JoJo is only 25, but she's already experienced an entire lifetime in the music industry. Her first big break came when she performed on Kids Say the Darndest Things, which led to an invitation to be on Oprah, which ultimately landed her a spot on America's Most Talented Kids when she was just a tween. That show caught the eye of an executive at Blackground Records, where she signed her first recording contract. She released her debut album at thirteen; it featured the hit single "Leave (Get Out)." The success of that track made her the youngest-ever solo artist to have a No. 1 on Billboard's pop-songs chart in America. She landed starring movie roles, in RV with Robin Williams andAquamarine. She released two more albums in quick succession, both selling millions, before going silent for a decade.
In the life of a pop star, ten years is basically forever.
She didn't stop making music during that time, but she was stuck in legal limbo with her label. Blackground launched in 1994 with Aaliyah as its first artist. The last album it released was a Timbaland record in 2009, after which it ceased to be active. JoJo's contract with Blackground, via imprint label Da Family Records, prevented her from releasing any music. A few years prior, when JoJo was shifting gears from child prodigy into her teen years, she says she started getting some troubling input from execs at her label about how she should look, what she should wear, and how much she should weigh. She also says there were threats to withhold her album until she lost weight, and insinuations that if she wanted to move on to more adult material she'd have to dress the part.
In 2013, she filed a lawsuit against the labels to extract herself from their control. Now that she's free, she's got a new label and a new album, called Mad Love, and she's ready to reintroduce herself to the world. Her first single, "Fuck Apologies," is only a taste of the independent, no-holds-barred kind of songs that make up this album. It's a declaration of intention and a statement of resolve for an industry that often treats women's bodies like commodities. We talked about what it's like to step back into the spotlight after so much time gone, being true to herself as an artist, and learning to say fuck off to the people who tell her what to do.
Courtney E. Smith: I understand you wrote or cowrote every song on the album, is that right? When did you start writing?
JoJo: Yes! I released three songs at the end of 2015, which was a great reintroduction [to audiences]. It took away some of the pressure that I had put on myself, because it was scary having not released official music with a label for so long. I went on tour with that music, and during that time I broke up with my boyfriend of a year and a half. He admitted that he was cheating on me, and I didn't want to get over it, so I broke up with him before the tour.
My father passed away about two weeks into that tour, which changed my life, of course. It got me thinking about what I was doing as an artist and if I was being true to myself, if I was coming from a place of fear. I'd been writing songs since I was a little girl, but I felt like I was accepting too many songs [to record] from other people as opposed to making sure that my DNA was woven into the fabric of the album.
The first week in January, I rented a room in a house in Malibu that was right on the beach. I took a week of silence while I was there. I read books, listened to jazz, wrote in my journal, went to the beach, cried, and talked to my dad out in the universe.
After that experience, I sat with my management and told them that although we'd already recorded an album's worth of material, I didn't feel like it was good enough or true enough, and I needed to go back into the studio. They supported me 100 percent. So the first song written in that time was "Mad Love," which set the tone for the rest of the album. I was not afraid to infuse soul into it, drawing from my more R&B and hip-hop influences. We brought live musicians into the studio as well, to achieve a sound that was organic and not programmed.
CES: I feel like I didn't have any concept of how young you were when your first album was released. You weren't presented as a prodigy, more like this girl who has an amazing voice.
J: That's interesting. I know that at the time there was a lot of fear [at my record label] surrounding my age. And on my end too, I wanted people to think I was sixteen when I was thirteen. I literally lied about my age online to people on AIM and stuff. But I think the label was a little scared that people might not embrace a song about a breakup by a thirteen-year-old. But they did, which was amazing.
My first album came out at thirteen, my second when I was fifteen. I think the way I was able to convey that type of emotion, singing about a breakup, is because I grew up singing the blues. I was singing lyrics that were way past my experience zone. Lyrics like "Shaky Ground" by Etta James. [Sings:] "My car got repossessed this morning, hard times I haven't seen in years. Boy, you better throw me a life preserver, cause I'm about to drown in my own tears." I was singing shit like that when I was seven and eight years old. I really thought I knew what that feeling was like, grown-ass feelings! I wanted to sound like those soul singers.
CES: You had to reclaim agency over your mind and your body in the course of your career. How do you do that, once someone in a position of authority over you has told you that they have some idea of what you should be doing or how you should look?
J: God, it's so deep-rooted for me, because I truly thought that that's just how it is. I didn't think I had a choice for a long time. My first album I was recording at age 12, and I think it's natural that people will help shape your identity behind the scenes [at that age]. I was cowriting some songs, but I certainly wasn't entrenched in the image aspect of it. I just tried on clothes and would say if they were cute or cool. No one really talked about my weight to me.
I felt creatively involved in my second album, I really did. I didn't feel like I was a puppet or being manipulated. But after that, it got weird. As I got older, my label [at the time, Blackground] started to lose their footing — they didn't want to be involved in music anymore, but they didn't want to let me go. It was very strange.
When I turned seventeen, that's when people started talking to me about my weight. They'd tell me I'd have to "look right" to sell this music, that if I was going to have a sexier song, I needed to "wear more provocative clothing." They'd say, "Don't you want to be slim?" At seventeen, I was like, I guess? I always thought that having a thick, curvy body was cute, but if you're telling me that people aren't going to like it or that I look bad, I guess I do.
I had never really thought about the way I looked. It made me extremely self-conscious, honestly. It made me question everything I ate and drank. I was on injections called HCG [to lose weight], and I couldn't believe they wanted me to take such extreme measures. They told me my album wouldn't come out unless I looked right. To them that meant me losing a significant amount of weight — mind you, I've never been above a size four. It really, really messed with my mind.
CES: Who were the people telling you that?
J: It all stemmed from the record label and trickled down from there. I was sat down in a room with the president of the label, and he said, "You know, we're just thinking of your health. We want you to look and feel healthy and be your best." I put my hand up to silence him. I said, "Let me stop you right there. I'm the picture of health. I live a balanced life. I'm active, I eat what I want, I get my vegetables in. Don't try to make this about my health, because you know damn well this isn't about my health. This is about me looking the way that you think a pop star is supposed to look." He didn't have anything to say in response to that.
My mom came to my apartment when I was eighteen and started crying because she found needles in my refrigerator and thought I was using drugs. I told her about the diet I was on, and she was so sad, disappointed, and upset. She wanted to kill everyone at the label. She was so mad.
CES: Going back to your new work, this is not an album about love or breakups, and it's unusual for a female artist to be able to make an album that isn't mostly about love. What kind of things were speaking to you when you worked on this record?
J: I appreciate that. There is, of course, more going on in a woman's life than just her significant other or her crushes. Love is my favorite thing in the world, but there's all different kinds of love, like the love I have for my girlfriends, the love that I am finding for myself, the connection with my fans, my love for my family, my love of a good time, my love of sex. There are plenty of things that I love. I'm exploring those things with this album.
You know, I'm 25, and when it comes to thinking about my relationships, I'm so uncompromising. I never dreamed as a little girl of what my wedding would look like or having a family. I think it's a beautiful idea, but I'm not exactly sure if that's going to happen for me because I'm so laser-focused on following my dream of singing. Any partner who I'm with has to understand that or we need to have a nontraditional arrangement.
CES: Does it bother you that male producers often get the credit for female pop stars? That the default is to think the woman in the room did less?
J: It's something I've had to fight for before, like, "Look, I came in with this song written. You guys produced the music around it. I'm not going to say you did more than that." I've had to stand up for what I've done. Sometimes as creative people, particularly women, we need to look out for ourselves a little bit more and make sure that people can't take credit away from us when we deserve it. I'm also very open about the fact that I'm a collaborator. I'm not as proficient on piano like I want to be, but I'm able to say, "This is the lyric and the melody that I wrote, let's take it to the next level." That relationship is really special to me, having people who are able to make sense of my music, it's very intimate.
CES: The album opens and closes with piano ballads that are musically in stark contrast to the rest of the songs. Tell me about those — is their placement symbolic?
J: It is symbolic. "Music" [the opening track] was actually the last song that I wrote for the album, because I had this body of work already written which I loved, but I needed to touch on the subject matter of what kept me going this whole time, which is my insane obsession/passion/love of music. Also, I wanted to talk about losing my father at the end of last year, which I saved until the end of the writing and recording process.
"I Am" [the final track] is an important message. To me it's an affirmation, like a mantra almost. That song came from a therapy session. I came in saying so many negative things about myself, and my therapist asked, "Do you hear yourself? You're saying things like, 'I am depressed. I am tired. I am broken. I am scared.'" She told me I would continue to embody those things until I changed the narrative about myself, to myself. So I took a piece of paper, which I found again recently in my journal, and started writing things in the affirmative about myself. Sometimes it's harder than other times to do that.
CES: Would you say the same thing about your song "Fuck Apologies" — is it an affirmation, a thing you have to give yourself permission to say out loud?
J: Totally. It's taken me years to get to this point where I can say: "You don't have to like the decisions that I make." You don't have to understand them for them to be right for me. I am the one who has to live with my choices, with my life. I'm the one who has to look at myself in the mirror after I take off my makeup at the end of a long day. I have to say, "I dig who I am, and you can go fuck yourself if you have a problem with it."
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Courtney E. Smith is the author of Record Collecting for Girls and a freelance writer.