The R&B singer talks Sade and standing on her own two feet
Jhené Aiko’s Coachella debut earlier this month might have been bolstered by surprise performances from Drake and Childish Gambino, but don't expect the GEN F R&B singer to be getting much help from rappers on her forthcoming debut album, Souled Out. To date, she hasn't added any guest spots, with the exception of one from her six-year-old daughter. She's clearly set on carving her own path, and when we met at the mid-century Palm Springs house she stayed at for Coachella, Jhené came across as a perfectionist deeply committed to putting forth the best music and performance she can. Before we sat down, her team asked if they could record our interview for Jhené's own records, a rare request in music journalism (unless you're the queen of perfectionism, Beyoncé). I agree and we dive into conversation. Jhené speaks with a quiet confidence, sitting up straight and wearing a leather bustier with high-waisted denim shorts and a tie-dyed kimono she keeps pulling over her shoulders. She talked about trying to make a new classic album, how Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind inspired two songs on Souled Out, and the hurdles that come with being a female R&B singer.
Stream: Jhené Aiko, "My Afternoon Dream"
Are you recording this interview for a specific project? I want to put something together that shows my fans the making of the album, all the work that went into it, and little random things.
Do you record your performances and look back at them? Yeah. I’ll look at them as soon as I get off the stage. When I was younger and first went on tour, I was 13 and 14, and that was something that we did every night. It was 2000, 2001 so it was before the really small video recorders or even the phone recorders. We had VHS tapes that we’d watch over and over on the tour bus. I think it’s something that performers and athletes do.
Are you glad you have the experience and lessons that come with performing at a young age? For sure. I used to be super shy as a child and I still am, but it’s easier for me to put that in the back of my mind before I perform. Now it’s better because it’s my writing that I’m performing. I feel like I’m almost public speaking, going out and telling a story and saying, “This happened to me.”
Public speaking seems like an apt reference because you freestyle. Was that your approach on the album as well? Yeah. I’ll have a beat or sit with producers and we’ll feed off of each other and I’ll just keep singing a melody until I have words. There’s not a lot of writing down—I’ll only write it down to make sure it makes sense after I come up with it. For the most part, I like to not have second thoughts.
What are some of the stories that you’re sharing on this album? Boy stories. Life lessons. Philosophies. Truths. I feel like every song has some secret about me. I try to keep it very open and honest.
Which song would you say is the most revealing? Probably “Beautiful Ruin.” It’s a song about a very specific situation and whoever’s involved will know it’s to them. I talk a little about my upbringing, just a few little lines, and I get very specific with his relationship. It’s almost along the lines of “Comfort Inn Ending” which is on my Sail Out EP. A lot of the songs are that revealing.
“A lot of people will be like, 'You’re so sad,' when they’re listening to the heartbreak songs. But no, that means I’m actually not because I’m not holding them in.”
What song was the easiest for you to write? “Spotless Mind.” It’s almost been two years since I wrote that song. I was on the Lauryn Hill and Nas tour, and I probably did it in 45 minutes in GarageBand. It’s also very specific, a feel-good song. It’s basically about the way I deal with relationships and how I go with the flow of things. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of my favorite movies, so on my album I have this song called “Eternal Sunshine” and then “Spotless Mind.”
What do you like most about that movie? I wish it was real and you could only keep the good memories in your head. In a way, I sort of do that without obviously going to a clinic to get that done. After relationships, I’ll gather all of this stuff that reminds me of my ex and throw it away. A good friend of mine once told me to get rid of that memory with the person. Like, if you used to go to a restaurant with this person, take someone else there and make better memories, which is really messed up but it works [laughs]. In a way, I feel like I do that so I’m not stuck in the past.
Music is a good way to purge those memories too. Exactly. Every time I’m going through something, if I write about it that means I’m done with it. So a lot of people will be like, “You’re so sad,” when they’re listening to the heartbreak songs. But no, that means I’m actually not because I’m not holding them in. The experiences are out there for you guys to relate to now.
Is it hard to get into the mindset of a song when you’re performing it? It’s not because I like to tell stories and I like for people to relate and connect. There’s certain songs that are harder to perform but I think it’s important to share those things that really hurt you the most and talk about them and have people listen—that’s what makes it less of a pain for you to share your story.
Is there a narrative that runs throughout the album? It’s like a path. You’re going to see an evolution by the end of the album, a girl going through heartbreak and being confused, in a dark place, and then [emerging] enlightened and grown up through these experiences. It’s real life. A growing girl.
Watch: "Comfort Inn Ending (Freestyle)" Video
What producers did you work with? No I.D., Key Wayne, Fisticuffs, Dot Da Genius, and we’re keeping it at that so it can be a sound and not just all of these different random songs. All of these producers and I are working together to make sure each song goes well with the other.
Do you have a workshop going where you all talk about a song as it’s being finished? It’s been going that way so we keep the same sound and make a real classic that sounds like it’s from one artist and this culmination of minds that share the same vision. I feel like a lot of albums now sound like, “We got this song from this person, and this song from this person,” and it’ll be a hit album but it sounds like a compilation of various artists instead of just one. I want to take it back to when you can just play an album straight through and, at the end of it, feel like you really know the artist.
So how would you describe the sound you’ve put together? A lot of people compare it to a younger Sade with urban stories. I always say, “Keep it pretty but I want you to be able to ride around to it in your car” and have respect for 808s and something that makes a beat. As far as the lyrics go, they’re super honest and on this album you’ll see me doing different things with my voice. It’s not so rap-influenced. It’s just me being a singer and doing the different things I can do.
Was Sade important to you, growing up? You remember her voice and melodies and her mysterious look. I didn’t really realize I was a big fan of hers until I started doing my mixtape and, when I was trying to find the beats and groove I wanted to be in, I was like, “This reminds me of Sade.” It made me want to go back and listen to her and really see that’s the type of artist I want to be. Not as much in copying her look or sound, but her music is timeless. You can hear any of her songs and you don’t feel like it takes you back, even if it gives you a good nostalgic feeling. You just want to listen to those songs forever.
Her sound is really current right now too. There’s a class of new, younger R&B singers coming up. Do you consider yourself to be a part of this movement with people like SZA, Kelela, or Tinashe? I don’t really listen to a lot of new music and when I do, it’s rap. When I go into the studio, I don’t have anyone in mind. I don’t know the new songs or artists. I just go off a feeling. I’ve heard people put all of the new girls in a box but I feel like what I do, especially on the album, is an evolution of R&B. It’s more than R&B to me. Everyone I work with is super musical, everyone plays instruments and is really involved, and it’s not just songwriting for us. Everyone wants each song to be a true expression of what I’m trying to get across on the album.
Do you have an issue with people grouping you together? I do because I feel like everyone is an individual. Instead of it being like “This is the new type of sound that’s coming” I think everyone should be appreciated for what they’re doing best. I feel like that doesn’t happen as much with men. There’s Drake and Kendrick but it’s not called the new sound of rap because you can see the distinct differences between each of them. But with women, no one really cares who writes their own stuff. It’s just like, “You're all girls so you’re all Aaliyah or Beyoncé.” Not until you get to a certain level do people realize you’re an individual. It’s so much harder for a girl to say, “This is why I’m different and you need to recognize those differences.” I’m just glad that people are being open-minded when it comes to different sounds in R&B.
Did you work with any rappers on your album? I did not. It’s all me, and my daughter is featured on one song. I have some songs that I’m considering features for, but for this album I pretty much did the songs from top to bottom because I can’t wait for a feature and someone to be like, “Oh, I can’t do it.” There’s still time, if someone wants to contribute and it makes sense.
In a way, that makes it more of your own statement. Exactly. For the EP, I wanted to it put out because I wanted to put something out for the year so I just took the songs that were easy to digest because people heard the Drake and Big Sean features. With the album, I’m going to work with a single, and have everyone more into who I am, not just the rap features.