Something So Special: Jessie Reyez Interviewed

"I feel like I’m still a rookie - there’s so many things I’m still learning..."

Jessie Reyez has a big heart, and it’s writ large through the naked passions that rage in her music. They call it soul for a reason, and hers is bared in full. “I want to be as honest as possible,” she says, as much a warning as a manifesto. There’s a clamour as Steven Tyler exits the stage of New York’s Radio City Music Hall. His only way out is to go through the audience, and so anxious security men, whose sole purpose is to avoid any obstructions and to expedite his retreat, flank him. Tyler knows the escape route, is focused on the back door, and has every intention of making it through the crowd unscathed, but suddenly there is a distraction – a flash of recognition – and his getaway halts.

The legendary Aerosmith frontman has spent the evening at MTV’s 2018 Video Music Awards (his band will later close the show, performing a surprising collaboration with Post Malone), where a bewildering barrage of next-gen luminaries including Shawn Mendes, Ariana Grande and Travis Scott will wow with their theatrical, intricately staged presentations. But here, literally stopping him in his tracks, is the star that he saw shine brightest, whose total lack of pageantry ensured his full attention – and that of everyone else in the arena – was focused squarely on her voice. He stops and, to the horror of his hulking escort, clasps Jessie Reyez’ hand.

“You’re great,” he tells her, leaning in to further offer a more private compliment. She raises her hand to her heart, an instinctive gesture of appreciation for his kind words and endorsement, and with that, he resumes his departure.

Turning back forward, her face crumples into a stupefied sob, the significance of his approval immediate and overwhelming, as the proud, supportive arm of her companion embraces her.

“That look stayed for hours,” Jessie says five days later, when thankfully her features are decidedly less startled. “I was sitting in the seat like this, and my managers were talking to me and they’re like, ‘Oh my God,’ and they’re trying to talk to me and I’m just like…[Pulls a blank, incredulous face] I could not fucking believe it. It was so lit.”

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Steven Tyler couldn’t have been the only person floored by Jessie’s captivating moment in the spotlight. Standing alone on the event’s PUSH Artists Stage, she could have been engulfed by the magnitude of the occasion, or the audience that surrounded her, but damn, that girl kills it. Like, dead. She extracts every ounce of longing from the sultry soul of ‘Apple Juice’, her eyes closed in intense devotion, and as she forcefully implores “You just gotta love me,” it feels emphatically impossible not to.

A little over a year since Clash first fell under Jessie’s spell – when her 2017 debut EP, ‘Kiddo’, introduced her fierce yet heartfelt sound in songs like ‘Fuck It’, ‘Figures’ and ‘Gatekeeper’, and suggested that here was an artist that dealt directly with realness – we’re together in New York, a geographical compromise between her hometown of Toronto and Clash’s HQ in London.

Sitting in a quiet corner of a vast, cavernous studio in Chelsea, the 27-year-old songwriter is the absolute personification of that trademark realism: conducting our interview in a white dressing gown while the hair stylist twists and curls her exquisite long, black locks.

Life changed for her after the April release of the EP, and in the 16 months that followed, she’s been caught up in a whirlwind of attention and affection that’s catapulted her further than she could ever have imagined, through working with Calvin Harris and Daniel Caesar to most recently working alongside Eminem – which she’ll sort of discuss later. She considers the entire journey that brought her here today.

“It’s nuts to put over 20 years into something and then finally see a little bit of fruit,” she enthuses. “It’s been nice. It’s been a lot of work, it’s been a lot of no sleep… It’s a little scary too, because it’s just the beginning. I feel like I’m still a rookie – there’s so many things I’m still learning and everything, and I’m working my ass off. Last year was the first time where I was really like, ‘Man, I barely saw my family,’ all that stuff. So it’s been a learning process to make sure that I don’t fuck up my priorities.”

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Being torn between a punishing work schedule and the comforting proximity of her family was a choice Jessie didn’t want to make, because the former could not be endured without the latter, and so her parents are now travelling companions, and a vital component of her entourage (her, mother, for example, is a shrewd protector: “My mom’s got a really good judge of character. [She] feels vibes miles before anyone… She’s called shit like months before it happened”). More than just companionship, their presence is a reflection of Jessie’s innate compassion and generosity.

“They sacrificed so much, especially coming from an immigrant family,” she explains, recounting their travels from Colombia to Canada. “They didn’t speak the language when they came. I remember my mom working days and nights. I remember my dad coming home at two in the morning after working overtime. I remember us not having enough money for the things that the other kids had… So, now that I have a little bit, I can start giving back to them and trying to share as much of my experience with them as possible. Because it’s like not everyone is blessed with the best parents, not everyone is blessed with parents that are supportive and loving and shit… I want to try to repay everything that they did.”

It’s a noble motivation, but the pressure that comes with such a responsibility is all too tangible, especially on top of realising her own mighty ambitions. In addition to the in-built kindness she admires in her mother, who for many years was a child carer and aid to the local community, Jessie has also inherited the benevolence bestowed upon her by The Remix Project, Toronto’s creative arts non-profit that guided and nurtured her artistic progress. In turn, these things have made her want to leave an effective and lasting legacy, “something bigger than music, something bigger than me.”

The challenge to achieve this is something that she is resolutely prepared for. “I’m trying not to lose myself. I’m trying not to get caught up in it,” she says of the mission ahead. “I’m trying not to get too paranoid. I’m trying not to lose the focus of it’s bigger than this; it’s bigger than being here talking to you. I don’t want to lose God. I don’t want to lose connections to my family. I don’t want to lose momentum. I don’t want to get complacent. I don’t want to get comfortable. I don’t want to get cocky. I don’t want to get none of that shit; I want to just keep my head down and keep going.”

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Jessie looks a little surprised when I suggest she’s a very resilient character (“I try to be,” she shrugs), but it’s a judgement formed through repeated listens to her songs.

Take, for instance, ‘Figures’: a fragile song of heartbreak in which she boldly counters: “You say sorry once and you think it’s enough / I got a line-up of girls and a line-up of guys / Begging for me just to give ’em a try.”

Or, the empowering R&B cut ‘Body Count’, in which she addresses gender inequality in sexual freedom: “We don’t care what they say / We gonna love who we wanna love.”

She’s tough, and it shows, but these shows of strength are merely impulsive reactions to the hurt and pain that she also sings about. Her vulnerabilities are exposed, which is all the more endearing. “For me, it’s just important to be honest,” she reasons. “I’m fucking just full of highs and lows, full of hard and soft.”

Her forthright openness last year took the shape of ‘Gatekeeper’, which graphically recounted in verbatim the sexually predative threats she received from a famed producer. All this time later, despite channeling her ordeal on paper and furthering the #MeToo movement by enabling the spotlight to be shone on sexism in the music industry, sadly, while offenders and accusations continue to rack up in disgusting regularity, there’s unlikely to be any conclusion to the trauma she suffered.

“I don’t think there will ever be closure. I don’t think I’ll see it in my lifetime,” she sighs. “[It’s] an open wound, but not like the younger me that was fucking crying, thinking about giving up music. Not that feeling. It’s anger, because it keeps going. It’s anger, because there’s a lot of people that watch it happen and don’t say anything. It’s anger, because I don’t want to see this become something that’s fashionable, and then when it’s not fashionable to talk about it anymore then where’s the change, you know? I think more people have to do shit instead of just talking about it for it to actually change – and not just in music, but in every industry this fucking happens all the time.”

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Prefacing a new EP, ‘Being Human In Public’, which arrives in October, is ‘Fuck Being Friends’, another unreserved diatribe that similarly becomes a prime feminist anthem – in decrying a non-committal boyfriend it’s a biting celebration of sexual empowerment. “I got your heart in my hand and your dick in the other,” she warns, “You ain’t scared to fuck, but you scared of being lovers.”

Jessie’s outspoken lyrics hit home hard, but they’ve resounded with a slew of female artists who share her candour when it comes to the battle of the sexes; in a new remix of her ‘Body Count’, she’s joined by Normani, who demands her man to “show some fucking respect,” and Kehlani, who infers to her preference for another woman amid increasing misogyny.

Given that hip-hop is arguably a breeding ground for male chauvinism, it’s gratifying to witness Jessie’s impact on the genre. Far from being intimidated by her propensity for aggression (perhaps because of his own hostile demeanour), Eminem instead identified with her authenticity and sought her out for to collaborate, as he explained to revered US presenter Sway Calloway in a recent video interview:

“I got home one night from a video shoot, and she was on TV – it was the Seth Myers show and she was doing that song ‘Gatekeeper’,” Mathers recalls. “I was like, ‘Who the fuck is this?’ Because her voice to me was so crazy. So I rewound it and I was like, ‘Oh, shit. I gotta check her out.’”

When we meet, Jessie is not at liberty to divulge on the details of what happened next, merely disclosing coyly that working with him was “so fucking cool. It was so cool. It was wild. He’s incredible, man.”

But, as would transpire just weeks after our New York sojourn, Eminem was sitting on a new album, which he would drop unannounced on the last day of August. The aptly titled ‘Kamikaze’ was a locked-and-loaded virulent assault targeting (amongst others) the contemporary rap landscape, in which the new breed are charged with not evolving the genre enough and lacking respect for their elders – “Shit is a circus,” he spits on ‘Lucky You’, “You clowns that are comin’ up / Don’t give an ounce of motherfuck / About the ones that were here before you made that rap.” Yet, while Lil Yachty, Machine Gun Kelly and Tyler, The Creator each fall on the receiving end of an embittered tirade from the disillusioned rapper, Eminem does ensure he is not entirely without optimism, saving his praise for an artist in which he truly sees great promise.

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Inviting Jessie to his studio, Eminem was impressed by the immediacy of her artistry, as she promptly began writing ‘Good Guy’ to his beats. Inspired, he then took and worked into an existing song of hers, ‘Nice Guy’, pairing them together on the album as a conceptual dialogue on fidelity. Consequently, he remains in awe of the rising star.

“Right now, my personal opinion, I think she’s going to really blow up,” he tells Sway on film. “I’ve seen people, very talented people, not do that, but I think that I would put my money on her that she will absolutely be huge.”

Banking such esteemed acclaim, in addition to her mounting global TV transmissions and an unflinchingly committed work ethic, the time is undeniably ripe for a debut album to fully establish Jessie Reyez as a searing soul siren for our times. She is, frustratingly, tight-lipped on the subject, demurely evading my appeal to know when that might arrive, but one thing she’s loud and clear on is her objective for what the album should be.

“I want it to be honest,” she states. “I want it to be as good as I can make it. I want it to be raw, but I want it to be great. I want to make a legendary piece of work.”

With one final pull of his tongs, the hair stylist’s work is complete, and as our conversation concludes, Jessie’s chair is spun round to face a mirror, in which she sees his handiwork for the first time. She’s elated and laughs excitably.

“Is it too big?” he enquires, as Jessie playfully bounces the cascade of coal-coloured curls that now pour from her head.

“There’s no such thing as too big,” she responds, with absolutely no sense of just how prophetic that is.

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Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Alex John Beck
Fashion: Kuschan Jafarian
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

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