It's not often that one's music career becomes a matter of life and death. But for burgeoning U.K. singer/songwriter Jessie J, the limelight has bordered on harrowing.
"We finished a tour stop in Bristol [England] last night and there were more fans than I've seen in my life. For two hours, they tried to sneak on our bus, touching and grabbing me, begging me to sign their pictures, their badges -- and their boobs," she says with a laugh. "One guy knocked a sign into me; I begged him not to kill me."
The previous evening at a gig in Glasgow, Scotland, the manic crowd's screams reached such fever pitch that the venue's sound system shorted. "Onstage," she says, "they kept throwing things at me -- notes and messages and God knows what."
Indeed, since January, the buzz around Jessie J, aka Jessica Cornish, 23, has become practically deafening after her first single, the sassy, reggae-tinged "Do It Like a Dude," reached No. 2 on the British singles chart, followed by No. 1 old-soul feel-good anthem "Price Tag," featuring B.o.B. The latter has reached the top 40 in 18 nations.
Debut album "Who You Are" -- a veritable spreadsheet of accessible sonic gems, from pop and R&B to hip-hop and velvety ballads -- launched at No. 2 in early March, while her music videos have garnered 50 million views on YouTube. Industry aficionados are also raving: Jessie J won the Critics' Choice prize at the 2011 BRIT Awards and the BBC's "Sound of 2011" title.
"You spend so long preparing for success, and after rejections and knock-backs, it doesn't feel real -- but, shit -- we did it," Jessie J says. "I don't base my career on awards and chart numbers, but it's wonderful to see the hard work pay off."
At 11, Jessie J appeared in Andrew Lloyd Webber's West End staging of "Whistle Down the Wind." This was before studying at the celebrated BRIT School (alumni include Adele, Amy Winehouse and Leona Lewis). At 17, she recorded an album for the United Kingdom's Gut Records, a label that went bust two weeks before its release. She then inked with Sony/ATV Publishing, co-writing Miley Cyrus' No. 2 Billboard Hot 100 smash "Party in the U.S.A.," along with tracks for Chris Brown and Alicia Keys.
Now signed worldwide with Universal Music Group (Lava/Universal Republic in the United States, Island in the United Kingdom), Jessie J's North American invasion is rapidly accelerating. Her album, slated for U.S. release April 12, is out now. Her single "Price Tag," produced by Dr. Luke, reached No. 1 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart on March 26 and is No. 50 with a bullet on the Hot 100 and No. 26 on Pop Songs. The track was iTunes' Music Video of the Week in February. And Jessie J was the musical guest on "Saturday Night Live" on March 12 -- the first artist to appear on the show before an album release -- and performances are on deck for "The View," "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," "Today" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live!"
"It's been some time since a singer came out with a voice so immediately captivating," Lava president/founder Jason Flom says. "The lane is wide open. Jessie J writes with her own voice as an instrument, is developed as a performer and is assured in her style and presence."
"She has the substance to become the next big pop star in the U.S.," Sirius XM VP of music programming Kid Kelly says. "Her sound is noticeably different from the current crop of female icons like Lady Gaga, P!nk and Britney Spears. Jessie J is absolutely a standout artist."
Lava intends to target multiple radio formats, including top 40, R&B and adult top 40. "Jessie J is one of those rare artists who crosses all boundaries, like Mariah Carey," Flom says. "That's the centerpiece of our whole plan." It helps that Jessie J has the advantage of being more self-made than many maiden acts: She co-wrote all 13 tracks on "Who You Are" and styles herself in vampish, form-fitting cat suits with dark streaks of eye mascara and a blunt black bob.
"I'd be cheating my fans if I were someone else's vision," Jessie J says. "There were arguments along the way, but I stood proudly by my songs. Nothing was watered down. I'm proud of the fact that the label signed me for me."
Crown Management's Sarah Stennett, Jessie J's manager, says of her client: "What you see is what you get. She hasn't changed since I met her two-and-a-half years ago. She owns her views. That honesty endears people to her; you want her to win."
So far, all signs are pointing in that direction. "I was always convinced that my message would break through," Jessie J says. "I believe I was put on this earth to make music."