Walsall superstar Jorja Smith: 'Lockdown helped me realise who I was'

Jorja Smith says being famous takes some getting used to.

Jorja Smith on the cover of The Face
Jorja Smith on the cover of The Face

She says: “When lockdown started I went to the supermarket for two hours, going down every aisle, making the most of it, spending the most time in there because I can’t usually go shopping.”

With her mask on, Walsall music star Jorja Smith could do something she hasn’t been able to do since she was a teenager: be her actual self in public.

Despite having racked up big-name collaborations with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Stormzy and Drake, the 23-year-old singer-songwriter – Black Country born and bred – is still reassuringly low key. And she is also continuing to produce stunning new material.

Jorja Smith. By Bolade Banjo for THE FACE

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

Flash forward more than a decade and Jorja, a former Aldridge School pupil, is one of R&B’s most exciting young voices. The singing sensation is taking the music world by storm thanks to her souring, soulful voice and heartfelt lyrics.

She recently opened up about how lockdown had been for her – and said wearing a mask actually helped hide her identity, allowing her to freely go to the shops without being spotted.

A lot has happened for double Brit Award-winning Jorja since her debut single Blue Lights – a Dizzee Rascal-sampling song about hostility and brutality directed towards the Black community – dropped on Soundcloud in 2016 and racked up almost half a million plays in one month.

The track was nominated for Best Song at that year’s MOBO Awards. Its follow-up, Where Did I Go?, was selected by Drake as his favourite new track in Entertainment Weekly that summer.

The Canadian megastar then doubled-down on the love by inviting Smith to appear as special guest on the European leg of his 2017 Boy Meets World tour, and to guest on that year’s More Life mixtape.

Jorja Smith. By Bolade Banjo for THE FACE

The co-sign catapulted the then-19-year-old’s career on both sides of the Atlantic, with her jazzily soulful vocals earning comparisons to Sade and Amy Winehouse. An American tour with Bruno Mars followed, as did collaborations with Stormzy and Kendrick Lamar. In February 2018, she performed on the Brit Awards; in April, she made her American TV debut with a slot on top-rating US chat show Jimmy Kimmel Live!, singing Blue Lights.

By the time Smith released her critically acclaimed debut album, Lost & Found, that summer she was, in no uncertain terms, a star. And she didn’t let up: last year’s Be Honest, her collaboration with Nigerian artist Burna Boy, reached Number 3 in the UK charts, her biggest hit to date. And it’s still burning up the streams: at time of writing, Be Honest sits at 160 million Spotify plays, 35 million or so more than Blue Lights.

She’s been busy during lockdown, releasing music and shooting a video in her home town of Walsall. . In June, Smith released a cover of St. Germain’s Rose Rouge as part of legendary jazz label Blue Note Records’ Re:imagined project. She followed it the next month with By Any Means, a Roc Nation-released charity single inspired by her attendance at a Black Lives Matter protest.The video, shot in her home town of Walsall, featured radio station No Signal. In early October, she rounded off the end of summer by dropping the visuals for her brilliant, carnival-ready single Come Over, featuring Popcaan.

“I feel like from Rose Rouge, to By Any Means, to Come Over, that I’m on a shift,” she says. “A real shift.”

“The EP’s changed so many times, but now I’ve finally got it.”

Despite being Black Country born and bred, Jorja says he now feels very much at home in London. She said: “I know I’m destined to be back in south because as soon as I moved to London, I moved there. And the jazz scene is quite south, isn’t it?”

Jorja Smith. By Bolade Banjo for THE FACE

That said, Smith’s tastes have always been eclectic. Her mother, who still lives in the Black Country, and is a fan of punk and rock, favoured the likes of The Slits and Black Sabbath, but “also liked D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and Sade because my dad used to make her CDs”, Jorja said.

It was her mum who pushed a then-mortified Jorja to sing, starting out at Sunday School. “I remember she would tell people I could sing, and I would hate her! I used to fall out with her so much. But she was the one who encouraged me.”

But once she started she found it impossible to stop, her adolescent creativity bursting in multiple directions. “I used to write books,” she says. “Well, not books but I’d make the front cover and the blurb and chapter one, and then I wouldn’t finish. I don’t do poems, but songs would be the only thing that I’d finish.”

When she was 11 years old, she wrote a song called Life is a Path Worth Taking, saying: “I don’t know what I was going through at 11. The lyrics were: ‘Life is a path worth taking, you need to find steps to make it clear and faithful to you, life is a path worth taking.’”

Family and community are two hugely important forces in Jorja Smith’s life.

Last year, she went on a trip as part of a music retreat to GeeJam Studios in Port Antonio, Jamaica. A residential hub at which Björk, Goldie, Beyoncé and Harry Styles have all recorded, the project saw artists including Aminé, Protoje, Miraa May and Smith collaborator DJ Cadenza visit the island in search of sun, sea and divine inspiration. It was the first time she’d ever visited her home country – Smith is Jamaican on her father’s side – and she used the trip as a chance to take her grandfather back for the first time in 67 years.

“My dad didn’t [ever] go back,” she says. “I mean, when we were growing up I didn’t go on holiday. It was too expensive. We only went to Devon and never went abroad. You know when people go to Spain? I was like: ‘That’s so cool!’”

Nonetheless, the star has remained firmly connected to her heritage through both music and her father. When we speak about navigating her identity as a black woman of mixed Jamaican and English heritage, she tells me: “It’s confusing. I grew up being black. My dad told me I’m black. It wasn’t until I did music that I was told I’m not black. People comment that you’re not black and it’s like… wow,’” she exhales. “When you’re mixed race, you get told what you are.”

The walls of Jorja’s London flat are dressed with framed images of Amy Winehouse and Nina Simone, artists she cites as musical inspirations.

Her book shelves are filled with the words of black women authors, including Queenie by Candice Carty Williams and Slay in Your Lane by Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené.

In the corner of the living room, next to a cosy pink settee and a papier-mâché dog, are several awards alongside a photograph of the night she won the Brit Critics’ Choice Award in 2018.

She was the first independent artist to even be nominated for the award – and yet, she says now, “I wasn’t happy there. I was stressed because my ex- didn’t text me,” she said. “With guys I’ve liked in the past, I’ve been a bit obsessed with them and then everything they say is right. I’ve put myself down. And I’m really hard on myself anyway.”

“I don’t like anything outside my house,” she agrees. “I like being on stage but that’s all I like. I don’t like anything else. I love everyone, but I just like being by myself. That’s why I used to go home quickly after school.” She even considered whether it was wise for her stage and real names to be the same. “I thought, why didn’t I change my name? Why did I give myself my actual government name?” she asks herself now. Because that means “I can’t switch off. There’s nothing to differentiate. But I don’t know what the difference would be? Maybe I wouldn’t be Jorja Smith?”

She has recently bought a farm near Walsall, “a massive field, with horses, where I’m going to build a studio. Because I’m not going to be there all the time, I’ll invite loads of kids – kids I used to babysit, and these twins I went to school with that sing, and be like: ‘Look, on a Thursday you can go here.’”

She plans to enlist her dad as studio manager.

“In this whole lockdown, I realised who I was and who I am,” she states firmly.

“I feel like you’re going to see growth, a lot of growth,” she concludes, beaming. “The evolution of Jorja Smith.”

Read the full article in The Face magazine or visit theface.com

Words by Liv Little

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