JoJo’s Mad Return
After being sent adrift in the music business, pop’s comeback kid springs back with ‘Mad Love’.
JoJo is perched on a sofa in New York City’s Hudson Hotel at the start of autumn, and her optimism level is intoxicating. Speaking with her in 2016 is an entirely different experience from conversing with her, say, five years ago, when her career was hanging in the balance. For one, the singer’s third album, Mad Love, is finally within sight. In fact, it’s set to arrive on October 14, just three days shy of a full decade since the release of previous LP, The High Road.
“I’ve been ready to put out a third album — I’m 25 now, so — for six years,” JoJo says, adding that there have been “different incarnations of this album.” She then clarifies: “I mean I’ve recorded at least 10 albums.”
Joanna Levesque first entered the pop world in 2003, when she was a 12-year-old ingénue signed to Blackground Records, the same label that introduced the world to Aaliyah. JoJo’s first single “Leave (Get Out)” heralded the arrival of a preadolescent with the voice of a seasoned artist. Her 2004 eponymous debut LP went Platinum, and by the time follow-up The High Road arrived in October 2006, we were witnessing a superstar growing up before our eyes. Singles like “Too Little, Too Late,” co-penned by legendary songwriter Billy Steinberg (Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Demi Lovato), furthered the claim that JoJo had the staying power of a substantial pop star.
Then it all came to a screeching halt.
The JoJo faithful and even casual observers know the story by now. Blackground Records lost its footing circa 2008, and the following year the singer was entangled in a messy lawsuit with the label. Blackground lost distribution but wouldn’t let their star singer go. In essence, JoJo was bound to a deal with no guarantee of an album release. That didn’t stop her, however, as the optimistic teenager continued to grind with free music via mixtapes Can’t Take That Away From Me and Agápē. But while she blessed her fans with deep cuts like “Disaster” and “Demonstrate,” as well as a highly memorable take on Drake’s “Marvin’s Room,” a dark period set in for the artist, who couldn’t pursue her passion full-time like she once had.
The ups and downs and false promises left JoJo feeling helpless, until a fortuitous loophole was found in her contract. (In a nutshell: minors can’t legally be bound to a record deal for more than seven years.) After that, it was game on. In 2014, the singer formally announced a new deal with Atlantic Records.
Her new LP Mad Love features the single “Fuck Apologies,” a collaboration with chart-topping rapper Wiz Khalifa. It’s equal parts catchy, sassy and powerful. Other cuts off the album, like “Mad Love” and “FAB,” offer up different points of view from the mind of JoJo. The latter features Remy Ma, another star who’s back and better than ever after a hiatus.
“I’ve been a fan of hers since she came out,” JoJo says of collaborating with Remy. “I always thought that she was cut from an ill cloth, and I just really love her.”
While JoJo already has a bevy of fans locked in place from the early aughts, her return brings an entirely new base. “To a lot of people I’m a new artist,” she explains, “And that’s okay. It’s a unique place that I’m in.”
With the release of Mad Love, JoJo will embark on a 60-date world tour at the top of 2017. Ahead of that, Idolator sat down with the resilient artist for one of her most intimate interviews to date.
You had to have been feeling a lot of mixed emotions two years ago, after finally signing to a new label. Going into Mad Love, how did you decide what you were going to put into it? Well, I had the chance to purge some of the things that I felt previously. Like, during the lawsuit I was able to put out music. We put out that single “Disaster” when Blackground was on Interscope. That was when I was going through my black hair phase and I was angsty and was smoking cigarettes and I was like, “Fuck the world!” Just kind of feeling like a badass. And now, I don’t feel that. I’m not mad at the world, you know? I needed to get that out. The Agápē mixtape was a big purge for me. So now I got to come into [Mad Love] with a new perspective and a new intention. It was to have my perspective be a little bit more mature. It wasn’t something I struggled to find; it was just where I was at, especially after the end of last year.
There’s a lot of heart in the album. Thank you. I guess I just felt like when I first came to Atlantic, the A&R that signed me, Aaron Bay-Schuck, left and went to Interscope and he’s now the President of A&R at Interscope. So he had an amazing opportunity. He called me and was like, “I have this thing. I don’t wanna leave you. I don’t wanna lose you. But I need to go.” I said, “I completely understand,” but then I was left at Atlantic again and just kind of didn’t know what to do. So I was given a lot of songs, I was recording a lot of things that didn’t feel completely 100% authentic to me. But then after losing my father and going on tour and going through that experience, I got back in the studio at the beginning of this year and was like, “I’m a soul singer. If I’m not coming from my heart, what am I doing?” I was just going through the motions a little bit because I wanted my shit to come out so bad. I was trying to make other people happy.
How did you manage to push through with recording after losing your dad? There’s so many examples of people around me who have overcome such obstacles and adversity. Like my manager, Gita — she escaped through the mountains of Iran during the Persian Revolution. They were looking to hang her father because he worked for the government. They escaped, she was a political refugee, she lived in Canada and her father ended up dying when she was young, when they moved to America. She was called all types of racial slurs, she put herself through college — I think of examples like hers. My best friend Nene’s mother faced so much stuff, and put herself through college. Now all her three girls are college graduates and just killing it, and I’m just like, come on! People go through things and we have a choice whether we are victims and we’re hateful and we’re resentful, or we’re resilient. I also knew that my dad wanted me to live. Like, he couldn’t live, and I don’t even mean literally. He wasn’t living a life when he was here and he lived through me. I knew I needed to keep going.
That’s big. We always talked about that, so I knew that he was proud of me already. If I stopped and fell into a rut, that would be doing his life a huge disservice.
This project has so many bold songs: “Fuck Apologies” with Wiz Khalifa, and now “FAB” with Remy Ma. I was so excited when we were able to get her. As soon as I wrote that song, I was like, “Yo, you know who would be crazy on this? Remy Ma.” I can’t believe we were able to do it.
What were you going through at that point with those songs? So with “Fuck Apologies,” it sounds like a breakup anthem, but it’s not about a boy. The sentiment is really just arriving at that place where — some days I’m more in it than others — you’re not gonna make excuses for how you feel, what you need to do, the moves you need to make, because no one will understand what got you to this place but you. So fuck apologizing for what is my truth. That’s it. That song came together with Taylor Parks and Whiskey Water and Wolf Cousins, so the song was already partially done when I came into it. I just kind of felt that sentiment was an appropriate way to move into this next chapter. Then with “FAB,” I was just annoyed at the way some relationships that I thought were true with some girlfriends went and I just realized that that they weren’t. So I was on the treadmill one day and I was like, “Man, I can’t stand these fake ass bitches!” [Laughs] It was really like that. I was just getting out my frustration on my treadmill and I was like, “Man, fuck these bitches!” And, of course, you and I both know all women are not bitches and it’s not just women. I can’t go over to your house and you bake me cookies and you try to be my best friend. Quite literally, like the cookie thing was a real thing. And whether it’s girls in the industry or…you know, the industry is a bit like high school.
There is so much to this album. “Clovers” may be a bonus track, but it still feels important to the project. I’m not even thinking about the deluxe as a bonus thing. The deluxe is the standard album to me. I don’t like the technicalities and how there’s a cutoff in how many tracks. I hate it. After all this time, my fans deserve more than 11 tracks, so it was really important to have at least 15, you know what I mean?
How did “Clovers” come about? You paint a really pretty picture in that song. Well, I have a shamrock on my hand, and so it came from me looking — actually, we wrote it on St. Patrick’s Day of this year! I was just thinking about that happy place you try to find when you’re depressed. I was imagining that I would go to this field of clovers and just connect with nature and remember that there are beautiful things in the midst of your depression. So the song is definitely about depression and just trying to come out.
We have a choice whether we are victims and we’re hateful and we’re resentful, or we’re resilient.
We discussed in the past that you struggle with that. Is that something that you still fight with? It’s not something I would say I fight with every day. I have chemical help. [Laughs] I’m not ashamed to admit it, you know? Yeah, I believe in helping yourself, however that is, whether that’s your spiritual practice or an antidepressant or whatever it is. I have help all around. I have a great support system, too. I’m also living my dream again. I think what got me into the depression in the first place was, like, feeling so stagnant. I also have a history of it in my family, so not something that I struggle with in that way, but it’s something that I have to be conscious of — to not let myself fall too far.
Plus you’re an endorphins champ. You’re always working out. Girl, I’m working out later tonight, and I need this workout. I haven’t got a good sweat on in a minute. It does feel good, though. I never regret a workout. I regret other shit, like croissants, but I never regret a workout.
Whenever you’re on Snapchat at the gym or you Instagram something, it’s inspirational. I’m not trying to thirst trap all the time though [laughs], so I’m not trying to be like, “Look at me! I’m sweating, look at my tits!”
The song “Edibles”…I thought it was going to be about Gummy Bears. No! It’s about getting high and having sex [laughs]. But I think, man, what a beautiful way to come together, when you’re both high. It’s so much fun. So that’s what it was about.I don’t smoke anymore, so — all edibles and tinctures.
Is it because of your voice? Yeah. I just made the decision not to be around smoke, not to smoke. It’s been around a year. I’m like, “Let me just take any obstacles out of my way so I don’t need to overcome them.” I really wanna do this forever, so I need to act like a singer. You can live like a rapper and be a singer, but you’re not a rapper. You need to go out and hit these motherfucking notes every night. I realized that and now I live like a singer.
Are you dating? No.
No? No. I thought artists were bullshitting when they were like, “Oh my god, I don’t have time for boys,” but, like, I don’t. I thought they were like, “What a great excuse,” but I really don’t. Certainly don’t have time for boys.
“Boys.” Focus on— Men, yeah. [Laughs] I was wasting my time for a while, stringing someone along, but I just can’t. What’s the point? My future is my own and I just need to focus on that.
Mad Love doesn’t scream heartache, whereas last year’s III. EP felt like a whole other emotional ride of longing and vulnerability. Totally. That EP came out before I went on tour, before I broke up with my boyfriend and before my dad passed. That all changed everything. It really did. But I think I’m vulnerable on [Mad Love] — I think on “Music,” I think on “Honest,” I think on, “I Am.” On “Honest,” that record was about this other boy that I was seeing when he found out that I was still seeing my ex; he had a huge problem with that, even though I knew that he wasn’t just dating me. I thought that was fundamentally hypocritical. [Laughs] So I was like, “Look, you know, other girls are probably doing the same thing, but I’m just gonna tell you. When you ask me, I’m gonna be honest with you.”
Last question: If the JoJo of right now could say one thing to the JoJo of five years ago, what would it be? Know that you do have a future and act like you have a future.
JoJo’s third album Mad Love is out October 14. Pre-order it now, and grab her single “Fuck Apologies,” on iTunes.