Indie-R&B singer-songwriter and producer JMSN is not at all what you would expect him to be — he’s himself.
There were still several hours before JMSN, born Christian Berishaj, was due to perform at Cameo Gallery in Brooklyn in February, despite that the venue was already crowded with a mass of excited fans. When he appears, it becomes quickly apparent that neither he nor his management expected such a turn out. Emerging from beneath a big winter coat, which he partially wore to keep himself warm in New York’s uncomfortable brisk and simultaneously shield his identity from fans unknowingly surrounding him from all angles, there he is. As mysterious as it is humble, his presence is surprising. His shoulder length hair doesn’t seem brushed, his beard is grown out, and his outfit of choice is simple — an old t-shirt and Champion gym shorts. His look is something you’d expect someone to wear in the comfort of their own home, not for a headlining show.
But once he gets on stage, it all makes sense. JMSN doesn’t need flashing lights, a decadent stage set, or a stellar wardrobe to impress anyone. The passion in his striking voice, the dedication to producing immaculate music and oddly enough, his awkward but amusing dance moves are more than enough to hook people in. By passing on the massive record labels that tried to and once did sign Christian Berishaj with the intent to glamorize his look and pop-ify his music, he proved that he could only be the best musician he can be by staying true to himself and collaborating with artists that do the same (Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, Freddie Gibbs, Ta-ku).
What was it like growing up in Detroit? Do you feel that your roots there have influenced your music at all?
Detroit is a hard place. ‘Hard’ as in people don’t put up with shit. It’s cold, they’re very straightforward people. They’re just hard, like everyone wants to fight all the time…at least, where I grew up. I’m sure there are spots that aren’t like that somewhere in Michigan. I can remember this one time, I was hanging out at a friend’s house and someone I didn’t know came and poured a beer on me and started to punch me because he didn’t like the way I looked. Then his friends just started to beat all of my friends down. It’s so funny to look back at now. It seems like a sitcom — so juvenile and ignorant. I feel like that translates into my personality rather than my music — having the mentality of having to work to earn things and always being the underdog. It’s almost as if I have a chip on my shoulder about something.
Speaking of your personality, there’s been changes to your style of music, the projects you’re involved in, and even your public persona. What was it like to break into the industry as a solo artist after Love Arcade disbanded?
Love Arcade ran its course. I wasn’t a 16-year-old kid anymore. When I started my solo career I signed with Universal Motown Records, but ended up leaving. I wasn’t making the kind of music I wanted to be doing. I made Priscilla and showed it to them and they didn’t want to put it out. I asked to be let go so that I could put it out myself. I was listening to everyone but myself. I needed to be the artist and individual that I needed to be. I needed freedom. That’s when I launched White Room Records. Music is my life and I just want to make a credible and quality destination for it.
Priscilla is a beautiful album, dark with a lot of emotion behind it. What inspired the record?
A lot happened. It was a turning point in my life. Something clicked in my mind that told me that everything had to change. My relationship failed, my recording contract was failing, and I had no money. Everything was looking down for me in my life except for music. I had never been more excited about music because it was something no one could take away from me. So, I decided to make it my own, stay true to what I believed was right for me and what was right for my music. I made music without any censorship or any outside influence. I made a genuine album for the first time in my career.
The Blue Album is more upbeat and positive then Priscilla. What change happened in your life?
I evolved as a person. I evolved as an artist. I was excited about music again. I was discovering new things in music again. I would call it more hopeful and accepting than just simply happy. I’m talking about negative things in this record that would get anyone else down, but seeing the bright side of them, accepting them and moving on. I’m not dwelling on them like I may have done in previous records. It just mirrors how I’ve grown as a person. I acknowledge what’s going on just the same, but now I handle how it affects me differently.
You are a producer, singer, multi-instrumentalist, mixer and music engineer. Do you feel like you are stronger in one than the other? Has being the sole creator of your work hindered you or negatively affected your career at all?
I don’t really feel like I’m strong in any of these specific things, but I continue to try harder to be. I’ve found that the will to learn and the sacrifice of time usually brings results. I did teach myself how to produce, sing and play many instruments just out of necessity. No one was goning to do it for me if I didn’t have the money to pay them to, and I didn’t feel that anyone around me was doing it good enough or the way I wanted it to be. Shit, I’m still not there yet, but I’m working on it.
Maybe it has affected me negatively, but I believe the positive outweighs the negative in this instance, or at least I hope it does. As far as affecting my industry career, I still do features and things like that, but JMSN is just mine and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If I were letting someone else produce my work or whatever, it would lose the specialness, for me at least.
Who are the artists that inspire and influence your music?
So many I can’t even name them all, and it’s a different one every time. Big ones would be R. Kelly, Prince, Whitney Houston. Just to name a few.
Most of your videos have very 90s vibes. Are you inspired by that era at all?
Hell yeah! I love that era. I definitely wanted all the videos to have a different feel to them and I just thought this feel was perfect. Wait until you see the others. [Laughs] I’m going all the way in!
One of the most recent songs you collaborated on, “Love Again,” has become a huge hit! Can you tell me about working with Ta-ku for that track?
I love Ta-ku. I’ve been a fan of his for a while. I believe, I hit him up a while back just telling him that I liked his stuff and asked if he’d do a remix for a song. Then he asked if I’d do a vocal for one of his, which was ‘Make it Last.’ After that we made another song together and that was ‘Love Again’. It probably won’t be the last song we do together either. We’ll probably make some more stuff together next month when I go to Australia.
You seem to be touring quite a bit. How’s life on the road?
I don’t have a personal life to begin with. That’s why I always write asking ‘where did all my friends go?’ because when I get off tour and get back in the studio I realize how much it’s just me in my own world. Not to say that people don’t want to be around me, it’s just that everything else fades away and I need my space. I don’t know, there’s several dimensions to it. Maybe people don’t actually want be around me. I don’t care to find out because I’m afraid it’s true. I love touring and singing. It’s going well and it gets me out in the real world. I need it for sure. It’s kind of like rebooting for my creative time. I’m gaining a lot of inspiration.
While you were performing, I noticed you have a lot of Jesus tattoos! Are you religious? Has religion inspired any of your music?
I am a religious person. I feel like religion is the foundation for character, no matter what name you use for it. Now that’s not saying that everyone that says they have religion does it in the same way, or dare I say the ‘right’ way. Religion definitely inspires my music because it inspires my life. There’s something else and I feel it. There’s millions of questions and I wonder about them. I’m trying to learn how to be better everyday. Religion, whatever face you put on it, is providing wisdom and means to do so — at least, I believe so.
You don’t seem to care much about your personal aesthetic in a way that many musicians do. Are you against this at all?
Yes. I am anti all of that. I feel like I’m always drawn to blur the lines of what you expect something to be. Things should never be what you expect them to be, otherwise what’s the point? I want to lose this whole untouchable ego thing that’s going on with artists today. It’s really just a huge insecurity. Society has told artists that if they aren’t [the biggest artist in the world], then they don’t mean shit. So then, it becomes about the money and fame, just to try and fit in within ‘normal society.’ Wear this, sing this, get on the radio, [or] sell your soul to be on reality TV. Granted we’re all insecure, but I believe a lot of people are selling themselves short. It makes me sad, angry and frustrated. I’m just going to try to lead by example and that’s all I’m set out to do. Not talk about it (even though I am right now), just do it. Move us forward as people if only just a little bit. I’m going to fall short everyday and be a hypocrite, but I need to be aware to fix the problem. I’m not perfect, none of us are, and that I believe is beautiful.
What’s your next move? Are you recording new music?
Yes I am. I’ve got eight songs written and after this tour I’m starting to rehearse them with my band and track everything in July, then the rest is up to me to produce, mix and finish.