jojo is back! a cautionary tale from the former child star on signing the world’s worst record deal
Finally freed from the Blackground Records contract at the end of 2013 (seven years after her last official album), she's back on a new label, Atlantic, and released three new singles. To celebrate her return, i-D joined JoJo for lunch in Beverly Hills.
JoJo was first offered a record deal at the tender age of six. When she eventually did sign with Blackground Records, she was told by label boss Barry Hankerson that she had been brought to him by the spirit of his late niece, Aaliyah. At the age of 14 she had a million-selling debut album, a global hit with Leave (Get Out) and, two years later, a follow-up album that spawned the classic kiss off anthem, Too Little, Too Late. Things were looking pretty good when suddenly, label politics and a dodgy contract derailed her career. A mooted third album was announced and postponed on numerous occasions, with independently released mixtapes - 2010's Can't Take That Away From Me and 2012's Agape - used as a way of trying to keep the connection between artist and fanbase. In-between the mixtapes was a stunning reworking of Drake's Marvin's Room, its brilliance only serving to further highlight the frustrations of being signed to a label who wouldn't release her, but who were also refusing to release any music.
Looking back, how significant was your 2011 cover of Drake's Marvin's Room?
Yeah. It was a breakthrough in a sense because it showed that people weren't opposed to me being an adult. I came out when I was 13 and I've always had a potty mouth -- I'm from Boston and swear like a sailor, that's just how I came up -- so the way I was speaking in Marvin's Room is just how I would speak to my girlfriends and I realized it was okay to do that.
Pop singers who've had success at a young age tend to have a transitional moment from child to adulthood. Maybe that was yours in a way?
Perhaps, yeah. Once it was received in a positive way I didn't feel like I had to prove anything because there wasn't a resistance to it. It felt kind of natural. It was the music I was listening to and it was what I was going through at the time. I didn't have to think 'Okay, how am I going to make this transition into adulthood'. It's something I recorded, hungover, one morning in New York. I heard the Drake song, I wrote my version to it and then I played it to my manager and she said 'What do you want to do with this?'. So we put it out. It all happened really naturally.
From there you then worked with Drake's producer Noah "40" Shebib on Demonstrate. Did you feel like you'd made a breakthrough with Blackground at that point?
It did feel like a breakthrough because… I don't know… that whole situation with the label was so confusing, even now, but it did feel like a breakthrough.
Were there a lot of moments like that? Where you thought you'd turned a corner with the label.
I can't comprehend how frustrating that must have been, to be making music for a label who won't let you make music elsewhere but who also won't release any of it.
It was really fucking weird. Especially trying to explain things to my family or my friends who were seeing how I was being tossed around but that I didn't want to drag anybody through the mud. I didn't want to be anti-label, I didn't want to air all our dirty laundry because I didn't think it was the classy thing to do. Everybody had a lot of opinions on what I should have done but I just wanted to keep my head down and work. It was maddening. I was really frustrated, I was depressed, but I had to believe that maybe one day I could make music and make a living from it again.
Were friends and family telling you to just do something else?
Yes they were like 'Go to college, you're a smart girl, become whatever else you want'. But there's nothing I want more than this. My mom managed me from when I was seven years old to when I was 17 and she hates the industry because of what she's seen while she was managing me, and after. She was like 'Get out of this bullshit, go to college, study sociology and anthropology', which is what I wanted to do. She just wanted to see me not be so stressed.
Do you hate the industry?
I love music more than I hate the industry. I love to connect with people and I feel like the listener is worth it to me. I think there are some absolutely disgusting and inexcusable elements in the industry. I also believe in people, you know. I don't think everybody is like that. So for example my manager now worked with me at Blackground, so did my tour manager. I took them from there and now we still work together.
You mentioned earlier that people were trying to give you advice, but was there anything you could have done?
There was no playing it out because it was a seven album contract but they wouldn't release any music. Also I couldn't change my name. I didn't care what the fuck you wanted to call me, I would have changed my name in a heartbeat, like Prince did that time. I didn't own my voice, according to this contract. We went to a bunch of lawyers and they were like 'You're fucked'. It was ratified by the state of New York, my mom signed the contract on my behalf, and of course I was super into it and we all felt it was amazing and there were no problems for a while.
Then at a certain point we were like 'We're in a seven album contract but you're not releasing any of the albums'. So my mom signed the contract and we had a guardian appointed to the contract, to my case, and we would have had to prove that New York law was incorrect in signing this contract on my behalf; that my guardian was wrong, which would have been difficult to do because it was ten years prior at the time. I would just sit with my head in my hands and just stare. I also knew that there were far worse things going on in the world than my stress over a contract, so that really put things in perspective for me as well. I still want to keep it somewhat cute between me and the label, because we settled, but it was maddening.
You mentioned feeling depressed. How did it manifest itself?
My mom suffers from depression and I never understood it. I was always upset with her because she'd be low and I felt like sometimes it was taken out on me. When I went through my bout of it, it really connected us in a way. I apologized to her. For me, I couldn't envision a future where I was happy, because I wasn't able to do what I still feel like I'm meant to do. I didn't see a light at the end of the tunnel. I didn't ever feel like it was the end for me as a person, but I felt like I needed to hibernate under my covers for a while. But music and my friends really pulled me out of it. They were like 'Let's go to the beach, let's do these things' and it was helpful for me. And talking with a therapist - and then taking action against the label.
Do you remember the moment where you realized you were free of the contract?
I wasn't sure until the very end. I was feeling like it could have gone either way. Then around my birthday, December 20, in 2013 I saw that it was getting close and I felt like it was going to happen, but I wanted to be cautiously optimistic. But when I got a call from my manager and she was balling hysterically and she was like 'It's over, it's over'. My best friend was there with me and she jumped on me and I cried on the bed. Then I signed my next contract with Atlantic the next day (laughs).
Did you have second thoughts about signing with another major?
I was a little cautious of course, but I felt it was the right thing for me because I wanted the support and the opportunity to play in the big leagues. I could have gone independent, but I wanted the opportunity that I didn't quite have towards the end. I wanted to be part of a system that moves along and I'm making pop music, so I believe I need a major. It's difficult enough getting songs on the radio with a major, but without? Good luck. I've existed online for years, so I wanted more from the next step.
Do you feel older than 24?
Drake has this line, what does he say, "I'm too young to be feeling this old." Sometimes I feel like I've had a lot of experience, just in this industry. But I also feel really young sometimes too, because, well I actually am. Plus there's so much more I want to do and need to do. I don't feel weathered by any means.
You're a lexicographer now, having created a brand new word, Tringle. Talk me through Tringle.
A Tringle is simply three singles. It's just a catchy word for it, and I'm glad that it caught on because it helps make sense of it. I knew that I needed to come back and do something that made an impact and I needed to do it with music. I didn't want to overshare - these aren't the only singles on the album - but I wanted to give a taste of different parts of me as a singer and an artist.
But on iTunes the three songs were released under a title, III. So like an EP. But it's a Tringle. Explain yourself JoJo!
It's because of the way that it would chart or whatever. It needed to be like that for iTunes reasons and it's boring and I fought back on it and then I was like I don't fucking care.
I feel like you were well within your rights to come back with a bitter song called Fuck You Record Labels or something.
Oh God, no, fuck that. I'm not that person anymore. It's not that I'm tired, I'm just way more of a lover than a fighter. That was me previously, and because of things I've gone through, both personally and professionally, I think that it's just lead me to be a lot more loving and open. Holding on to negative energy doesn't help anyone.
What's happening next? Is the album done?
The songs are there but now it's about mixing and mastering and sequencing. I recorded about 80 songs in about ten months. Some I wrote, some I co-wrote, some were submitted and I said 'yes this is the story I want to tell.' There's about 24 of them that I would really consider. Half of the album I'm sold on already, but we haven't had the time to go in and think about it.
When people were submitting songs were they songs that drew on what had happened to you with your old label? Was there a perceived idea about where you were as a person?
Yeah of course. There was a lots of aggression. Just telling boys off, and I did that when I was 15. I'm not anti-men.
That's the headline!
They used to talk about how I was boy bashing and I was like oh God! We need men just as much as we need women. I love men, I date them. They also suck a lot of the time. Then there were some songs that were a little more provocative in the way Marvin's Room was but they weren't from my mouth so I didn't end up recording them.
What are your thoughts on the pop landscape you're returning to?
There's a lot going on. So many shades of pop, different flavors. You can have it anyway you like it. You can have it edgy, you can have it straight forward, you can have it tinged with hip hop, you can have alt pop. It's a cool time to be making pop music.