Jorja Smith

by Intern Flaunt

The Royal Jewels, Liberace's Candelabra, a Sustainably Harvested Sashimi Platter [1]

 LA ROXX jacket, KNORTS top and pants, UNRAVEL shoes, HARDWARE LDNbelt, and Vintage necklace available at Squaresville, LA.

LA ROXX jacket, KNORTS top and pants, UNRAVEL shoes, HARDWARE LDNbelt, and Vintage necklace available at Squaresville, LA.

For the past week, I’ve been on pins and needles, eagerly awaiting confirmation for my interview with Jorja Smith. Smith—a 20-year-old British songstress who, in addition to crafting stellar solo work, has collaborated with the likes of Kendrick, Drake, and Stormzy— is slammed solid with commitments. There’s her first LP, Lost and Found, set to drop on June 8th. There’s her continent-spanning tour boasting 20 shows in 30 nights. There’s her two Coachella performances, one behind her and one looming ahead, and I’m hoping to squeeze between a sold-out night at the Novo and Jimmy Kimmel’s graying hairline. 

It’s a tall order. I grab a beer, scour the internet for dog memes and remixes of the WalMart Yodeling Kid, trying to convince myself this is a prelude to greatness.

Good news on the web: Dave Eggers is reading at the Los Angeles Festival of Books. A link to an interview Eggers did with the Harvard Advocate in 2000 is included. Having already spent several hours preparing for my presumptive interview with Smith—digging into her background, sharpening the angles, whitening my teeth—I decide to read it. A connective tissue forms. Just as a single Smith stanza concerning “tall black shadows” or “beautiful little fools” packs a heavyweight punch, this Eggers quote similarly stings: 

 FENDI jacket and shoes and HARDWARE LDN pants.

FENDI jacket and shoes and HARDWARE LDN pants.

“To enjoy art one needs time, patience, and a generous heart, and criticism is done, by and large, by impatient people who have axes to grind. The worst sort of critics are (analogy coming) butterfly collectors—they chase something, ostensibly out of their search for beauty, then, once they get close, they catch that beautiful something... dissect it and label it.” 

I take this as a suggestion for my feature on Smith. Although Smith is frequently adorned with comparisons to Lauryn Hill, Amy Winehouse, and Rihanna, she’s still unable to legally celebrate her stateside successes with a champagne toast. And while, yes, the crystalline quality of Smith’s voice shimmers in every genre she mines—from hip-hop to UK funky, neo-soul to grime, political speak to pulverizing breakup odes—she shouldn’t be confined to these convenient journalistic parameters. She is simply a woman, a talented and young one at that, singing her way into existence. 

More good news. The interview is on. Friday. 5:30 PM. 

*** 

For an artist Pitchfork has crowned as having “A Voice that Could Heal the World,” Smith is still very much paying her dues. It’s a point made clear as I enter her hours-long photoshoot, which takes place on the sixth floor of a textile-factory-turned-studio-space, one of those Blade Runner-looking hovels for which the Arts’ District is notorious. Smith is beginning “Look 3 of 5,” each one as distinctive as a butterfly’s wing. Her support network is in attendance. They’re good-natured Brits who offer me snacks and conversation, even though they’ve spent the last week conquering jet lag, southland smog, and pissy press people. 

 Vintage blouse available at Squaresville, LA and LA ROXX belt.

Vintage blouse available at Squaresville, LA and LA ROXX belt.

While my new friends and I sit strewn across sofas, gabbing about “culture vultures” and the virtues of a good soak at Koreatown’s Wi-Spa, Smith soldiers through what must be her 50th pose in front of the studio’s bay window. As the nuclear-orange sun slumps toward the skyline, I catch a hint of both resignation and resiliency in her modeled expression. It’s a dichotomy that exists in many Smith tunes, including her newest offering, “Don’t Watch me Cry,” which she premiered live on Jools Holland. Are you aware when you set me free?/ All I can do is let my heart bleed.

*** 

“Yeah, being on a tour bus gets to be a bit much sometimes,” Smith tells me over the phone during a follow-up interview a few hours before she’ll take the stage in Portland. “I do wish I had a little more time to myself.” 

Born and raised in Walsall, England, Smith had long-been preparing for these kinds of moments, prodigiously penning her first song, “Life is a Path Worth Taking,” at age 11. Her mother, a jewelry maker, and her dad, who played in a neo-soul group named 2nd Naicha, encouraged her endeavors. By 15, Smith was gaining the attention of her current manager for a rendition of Alex Clare’s “Too Close” she posted online. 

The next few years were then spent performing the necessary, unsexy work less- motivated musicians avoid. There were hundreds of vocal classes. There were countless hours spent writing and forming relationships with producers. There was the move to London. There was the post-6th-form job at Starbucks. 

“I find it crazy to think people get really nervous to talk to me. I’m quite like any other person... When I go about making a song or album, I don’t think about those sorts of reactions.” 

While this may be true, Smith’s introduction to the world put her on the fast track to fame. On January 18, 2016, Smith’s first effort, “Blue Lights,” was uploaded to Soundcloud, and began urgently circulating. As Smith observes and postulates the tribulations of being a young black male in her native Walsall, a melody latches on to a boom-bap beat, only ceasing for a Dizzee Rascal sample: “You better run when you hear the sirens coming.” 

After “Blue Lights,” Smith’s career was also off and running. Two new singles, “A Prince” and “Where Did I Go,” were released shortly thereafter, the latter of which enjoys 19 million Spotify listens and Drake’s seal of approval. As a follow up, Smith was highlighted on Drizzy’s mixtape, More Life, with the eponymous “Jorja Interlude”and “Get it Together.” 

 Nº21 jacket, HARDWARE LDN dress and CHROME HEARTS sunglasses.

Nº21 jacket, HARDWARE LDN dress and CHROME HEARTS sunglasses.

The collaboration, Smith freely tells me, does not extend beyond the liner notes. She reminds me that Drake has been romantically linked to every female he’s featured, a subtle nod to chauvinism hidden in tabloid culture. 

“Nobody says those sorts of things when he collaborates with Giggs,” she chuckles. 

Smith is, however, enthusiastic to expound on her more recent A-List association: Kendrick Lamar. Featured in the super-charged spring blockbuster soundtrack for Marvel’s Black Panther, “I Am” is one of Smith’s most realized tracks to date. Co-written and recorded with Kendrick over two sessions, “I Am” scrutinizes the double standard black female artists must negotiate. Lines like You’ve been blind to the subject, but not to me [ . . . ] Try and shoot me down for voicin’ my own opinion [ . . . ]Sometimes we ain’t meant to be free, seemingly echo a central tenet of critical
race theory—this idea that society commodifies, sexualizes, and idolizes black culture, while simultaneously shushing it. 

While I (luckily) don’t bore Smith with this bloated academia— or comically clarify my armchair opinion of her music—my desire to categorize, put “her in a box,” as she says, makes me feel sleazy all the same. I harken back to Eggers, tell myself to not view art under a magnifying glass. Smith also deftly reminds me, “These boxes are only made to make things easier for people to digest, categorize music.” 

To enjoy art one needs time, patience, and a generous heart... 

*** 

“Have you listened to my album yet?” 
“I haven’t...”
“Good. No one should listen to it until it’s out.”
Slated for release three days before her 21st birthday, Smith relates that Lost & Found follows the blueprint of her first body of work, Project 11. A 5-track EP chronicling the triumphs and tribulations of romance, Project 11 pairs smoky jazz guitar and slinking basslines with Smith’s sugary vocals.The fact that Smith draws comparisons between the releases is not insignificant. Her two most commercially successful singles—“On My Mind” and “Let me Down”—demonstrate an ear attuned to UK club culture, but neither will appear on the new record. Instead, Lost & Found will include “Blue Lights,” “Where Did I Go,” and “Teenage Fantasy,” tracks where contemplation precludes cardio. 

 KNORTS  top and pants.

KNORTS  top and pants.

Like all of Smith’s previous work, Lost & Found will be released independently. It’s a word that suits Smith’s freewheeling and diverse output. When I ask her about her penchant for jumping genres, she replies, “My voice is the genre. It doesn’t need to be put in another box.” 

The remark is made cheekily, but in it resides profound wisdom. Smith’s voice is the connecting thread to every musical outfit to which she lends it, even if this alone never seems to satisfy pundits. I know this because every Smith feature I’ve come across digs deep into the marrow of her art, studies its angles, confuses what makes it good and pure with what makes it fashionable. 

We want a song to be about Drake. We want to label her “future R&B.” We want to peg her as a political player. We want her “voice to heal the world.” 

It’s nice to think that the insatiable desire to understand Smith’s music comes from a place of genuine curiosity, but I’m less than optimistic. As Eggers suggests, most of the butterfly collectors are impatient axe-grinders, those who want to put beautiful art in boxes, file it away in labeled bins, move on so they can see what’s next. It’s likely that we’ve all done too much projecting, and not enough listening. 

“I just write the songs I write, observe what I observe, try to not trouble myself with the rest... Everyone else can handle that." 

***

I unfortunately conclude my interview with Smith by fanning the industry inferno instead of extinguishing it. Although Smith has yet to release her first record, she is already at a career crossroads—one where she fills Coachella tents one night, then crams into a tour bus the next. 

“There isn’t much going on north of San Francisco,” Smith says, “but it felt nice to slow down, breathe a bit.” 

Since becoming a public figure 18 months ago, Smith has largely existed without this breathing room. She’s been suffocated by both the perks and pitfalls of public success, the pluses and minuses of our eight- second culture. And while you may find it difficult to drum up empathy for a person who is the prototypical “whole package,” I urge you to do just that. 

Put simply: Smith is a person worth rooting for because good art is worth rooting for. Its labor is a process that requires time, patience, and a generous heart. We forget this truth all too often. 

There is, after all, nothing glamorous about spending an evening in Medford, Oregon. 

“But New Orleans was absolutely lovely!” Smith tells me, “Definitely my favorite place. So much music and life. No rules, totally my style.” 

 Nº21 jacket, HARDWARE LDN top and belt.

Nº21 jacket, HARDWARE LDN top and belt.


1. Fantasy rider submitted by Jorja Smith for Pseudo-psychoanalytical Analysis

  • The royal jewels
  • Liberace’s candelabra 
  • Sustainably harvested Sashimi platter 
  • Brookstone massage chair 
  • A Bop-It
  • The audiobook of The Feminine Mystique, as read by Fran Drescher
  • Pink velour track suit
  • The royal jewels
  • Liberace’s candelabra 
  • Sustainably harvested Sashimi platter
  • A flat screen playing a live stream of a bird’s nest at the White Cliffs of Dover [2]
  • Alcohol free champagne (NOT cider)

2. The sea is one of the richest symbols in psychoanalytical iconography, and Jorja’s request for a live stream of birds nesting on a precipice offers a great deal to unpack. Here we see a projective identification with three primary sites of cathexis for Jorja: the sea, the bird, and the windblown cliff. The sea (in classic Lacanian symbology clearly identified with the mother, or provider) can be read as a location offering both the opportunity for jouissance as well as a locus for the death drive. Its mutability makes it a beautiful, inviting, but somewhat unreliable presence. Examined through Pieter Rubichinski’s schema, we might interpret the sea as Jorja’s many fans—an oceanic mass of admirers, welcoming yet untamable. It seems Jorja identifies with the bird in this arrangement: looking out over the ocean (her fans), she experiences a Parataxical Integration with the masses yet remains above them, though in a somewhat precarious state atop the cliffs. However, invoking the image of the bird, she understands that within her she possesses the ability to take flight at any moment, and soar to even higher planes.

 


Written by Jonathan Lipshin 

Photographed by Shane McCauley 

Styled by Jessica Horwell

Makeup: Carol Lopez Reid

Manicure: Mel Shengaris