Earlier this year, Drake rattled the cages of hip-hop with his March release of More Life. Instead of enlisting marquee names on the U.S. circuit, Drake hopscotched his way to the UK for his guest appearances. During his ambitious mission, he discovered 20-year-old songbird Jorja Smith.
Because of her feathery vocal abilities, the West Midlands songbird earned two placements on Drake’s hearty 21-track playlist. For Smith, she was given the opportunity to dazzle on “Jorja’s Interlude” and “Get It Together.” By cradling listeners with her unruffled vocals, she was able to expand her fan-base exponentially. After causing tremors on More Life, Smith headed over to the States and delivered a slam dunk of a tour, which included a cameo from Drizzy during her Toronto stop.
With listeners now feverishly digging through her archives and unearthing gems like “Imperfect Circle” from her Project 11 EP and her socially-driven single “Blue Lights,” Smith’s presence is glaringly undeniable at this juncture of her career. Smith sat down with Billboard to speak about her cerebral skills as a writer, how she met Drake and collaborated on “Get It Together,” her “On My Mind” video and why she considers herself genreless.
When did Jorja Smith fall in love with music?
That’s a good question. Now I gotta think. I should know the answer [Laughs]. I’ve always loved music since I was 11. I used to play keyboard and I would write music. So since 11 I’ve been falling in love with music.
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
Yeah. The first song I wrote was when I was 11. It was called “Life Is a Path Worth Taking.” ‘Life is a path worth taking/ You need to find the right steps to make it clear and faithful to you.’ It was a bit deep [Laughs].
Was it about someone? [Laughs]
No, I was 11! [Laughs]
Hey, you can have crushes at 11, you know?
True, but no, it wasn’t about anyone. You see, a lot of my stuff is really about observations because I’m young and I haven’t really been through a lot [Laughs]. So I’m just taking what’s going on everywhere else.
What song or album would you say is the soundtrack to your life?
Frank by Amy Winehouse. It was so honest and real. You can believe everything. “Stronger Than Me” — oh my god. I used to listen to that and I used to just get mad when I heard that song. I remember I put it on and I was like on Photo Booth and I had a projector. It showed the projection of YouTube and it’d just have Frank, “Stronger Than Me” on YouTube and I’d sing the lyrics [Laughs]. But that album is amazing. While I would say Frank, it also depends on what’s going on in my life. It depends on the mood. But I’m always in the mood for Frank. I’ve always listened to it.
What’s one word you would use to describe your 2017 and why?
Mad! Because I’ve done quite a bit. It’s been fun. I’ve sold out my shows. I’ve just done my U.S. Tour and in the beginning of the year, I sold out my three U.S. shows. Drake brought me out at the O2 in London and Barclays Center and I’m on More Life! All these shows I’m doing and seeing the love, it’s very mad.
Your vocals on Drake’s “Get It Together” were amazing.
Was that the first time you’ve heard of me?
Yes, it was.
That’s why I’m honestly so grateful for Drake letting me be a part of that album because I got opened up to so many people. I guess you would have found out about me eventually, but it was a bit of a push. It was just amazing for it to happen.
— lil photo pass (@drewyorke) August 25, 2017
How did the collaboration first come about?
He DM’ed me on Instagram.
Were you intimidated when he first reached out?
You know, a lot of stuff doesn’t faze me. I think it’s because I was brought up in a small town and normally, when you’re from a small town, when you see a famous person, ‘You’d be like, ‘Oh my god. This never happens,’ but I’ve always kind of been like nonchalant. I was very much so like, “Wow. He asked for me? That’s really cool.’ Then, he told me about the song. I write all of my music. That song was already written. It’s a cover. The original is Black Coffee “Superman.” That’s his song featuring Bucie.
When I first heard it, I really liked it, but I was like, ‘I don’t know if I really want to do it,’ because I haven’t written it and it doesn’t relate to me. Then, shit happened in my life with boys and stuff and I was like this song is amazing and is actually what I’m going through. So I was like, ‘Hey Drake, is there still a space for me?’ And he said yes. So I recorded it in London and sent it over. He was like, ‘Sick.’
I know you and SZA were also part of HBO’s Insecure soundtrack. How did that come about?
I love SZA. She’s great. Insecure played two tunes of mine. They played “Where Did I Go” on the first season and “February 3rd,” which isn’t out and everyone hates me because it isn’t out. They’re like,’ When is this coming out?’ Not until next year [Laughs]. It’s been a bit crazy. It was through my management. They reached out to us. I’ve never been part of a soundtrack before, so I’m very grateful for Insecure wanting me.
Your video for “On My Mind” recently came out. Talk about how the concept came together.
So it’s directed by Hector Dockrill. He’s sick. He also directed my video “Beautiful Little Fools.” The song is kind of UK garage and I grew up listening to that. I used to go around with my friends — we lived in like the council flats — and we’d be chilling and listening to music. The video kind of reminded of that and the concept was really that we wanted to do a hood video. It wasn’t really hood, but where I grew up, it wasn’t well off.
The idea was just to have fun. The people that are in it, like the guys at the end, those guys are from Kurupt FM and they have their own TV show, called People Just Do Nothing. They’re all big MCs and songwriters, but in the show, it’s a spin-off and they’re kind of like MCs, but are not really a group. So that’s why we got him in the end like ‘Who’s singing?’ But Hector is such a good director. We were like, ‘Let’s just do something fun.’
Is it crazy to you that you’ve been able to attain all this success before your 21st birthday?
It’s wild. I just try to take everyday as it comes and I’m just like, ‘Oh, cool.’ [Laughs].
Would you consider yourself R&B?
Well, not really. R&B is Rhythm & Blues, right? I just think I’m me. I’m Jorja. My voice is kind of me, you know? You know it’s me because of my voice, which is sick, like being on the Insecure soundtrack and people recognized that that was my voice. But that’s why me putting out that Preditah tune “On My Mind,” that’s garage. Some people were like, ‘Were you nervous about doing something that’s a bit different and upbeat?’ But it’s like, I’ve wrote that before “Blue Lights” and I’ve wrote that before my EP. So it’s like, I just write whatever I want. People are always going to put me in a box, but I don’t [Laughs].