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Walsall Brits hopeful Jorja Smith’s star is shining bright

By Heather Large | Walsall | Music | Published:

She started performing when she was just eight and began writing her own songs at the age of 11.

Jorja Smith. Picture by: James Stride

Flash forward a decade and Jorja Smith is one of R&B’s most exciting young voices.

The Walsall-born singing sensation is taking the music world by storm thanks to her souring, soulful voice and heartfelt lyrics.

And all eyes will be on the young star when she takes to the stage at The O2 Arena in London on Wednesday night at the Brit Awards where she is in the running for three accolades.

At last year’s awards ceremony, the former Aldridge School pupil stole the show when she performed alongside chart-topping artist Rag ‘n’ Bone Man.

And it proved to be a night to remember as the 21-year-old went on to take home the Critics’ Choice award, and vowed to do her best to make 2018 ‘another memorable year’.

Well, she certainly delivered on that promise.

Her debut album Lost & Found was released in June last year, and showcased a unique sound which has received much critical acclaim.

It led to her being nominated for a Grammy, but she missed out to megastar Dua Lipa in the Best New Artist category at the star-studded awards show at New York’s Staples Centre.

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But far from being disappointed, Jorja’s appearance at the ceremony in The Big Apple is yet another demonstration of how Jorja has been catapulted to fame.

It’s an incredible story, taking the schoolgirl from Walsall, who could be found writing songs inspired by both life around her and her imagination, to the upper echelons of international show business.

You only have to hear her unreleased track High Street, which tells the story of shop closures and urban decay in her hometown during the economic recession of the late-noughties, to hear how her upbringing in the West Midlands has informed her music.

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Aldridge school sixth form students wish former student Jorja Smith good luck in the Brits. Pictured left , Emily Rhind-Tutt,Naria Aumatell , Hasan Khan,Evie Morris,Alina Asif, Samuel Ripolles-Williams and Benjamin Sharpe

But she also enjoyed making up her own stories and turning them into songs.

Growing up with her mother Jolene, a jewellery designer, and Jamaican-born Peter, who led a neo-soul vocal group called 2nd Naicha, and younger brother Luca, music was a big part of her life.

Jorja knew she was going to be a singer, from the moment she sat down to write her own nativity play at Sunday school when she was eight. The performance ending up stunning her father with a solo rendition of Silent Night.

“One Christmas I wrote a nativity play. But nobody turned up on the day of the performance apart from my brother and my cousins, so I just read the whole script onstage and made my brother pretend to be one of the animals at the inn.

“Then I sang Silent Night, which was the first time my dad heard me sing. He told me he knew from then I had something special,” she later said in an interview

She grew up determined to forge a career in the industry and after finishing sixth form at Aldridge School in 2015, she moved to London to make her dream come true.

Her big break came in 2016 when her debut single Blue Lights, which samples Dizzee Rascal’s song Sirens, made the industry sit up and take notice.

It racked up hundreds of thousands of plays on self-publishing music site SoundCloud in just the first weeks after it was uploaded.

The singer said she drew her inspiration for the song from Walsall.

Speaking about it later, she said: “I wrote that in year 13, when I was 17. My media A2 coursework was looking at post-colonialism in grime music and I was analysing Dizzee Rascal’s music video for Sirens.

“He’s being chased by a load of people on horses in foxhunting gear, so that was a really good example of it.

“My manager had already sent me this guy’s beat from Soundcloud and I had Sirens stuck in my head, so I was singing that and it worked to that song. It’s funny because I told my A-level media teacher, ‘I’m going to be a singer’. He was like, ‘No you’re not’.”

To coincide with the release of her first album she returned to Walsall to film a video for the single.

Directed by Olivia Rose, the black and white video features men and boys at Walsall Magistrates Court, nearby flats, barbers, homes and parks, as well as some well-known local musicians.

“I wanted to capture men/boys of Walsall and Birmingham from all different walks of life doing everyday activities to show that the stereotypes we are bombarded with are misleading and, ultimately, harmful.

“I chose Walsall as the setting for the video as that is where I am from and where I drew my inspiration from when writing the song,” Jorja later explained.

She followed Blue Lights with A Prince, which has a sample of celebrated English composer Henry Purcell’s A Prince of Glorious Race Descended, written for the Duke of Gloucester’s sixth birthday in 1695.

Tipped for success, Jorja, who cites Amy Winehouse, Lauryn Hill and Alicia Keys as being among her biggest influences, went on to support mega-star Bruno Mars on the US-leg of his world tour.

While in America she found out she had been nominated for three Mobo awards – another sign of her meteoric rise to fame.

The same year also saw her collaborate with Canadian superstar Drake on More Life and also co-write I Am – her solo single on the Black Panther soundtrack with Kendrick Lamar.

Then in February last year she won the prestigious Critics’ Choice Prize at the Brit Awards – an award previously won by the likes of Adele, Sam Smith and Ellie Goulding.

Speaking about the award she called it “such a special way to end the year.”

it’s been an unforgettable 2017 during which I’ve fulfilled so many of my dreams,” she said at the time.

She followed it up with her single Let Me Down – featuring a rap from breakout British grime MC Stormzy.

But it was her hotly-anticipated debut album Lost & Found, described as spanning “a number of personal, and observational yet relatable topics that only Jorja Smith could unite so compellingly”,which impressed industry peers and critics.

When it was released she spoke of her desire to make a record that was ‘classic’ and wouldn’t just be played once.

Jorja spent three years writing the songs that make up the album – beginning the process as a 17-year-old.

“I write songs for people to feel something, whether it’s happy or sad, or be able to look back on a situation or clear their head. I’m happy about that, because it helps me when I listen to songs, feel better or worse.

Jorja Smith with Drake

“I used to listen to Amy Winehouse and she could make me cry or smile. I think it’s so beautiful when you can listen to music and that happens,” explained Jorja in a recent interview.

She also proved a hit across the pond a few months later– delighting crowds at a famous music festival and performing on national television.

Her set at Coachella – one of the biggest and most renowned events across the globe – was hailed as one of the best of the weekend.

She also sang her single Blue Lights on ABC’s popular American show Jimmy Kimmel Live before playing a host of sold-out gigs in Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Detroit, Boston and New York .

Her ‘amazing’ year also included playing sell-out dates across the UK including Birmingham’s O2 Academy where a cover mash-up of Rihanna’s Man Down and Cardi B’s Be Careful went down a storm with fans.

Her hometown is keeping their fingers crossed for Wednesday night when she nominated for British Female Solo Artist, British Breakthrough Artist, and British Album of the Year.

“Wow! Three BRIT Award nominations, I can’t actually believe it,” she posted on Twitter when she found out she had been shortlisted.

Staff and students at her former school are unsurprisingly proud of her success and will be cheering her on next week.

Her music teacher Melissa Gardner sent her a good luck message, saying: “Always knew you would be a star from the first time you let me listen to the songs you’d been writing.

“What an amazingly talented young lady you are. Good luck for the Brits. I look forward to seeing your performance.”

Her former Head of House,Gary Morton, said her talent was clear for everyone to see even back then.

“I would like to wish Jorja all the luck in the world,” he added.

“I knew she would go far when she helped out with the dance competition in year 13 and Linley House took home the win. I have all my fingers crossed for her.”

Her former tutor Jamie Lowe remembers her love of music and her dream of performing.

“I really liked Jorja’s sense of humour, she never took herself too seriously but you could tell she was very passionate about her music.

“I can remember quite a funny conversation with her.

“We had a session in form time when I was having one-to-one discussions with my form members about their plans for after sixth form – most of these conversations involved how far they had gotten with their UCAS applications and what courses they were applying for.

“When I got to Jorja, we had a chat about what she was planning to do as she wasn’t applying to university.

“She simply said she was going to transfer her job at Costa to a franchise in London, move in with her aunt and uncle and try and crack the music industry.

“Twelve months later she received a MOBO nomination,” he told the Express & Star.

Last month Jorja was performing at her first festival in New Zealand and first headline show in Melbourne, Australia.

Jorja pictured with her mum jewellery designer Jolene

“So far away from home and still feeling so much love,” she said on Twitter after the shows.

And there will be no time to relax after the Brits as she travels to South America at the end of March.

Then in April she is co-headlining a recently-announced tour with Kali Uchis, which includes dates at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, The Theater at Madison Square Garden and The Fillmore in Philadelphia.

Her packed calendar will also see her perform at the The Governors Ball Music Festival 2019 in New York in June.

It will be followed by festival appearances at Field Day 2019 in London, Melt! Festival 2019 in Germany and Boardmasters Festival 2019 in Newquay.

It’s a packed calendar for a star who is shooting through the music industry, and and who is proving that there really is still a place for young artists who write their own music and draw on their own experiences for their art.

With another busy year ahead, one thing is for sure – this rising star will burn brighter yet.

Heather Large

By Heather Large
Special projects reporter - @HeatherL_star

Senior reporter and part of the Express & Star special projects team specialising in education and human interest features.

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