Interview: JoJo Talks ‘Good To Know’ & Personal Growth
JoJo is back with the best album of her career, and she made it on her own terms. Good To Know is a throwback not only to the raw emotion of her mixtapes, but also to a time when R&B was more about setting a mood and telling a story than squeezing a couple of singles between studio offcuts. Over the course of 9 songs on the standard edition (there are 11 on the physical release), the 29-year-old takes us on a brutally honest journey about making mistakes, recognizing bad habits and working on being a better version of yourself.
I recently called up the enduring hitmaker to get a break down of the three, distinct acts of Good To Know and to find out more about her personal journey. JoJo opened up about the breakup that inspired much of the album and explained how the project came together. She also spoke about harmonizing with Mariah Carey earlier this year, promoting an album during the COVID-19 crisis and her plans to release music with more regularity. Catch up with the much-loved vocalist in our Q&A below.
How do you feel now that the album is out there in the world?
It feels like taking an exhale. It feels like I was waiting to exhale and now I can breathe a little bit because when I’m obsessing over something, I can fall into an unhealthy, perfectionist mindset.It cleared space for me. Music isn’t meant to be hoarded or obsessed over by the artists. It’s meant to be shared, in my opinion, so I’m so happy that it’s out. It feels really validating to have people be like, “Oh my God, I relate to this so much.” It makes me feel not alone and it makes me feel understood. I get a lot from it and I’m very thankful.
You’re so honest on the album. It must make you feel vulnerable sharing so much of yourself.
I don’t mind being vulnerable. Vulnerability resonates with me. I guess I didn’t realize how shocked some people would be. I guess they thought I was an angel or a saint. I guess when they hear me talking about sex and drugs, cheating and stuff they clutched their pearls. It’s hard to have perspective on yourself from the outside because you’re inside yourself. That has been interesting. I think vulnerability just allows other people to relate to you more. At least that’s what I like from my favorite artists, so that’s what I try to do with my own writing.
It’s funny to hear that people were shocked. I wasn’t clutching my pearls, but my jaw dropped the first time I heard “Comeback.”
When I was writing that I was like, “Am I about to say dick on a song? Am I really going to say it?” But then I was like, “Why not? This is the way I talk. This is who my friends know I am. This is what I talk about with my girlfriends.” We’re savages. We’re classy, bougie, ratchet I’m like, “Let me not hide any parts of myself.” It’s funny that I was not having sex while I was making this album and yet it’s such a horny album, but I guess that’s how it goes.
On a slightly different note, I love how concise the album is. I’m so used to artists releasing these 40-song monstrosities. Was that a conscious decision?
It was a conscious decision because, trust me, there are so many great songs that I had to say, “Okay, Imma find a different way to release these babies.” At this point of time in music, there are no rules. It’s not like I’m going to wait another four years to release a project, so I have to put out 29 songs right now. I’m going to put out these nine songs and then in a little bit, I’ll release another concise body of work. Not that there’s anything wrong with a 20-song project.
That’s just not what I did on this. It was just an experiment for me, but I’m really really happy with the way it turned out and the way that people are responding to it. When I originally released the track listing, some of my fans were like, “What the fuck? It’s only nine songs. It’s been four years since you released an album, bitch, what the hell?” I think when you listen to it, it makes sense. For me, it’s something that you can put on a loop and play over and over again.
It’s impressive that there’s a massive arc of self-discovery and self-growth over nine songs. You still take us on a journey.
Thank you. The arc of the album became clear to me, I would say, summer of last year. There were a lot more songs, but I was interested in the exercise of streamlining and seeing how can I still tell this story while maybe trimming some of the fat. It was just an interesting exercise in seeing how that could work.
For me Good To Know is a throwback to the sound of mixtapes, while Mad Love felt a little more top 40 or pop.
The thing about top 40 radio is that hip-hop is the most popular genre in the world, or at least in America, so the sound of top 40 has changed over the years and will continue to evolve. I don’t really think about genres as much as I did even when I was younger because they don’t really apply anymore. What you got from me with my mixtapes was just me not trying too hard. I think that’s where the magic is, at least for me, because it really does sucks the joy out of music or the enjoyable part of the process by trying to package something in commercial way.
I was allowed to be myself on the mixtapes and at this point in my life, in my late 20s, I mean YOLO. I’m just doing whatever feels right, but I’m also wanting to write sticky ass songs that are memorable. I want great melodies, great lyrics, great production, nothing to throw away. I kept all that in mind while I was doing this. At this point in my life and career, I have to be true to myself. It’s overdue.
Yes. “Joanna” was something that I wanted to express and get out of the way almost and introduce a new era for my fans. I think that my self-awareness and self-realization, this journey definitely started with that song and it’s been an important part of this new chapter for me. With “Joanna,” I just didn’t see the right space for it on this album, but with “Sabotage,” there could be a spot for it moving forward.
For me, the album captures all the terrible mistakes that you make in your early 20s and how you spend the rest of the decade just trying to fix them. When did you realize you should make some changes?
Oh my God. People in their 30s are like, “Reaching 30 is a reward for making it through your 20s.” Because your 20s are so uncomfortable, at least for me. I questioned myself so much. My self-worth was on such a sliding scale and I made so many decisions that didn’t honor my highest self. I was looking for love in all the wrong places, validation outside of myself, attention, distraction and so on.
I’m not judging myself for any of the decisions that I made with my personal life, but to answer your question, I cheated on my last boyfriend. We had an incredible relationship. I ended up coming clean to him because I saw that I could have spent my life with him and I couldn’t keep that secret from him. When I told him we tried to make it work, but ultimately he couldn’t trust me. That experience of hurting this person, betraying their trust because I wasn’t able to face myself and deal with my own insecurities and my need for validation, that was a catastrophic life event that changed me forever.
That was about two and a half years ago. I’ll never be the same. There’s me before that and there’s me after that. That’s what prompted me to be celibate after that relationship and to examine myself and to stop using the same coping mechanisms that I’ve used through my 20s.
I think it takes a lot of strength and self-awareness to decide to be a better person.
I think accountability is one of the pillars. Accountability defines me. I really believe in owning who you are, what you’ve done, what you contributed to a situation, positive or negative, and taking an inventory and then striving to be better. I want to continuously grow throughout my life and I want to be able to sleep well at night and know that I’m a solid person. That informs the decisions I make.
I have to hold my tongue when people say they learned their lesson, and then go on doing the same thing.
Absolutely. It’s so much deeper than just, “I learned my lesson.” Really? I’ve had to lose myself and find myself so many times and break myself apart and hit my head against the wall and then be like, “You know what? I have to do the work. I have to face these things. They’re not just going to go away.”
How autobiographical is “So Bad”? Were you really in a trench coat at the bar?
[Laughs]. No, that was more expanding on the mood of a premeditated night of knowing you’re doing something wrong. I was more setting a visual of what that could look like. I like to think of myself in a trench coat with no panties on, high heels, the whole thing. I was setting that visual.
Has Pedialyte offered you a sponsorship yet? If not, why not?
Isn’t Pedialyte really for babies? They’re probably like, “This is really off-brand.” [Laughs]. Isn’t it given to children? I don’t know exactly what it is. All I know is that my friends in college were like, “Oh my God, you need to drink Pedialyte in the morning if you’re hungover.”
“Lonely Hearts” sounds very ’90s to me. Am I just imagining it?
With “Lonely Hearts,” we were up in Toronto, just playing some guitar and I started singing melodies. The first one that really stuck was, “How can I work on me if I’m working on your body?” Which is very clearly a ’90s reference. Then we expanded from there. It’s not like I said, “I want to do a ’90s throwback song.” It was just what came out.
I hear a little ’90s Mariah in the vocal delivery.
Yes, I’ll take it! Thank you. I just like to play with my voice because that’s my main instrument. It’s fun to show different textures and tones and just do what’s right for the lyric in the song. I’m not a very showy person in general. I don’t feel a need to do the most at all times or sing at the top of my range or do the longest, most intricate run. I just want to do what’s right for each particular song.
What was it like singing with Mariah? That Instagram video gave me life.
That experience gave me life. She is such a gracious, lovely woman. It was just so humbling to be in her presence because she is my idol and the most successful charting artist of all time up there with The Beatles. Her energy is unbelievable, and she has just been so supportive. To get to harmonize with her and sing with her was a dream come true. Something I could have never imagined as a little girl, and I want to do it again. I want to collaborate with her. That would be a moment that I might hyperventilate for real.
I would die.
Me too [Laughs].
I’m really obsessed with “Think About You” because it’s so raw. What’s the context for that song?
Thank you. That song is about the situation that I described to you, with the feeling of like, “Wow, I really messed up. How am I going to move on? How am I going to be with somebody else?” Yes, I know how hypocritical or ironic it sounds because the woman who cheated on this man is now saying, “How am I going to sleep with someone else?” It’s just that’s where I was at. I couldn’t imagine it. I just felt so desperate to be forgiven, to be loved by him again. That’s just the truth, and that’s where the song came from.
Actually, my friend had run into him at an event and called me just before I went to the studio. I was crying. I was like, “Oh, my God, I’m never going to move on. I’m always going to be thinking about him. This is just haunting. It’s all my fault.” I was thinking, maybe I should just send him a text and tell him, “The door’s open. I know you hate me, but whatever. If you want to have angry sex, I’m open to that.” That’s where I was at when I went to the studio and the song just poured out.
The album kind of ends on a cliffhanger. On “Don’t Talk Me Down,” you have kind of figured yourself out, but there’s still the risk of sliding back into old habits. Am I misinterpreting the song?
No, you’re not misinterpreting it. I’ve made this loop many times of feeling like I’ve arrived at a place of wellness and self-love and I’m healing. Then something happens and it’s easy to take a few steps back on your path forward. Maybe it’s not a step back. Maybe it’s just a step. With “Don’t Talk Me Down”… there is a sense of conviction, but it’s also about the possibility of sliding back. In all honesty, the way that I envision the album is that it ends with “Proud.” It ends with that voice note from my mom saying that, “I’m proud of the woman you are.”
This might be a little cheeky given that the album has just been released, but will we have to wait another four years for JJ5?
That is cheeky. I have no idea, but there’s no reason why it should ever take nearly that long ever again. I’m constantly making music. I’m not independent, so it’s not like I can just release things without any approval. I still need to come to agreements with my partners at Warner, but I have an amazing relationship with them and things are feeling great, so there’s just no reason things should take that long. I’m so tired of being a casualty of industry musical chairs. I’m just interested in music, not the politics behind it.
How has self-isolation and the COVID-19 crisis impacted the album’s rollout?
This is an experience that has caused us all to be flexible and to adapt to the best of our abilities. The touring industry is obviously at a complete halt. My tour and everyone else’s is either postponed or canceled. Mine is just postponed. We already rescheduled the date for the end of the year and it will remain to be seen whether I can satisfy those dates. I just want to know that everybody is going to be okay. I would never want to put anybody in jeopardy.
We’re just going to continue to stay on top of what the latest information is and respond accordingly. As for the rollout, I’ve been doing press for the past few weeks. The only difference is I haven’t put on high heels in weeks because I’m doing it from my house, but I really like traveling. I really, really love interacting with people and feeling energy, so it’s different, but that doesn’t mean that it’s bad. It’s just different. I was looking forward to late-night performances and doing morning interviews, but I have no room to feel any certain way about it, because everybody is going through this and adapting.
It certainly hasn’t dampened the excitement around this album. I see a lot of new fans discovering your music.
I think so too. I just feel really encouraged. I’m loving seeing new people come to my music and discover me for the first time. I want people to have no idea that I had a career as a kid. It’s cool that people who are teenagers or like 20 don’t know me from when I was a young teenager. Meeting me now, I’m the best version of myself, so it’s a better time than ever to join.
It’s been a pleasure to catch up. Good luck with the album.
Thank you so much.