Jorja Smith Finds Comfort in Stillness
Jorja Smith is lounging in her childhood bedroom in Walsall, her hometown 14 kilometres northwest of Birmingham, UK. “I feel bad that I’m feeling good. People have lost lives, jobs—some people don’t have homes,” she says. Smith has been non-stop since she released her debut single, “Blue Lights” in 2016. In the following months, her schedule quickly reached max capacity with back-to-back appearances and interviews that sent her zig-zagging the globe. She caught the attention of Drake, who tapped the Brit to appear on two tracks on his More Life album—one of which he named “Jorja Interlude.”
Soon after she joined him for his Boy Meets World UK headline shows in March and June of 2017, and in 2018 she broke a record for being the first independent artist to be nominated and win the Brit Critics’ Choice Award. All before she dropped her first studio album, Lost & Found, in 2018. “There’s so much shit that’s been happening in the world, [but] honestly, this is the first time in three years that I’ve been in my house for longer than two weeks.”
You can’t really blame Smith for feeling grateful for some stillness. She’s finding comfort in the small things, like binging series and trying out new recipes. “I’ve used this time to do regular shit. I’ve been watching TV and the news. I’ve been cooking brown stew chicken a few times a week because I’m trying to perfect it,” she laughs, realizing she’s fallen into those relatable quarantine trends. And like some of us, she found solace in her cleared schedule. “I needed to slow down. I’ve become a lot more focused [and] more in the moment. I feel present. I overthink a lot, and I can get in my head, but these past months I’m just here. It’s the happiest I’ve been for a while.”
I needed to slow down. I’ve become a lot more focused [and] more in the moment."
While she may not be on stage or fielding appearances, the time at home hasn’t stopped her songwriting and recording. At the beginning of June, Smith released a reworked version of St Germain’s “Rose Rouge” for Blue Note Re:imagined, a collection of Blue Note Records’ most classic jazz titles reworked by rising UK talent. Shortly after, at the end of July, Smith gave us “By Any Means,” a heartfelt and message-driven single that speaks to the racial injustices around the world. “After the murder of George Floyd by the police, everyone was going on social media, and I felt really pressured,” she confesses of the urge she felt to speak out. So she did it in the best way she knew how, by writing a song about it. “I don’t enjoy social media. My platform is my music, and to be honest, I can’t get my words out very well, but I can sing, and I can write songs. That’s how I communicate.” That pressure melted away once she put pen to paper. Alongside producer, writer, and longtime friend Ezrah Roberts-Grey she brought the powerful single to life. “I [sang] a bit angry on the song because I am angry. Before my time, before my parent’s time, all we’ve ever asked is to be treated as equal. As Nina Simone said, ‘an artist’s duty is to reflect the times,’ and I feel like I am. But it’s crazy that in 2020 we’re still singing about inequality.”
When it came time to create the visuals for the song, Smith already had the entire storyline mapped out in her mind. It’s no wonder she has big hopes of directing her own music videos in the near future—she has a knack for it. “I wanted to capture Black Britain as it should be,” she says of the concept behind the music video. “Black excellence; Black businesses; Black everything. I want people to feel. If you don’t feel something when you watch it, then you’re not human.”
Smith’s music has an undeniable ability to move and touch her fans, who have found comfort in her words. And while her listeners find her music therapeutic, Smith also finds solace in her art, now more than ever, as she continues to navigate her rapid rise to fame and the lack of privacy that comes with it. “Fame is weird,” she pauses, distracted by her dog who wanders into her room. “I don’t think I’m famous,” she contends. “Famous to me is Beyoncé—and I’m nowhere near Beyoncé level [laughs].” Even though Smith has stories of days where she was feeling far from her best and had to put on a smile in public, she still has yet to see herself as a celebrity. Instead, she focuses on keeping a good team around her and her personal matters private. “For me, I already give away so much of myself in my songs; I don’t want to give away my personal life. Loads of things have changed in my life, but I’ve got the most amazing group of friends, team, and band that continue to keep me being me. I [have] zero yes-men around me, even if I did, I would most likely tell them no anyway.”
I’m definitely most creative when my mind is at ease."
Smith often puts a lot of that pressure on herself. She occasionally interrupts our conversation to let me know that she doesn’t believe she’s very good at interviews. It’s that overthinking that sometimes halts her creative process, she admits. “I struggle with [creative blocks],” she says. “Last year, I was reading too much into social media and people’s many opinions of me. When I have these mental blocks, I try and channel my 16-year-old self who is writing because she loved to. All she cared about was her mom and dad’s opinions [when] she’d go downstairs and play them the songs that she had written. I’m learning to take time and if I can’t write that day, not to worry about it.” Almost as if on cue, we simultaneously tell each other that not comparing yourself to others is “easier said than done.” Laughter ensues, lightening the mood.
There is something about the 23-year-old songwriter sitting on her bed surrounded by the childhood trophies that seems to bubble up a bit of nostalgia. “When I grew up here, all I had was my room,” Smith reminisces. “Where I’m sitting right now, that’s where I was most creative. I’ve been writing all my songs here. I’d bring in my keyboard and do some stuff.” Since moving out, she’s found ways to hone in on her inspiration and finds creativity all around. “It’s more what I am thinking and am feeling. I’m definitely most creative when my mind is at ease.”
Smith’s inimitable sound is her own brew of genre influences; a mix of reggae, punk, hip-hop, and R&B, not to mention a ton of Amy Winehouse. Lately, she’s been listening to Brent Fiayaz on repeat. “[His single] ‘Dead Man Walking’ slaps—I really like him.” She’s scrolling through her phone to find her latest playlist. “Oh, there’s this guy Berwyn, and he’s really talented. Then my friend Wesley Joseph, he’s from Walsall.” It’s evident that Smith is driven by collaboration and she will take any chance she’s given to pump up her peers. “He’s so talented, and he directs his own videos. He has this new song called ‘Ghostin’’ and it’s sick. I’ve also been listening to some jazz actually. Nubya Garcia recently put out a new album called Source, and every song takes me on a journey. I love it.”
I am super critical on everything I do, but maybe that’s just what keeps pushing me to be the best I can be."
At this point, Smith is finding comfort in our banter, sinking into her neon yellow, tiger print, silky two-piece set she’s wearing. “They’re not pajamas, but they look like pajamas,” she maintains. Once again, a relatable style evolution resulting from the current state of the world. However, over the years, we’ve seen the singer donning everything from bright mini dresses to jumpsuits and matching tracksuits, so her at-home choices, even for a chill day with only one interview on her calendar have her showing off her sartorial flair. You wouldn’t know it, but she doesn’t take pleasure in the style process. “I can’t lie; I actually don’t like getting ready. I don’t know if it’s because of [going on] tour and sitting in a chair for two hours, [but] I’m a bit anti-it. I love trainers so much, they’re my favourite. If I do want to go out, I like tight shit that makes me look snatched, but other than that, I just like to be comfortable. Comfy but still drippy with designer bags. That’s what I love.”
While the anticipation for another album is reaching a fever pitch, Smith is keeping mum about when we can expect her next collection of works. Instead, she’s stockpiling her creations, to release when she feels like it. Just this week she announced a new single “Come Over” in collaboration with dancehall icon, and our September cover star, Popcaan, and filmmaker Amber Grace Johnson. This isn’t the last we’ll hear from her in 2020 either. “I am super critical of everything I do, but maybe that’s just what keeps pushing me to be the best I can be. And I am really nowhere near that yet.”
Photography by Mike Excell