Jessie Reyez: The People’s Pop Star
The singer-songwriter has arrived with the soundtrack to the world's current pandemic.
Love isn’t an afterthought in our current time of self-isolation. The mélange of it all is felt in the spirit of singer-songwriter Jessie Reyez. Resting with her family in Toronto in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, her tribe of fans waits patiently for her to jump on Instagram Live. The intimate meetups were provided in the past but with her debut album Before Love Came To Kill Us in the ethos, fans are eager for Jessie’s magnetic energy.
One of her Lives, in particular, was life-changing as aspiring artists had the opportunity to sing for her. Diligently listening to every nayhoo, chord, and harmony from Israel, Florida, and Brazil, Jessie gives strong advice to her young fans. From taking advantage of studio time to the perks of platforms like Soundcloud, the gems are passed from one growing artist to another through the telephone screen.
The transfer of loving energy is something that comes easy for Jessie. At 28, the Colombiana embodies the wisdom of her ancestors and wit of a whiskey-toting millennial. The world’s current apocalyptic omens would shake some, but Jessie is focused on the brighter elements of life. “Love can help with actual survival tactics; survival not for the individual but for the community,” she says on her current mindstate around the outbreak. “The only way I think it could hurt us is if we don’t think about the community and approach this selfishly. Anyone that’s scared of losing people to this is hard. Every day I’m calling every single one of my elderly family members to make sure they’re good. There are so many celebrities and politicians talking about it so I feel silly reiterating the same information but it’s literally about the curve.”
Our conversation comes days before the release of her debut, a concept album ripened with the everlasting relationship between love and mortality. We have her fans to thank for its release. After an online poll pushed for the album, Jessie committed to the March 27 release date. “I had a hard time too because the title is literally Before Love Came To Kill Us, like, the whole premise of the album was to trigger people into thinking about mortality and now it almost seems like it’s a theme song to what everyone is going through. Everybody is thinking about how to survive right now so I’m embracing it because I made the decision to go with it. I’ve been connecting with fans online, which has been a nice silver lining. I’m not mad at this. It can be worse for me right now.”
The project arrives four years after her breakthrough hit “Figures” lodged a dagger into our musical hearts. With just a guitar and her signature messy up-down hairstyle, Jessie highlights her worst fears—giving love but never receiving it. It made her stand out in 2016 and soon become a notable rising act and fan-favorite alongside fellow newbies like Khalid and SZA.
”I’ve been chasing this sh*t my whole life man, don’t ever think I take this sh*t for granted,” she said during a VEVO Halloween show in 2017. Her debut EP Kiddo proved this with diary-entry songs about her journey in the industry. The harrowing “Gatekeepers” dropped in the middle of the #MeToo movement and pointed out a producer who attempted to pressure the young singer into sleeping with him. The single showcased Jessie’s lethal songwriting skills and her bravery in a competitive, and at times, misogynistic industry.
Jessie’s resilience paired with her unparalleled voice has kept her shining in R&B. With the release of her EP Being Human In Public in late 2018, Reyez began to align herself with other fearless women in the game like Kehlani and Normani. The project, featuring sobering tracks like “F**k Being Friends” and “Sola,” earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album at the 2020 Grammy Awards. Despite losing to Lizzo, Jessie’s voice in R&B had finally been heard.
Women of Latinx descent have always been entwined in soul music. Lisa Velez, known for her groundbreaking group Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam in the 1980s, released songs like “I Wonder If I Take You Home” (1985) and “From Head to Toe” (1987) in a time where Latinas were expected to sing in Spanish or constantly keep the party going with 120 bpm tunes. The release of their tender, 1986 ballad “All Cried Out” would go on to be sampled by R&B quartet Allure in 1997. Sheila E.’s vital percussions not only inspired Prince but are also infused into the tracks by Marvin Gaye, Herbie Hancock, Diana Ross, and Lionel Richie.
These steps would also go on to enlighten artists like Amy Winehouse and Ms. Lauryn Hill–two pivotal artists who Jessie Reyez looks to for inspiration. With fearless grit, Reyez takes risks like her sheroes. For one, she’s not afraid to tap into her latinidad by singing in Spanish (hear the touching “La Memoria”) and incorporating the Mexican traditions of Día De Los Muertos in her new video for “I Do.” As R&B turns a new corner with acts like H.E.R., Ella Mai, and Tory Lanez topping the charts, Jessie’s abilities make her a new leader Latinx R&B heads can stan and the music industry execs can take note of.
The combination of mindfulness and rustic songwriting taps into a new kind of pop star for people of color today. With love taking a new shape through apps, FaceTime dates and social media, the love songs have become more brutal with Reyez hitting every wrapped high note.
Speaking with VIBE VIVA, Jessie shares the tragedy of soulmates, creating Before Love Came To Kill Us, her consistent chemistry with Eminem and the perks of being yourself.
Before Love Came To Kill Us seems to be here at the right time. How are you feeling about the release?
Jessie Reyez: I’m definitely nervous and I hope it’s the best it can be, I hope it is. I tweaked the sh*t out of it. I kept loving it Monday and hating it on Tuesday. Then I would love it on Wednesday and hate it on Thursday. It was very tumultuous. I wasn’t feeling pressure when I started. I was free. The more you fu**ing talk to people, the more you risk their perspective affecting your core. Like when people say, “Oh, it’s your first album, did you feel pressure?” “Uh, Nah.” And then the second person asks I say, “Nah.” But then the tenth person is asking if you let that sh*t seep in. You’re getting closer to the zone where you might be second-guessing your intuition and that never ends right.
On top of that, we had certain people being like, “We have to make sure the album is cohesive.” I remember dealing with song selections and having this word in my head. As a human being, my innate nature and soul are sporadic. I am polar. I am high and low. I am a Gemini. I am a loving woman and a violent woman. I am all these things and for me to comprise and make this album cohesive, as opposed to making the first album me? I had a window of clarity where I was like, f**k that. People are gonna cry and people are gonna bop. The same way they did on Kiddo and the same way they did on Being Human In Public. I didn’t want to make everybody cry for the sake of having everybody cry. F**k that. If I’m a rainbow, I’m the worst ends of the rainbow. If it’s a bloody rainbow then it’s gonna be a bloody rainbow, you know?
I enjoyed the highs and lows of the album because that’s what love is. I enjoyed the collaboration with Eminem. How was it hearing his verse for the first time on “Coffin”?
He’s actually one of the last features of the album. To be honest, Eminem could’ve sent me the verse saying “Quack, quack, quack,” and it still would’ve been dope. He’s a legend and to welcome a legend on my project, someone I listened to as a kid, it’s an honor. When I got it, and it wasn’t “Quack, quack, quack,” I was like, “Ahh this is dope.” It could’ve been nothing and I still would’ve been honored. The fact that’s it dope it’s a double W.
There’s a quote about soulmates I heard on The Good Place. It goes, “If soulmates do exist, they’re not found, they’re made.” Do you believe in soulmates?
I’m one of those people who are reluctant to love because I know that the moment I do, I’m f**ked. When I say I’m f**ked I mean it’s an uphill to get me to fall in love. Once I get there, it’s like I’m crawling out of hell. Like a vertical crawl. It’s the worst because now I’m at the point where…everybody’s great because everybody starts great. I’m trying not to let my past experiences harden my heart. Sometimes it feels like the hell always wins for me. I think it’s a beautiful sentiment.
I’m not sure if I believe this anymore but there was a point in my life where I really thought that you choose to love. You choose who you love because it’s not always going to be easy. But you fight through it when it’s hard because it’s not always gonna be there. Some days I’m an optimist and some days I’m a pessimist. It just depends. Today, I guess I’m just indecisive.
Does it ever get annoying being the “deep girl?”
Well, I did when people were telling me to make the album cohesive. But sometimes I just wanna go nuts and it’s not that serious, it’s just who I am. I definitely feel that sometimes people have that expectation but I think I have that discernment to not let that affect how I’m gonna move. So when Monday and Tuesday show up and I feel like I want to be an intellectual, then on Wednesday I wanna post some ridiculous f**king meme or like Sunday I wanna just mess around with my nieces and put it online, I’m gonna do that. I feel like people expect it but I don’t really care (Laughs).
I am polar. I am high and low. I am a Gemini. I am loving woman and violent woman.
What do you think of people still looking for love via FaceTime dates during the coronavirus outbreak? I don’t understand how dating can be a priority right now.
It’s funny how situations like this can pull people in different ways. I was having a conversation with someone about this too and they were like, “How the f**k can you be thinking about this right now?” They had the same reaction as you. I don’t know but that’s just people are different. If you push someone towards death, some are going to figure out ways to get out and some people are just going to accept that it’s the end and they’re going to see what else they can do before the end. Go find a King or Queen.
The pandemic put a hold on the music industry and like many other events, your tour with Billie Eilish has been postponed. How were the first two dates you got to do together?
We got to do Orlando and Miami together and that was nice. It was great man, she’s got puppies on her rider which has gotta be the smartest most potent way to happiness. To see a little baby puppy everywhere you go while you work, that’s been my highlight.
If you had to pick the “Best Part” and “Worst Part” of your life, what gets put on the table?
The best part is (pauses) not dealing with slimy dudes anymore, like when I was a bottle service girl/bartender. There were a lot of times where I had to bite my tongue and just thug it out. Especially when I was a bottle service girl, that job is f**king hard. At least when you’re a bartender, you have the bar standing in the way, so there’s a little bit of protection against you. But the bottle service girl, you’re in the trenches. You have to slide through there and cover your ass because guys will slap your ass and be matter-o-facto, it’s a f**king jungle and I’m happy I went through it because it made me thicker skinned and it made me hustle more.
The worst part would be (pauses) I read this often in books, the f**ked up part is that when you get everything you want and you’re still not happy. There are a lot of things I have been blessed with; a career right now that’s blossoming right now and I’ve been blessed to help out people in my family financially, but I still battle a lot of demons internally that I haven’t been able to grab a hold of yet. There are just times on the road where I’m like, “I gotta figure it out.” I gotta figure out how to make my psychological health a priority because as good as my brain and my heart are, I wonder, “Am I doing life right?”
It’s so amazing to watch you grow. How do you keep yourself so centered?
When I started, I made it a point to be as authentic as possible. From the jump, it’s been that and I owe a lot of that to my parents. My family was very strict in regard to me not being able to go to sleepovers, not having boyfriends, being raised in a Colombian household in Canada because kids are allowed to do whatever they want but you’re not.
Your a** is still getting beat, your ass is still in the house. So that’s the case with a lot of minorities, the culture is just different in regards to what we’re allowed and not allowed to do as kids. I wasn’t allowed to do a lot of sh*t but the stuff I was allowed to do was through self-expression. Even if I wasn’t allowed to go to sleepovers, have a boyfriend or leave the block, I was still allowed to wear all my brother’s clothes. If I didn’t wanna wear any girl clothes, it was fine. I was still allowed to bleach my bangs if I wanted to bleach my bangs.
My dad was prepared for me to cut my hair off and dye it pink, I used to take the old curtains my mom was going to give away and chop them up and make dresses and make hairpieces and all this sh*t and if I wanted to go to school like that I was allowed. My parents were very liberal in that regard, allowing me to spend time writing and doing poetry all day.
I remember once when we moved, they were taking down the (switch border light). The place we moved into had a ton of those that were metal and embellished and my mom hated them so then she took them all down. They all had them downstairs in a box and I took the whole box and brought them to my room. I thought it would be so dope if I took them and hammered them all over my room. So my mom came in and saw and was like, “What the hell did she do? This looks ridiculous but okay.”
Now, I’m grown. If I feel like someone is telling me what to wear, or if I feel like someone is strongly suggesting I need to be in this, the first thing I think of is, “My parents don’t tell me what to wear. You think you’re gonna tell me what to wear?” I’ve had that feeling of self-expression since I was a kid. That’s not something I’m willing to give up cause I know that it was a gift from my parents. A lot of kids have that repression. You have to make sure your hair looks like this, your shoes are f**king this, all that sh*t and I didn’t have that. So I honor it by being true to myself now.