An international career, a tragic accident and triumph — How Jason Derülo creates his own Happy Ending
Story by Nancy Dunham / Photography by Keith Major / Styling by Darius Baptist / Grooming by Maria Oldenstedt Legge for Saints Row agencyArtists / Assistants Ida Isabel & joanna karlsson for Panozo for Saints Row Agency / Location courtesy of Hotel Rival Stockholm, Sweden
Jason Derülo and his manager are winding their way through the notorious Los Angeles traffic, making their way to meeting after meeting to work out details surrounding his recently released single ‘The Other Side’ and his upcoming album.
Anybody else might be griping about the traffic or the hectic schedule or the myriad of details involved in these projects, but Jason isn’t like anybody else. He sees this as a very real second chance, in a world that gives very few of those.
And why, most people would have thought just a few years ago, would he ever need one? At age 21, he was looking back at a self-titled debut that spawned three Top 10 hits. He won the covered BMI ‘Songwriter of the Year’ award in 2011. And he was rehearsing for a world tour behind his critically acclaimed sophomore album Future History. As if that wasn’t enough, he was dating singer-songwriter-actress Jordin Sparks, whose successful career was launched when she won the sixth season of American Idol. Life was sweet.
One hands free back flip during tour rehearsals changed everything. He landed, hard. His neck was broken. His tour was cancelled. And there were fears that he would ever walk, maybe ever move, agTopMan printed blazerTopMan printed pantCarlos Campos shirt Joseph Abboud v-neck sweater Pull-In striped socks Diesel Black Gold ring Plectrum by Ben Sherman shoes
But, again, Jason isn’t like anybody else. Not only did he recover physically he used the tragedy to develop what may be one of contemporary music’s greatest career triumphs. Here Jason talks about the accident, the music and just why he takes strength from his fans.
YRB: That neck injury you had was terrifying.
Jason: The experience was terrible. Just not being able to do simple things like tie my shoes or take a shower without help. It was crazy.
YRB: Clearly, you had to cancel your tour when it happened. How did it effect you, personally, and how did you get back to music?
Jason: The whole injury just opened by eyes to life. I felt like it helped me to grow up. When you have those near-death experiences, something really speak to you about what is important in life, what really matters. So the songs on this album are a lot more emotional and a lot more personal than my [earlier] songs. The songs are definitely from a different perspective, very grown up.
YRB: Did you wait to recover before you returned to your music?
Jason: No, I figured I should use the time wisely. Rather than staying down, why not pick myself up? So I got into the studio—probably a little too early because I was still in my neck brace—as soon as I could. I have been writing songs all my life so I just started back.
YRB: How did you start? Did you start listening to beats or writing with a pen and paper or what did you do?
Jason: Oh, no, I write on the mic so I have a track playing and then I just freestyle to the track. Again, I probably went back a little too soon. When I sing, I can’t help but move! I’m a mover. After every session I would be in such pain because I couldn’t help but move to the music. So, anyway, all in all I’ve been working on the album a while and it is, by far, the best work I’ve ever done. I am excited to finally get it out there.
YRB: Tell me about the music.
Jason: Well, it’s just me speaking about my life. When you get to a certain point as a songwriter, it’s less about thinking and more about feeling. That is what the whole album has . It is not contrived. It is not engineered. It is more felt, from a heavy aspect. I wasn’t telling the producers ‘Hey, I want this exact sound.’ I was just trying to vibe and feel what is right as opposed to trying to make songs how we picture them. It was kind of like building a house with no floor plan.
YRB: Who influenced you musically as you returned?
Jason: Well, I’ve always been a huge fan of Red One and Dr. Luke—and they were an intricate part of helping to create the album they are obviously legends in their own right. To have them be part of the process was amazing. I always looked up to people as an artist, but being a writer I looked up to them from a writing and production stand point as well.
It was really fun, it was different. We did a lot of stuff starting off with the guitar. You should be able to play every great song with a guitar and still have it be a great song.
YRB: How did that work? Did someone give you that idea?
Jason: It was actually suggested to me by Mike Cannon. I had dabbled with it prior, but Mike suggested that. He gave me a few guitar loops and it was really working. I liked the felling of it so I continued with it. Also, on the other side, I wanted the album to sound like a live album. I wanted every song so it could be played in a living setting. There is a lot of chants and a lot of sing-a-long-ability so the whole album has a stadium vibe to it.
YRB: And how did you plan that?
Jason: Like I said, it was less about thinking and more about doing. I wasn’t necessarily worried about what somebody would say about the songs. I was kind of pouring my heart out about whatever came to mind. That’s why you don’t want to use a pen and paper to write the songs. That can cripple you because you can erase it or cross it out or edit it. But if you record and listen back, you can hear someone bleeding on the record. You can work from that.
YRB: So a lot has been written about the romantic and sexual references in your songs. Were you worried what your girlfriend would think when she heard those?
YRB: Wow — that sounds like it’s coming from a man who really made a conscious decision not to let his private life censor his creativity!
Jason: (Laughing) You have to be able to separate that. You have to believe that it is important to put your heart on a record. If you don’t, it will be missing something. I didn’t want it to miss anything so I had to put it all out there.
YRB: And this is pretty obvious, but explain how you get the ideas for your songs? What inspires you?
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Jason: A lot of my music is based on my real. Jordin being a major part of my life, obviously, has a lot to do with the album. From an inspiration standpoint, I work closely with my manager xx. We talk every day and we strategize every day. He is somebody who inspires me every day.
YRB: How did you relationship with Jordin develop?
Jason: We met years and years back. She and her mom came to one of my shows in Phoenix and we always remained friends. It wasn’t ‘til we had a show together in the Bahamas about two years ago that we started to develop a relationship. She came to one of my rehearsals in LA, and she stayed for the whole rehearsal. I loved that. She stayed there for four hours and she was so amazed and intrigued by the process. So that led to dinner and the rest is history. That was all before I broke my neck.
YRB: Can you believe you’re saying those words, that you broke your neck?
Jason: I know! When I say that, it almost seems like a bad joke. Like those words, it’s crazy. What can you say, really, that is much worse than that?
YRB: So when she came to the Phoenix show, you knew she would be there, right?
Jason: Oh, yeah, they told me she was coming to the show. When a celebrity comes to a show, they usually ask if that’s ok and stuff and the person comes back stage. Artists get passes. It’s sort of an unwritten rule. So she came back stage and we talked a bit. I did a few [appearances at various charities she supports] and we talked a bit. We stayed friends. It’s not like we talked every day or even every week. It was just more in passing.
YRB: And she played a big part in your recovery, like with being there and funny gifts and stuff I would guess?
Jason: Oh, yeah, but it was a lot more like that. It was simple stuff. Like tying my shoes and helping me put my shirt on. Stuff I just couldn’t do. She was there for me.
YRB: Now, of course, a lot of your fans want to know what you find sexy in a woman? Just overall.
Jason: Well, confidence is really sexy to me. But too much confidence isn’t good either because then there’s no room to grow. So I think confidence balanced with a bit of insecurity. It sounds funny, but that’s sexy.
Physically, someone who takes care of herself, who wants to be healthy. She doesn’t have to be really thin or really muscular. Just someone who, again, takes care of herself.
And someone who is driven, too, who has goals.
YRB: I get that. If you are with someone who isn’t as ambitious as you, it’s just a drag.
Jason: Yeah, it’s like that puts an extra weight on you.
YRB: You’re clearly ambitious and talented. And, of course, you’ve had a lot of success. A lot of people know your songs but they don’t necessarily know you. Does that drive you a little crazy, to hear the songs played and realize people don’t realize that you wrote them?
Jason: As a songwriter I think it’s important to let the songs do there thing. I have a tattoo on my back of a feather pen that leads into verse. It’s basically saying that every song will have it’s own journey, will take flight. Songs are like birds. You don’t want to keep those birds caged. So any way the songs get out to the public and touch somebody, that’s fine. It doesn’t matter if it’s by me singing them or not.
YRB: Wow, that’s really a mature way to look at your art.
Jason: I had to learn that. Really, I had to grow up and learn that. When I was a kid, I didn’t have my own artist thing going. When I heard other people singing my songs, it was hard.
YRB: You’ve said a lot about how you write. Take one song from your new album Future History and talk about how it developed.
Jason: Let’s talk about ‘The Other Side.’ It started out kind of funny. We were listening to Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ and then we were listening to Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ and it was interesting to see how close those bass lines were. They were really close! I don’t think most people realize that. ‘Billie Jean’ is definitely a little derivative of ‘Like a Virgin.’ We started with a derivative of that, playing around with it a little bit. That is how the song was born. And it sounds nothing like either one of those songs but that was the initial inspiration. And ‘The Other Side,’ is about taking that friendship into the realm of lovers. It is always that one thing that changes everything – that one kiss, that one embrace that feel a little different than the other ones that brings thing to the other side.
YRB: How long did the song take to develop, just initially.
Jason: It went through a lot of different changes, but the basic structure was done in about a 12-hour session. The was mostly where it was going to be after 12 hours. Then we did production, the vocals, all the stuff like that. It wasn’t one of those super quick ones, at all. We actually did two other sessions doing rewrites a bit but the initial structure of the song came together pretty quickly. But we kept working on it, just to make it perfect. We put a lot of work into it.
YRB: Your such a fashionable guy. Tell me about expressing yourself in that way.
Jason: I guess fashion is like an extension of yourself. I like to try things. My fashion is constantly changing. I am totally in a new place, fashion wise, than I was six months ago. I’m in a totally different headspace with it. I don’t care what anybody says [about fashion trends], I like to experiment. When I feel like I look good, I know it is right. I just go with that. When I feel I look good, I feel good and that’s all I care about.
YRB: So define your style now.
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Jason: My style now is more new urban. I’m really into sneakers, different kinds of shoes that really stand out and make a statement. I just really got into hats, snap-back hats. I wear those a lot. And shirts, but I generally keep those pretty simple. So my shoes and my hat and a jacket and shirt kind of make my statement.
YRB: You have to be thinking so much about your upcoming tour, especially because the last one didn’t happen. What are your plans for it?
Jason: The tour is a while away. We have to make the audience know the songs before we go on tour. But I definitely want this tour to be even more than what I imagined for my last show. The last one was supposed to be my moment, a balladeer playing for my homies. This one is going to be as big, bigger hopefully. But, well, I just kind of hope we can go to sleep or something and wake up and find all the designs and details have magically appeared!
YRB: So I know from fan boards that a lot of your female fans are especially thrilled that you’ll be out on the road. What’s the craziest fan encounter that you’ve had?
Jason: I had a girl wait in a janitor’s closet and run out on stage when the show was on. She was in there for a little bit. That was at a show we played in Europe.
YRB: So did you freak out when she was there, or what?
Jason: I was ok. Everybody else had heart attacks. I just kept on going and she was holding on for dear life when security was trying to pull her off me. It was in 2011, right before everything.
YRB: You know, I’ve seen so many videos or pictures of fans that are crying or hysterical—like I guess with Michael Jackson is the perfect example—and it seems so odd to me. I mean, to let so much emotion out when you meet someone for the first time.
Jason: But you can’t say that. As songwriters or performers, we don’t know how deeply we affect someone, what our music means to them. So that crying and stuff, that’s really a beautiful thing. That means you really touched someone so deeply.