How JoJo Found Her Voice, Again

This artist was trapped in label limbo for a decade. She says it made her more sure of herself than ever.

October 12, 2016
How JoJo Found Her Voice, Again Brooke Nipar

At the age of 13, JoJo encouraged a generation of young women to dump the loser in their life with her No. 1 pop hit, “Leave (Get Out).” At 26, she just wants to be taken at face value. “What I did ten years ago literally doesn't matter,” she told me in late August, fully sure of herself. “Even what you do two years ago doesn’t matter. I am a new artist.”

Pop moves fast, and JoJo just wants to keep moving with it. Despite having sold eight million albums since her early 2000s self-titled debut, these days JoJo operates like an artist still very much on the rise. When we met in the foyer of a Radisson hotel on the outskirts of London, she’d just come from playing an east coast college town, and after two performances at U.K. pop weekender V Festival, she would fly back to the States to resume a support slot in Fifth Harmony’s current tour. As she stirred sweetener into a latte, I noticed a tattoo on her right hand that read “Truth” in cursive script.

Born Joanna Levesque in Foxborough, Massachusetts, the singer debuted in 2004, during a period when the music industry hungered for a street smart R&B twist on teen pop. With powerhouse vocals, JoJo had been talked of loftily since day one. In a 2004 interview with MTV News, Barry Hankerson of her label Blackground compared the artist to his late niece, Aaliyah. “This is another young lady who has the potential to be as incredible in her own right,” he’d said.

After a short run of hits, Hankerson and his label turned against JoJo and, in reasons unknown to the singer, refused to put out her new music. Having signed a seven-album deal at 12 years old, she was stuck in contract limbo. A legal dispute would eat up the prime of her early 20s. Even so, the singer harnessed the tumult of the fallout and would later channel it into creative pursuits, with SoundCloud drops that showcased her increasingly leftfield taste. On a flip of Drake’s “Marvin’s Room,” she turned the she-mix trope inside out, added unhinged, xan-popping verses, and sang Fuck that new girl. With a new focus also shining through on 2012’s 40-produced “Demonstrate” and her mixtape Agapé, JoJo now seemed less like a lost talent from the charts of years past, and instead a bright spot on pop’s horizon. #FreeJoJo trended across Twitter. Petitions were signed.

Finally free of Blackground in 2014, JoJo signed to Atlantic and released the three-track Tringle EP last year. A new album, Mad Love., arrives October 14. On the record, defiant pop and R&B songs like “Fuck Apologies” and raunchy party anthem “Like This” are bookended with poignant ballads that reflect on personal tragedy (her father passed in 2015) and the healing power of music. “I don't really care with smashing you in the face with pop songs right off the bat,” she says. “I was more interested in creating a journey. Life isn't all up tempo, you know?”

The new album opens and closes with autobiographical, soul-searching tracks (“Music”; “I Am”). Why were these an important way for you to wrap up the record?

This album is more for my fans than anything else, who have stuck with me through times where I couldn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel, or I thought, Who am I if I'm not doing this? They really gave me the strength to continue and to stay in a positive mind space. So book-ending [the album] with those two records is to give them some background and some insight. If I had ignored what I'd been through, it would have been a little odd.

On “Music” you talk about your father’s passing last year. Was it tough to reach a place where you felt comfortable digging so deep?

It was easier to write than it was to sing that song. I only did a couple takes of it — the first time I literally choked; the second time I tried to get through it. I don't sound my best when I'm trying to sing through tears, so that’s why I sound frog-ish at the end.

For as long as I had known my dad, he had been struggling with his addiction. It was never alcohol — always prescription drugs, but then it became whatever he could get. When I got the call [to say he had died] it was something I had kind of gone through many times before. Like, How is it going to feel when it happens? But I never knew how it was going to feel, of course, until it actually happened. It wasn’t a total shock. I don't know if that makes it easier or harder. Was I supposed to cancel the [Tringle] tour, to honor him? I felt as though he wouldn’t have wanted me to stop, because I’ve been waiting for this moment. So I finished the tour.

How did you start to process his death?

After the tour finished, it was Christmas and I went back [to New Hampshire] for the funeral and to be with his side of the family. The first week of the new year, I rented a room in this woman’s house in Malibu. I wanted to be by the water. It was storming when I was there, so it looked like the sky was on fire. It was very dramatic. I was crying indoors, the sky was crying outdoors, and I was writing and journaling a lot. I listened to music, I went out to the beach, and I read poetry. My ex had given me three poetry anthologies before we broke up — jazz poetry, Irish poetry, and Indian poetry.

I feel like that week really reset me, and I arrived at a place where I was like, I have to be truer to myself. I wasn't really happy with “When Love Hurts,” the song that we led [Tringle] with, and I asked management for some more time — a month — to go back into the studio. The only two songs I kept were “I Am” and “Fuck Apologies.”

How JoJo Found Her Voice, Again Brooke Nipar
“My mom came from a broken home — so did I — and these men felt like father figures. That’s a big lesson that I learned: not to put those expectations into business.”

When did you start to realize that the label didn’t have your best interests at heart?

When I did movies without giving them a chunk of that money. They were not happy about that. It started to get weird around the second album, [2006’s The High Road], when Vincent left actually. Then it was just Barry Hankerson, who's the president of Blackground. I'm not entirely clear on what I'm not supposed to talk about, because I want them to leave me alone. It was such a strange and scary time. Threats and a lot of drama; a world I didn't think I was a gonna be a part of. They didn't seem like they really wanted to be involved in music anymore — or least in music with me — but they wouldn't let me go anywhere else.

How did your relationship with your mother change during that time?

My mom grew to absolutely despise the music industry. She came from a broken home — so did I — and these men felt like father figures. They felt like uncles; they felt like brothers. That's a big lesson that I learned: not to put those expectations into business.

My mom hadn't made great business decisions, because she always put me first as a person. That did me a great service as a human being, but maybe I could've grown my brand more, maybe I could've made more money. As I was turning 18, I was interested in bringing someone on who had more experience in business, because my mom had experience in cleaning houses. She felt very betrayed. I understood, but I needed to make that choice. It was one of the hardest times of my life.


Has your relationship with your mom benefitted from that parting of ways?

Absolutely. It would've gotten even worse, and I don't know that she would've even advised me to go through with the lawsuit for as long as I did. She wanted me to go to college and just do something else.

What happened next with Blackground?

It got bad after I tried to make things work after they did get distribution through Interscope, and then their relationship with Interscope dissolved.

That was when you put out the 40 track, “Demonstrate.”

Yes. [Unreleased album] Jumping Trains, "Disaster," “Demonstrate” — those were all different directions I was going in. I was like, What do you want from me? I'll deliver whatever you will put out. I did tons of songs with Danja; it was pretty much enough for a whole project. I did another song with 40. I did whole projects with so many people and I just kept trying things. It wasn't that I was unclear of who I was necessarily, it was just that I didn't know what they would put out. I don't know if that makes any sense. It was a confusing time.

How JoJo Found Her Voice, Again JoJo on TRL, 2004   Scott Gries/Getty
“My self-assuredness declined as I grew up, but at 12 or 13, it was at its peak.”

What’s your earliest memory of music?

My mom could sing her ass off. She had an amazing soprano voice, and was a soloist in our Catholic church as well as doing local theater productions.

You guys were kind of living day to day, right? Your family wasn’t well-off.

Oh no, not by any means. My parents were divorced; my mom cleaned houses. I would go to the local nail salon with my aunt, and sing to the ladies for money. I was like, What kind of song do you wanna hear? How much are you gonna pay me? This is at five or six years old.

I was such a weird kid. I don’t know why I was so precocious. So one day I was saw an advertisement in The Boston Globe which was to audition for Kids Say the Darndest Things with Bill Cosby. It just means something so different to me now.

But at the time, of course, it was so exciting.

Yeah. So, I asked my mom if we drive into the city if she would take me. Seriously, there was no stage mom element to it at all. I was very strong-minded, and I wanted to be on TV.

After that, my mom and I moved from Massachusetts to California for a few months. I did a talent show there, where I lost to a violinist. I was just torn apart. But his manager introduced us to Vincent Herbert. He's the one who brought Lady Gaga to success. Now he has a show with his wife, Tamar Braxton.

Was he your manager?

It was executive producing. He brought us to a bunch of different labels. I met Tommy Mottola; I met all these different people. He advised us that the best deal was through Blackground, so that’s where we went.

And you trusted this guy?

Totally. He was a big brother to me. And my mom read a book called Everything You Need to Know About the Music Industry, and she felt like she could handle it. No one was gonna have my best interests like she would, which is what she thought — and it's true. But intentions don't always translate into protection.

Did you feel creatively involved in your early material?

For sure. I was in there from the creation of the songs. I didn't feel like something was just thrown at me. Actually with “Leave (Get Out),” I didn't really love that song. But I trusted that they knew better, and they did. I was 12, I hadn't been in love before, but I guess I had some angst in me that I somehow summoned. I feel like my self-assuredness declined as I grew up, but at 12 or 13, it was at its peak.

On your new album you collaborate with Alessia Cara, and you’re touring with Fifth Harmony. When you meet younger artists, is there a part of you that wants to give them advice?

I don't feel like I need to be like a wise old lady, with a cigarette and swirling my cognac. If anybody's curious to know, I'll be more than happy to share my story. But keep in mind, you're going to have your own struggle — whether it's what the media says about you, whether it’s your family, management, the label, your boyfriend — and you can't anticipate how it's going to unravel. I still have a lot to learn as well.

The music industry has changed a lot since you came out, and there are many ways to get recognition without a label. Did you consider releasing this record independently?

I did consider it, but on the day I got out of my contract I signed my new contract. I was clear on what I wanted to do. Because I had that mainstream success with the “machine” working to support what I was doing for my first two albums, I wanted to be afforded that opportunity in this next chapter.

Earlier this year, you called for stricter regulations for law enforcement, which came after a number of police brutality incidents. Why do you believe it’s important to be an ally, and to use your voice to address such issues?

Naturally I was horrified, as we all were, to hear news stories of how fear is manifesting, and racism is still obviously a major issue in America. It really is my desire to stand in solidarity with anybody who is fighting for their rights. I don't know how you feel about acknowledging white privilege, but it is a real thing.

Yes, and white supremacy. The election is bringing a lot of these issues into focus.

We can't ignore certain conversations. I just watched an interview with Jill Stein, and she was saying that she wants to have people of all races come together and have uncomfortable conversations about the history of our country, things that a lot of us are ignorant about. Basically she's not going to get elected — we're not going to have a Green Party person because we still have a two-party system — but I do think it's valuable. We have a lot of work to do, and we do have to work together. I think what you said about being an ally is important. I don't think it's about saying “We don't see color,” because I don't think that's true.

Were you supporting Bernie Sanders when he was still in the race?

I was certainly feeling the Bern. He's such a rad dude, but honestly I haven't endorsed a candidate, period. I can tell you sure as fuck I can't stand Donald Trump. He's disgusting; the sight of him makes me nauseous. Would I love to see a female president? Absolutely. Do I think Hillary's an incredibly bad bitch? For sure.

How JoJo Found Her Voice, Again Brooke Nipar

Earlier, you mentioned a recent break up. How did that come to bear on your writing for this new album?

“High Heels” is about that relationship. But, for example, “Edibles” Is not about him. That’s about a guy that I have a relationship with — it’s one of those casual things where we love each other, we have a friendship, and we like to get high and have sex.

I love relationships like that.

Aren’t they fun? They’re easy. You don’t have to manage anyone’s emotions.

Are you on Raya?

You know, I signed up for it because one of my makeup artist friends was like, “You gotta try it. It's so fun!” One night we were having cocktails and I signed up, but I never ended up participating in it.

Some people will say you flopped if you don’t replicate the success of “Leave (Get Out).” How does that feel?

The way I think about it is that I'm a working singer-songwriter. I'm in this industry, I'm committed to having a career, and it's a really unique experience to be able to say that my first single went number one when I was 13. That's pretty wild, and I'll never be able to be the youngest artist to have a number one single ever again. So I want to live my best life now.

You have an incredible archive of unreleased work that you can’t put out because Blackground own it. Do you ever return to it?

Totally. I would like to do a vault project where I could put, like, 12 songs from whenever out. There are songs that I really wish could be heard, or that I have unfinished business with, so sometimes I will refer back to them and be inspired by a vibe or a theme.

What would have to happen for those songs to get out?

I don't know [laughs]. For someone to leak them.

You're so chill about it.

Well, what the fuck am I supposed to do? For real, what am I supposed to do, walk around with a terrible attitude? Even if Blackground wanted to put it out, I don’t even care. They can make money, I don’t give a fuck. I just want to put out music.

Read JoJo's 7 ways that getting high can improve your art.

Mad Love. is out October 14 on Atlantic.

How JoJo Found Her Voice, Again