Exclusive Interview: Jessie Reyez – “Music is my world.”
Toronto’s Jessie Reyez opens up about her 'Kiddo' EP, creative process and motivation…
Despite technology allowing more people to make and release music than ever, it can sometimes feel like attention to musicianship is on the decrease.
We expect our artists to be so much more; fashion icons, video directors, inspirational speakers, reality TV stars – sometimes all wrapped into one. It’s unsurprising that at times the music gets lost in the mix.
Jessie Reyez is quick to admit that music is her world.
The 26-year-old Columbian-Canadian songstress isn’t afraid to put time into the betterment of her craft, and has been building her unique sound – an almost indescribable concoction of raspy vocals, R&B melodies, rap cadences, vivid storytelling, acoustic guitar and bass-heavy beats – unhurried by the need for online gratification or a quick fix of fame.
She first made waves beyond Toronto in 2014 with ‘Living In The Sky’ a collaboration with Chicago rapper King Louie who had appeared on Kanye West’s Yeezus the previous year.
The link up was the result of a workshop at The Remix Project, a creative initiative for young people from disadvantaged communities between the two cities where Reyez would work on her music, and was identified by Louie as a future star.
This year, having further refined her sound and skills, she returned with a debut EP, Kiddo, an incredible introductory collection which shows off her ability to pull you into her world, as she emancipates herself from the pain, stress and anger of her life. It’s not necessarily an easy ride, but Jessie music is filled with unbridled emotion and candid storytelling that make it almost as therapeutic for the listener as we suspect she found in its creation.
Kiddo sounds like the music that Jessie Reyez had to make; whether she wanted to or not.
How has the reception been to your Kiddo EP?
It’s been good, thank God. For different songs it’s been a different kind of response: from ‘Figures’, it’s crazy. I’ll get messages from people or comments that are like, “This has made me stop calling my ex” or “It’s made me feel more powerful.” And then there’s messages from the ‘Gatekeeper’ song where people are saying, “Man, I’ve been through this too. Thank you for talking about it.” Just crazy how everything’s resonating in different ways.
You first appeared on the radar a couple of years ago on ‘Living In The Sky’ with King Louie. Obviously a lot has changed since then, how would you describe the past few years?
My message has gotten more potent. I think it more has to do with my skill level because time and practise makes you better. I guess it happens to a lot of people, but when you hear your old work, and you kinda cringe because you see your own progress? It’s not like it’s super far back, but you can still sense and see the difference, that’s really helped. Working with new people in these three years of this crazy hustle. It’s been able to affect me positively in regards to how will I write and how well I think.
I’ve still got a ways to go. I still feel like if I’m in a studio with a crazy producer, I walk out of there a better musician. Anytime that I interact with someone. There’s always something that someone can teach you.
I learned a lot from King Louie too, man. That guy looked out. He’s dope.
How would you describe your creative process?
I know some people have a different way. I find it interesting, kind of how I just said when you work with other people and you become better because you see their process and how some people do melodies first or all that. I speak from reality, so the emotion kind of drives it forward, and anything else comes secondary to that. I feel like if the emotion isn’t there, then the song’s gonna fall short because the reality, the trueness is gonna be missing.
Anything after that it kinda comes. It’s not like there’s a formula. It’s just a matter of getting the emotion out and vibing. Sometimes it’s melody first. Sometimes it’s words first. Sometimes it’s both at the same time. I’m a fan of both at the same time. I feel like that way the message comes out clearer, because you’re not thinking. If you think too much, it becomes a science, and then what’s art?
Is the studio process therapeutic for you?
Yeah, man. I walk away feeling better. I don’t really make too much happy music, because when I’m angry or I’m upset I always feel like I want to let that energy out. When I’m happy, I like basking in my happiness, I like keeping that inside. Any negative s**t, I always want to get it out.
Then it’s crazy how you get it out and if you get blessed that day with a good creation, you can step back and look at all this bulls**t that you just went through and smile and see the positive in it. That’s so dope.
When you have these emotions, do you start recording? Or do you kind of bottle it up until you get to the studio?
It’s just kind of wherever it hits, I’ll just pull out my little voice note recorder and put it on.
I feel like you can’t take inspiration for granted, that’s a mistake. So when you feel like you need to just appreciate that you have that connection in that moment, and let it flow through. At the end of the day I feel like we’re just instruments. I don’t know where the f**k they come from. I don’t know how that happens; it’s just a greater being, it’s a greater thing. I feel like when it hits I just gotta get it out then, regardless of where I am.
What do you want listeners to take away from listening to the EP?
This is a cliché thing, but I feel like it’s cliché because so many people have said it for so long: To just f**king be yourself unapologetically. To lay it all out there. It’s better to do that and be yourself all the way through than just pretend to be something you’re not. Even if it’s ugly, even if it’s s**tty, even if it’s not the best side of you, just be real. ‘Cause real resonates with people.
There’s also a strong visual element to a lot of the stuff that you’ve been putting out. Are those ideas, those kind of visuals in your head while you’re writing? Or do you work on them later?
That varies, because it’s not my main world. My world is music. Sometimes the visuals are in the song. For example, for ‘F**k It’, I’ve always been a fan of making music that forces you to have to visualise something. That way I can play with multiple senses, even though I’m only supposed to be playing with sound. The lyrics sometimes will force you to have to see that in your mind’s eye. For ‘F**k It’, I feel like people hear that, a lot of people see that Corvette crashing. A lot of people see those things. I just say it’s like Quinton Tarantino vibes.
It’s different for others. It’s very much like a collaborative effort with me and the team and the director. I’m really fortunate to be able to bounce back ideas when it comes to the visuals because it’s not my world.
You put out this incredibly personal and traumatic ‘Gatekeeper’ short film. How did it feel to have to revisit that experience?
Felt f**ked for one the scenes. For the one that we had to redo, like the climax in the short film in the car. I knew the story, it’s my story, so I didn’t really have to rehearse the script or anything. I made it a point not to, because I didn’t want to have anything sound forced.
Actually before we got in the car, I was telling the director, Peter, I was like, “yeah, we should probably rehearse.” And he was like, “No. I feel like we should wait to rehearse until we’re in the car. I feel like it’s just gonna be different.” When we got in the car, and Milton, the actor that played the producer, started his monologue, the way that he inspired anger in me was shocking. I started sweating. I remember thinking at the end of it, “F**k. How did I just get so angry at a stranger?” I was like “First of all, your acting is crazy.” He just brought it out of me. I literally started sweating, I was so angry.
It just put a lot of things into perspective. The fact that I was so different five years ago. I wouldn’t have sat there. You know when you’re younger, you’re quieter. The older you get the more that you come into yourself, the more that you just settle into your being. You know what you will do and you know what you won’t do, you know your own boundaries.
I just remember thinking, “Man, if this s**t would’ve happened to me now, how I would’ve just reacted differently.” I would have moved different. When you’re younger, you don’t. And it’s almost like you want to be your own hero, you can’t jump into the past, though. But that was interesting. That was difficult.
In the beginning of the film, you talk about how as a little girl you dreamt of being a singer. You’ve made those dreams a reality now. What do you think the most important factor has been in making that come true for you?
There’s been a few things, man. It’s difficult to pin it. I feel like finding a team that believed in me really made a difference. I feel like the fact that I just didn’t let it go. So many people end up letting it go, and feel like what there passion is isn’t enough for what society deems the norm. So they find it difficult to actually follow through by themselves. That’s why it’s important to find the people that f**k with you and f**k with your vision and believe in you. That way it’s easier to push forward in numbers.
And also the fact that I had a supportive family. I owe a lot to my mother and my father. And the fact that they’re from Columbia and didn’t come from the best circumstances either. The blood of a hustler; that also helps.
The Remix Project made a hell of difference, too, that place in Toronto that I talk about a lot. Even the s**tty experiences in my life, they’ve all contributed to me writing these bulls**t songs. A lot of things. I can’t really pin it down to one thing.
I know that at The Remix Project Daniel Daley from DVSN mentored you. What was the most important advice that he gave you?
I think the most important thing that I took from him was, “Set the stage. Don’t waste time. Don’t add fat in the story.” There should be no fat. Trim the fat, don’t waste words. You only have a certain amount of time to deliver a message, don’t add bulls**t. Just keep it all bullseye as possible.
That first phrase is so important. You can’t waste that. Sometimes, especially now, people’s attention spans are so short. You don’t really have a chance. Some people might just skip the song on the first line. So you better come correct on that first one. The whole thing, but that first one, you can’t waste it.
What are you most proud of about your career so far?
When I get messages from people that say that the way that I’ve driven it forward and that I haven’t given up on this idea that I’ve had since I was a child, and that it’s motivated them to stay committed and to see it through because of my story. I still have a ways to go. It’s just beautiful to hear that from people, especially when I feel like I haven’t delivered all that I can deliver yet. It’s beautiful to hear that your little ripple in the ocean has somehow touched someone else in a way that they can realise their full potential. That makes me proud.
What does success look like to you?
Success looks like Grammys. It looks like a farm for my father. It looks like orphanages all over the world named after my mom. It looks like a Nobel Peace Prize. It looks like dying a legend.
Interview by Grant Brydon.