It all started in January 2016, when Jorja Smith uploaded “Blue Lights” to Soundcloud, her self-released debut single. Written after watching Dizzee Rascal music videos while taking a break from her A-Level dissertation (titled: “Is Postcolonialism Still Present in Grime Music”) the song was inspired by the hostile situations innocent young black men were facing every day, not just in her local town of Walsall but around the world. It blew up unexpectedly, earning the praise of Skrillex and Stormzy, before it was eventually included on Drake’s OVO radio show.
Since then, Jorja has gone on to create a name for herself as Britain’s most exciting R&B songwriter, with a masterful knack for crafting melodies that make you feel like you could be anywhere from a smoky Parisian jazz club to a North London warehouse party. Her two most recent singles, “On My Mind” (feat Preditah) and “Let Me Down” have been testament to her versatility. The former is a garage-inflected club number that comes with a video featuring cult UK comedy crew Kurupt FM. Whereas “Let Me Down” (which premiered on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 show) is a slice of effervescent vocal beauty, with a feature from the man of the moment, Stormzy.
Last year, she came fourth in BBC’s Sound of 2017, and this year has been awarded the Brit Awards Critics’ Choice, and will perform live at the ‘The Brits Are Coming’. She’s toured the planet, supporting Bruno Mars in the US, and sold out her Shepherd’s Bush Empire headline shows two times over. And while most teenagers in London are spending their commutes to work listening to Drake, Jorja’s in there collaborating with the Toronto megastar on “Get It Together”, featuring on his More Life project, and performing as a special guest at his UK headline shows. All this for a woman who is only 20 years old, and whose debut album is scheduled to come out later this year.
Jorja grew up in the industrial West Midlands town of Walsall. Both of her parents were musical, and BBC Radio 1Xtra was constantly playing in the kitchen, blasting out bassline classics like T2’s “Heartbroken” as she did her homework. Encouraged by her parents, she started playing keyboard at the age of 8, and was learning to sing classical by secondary school. It’s something that still influences her now, and you can hear it in the vast range of her voice or in certain moments like the choral opening harmonies of “Something in the Way”.
Her mother is a jewellery maker, and her father – who is of Jamaican-origin – was a singer and songwriter in the neo-soul band 2nd Naicha. When she first finished a demo of “Blue Lights” she ran downstairs and played it to him. “Good song, good lyrics,” he said, “Now, go to bed.”
Summers as a teenager were spent floating around town in her friends’ cars, her fragmented memories of it permeated by the sounds of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap drifting through the stereo. Little did she know that many years later (in December 2017) she would be at Metropolis Studios recording an atmospheric ballad cover of Frank’s “Lost” as a Spotify Session, setting the internet ablaze in the process.
From the backseat of that car, she’d listen to her friends talk about other halfs, sweet nothings and broken hearts, and cultivate them into ideas for future songs. All of the songs that would made it onto her debut EP were written during these adolescent years.
She was intrigued by London, her ideas of it coloured by the lyrics of Lily Allen’s “LDN” which painted the city as some sort of bittersweet wonderland. She met her manager at 16 after he saw videos of her performing covers on YouTube, and soon she started making regular trips to the capital to meet him and work in the studio with Maverick Sabre and Ed Thomas.
She eventually made the move permanent, transferring her job at Starbucks in Walsall to London, and bunking in the spare room of her aunt and uncle’s. She’d be on the bus at 5am each day for her morning shifts at Starbucks, crossing Waterloo bridge and looking out at at the city in the hours before the sun rose, LP1 by fka Twigs playing in her headphones.
To Jorja, the most important thing in music is lyrics. She was always fascinated by the way Nas looked at the world and how Amy Winehouse managed to speak truth from the deepest recesses of her heart. “I’ve got little cousins who look up to me,” smiles Jorja Smith. “I grew up listening to honest artists like Amy, not rude or vulgar stuff. I want to be that honest figure for people.“
“Beautiful Little Fools” (which was released on International Women’s Day) is a perfect example of this. It’s inspired by a quote from F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: “I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a woman can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” The song explores the ways in which expectations of women are shaped not by women themselves but by the demands of society and the media. It’s a piece of music that is as tender as it is a rally cry.
In 2018, Jorja will set out on her first full US headline tour, which will include a stop at Coachella, and a special song teaser embedded in the HBO hit show, Insecure (the show has already featured three of Smith’s songs in the last year). More importantly, the highly anticipated debut album is ready. Featuring songs mostly written between the ages of 16-19, it’s a youthful exploration of love and anger, but also an album about self-discovery. “I like 2018,” says Jorja. Why? “Because what does 2 plus 0 plus 1 plus 8 equal? Eleven. Which is my favourite number in the world. So, I think it’s meant to be.”