by Chad Ghiron
Photography by Mike Ruiz
Styling by Darius Baptist
Hair by Davide Torchio for Davide Torchion Salon and Cloutier Remix
Makeup by Martin Schmid for Smashbox @ JUMP
Manicure by Sandra Hopp for OPI @ JUMP
There’s a new pop star hitting the international airwaves – and with just one album under her belt Jessie J has already proven she’s willing and able to dominate across the world.
Before the first shutter snapped in Eagle’s Nest Studio in midtown Manhattan, the room was buzzing from people rushing around getting ready for Jessie J’s close-up. An hour later, the stunning British singer, born Jessica Ellen Cornish, quietly walked in wearing six-inch tall black wedge booties. Moving around the room, her large, gold hoop earrings pushing through her iconic jet-black bob, she wears a shy smile – almost like a wallflower – cordially greeting those in her path.
Everyone set to work, with the new pop star playing it like a veteran, unfazed – even though her debut album, Who You Are, with its uncompromising and fierce lyrics, was only recently released in the United States.
“[Who You Are] has done incredibly well. For 30 seconds, I had a No. 1 album on iTunes in America. I couldn’t believe it. Ha, and that’s my claim to fame!” laughs the Essex native, poised on a red couch in a corner of the studio with a slice of pizza in hand.
Even if it was only for 30 seconds in the States, there’s nothing to frown upon when it comes to the UK certified platinum Who You Are, which made top 10 lists in 22 countries – No. 1 in four of them. This is without mentioning the opening track on the album, “Price Tag” featuring B.o.B., which debuted at the No. 1 spot on the charts – outselling Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” – and was the No. 1 video on VEVO.
Her hit singles grabbed Jessie J the 2011 Critic’s Choice Award at the BRIT Awards, the Sound of 2011 spot on the BBC list and a mention on innumerable artists-to-watch lists – a great feat for someone who is still on her way to conquering the U.S.
But, despite her recent success, life hasn’t always been all glitz and glam for the BRIT School graduate. At 11 years old, she was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, first noticed after she fell during a race with her father to the car. At 18, she suffered a minor stroke because of the same problem, but hasn’t let it slow her down. In fact, it’s the motivational force in her life and career.
“I think anyone would feel like they have to throw themselves into their dreams, but that definitely gave me an insight in that however healthy I am, however well I was brought up – ‘cause I never had junk food, I never smoked, I never drank alcohol – sometimes, health isn’t something that is on your side,” she says. “You can either embrace that, get over it and go, ‘Okay cool, I still got my sight, I can hear, I can walk, I can breath, I can see,’ or give up.”
Despite her medical problems, she makes it very clear it’s not the central aspect of being and puts a positive spin on things when these issues are addressed. “I don’t want [my health] to define me. Yes, I have bad health issues, but it could be a lot worse,” she continues. “I don’t want it to be my boohoo story. I almost want it to be the opposite. I wanna be a role model for anyone who has disabilities or health issues that doesn’t feel like they can live their dream ‘cause it’s complete and utter lies.”
As a fan, it may be hard not to pay attention to her health issues when they’ve played such a large role in her songwriting. “Big White Room,” the first song she wrote, was inspired by and dedicated to her ward mate, a young boy who sadly passed during surgery while she was hospitalized with him.
“I wanted to write a song that was dedicated to him, but I never imagined so many people would be able to take it on board and make it their own,” she explains. “There’s something about it that every time I recorded it in the studio, it didn’t feel right. It felt like something was suffocating and I couldn’t do it. It was hard. I recorded it about nine times, and we tried to produce it, but it didn’t work and I was just like, ‘This song is so personal and so much about the performance and melody and atmosphere, why can’t we just do it live?’ So we did, and it worked. I just wanted it to almost feel like I was singing it to him with everyone listening. I’d like to think, and I hope and pray, he’s in a better place and not in pain anymore. The beauty of music is he lives on.”
Writing songs that connect with and touch her fan base can come with a lot of pressure, though – maybe even more than a 23-year-old had anticipated. “I get so many messages that say, ‘“Big White Room” is my tune right now, and the only song pulling me through right now.’ It’s a beautiful thing,” says Jessie, recalling how it helped prevent one listener from committing suicide. “I’d be lying if I said it’s not a lot of pressure, ‘cause sometimes I need someone to write a song for me to listen to… But, to have that feeling of knowing that a song I wrote did that is the best thing in the world.”
Aside from that initial song, the title track of Who You Are has gained much of the attention from her worldwide fan base. “I wanted to write a song that I knew could be played next week or in 10 years time and people would still like it,” she states. “Who You Are has probably been the most reactful song online for me, but also for my fans saying, ‘Thanks [for] allowing me to feel like I can be me.’”
The song, much like many that she writes, came from a real life experience when she went out to L.A. to pursue a career in music and ended up writing songs for artists like Miley Cyrus (“Party in the U.S.A”), Chris Brown (“I Need This”) and even Britney Spears. Although she’d definitely experienced some success, it was a trying period in her life and she needed a way to vent her frustrations.
“It was a big moment for me, you know? I was 18 or 19, and I think there’s a lot of good and bad that people don’t see in the [music] industry. I think I was kinda very much in and out with the bad at one point. A lot of people I encountered didn’t have my best interest in mind,” she reveals. “You know, you can just get wrapped up in being down, and I needed a way to get out of it and I knew it was to write a song, I just didn’t know what it needed to sound like.”
Before she crossed the Pond to pursue her solo career, Jessie attended the famous BRIT School with fellow singer-songwriter Adele, studying musical theater and honing her craft. “It was amazing. There was always these points where you’d have like a 16-part harmony in the middle of the cafeteria, people singing like ‘Oh, Happy Day’ or dancers stretching on the balcony at really inappropriate times. But it was really just a school for kids that wanted to be different, just trying to reach their dreams,” she recalls. “It’s no different from any other school and there were the kids that did their math, the Englishes and the sciences, but there was also the other strand of kids that kinda bled away from that – and that’s where I did my intervals. But one thing that I definitely think the BRIT School gives you is opportunity and independence.”
At 15, she was one of four members in the London-based girl group Soul Deep. They came together to use their voices for the anti-gun campaign “Don’t Trigger” with a song called “Why?” that was accompanied with a video of mothers of gun violence victims. “It was a great time for me to learn about the industry and not be the main one – to go into the studio, but not be the only one that was there.”
Two years down the line, Soul Deep still wasn’t signed, but Jessie was making some headway on her own. During the group’s first showcase, record labels took notice and sought her out. “I had paid my dues, and we sat down and I said to the girls, ‘I love you guys, but this is what I’m gonna do.’ And they respected that, and I left,” she says in a cut-and-dry way.
Now, with her debut album out around the world, the self-proclaimed “dorky, girly girl who likes to dress up sometimes” has been thrown from the high-dive into the deep end. Her first U.S. television appearance was on Saturday Night Live, and has stayed consistently on the road and doing shows. Even though it’s a dream come true to be a performer, she misses the days when she and her father would randomly dance in the train station. “I miss my family, I don’t get to see them much anymore, but you kinda have to sacrifice a lot and it’s very hard to get used to,” she admits. “You just gotta make sure you take everything as it comes and make sure you get rest and food and you keep happy.”
As the young star continues to make a name for herself internationally, she’s realized how important it is to “keep learning and never surround myself with yes men” in moving forward as an artist and performer. “One thing I’ve always done is I’ve always looked at myself from a fan’s point of view ‘cause they don’t see behind the scenes, they just see what I’m doing,” she confesses. “I’m the full force, and I think I always have to remember not every 23-year-old can associate with me being signed or me being in the industry. It has to be real life.”
Her fans around the globe have a lot to look forward to in the coming years, as slowing down doesn’t seem to be an option. She’s already back in writing mode for her sophomore album and is ready to work with artists including Kim Burrell, Jill Scott, Jazmine Sullivan and hoping to “get the chance to work with my idol,” Aretha Franklin. She also talked about a possible clothing line and musical, all while touring the world to promote the album. “There’s always something in the works. Wink, wink,” she jokes (though no wink could be seen).
As a last note, Jessie makes one thing clear. “Having a haircut the same as someone else is just having the haircut as someone else, i.e. me, Lily Allen, Cher, Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry. We can all have a fringe, we can all have bobs – but we’re not the same,” she says with a smile – and she was off.