There’s something about Joanna Levesque that makes you feel as though you’ve grown up with her. Maybe it’s the way she’s able to hold a conversation about anything that comes up, such as her Netflix binge session picks (she’s a fan of Narcos) or the (then one-day-old) Kanye West and Wiz Khalifa Twitter feud. Or maybe—after reflecting back to my Radio Disney days when her hits were on heavy rotation in the family’s Dodge Caravan—it’s that we did grow up with the musician affectionately known as JoJo.
On a brisk New York morning, JoJo emerges into YouTube's colorful Studio B at Chelsea Market no longer a teenybopper with chocolate brown hair and chubby cheeks, but a bonafide woman with center-parted auburn tresses, fraternal eyebrow piercings and a nude-lipstick stained Starbucks cup insulating her Coconut Milk Cappuccino (“with one Splenda”). The Massachusetts-bred songbird, famous for mid 2000s hits “Too Little, Too Late” and “Baby It’s You,” also comes equipped with a potty mouth, shooting off f-bombs whenever necessary. At first, hearing her curse throws you off, considering she was a tween-aged ingénue during her initial industry embarkation in 2004. But let’s keep in mind, this is 2016 JoJo: a liberated, unabashed 25-year-old ready to take control of her career after a nearly decade-long hiatus.
“I suppose it would be hard to comprehend, but these same reporters that are asking me things are like, 'What were you doing at 13? What are you doing now at 25?'” she says. “I don't feel any need to apologize for who I am. If you still look at me like I'm 13, what the f**k is wrong with you?” Paired with the fact that her industry glo-up was marred by behind-the-scenes setbacks between her and her former label Blackground, Levesque has also had to deal with a few deeply personal issues throughout her lengthy career, such as saying goodbye to a parent while on her first tour in years. One of JoJo’s positive attributes, however, is that against all odds, she has never stopped doing what she believes she was born to do, and she’s ready to show the world that she’s here to stay.
Levesque’s professional singing career began at the tender age of 12, but before then, her vocal performances were sprinkled across various platforms, such as the Rosie O’Donnell Show, America’s Most Talented Kids and at McDonald’s Gospelfest. Shortly before her platinum-selling eponymous debut album was released, she became the youngest person in the history of Billboard’s Top 40 Pop Chart to have a number one single (“Leave (Get Out)”) and the youngest artist to be nominated for a VMA and a Billboard Music Award, respectively. However, she started to smell trouble at the office around the time her critically-acclaimed sophomore album, 2006’s The High Road, was released.
“I felt like these people were my family,” the songstress says of her former home label, which once was the stomping-ground of Timbaland, Tank and the late-Aaliyah. “People who worked at the company were coming to me in confidence, in private, telling me to get out as soon as I could. Other artists that have been on the label would reach out and tell me their personal stories, having dealt with them.”
She soon discovered that she couldn't release any new material commercially or collaborate on outside projects with other musicians due to the company’s lost distribution rights and her seven-year contractual bind. At this time, JoJo was just 15, and never officially told by the label about any of the issues at hand.
“They never came out and said that,” she says, shaking her head, her wavy hair moving from side to side. “Matter of fact, they tried to work around it, or they tried to sell me on something else.” The entanglement left JoJo feeling “overwhelmed and scared,” especially since there were levels to her sh**. Not only was she a burgeoning pop/R&B starlet, but she was also acting in blockbusters such as RV and Aquamarine while balancing schoolwork. The halt could have put a dent in the momentum she worked so hard to achieve.
“I always felt that if things weren't working out between us, that we would just agree that we would let each other go, but they didn't let me go,” she says about her estranged relationship with the now-defunct label. “So I had to bring lawyers into it, and that kind of broke my heart.”
This type of issue isn’t unheard of, as we’ve recently seen with pop star Kesha’s case unfolding in the media. Before dropping her lawsuit in August 2016, the singer had been stuck in a contractual rut with Sony Music after losing a court battle in February against producer, Dr. Luke, whom she claimed was sexually abusive towards her. Even with the claims, Kesha may have to release several more albums through Sony until she can leave the label for good. JoJo took to Twitter after the “Tik Tok” singer’s February verdict, offering her condolences and thoughts on a realm she knows all too well, writing, “…It is a terrible feeling to not own your voice/ be able to release music.”
“When you sign a record contract, you don't own the rights to your voice that comes out of your body anymore, as it is on television or radio or anything like that,” JoJo says of tricky recording contracts. “I could sing live all I wanted, but I couldn't make a living off of it anymore, and I needed to fight for that right.”
After claiming the label caused “irreparable damage to her professional career,” Levesque sued Blackground in 2013. The issue was officially resolved in 2014, when Jo was released from her contract with the label. Although Blackground essentially held her hostage, trash-talking them was never a thought in her mind, especially since they had a hand in her professional progress. “They started my career and gave me a foundation that I don't think I could have created myself, so I think that's amazing and I'm thankful to them for that.”
After the debris cleared, she signed to her current label, Atlantic Records. What drew JoJo to Atlantic was the company’s devotion to their artists' development, their appreciation of individual style and their “incredible” chairwoman, Julie Greenwald.
“We've spent the last year doing some really great marketing to activate her fanbase, to get them ready for the big project, and I think that's the difference between [Atlantic] and everybody else,” Greenwald said over the phone.
“Their roster and their track record [were inspiring],” JoJo says regarding the label’s big names, such as Bruno Mars and the “f**king dope” Janelle Monae. “I was drawn to that, and the way they seem to be interested in the long term career of artists. They don't just throw singles out the wall, and if it doesn't work, forget about an artist. They're invested in the long term, and that was inspiring to me.”
Through Atlantic, JoJo released her highly anticipated EP, III, in August 2015. Pronounced “tringle,” the critically acclaimed triad of songs included production by Harmony Samuels (“Say Love”), The Family (“Save My Soul”) and Benny Blanco (“When Love Hurts”). Between 2010 and 2014, she released two mixtapes, Can’t Take That Away From Me and Agáp?, a #LoveJo EP and a host of memorable YouTube covers, including Drake’s “Marvin’s Room.” The mixtapes dealt with Levesque’s personal and professional experiences, while #LoveJo featured the starlet performing covers of songs by Anita Baker and Phil Collins. III was not as R&B-influenced as its predecessors, which is what Levesque was aiming for.
“I knew that in incorporating some dance music elements into it, for example, ‘When Love Hurts,’ some of my fans might not dig that because they love a more R&B sound,” she explains of her fresh sound. “Then, there were a lot of supporters who love dance music, love a higher BPM, love a more electronic sound. You can't satisfy everyone, but I needed to do what felt right for me and be true to what was giving me life.”
Those who have been rooting for JoJo and have been eager to hear new material will only have to endure the lengthy lacunae a bit longer, as her third album Mad Love, will officially be released on Oct. 14. The recurring theme you’re likely to hear throughout the LP is love.
“I mean, love is my favorite thing,” she tells me, matter-of-factly. “I might even be addicted to love. The good, the bad and the ugly, I love love, sex, passion; that's all very real to me and I wanna talk about it in a conversational way." Many songs on the LP will weave elements of hip-hop and R&B, styles which come organically to Jo, but fans are sure to get what they’ve been craving from the starlet when it comes to Mad Love.
“The idea behind Mad Love is kind of my relationship with music,” she tells me over the phone shortly after the album announcement was made. It was just as casual as our original face-to-face sit down.
“I took the time to have some relationships, to fall in and out of love, to get my heart broken, to break hearts, to learn what I like, what I dislike. So on this album, we're talking about literal highs and lows in love: sex, loss and learning through it. I think it’s an empowering record through and through.” JoJo wanted to release her album on her own time and in an way that screamed “I’m back.” Her first single “F**k Apologies” featuring labelmate Wiz Khalifa was released in late-July, and choosing the pop-heavy Wolf Cousins-produced joint was not an easy decision, as there were many worthy songs to choose from, such as the self-love ballad, “I Am.”
“We could have gone with a ballad first, or something that's even riskier, but I think that kind of taking the risk of having an explicit single is very natural to me,” she explains. “I mean, I talk like a sailor, I'm trying to work on it a little bit, especially in front of children [laughs]. But you know, at the end of the day, it's who I am. I can't apologize for it. F**k it.”
She has also been keeping herself busy opening up for girl group Fifth Harmony as a part of the North American leg of their 7/27 Tour. Not only does she get to interact with 5H’s “passionate” fans the “Harmonizers,” but she gets to soak in the gratitude of her own fans, old and new, while traveling throughout the U.S.
“The arenas and the amphitheaters have been pretty much full for my set!” she beams through the phone. “That's like a prize and a wonderful thing. I've been gone for so long, so for people to come out and show so much love, it always, like, blows my mind every single time. To some people, I'm a new artist, but I take it in stride. I think it's funny. I'm a new artist that's been putting out music for 12 years.”
In January, JoJo explained how she had a few internal reservations about releasing her first body of new material in almost 10 years, such as not being able to deliver in the way she feels like she’s expected to. However, she reassures that in taking her time with the entire experience, she’s ready to continue with her musical journey.
Levesque may have unintentionally slipped to the back of minds due to her career stall, but she still has a legion of extremely-devoted fans still lingering to every effortless riff, sass-filled tweet, and exquisite selfie she posts.
I’ve been fighting to be here for a long time, [now] I have something more concrete to talk about. I'm on the other side of the dark time, so I wanna step into the light. —JoJo
“I'm really fortunate [to have fans] who’ve grown with me and have stayed committed and interested, and I don't take it for granted,” she says. Despite the setbacks in the musician’s career, her day-ones have played an integral part in JoJo’s success and longevity. They helped create awareness about JoJo’s Blackground debacle with the hashtag, #FreeJoJo, have listened to her mixtapes and EP’s (including the recent #LoveJo2) and bought tickets in droves to her most recent headlining tour, I Am JoJo. The concert hit up 23 U.S. cities and five cities in Europe from November 2015 to early-March; 13 of the performances were entirely sold out. Not only was she able to try out new material on tour, but also she finally got a chance to see her impact on her fans both here and across the pond.
“It felt amazing to go down memory lane and do the old stuff, but even more amazing to do new songs and to see the fire in their eyes and have the human connection, which is something that I'm addicted to,” she says. “That was huge for rebuilding my confidence and making me feel like, ‘Okay, I'm in the right place.’ I'm so lucky. I didn't tour a lot when I was young. It feels nice to be out there and to get a chance to hone in on what I love to do, and with the people who give me life.”
However, the celebration of being able to perform and connect again hit a bump when her father, Joel, passed away at the age of 60 in mid-November 2015. A “cool cat” as Jo called him, Mr. Levesque was a blues singer with whom she shared a bond with through the power of music. “I wasn't sure if I was actually gonna be able to sing, because I'm not very good with singing and crying at the same time,” she says, as her Milwaukee tour stop was just two days after his death. However, she was given solace in the belief that her father was watching and was proud of her.
“I got to play him a lot of this album before he passed and he loved it,” she notes, flashing a smile. “We sat around, he listened to it. He would sing and harmonize with me. Music was our language; it's what we did together. I just knew that he would have wanted me to keep going.” Her father was unwell for a long time, but his passing renewed her focus and purpose as an artist and person.
“It was particularly hard when I went back home to Boston because all my other family was there, and I knew that he wanted to be there, and we had talked about seeing each other. So that was difficult, but life is difficult. It deals you cards that you never thought you were gonna pull.”
She was able to tackle the pain of his passing with a good friend whose own father’s death made global headlines. JoJo tagged Zelda Williams, daughter of the late-comedian Robin Williams, to direct the video for “Save My Soul,” which was released in January 2016.
“When I was thinking about doing the video, I felt a desire to ask her, ‘Do you wanna do this?’ [laughs] And she was like, ‘I thought you'd never ask!’ And we did it!” The two met behind-the-scenes of the film RV, where JoJo portrayed Mr. Williams’ angsty daughter. Since then, the two have shared a spiritual and creative bond.
“Sometimes we just spend time, the both of us with our laptops next to each other, not saying a damn thing, but just being creative next to each other,” JoJo says. The video’s candid description, as written by Levesque, reads: “We filmed this video about a month before my father lost his decades long battle with addiction. I’m not mad at my dad. I love him and I'm sad. He is my greatest heartbreak. This song, which had always been personal to me, takes on even deeper meaning now. Makes me think of the universal struggle of seeking victory over the feeling of powerlessness to a situation, a lover, a drug.” In a statement regarding the video, Zelda said, “It’s not even our shared experiences with addiction and loved ones who suffered from them…In the end, the thing I am most grateful for is the trust Jo had in me to help her tell a story I know has been percolating in her for a very, very long time.”
JoJo believes that even after the months after his passing, her father’s memory still serves as a guiding light as her journey as a musician continues to flourish, and her faith that he would be proud of his little girl has yet to waver.
“At the end of every conversation my dad and I would have on the phone, he would say ‘I love you madly, Jo,’ and I would say, ‘I love you madly, too,’” she says. “When I wrote ‘Mad Love,’ I wasn't thinking about that [their phone sign-off], because the inspiration was something else. But then I listened to a voicemail I had of his, and he goes, ‘Alright, Jo, I love you madly,’ and I started crying. I was like, no f**king way. And I realized that he is in everything that I do. Even looking at myself, I look like him, I'm close with his side of the family. I listen to music that we used to listen to together, and this is just the next phase of our relationship. That's how I try to think about it. I still talk to him when I'm in nature, and I know he's proud.”
She pauses. There’s a brief silence on the phone before she continues. “I know he would be so happy that I'm having this opportunity to live the dream that I started when I was a little girl.”
Returning to the scene after ten years out of the immediate spotlight seems like a lofty burden to bear, but don’t call it a comeback; call it a reintroduction of an artist who has fought tooth and nail to be here.
“People are like ‘How does it feel to be back in the studio?’ I'm like, ‘I never left! I've been in the studio for seven years! I've tried to be here the whole motherf**king time!’” Jo giggles before getting serious. “I’ve been fighting to be here for a long time, [now] I have something more concrete to talk about. I'm on the other side of the dark time, so I wanna step into the light.” Of course, there are fears that dwell in Levesque’s mind, such as being held a “prisoner of her success” as a child star. However, wiping the slate clean and starting fresh with a new perspective is a task that she is up for.
“It's been challenging to acknowledge that, and then also try to explain to people that I have to build, brick by brick, just like a new artist,” she points out, “because what you did twelve years ago is irrelevant. I look forward to getting this project out and continuing to make music and continuing to grow. I was at a standstill for a while, and now I feel like I'm able to take full, deep breaths. I just want to step into the next chapter and then never be afraid again.”
The days of JoJo sitting by a rusty gray locker about to croon about a no-go beau are long gone. Now, she is ready to come out with new content, ready to come out of her shell and ready to do what she was “born, bred and conditioned to do.”
“I'm just thankful. This is not work to me, this is pleasure to me. This is Joanna's time, this is Jo's time, this is JoJo's time. All of those women are inside me and one-in-the-same in a way.”