In 2018, Jorja Smith’s debut album ‘Lost & Found’ pulsated with poignant storytelling inspired by iconic muses, from Amy Winehouse to Ms Lauryn Hill.
Cool, contemporary and with a dash of classical inspiration, Smith effortlessly ad-libbed her way through the R’n’B record. Her voice sprouted from foggy lows to honeyed highs, with an occasional pause to have a laugh — literally — in the midst of the seriousness.
Smith is only 22, after all. There’s much more heartache and triumph where she’s going, and she plans to feel every bit of it.
“[I want to] give myself more time to actually live and experience life,” Smith tells Gulf News tabloid! over email, speaking of her 2020 resolutions after performing in Dubai.
On December 27, shortly before New Year’s Eve, Smith took the stage at Burj Park at the opening of the 25th Dubai Shopping Festival. Featuring on a bill with Liam Payne, Smith fell sick. Still, she delivered what her fans were there for: gritty candour glazed in molasses.
Thematically, her first and only album is a spun-out journey of self-discovery. Over the course of 12 songs, Smith tends to her broken heart and wades through the stages of grief — denial, pain and confusion, which give way to anger, growth and headstrong resilience. But somehow, she feels stripped back. Both aesthetically and musically, Smith has nailed the minimalist approach; she’s become known as much for her sweltering vocals and distinctly British cadence as she is for her dewy bare face, back-length braids, pensive eyes and an emotive pucker.
“One of my weaknesses is that I’m very impulsive,” admits Smith, who was in town during the city’s biggest shopping festival. “If I see something, I have to have it there and then.”
It seems to be the same approach Smith has taken with her music, though she has had to exercise patience along the way.
Born in the West Midlands, Smith began playing piano by the age of eight. Her town of Walsall was never a huge hub for creativity, but has been home to musical greats nonetheless, from drum ‘n bass artist Goldie to the late Charlatans guitarist Rob Collins and Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford.
Smith’s dad Peter, originally Jamaican, fronted a neo-soul vocal group once upon a time, while mum Jolene was a jewellery maker.
“My father used to be in a band called 2ndNaicha. I always grew up around music and that’s the best gift ever,” says Smith.
At a young age, she earned a music scholarship to a local academy. She wrote her first original at 11. By 15, she posted a YouTube cover with a friend; it was an acoustic rendition of Alex Clare’s hit track ‘Too Close’.
In the clip, Smith is unrecognisably young as she glances down at a tablet in her lap, presumably to read the song lyrics. She shouts out notes beyond her years.
The video spread around her school and eventually landed Smith her first managers. By the age of 18, she packed up and moved to London, where she paid bills as a barista and released her debut song, ‘Blue Lights’; the four-minute track, a social commentary on the fear of police, appeared on SoundCloud in 2016.
“Part of my [school] coursework was to do a little documentary, and I was looking at police versus grime music,” shares Smith, via the online lyric database Genius. “I just went around interviewing kids at school asking them what they thought of the police. These little boys, mostly it was black kids that I was interviewing, people of colour. Well, everyone, but that was the main focus. These 11-year-olds, I was like, ‘Oh, what do you think of the police?’ They were like, ‘[Expletive] the police! I hate them.’
“It’s sad because we’re kind of … It’s instilled in us to have, well, fear the police. You know? That’s what I was writing the song about. And it was about walking around with this guilty conscience, even though you haven’t done anything wrong.”
That was only the beginning for Smith. Her second single, ‘Where Did I Go’, caught Drake’s attention; he named it his song of the moment and said it would keep him sane on an 18-hour flight. He slid into Smith’s DMs and invited her to collaborate on a track. She said ‘no’ at first — she felt like she couldn’t relate to the song’s heartbreak theme — but later reconsidered and appeared on Drake’s ‘More Life’ twice — once on ‘Jorja’s Interlude’ and again on ‘Get It Together’. She joined the Canadian rapper on the road in 2017, armed with a few singles and her four-track EP ‘Project 11’, and ended the same year opening for Bruno Mars on his 24K Magic World Tour.
Smith’s list of famous collaborators grew, from Stormzy (‘Let Me Down’) to Kendrick Lamar (‘I Am’). But soon it came time for her to shine on her own.
When she dropped her debut LP ‘Lost & Found’, it peaked at No 3 in the UK and earned her the Brit Critics’ Choice Award in 2018 and the Best British Female Artist accolade last year, as well as a Grammy Award nomination for Best New Artist.
Smith most recently wrapped up a co-headlining world tour (“[Three things I can’t tour without are] my team, they’re like family to me. Then a notepad, I like to try and write daily. Finally, a speaker — we all love to play music”) and released the sultry single ‘Be Honest’ with Nigerian artist Burna Boy.
What is it, these days, that inspires Smith’s personal songwriting?
“Life experiences, my emotions and what’s around me,” she says. Is she already working on her second album? “I am working on new music. But I don’t want to put too much pressure on or label what I’m trying to achieve. I look forward to being able to put out new music in 2020.”