In 2016, Jordin Sparks traded the spotlight in for a sense of normalcy. With three studio albums under her belt, Sparks took a step back to focus on her personal life — without her millions of online followers watching.
Her loyal fans had been tuned in since the Arizona native won American Idol at the age of 17 in 2007, becoming the youngest winner in the show’s history. When her self-titled debut album became a commercial success later that year, Sparks was climbing the charts before she had even graduated high school.
But after Sparks released 2015’s Right Here Right Now, the “No Air” singer decided she, well, needed some air. While taking some time to herself following a pair of highly publicized relationships (and breakups), Sparks tells Billboard she was in “a place of not looking or searching” for another relationship. It was then, of course, that husband and model Dana Isaiah walked into her life, and Sparks realized “this is what that feeling was supposed to feel like.”
Now 28, Sparks is happily married to Isaiah (the two wed in July of 2017) and gave birth to her first child, DJ (Dana Isaiah Thomas Jr.), in May. With a family of her own, the singer says she’s tapped into a “never-ending, deep, deep love that you don’t even realize is emanating from you.”
All that has inspired her to get back in the studio, where Sparks is at work on her next LP. While her biggest hits have been pop ballads, Sparks’ 2015 album Right Here Right Now saw the singer dip into the R&B/hip-hop world. The album didn’t live up to the commercial heights of her previous LPs, but it also garnered some of the best reviews of her career. Sparks says this upcoming album, her fourth, will be a fusion of pop and R&B — and one she’s confident her longtime fans will be excited about.
Below, Sparks tells Billboard about what she learned from her time away from the spotlight, the pressures of her Idol days and what to expect from her new music.
You became one of the most recognizable faces in America at the age of 17. Looking back, was the pressure overwhelming for you?
I didn’t understand how much pressure there was on me until a few years later. I more so dealt with the anxiety side of things: I didn’t go out a lot, I was nervous to leave my hotel whenever we were on tour. It was just really overwhelming for me.
Looking back on it, I’m glad that I didn’t think about that pressure [of the American Idol brand] at the time because there were so many other things that I was dealing with — the pressure might have been a breaking point for me. Maybe I would have thought twice about doing it again, like putting out another album or something like that. Idol was at its peak during that time, so there were 30+ million people watching each night. There wasn’t Twitter or Instagram, and Facebook was still for college kids, so when people saw someone from Idol, they had invested time into making you who you were. So that pressure definitely was there, I am just more aware of it now.
Is there anything you learned from Idol that’s still relevant to your life?
Looking back, it was like a boot camp for media training. I still use everything that I learned from Idol in terms of dealing with crazy schedules, early mornings, pressure and timelines. Working under pressure is the main thing that really blossomed on Idol, but I was doing that before Idol because I was and am still a huge procrastinator. So I think on Idol, because how crazy it became, I can get it done — everything in terms of “you need to learn this song now” or “the client wants you to sing this song this way.” I don’t think without Idol I would have been able to handle all that.
Were there any previous contestants that you wanted to model your career after following your time on the show?
I didn’t think of it in that way, actually. I was watching the first season, saw Kelly Clarkson win and put it together that I really wanted to do that. I wanted to sing songs that made people feel something, and I saw Kelly doing that. It wasn’t really her career that I wanted to model — she’s had an amazing career, don’t get me wrong — but in my head it was more of, “I want to reach people like she has.” When she sings, you stop and listen.
You’ve talked in the past about struggling to balance your career with your personal life and family life. How essential was it for you to step out of the spotlight after releasing a few albums?
It was one of the most important things I ever did. A couple of years ago I definitely took a step back, and everything [stopped being] as intense as it was in years prior. I definitely needed that. I needed to step away and look at things from a different perspective. I really thought about what values I was placing on everything — really evaluating everything that I had in my life. And for me, I love what I do, but nothing compares to your family and your life at home. While hopefully I am still singing at that point, they are going to be there for me when I’m 85 years old. So it was so important to take that step back.
Your first two albums, Jordin Sparks and Battlefield were pure pop, and then 2015’s Right Here Right Now was a step into the world of hip-hop and R&B. What direction are you headed in this time?
The nice thing about having the freedom to do whatever you want is having the freedom to do whatever you want. So I can do an uptempo pop song one day, an R&B song the next and a hybrid the [day after]. But that’s how I’ve always been. Even on American Idol, I loved being able to sing any type of genre. That’s how I was before I was on the show, and that’s how I am now. If I had to categorize my new material, it’s pop/R&B. A lot of pop like the first album, and I do want to try and find a power ballad like “Battlefield” to fit on there. This next album will be a dream for my day one fans.
Dana and I celebrated our 1 year wedding anniversary last week. We made it! Lol I remember our conversation about wanting to wait about 2 years to start a family & how we were mapping out our lives…boy, did God have other plans. I look at this photo & I can’t help but smile & thank God for throwing a monkey wrench into everything. I wouldn’t have it any other way. DJ is the best thing that’s ever happened to us. These two are my world. Those smiles get me every time. In awe that what God has in store for me is always better than anything I could ever imagine.– What plot twist has been placed in your life that turned out to be the biggest blessing? #psalm37four PS-@_danaisaiah, you’re an amazing husband & father babe. Thank you for loving us the way you do! –: @reymarkable_p
Has becoming a mother influenced this next album?
I am in a really happy-go-lucky place, so I really want my new music to reflect that. Recently in the studio I’ve been trying to come up with something happy, kind of reminiscent of “One Step at a Time.” That song just makes you feel happy when you hear it. Those kinds of records is the space that I’m in. I want to sing happy songs that make others happy as well. Not that I am going to leave behind my ballads, because I love singing those too.
Your new film God Bless The Broken Road comes out Sep. 7, and I saw on your Instagram that you were doing some auditions for Netflix and TV projects. What else are you looking to explore?
I’ve got a lot of things in store, I just can’t talk about them yet. I’ve always loved acting and have always enjoyed diving into the life of another character for however long. It had been a minute since I had auditioned, so it feels good to get back into the swing of things and memorize lines and figure out how to be that person for that audition. I’ve got to stretch this muscle some more, but there are a lot of amazing things on the horizon.