts and you know, anything I can really get done with my hands and with colours. I feel like that was me getting my feet wet a little and I'm definitely going to delve deeper into the fashion world.
Has getting ready for red carpets and the media circus that comes with it been a little crazy, or is it fun?
You know, I'm a very comfortable person. I like to feel comfortable and I like to feel like myself. Actually, I've only done a handful of red carpets and I wouldn't say I'm quite used to them yet. There's a lot of pressure, especially when it's an award show and like, maybe I'm nominated or maybe I have to perform. But the last red carpet I did was in South Africa and that was probably my favourite because I just came to the realisation that "I have to be comfortable to be able to do this". It's something that I'm getting used to. I get shy, it's not like a natural thing that's happening. I think the more I do the more I'll become comfortable, but it's not in my personality to just want to do all that. I'm working it out.
So you're more comfortable with singing and performing than the 'glitz' that comes with it?
Definitely! This year I've had more time to focus on my stage show and on my live performance where the previous year, there was a lot of hype with everything I was doing and everything was just back-to-back. I've always been a songwriter and a singer but I didn't grow up being groomed to be a performing artist. I think all the acts on Soulfest are authentic and real, it's real self expression.
So we're not going for loads of costume changes?
No! That's never been my thing, because I feel like that's a different type of artist, a performing artist. I feel like as a songwriter I spend a lot of my energy worried about the performance and what I'm actually saying. Because I'm a young girl, I think people want to see me do that but they don't understand that I'm 27 years old, I have a child and I want to express myself in a more authentic way. It's different to what most girls are doing, but I think that it's needed for the balance.
Nobody expects costume changes from Drake.