jorja smith is making her teenage fantasy come true
From somber nostalgia to rumbling bass, Jorja Smith has made the ultimate soundtrack to growing up and going out.
Jorja wears Sweater Aries. Briefs Capezio. Tights Falke. Jewelry (worn throughout) model’s own. Shoes Manolo Blahnik.
This article originally appeared in The Sounding Off Issue, no. 350, Winter 2017.
Jorja Smith’s sound is best described as resolutely British. Not in a Brexit way. In a good way. In a way that perfectly captures the spirit of what it’s like to be a British teenager. In a way that makes you proud of Britain’s unrivaled music scene. In a way that makes you want to sit on the back seat of the bus and stare vacantly out the window as the world goes by, or play So Solid Crew through your phone speaker.
“I think you should listen to Jorja Smith because her music is a combination of honesty and soulful melodies,” she says, laughing down the phone. Lyrically, her tracks consider the ups and downs and ins and outs of growing up, all suffused with a youthful optimism. The beats, meanwhile, are inflected with the sounds of our most cherished and nostalgic homegrown genres. Bassline, 4x4, grime, sounds that take in the whole country, top to bottom, side to side, but especially the bit in the middle where Jorja grew up. “I get influenced by environments. A lot of the stuff I’ve learned, I learned from Walsall, even though there’s no one sound in the West Midlands.”
Take her latest track " On My Mind," for example. It’s a UKG bop, produced by Birmingham’s Preditah, that sounds like it could have been released anytime in the last 20 years. But this isn’t some conscious, manufactured decision, or a label trying to shoehorn Jorja into a prescribed musical role. “We just started jamming and it turned into something. My sound is UK, it will always be. It’s important, but I don’t purposely think 'I’m going to pay tribute,' I just do it.”
You’ll find this dichotomy between nostalgia and modernity running through most of Jorja’s work. The visual for " Teenage Fantasy" – slick, stylized, black-and-white – was based on her first taste of freedom, when she escaped from Walsall to London as a teenager. “I was 16, my best friend and I knew there was a party on in London. We didn’t have anywhere to stay and we didn’t tell our moms and dads. I said I was sleeping at hers and she said she was sleeping at mine. We got on the train, got dressed up, did our makeup, got to the train station, and went straight to the party. We had to stay out all night and catch the first train home.” Though " Teenage Fantasy" was shot in Paris, it’s an experience all of us born outside a capital can relate to: that unadulterated yearning for freedom and adventure.
A lot has changed since then. In fact, a lot has changed since i-D first met Jorja Smith last year. Such is the meteoric rise of a young star in the age of social media and Spotify. Back in early 2016 she’d just moved to southeast London and dropped her debut single, " Blue Light." Today, she’s speaking from the set of Later… with Jools Holland and is about to go on tour with Bruno Mars. Though she remains unsigned and hasn’t yet released an album, in only 18 short months Jorja has amassed millions of streams, legions of fans, and the support of some of music’s big dogs, from Dizzee to Drake.
Being unsigned, it must be noted, awards Jorja the freedom that she needs right now, and is not something she’s looking to change any time soon. “Everything is cool at the moment and I think it’s because I’m not signed. I don’t have anyone telling me, ‘Do this, do that,’” she says, a certainty in her voice that can’t be feigned. “I’m doing what I want to do and it’s going really well. My fans are growing, more people are listening to me. All the songs on my album are ready, I just need to mix it and re-record three songs because I was ill when we were recording the live instruments.”
When asked about the superficial expectations of the old, straight white men that dominate the music industry, it’s obvious that this self-assurance extends far beyond her music. “No one can tell me what to do with my look. I get bored easily. I shave my head. I wear wigs. Have braids. Now I’m growing my hair back. People can tell me it looks nice or it doesn’t, though I don’t really care. I might get silver braids next, because I’m going on tour with Bruno Mars and I’ve got some silver hair dye that needs using up. Sometimes people are like, ‘You need to be consistent with your look,’ but I’m like, ‘Why?’ I’m a musician not a model. Just be yourself, that was my message for my single " Beautiful Little Fools." Social media doesn’t help. Just be yourself.”
Social media might not do much for your body image and confidence, but it does have its advantages. When it came to her wildly popular collaboration with Drake, it all started with a DM. “He messaged me on Instagram and was like, ‘I really love what you’re doing and I’d love to work with you’, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, thank you.’ Then he sent me " Get It Together," but I write all my own songs, and that was a cover, so when I first heard it I didn’t relate to the song. It’s about a woman who wants to be happy in a relationship, but it’s not going well. But then things changed in my life, and I listened to the song again and was like, ‘I know what she’s talking about, I’ve felt this way.’ So I messaged Drake. ‘Is there still space on the track for me?’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, it’s gonna go on More Life.'"
A moment made in proverbial meme heaven soon followed when Drake dropped by Jorja’s hometown following his Boy Meets World Tour stop in Birmingham. Social media was soon alerted after an old acquaintance of Jorja’s spotted the pair at the local shops and snapped a pic. “Yeah, he was in Walsall! He came to the Co-Op. I went to the Co-Op to buy tampons. I used to go to church with that guy who took the picture with Drake. That was funny.”
A cursory search for "Drake" and "Co-Op" on Twitter will confirm the internet’s sheer delight at this, but online acclaim isn’t the name of the game for Jorja. “Success to me means being happy and being able to touch as many people with my music as possible. What I can’t wait for – which will mean success for me – is when I do a show after I put an album out and everybody knows the words to every song. When they know the words because they bought my album and they’ve listened to the songs 500 times? That will be mad.” Mad, maybe. But no longer a teenage fantasy.