“If you’re feeling alright, say Schwaza,” a fluffy-maned and wide-grinned Jesse Boykins III instructs a swaying crowd at SoHo’s Apple store. “I can’t hear you. Say it louder,” he repeats, unsatisfied by their response. “Say Schwaza!” As defined by him, Schwaza is “an amazing occurrence that leaves you with a lack of words to express the gravity of the moment, exceptional, excellent, of high quality.”
A life high, in other words, which perfectly describes Boykins in the prime of his electric performance. You watch him—adorned in garbs easily considered a thrifter’s treasure—zig zagging across the stage, singing about life and love. Jesse’s free-flowing ‘fro, love-laced lyrics and wooing vocals can trick even the most ice-hearted into pursuit of romance. He dances from the mic standing next to his playful band members, then to the roaring audience and back to the mic stand, carrying the joy and positive energy of his musical high—his Schwaza—with him.
It’s all fitting. The beginning of his year was spent racking up passport stamps on an international tour, recording (and then releasing) his 13-track EP P.O.P [Purpose or People] and readying all the bells and whistles on his next album, Love Apparatus. While his album’s been four year in the works and a release date ceases to exist, he’s not rushing. Boykins insists on quality over quantity; why churn out the goods unless they’re perfect?
Before rocking the stage, VIBE Vixen caught up with the cool crooner and chatted about the creative direction of his newest projects, the women that make him smile, and why he’s in good musical company. —Stacy-Ann Ellis
VIBE Vixen: You started streaming your EP P.O.P last week. What direction were you trying to go with it?
Jesse Boykins III: When I decided I was going to do it, it had just been songs I was listening to a lot that I liked. I remember being on tour and it was rough, I was taking trains everywhere. When I was in Europe, I was on the train from Switzerland to Paris, which is kind of long, so I’d have songs on repeat. When I got home, I hadn’t really recorded for a while. I think the first thing I did was the Drake cover, “Doing it Wrong.” I sent it to Joya, my manager, and she said it was good. I did another one and she said “this is good too.” pretty much how it started. It was pretty natural. It was more so me trying to get back in the habit of recording. You have to be in a certain mind frame where you want to wake up and record. But when you’re touring, it’s two different lifestyles, so I had to readjust.
Besides Drake, I know you covered “Sparks” by Coldplay and “How Deep is Your Love” by the Rapture. What else is on there?
I covered a Lana Del Rey song called “Young and Beautiful” from the Great Gatsby soundtrack. I really love that song. I also covered “Beautiful People” by Chris Brown. I covered “Lose Yourself to Dance” by Daft Punk and Pharrell. I was listening to that song on repeat like crazy. Then there were other songs that I was writing at the time. I didn’t just want to make it a cover project. I understand the aspect of it but I also want people to understand my writing and listen to it and go, oh this is written by somebody else and this is written by Jesse. I like both of these. That was the concept of the project so that’s why I incorporated both.
Which song grabbed you the most?
Probably “Sparks.” I’ve been listening to that song for years. It’s never gotten old. It always brings me the same emotion. Not a lot of songs can do that. Albums can get you like that. By song seven you’re like okay, I get it. For a song to do that is very powerful. I had the most fun doing the Drake song. I know it’s super sad but it was fun. There was so much space on it because Drake’s not really a singer, so he kept to his melody. It was fun to play around on it. But for the other one, Chris Martin? I’m not trying to out-sing Chris Martin. I’ll try a little bit but I’m not going to try to take over his song.
What would you describe your writing style?
Heartfelt and in the moment. A lot of times when I write, it’s really spontaneous so it’ll start off like a freestyle and then I’ll sit with it for a couple and then I’ll finish. If I don’t want to freestyle the whole song, I’ll just write the rest of it. It’s autobiographical for sure. I believe in that. I can listen to my old albums and remember when I recorded and who it was about. Like, that’s how I used to think when I was 22? That’s crazy. My ego was huge. I like them being a timeline to my life. I always try to write how I presently feel, especially when I’m writing for myself so I can document that and hope that someone connects with it.
I can’t even say. I have no idea. All I know is that I took four years to do it, so I don’t want to rush and put it out. I want it to be right and the way that I have it packaged is that I shot a documentary on women as well for the past two and a half years. I was shooting everywhere I went and I was interviewing women around the world. I was in Tokyo, Switzerland, Germany, France, Spain, Africa, L.A. The age range is from 17 to 65 and it’s 300 women. That is tied to the album. They’re both called the same thing, Love Apparatus. I’m making sure I map that out right. That’s why it took me long. I took a break from the album and I started doing the documentary and I was touring a lot. I took a step back from it. When I came back to Love Apparatus to finish it, it was pretty cool because I had a different perspective from interviewing all these women. I ask them all the same eight questions.
Oh wow, what were the questions?
I can’t tell you that. But what I realized is that when I went back to it and wrote three new songs for the album, it was just cool to hear what I wrote when I was 25 and then what I wrote when I was 28. And then have them both on the same album.
When you’re performing onstage, what’s the energy level like between you and your audience?
You get what you give with anything. When I perform, I give all that I have in hopes that I receive it. And even if I don’t receive it from the audience, it still makes me feel good. That’s how I like to look at it. I don’t ever think there was a time when I’ve gotten on stage and it’s like, I don’t really feel like doing this right now. I look forward to that part. All the other stuff before, I’m like ugh. I ghave to wake up at 7 in the morning and board a train for 13 hours to play for 45 minutes? I complain a little bit, and then when I get on stage I say, “It was worth it. Shut up.” Especially when I play with my band, we vibe off each other so crazy that it doesn’t even matter what the crowd is doing. We’re gonna go in regardless. That’s what I love about performing.
You consider yourself a romantic. What does that mean for you? What are some of the qualifiers?
I feel like the word romance has so many different definitions. To me, it just means to be passionate. And compassionate. Some people say it’s so romantic when they get roses. I think that’s cool and romantic but kind of cliché and pretty easy. Romantic to me is when you do something that caters to someone and specifies for that person. It’s like wow, this person really loves classical music. Take her to this concert. Not just saying there’s something cool going on so let’s go and then hold hands. It’s more so the simple things. If you spend the night at a girl’s house and you make her bed, I feel like that’s romantic. People don’t really do stuff like that. Or if you offer to cook food and you guys go grocery shopping together and get the food before you do it. Moments like that. I don’t think that really happens a lot in society but I like to do that. That’s what makes me feel good and I feel like that makes the person I’m with feel good too.
If you could pick the background music to a perfect night out, what would be playing?
It depends on who that person is. You can’t just generalize like that. And I can’t just say that I would pick based on what I want because that might not be what they want. We would have to come to a middle ground. You pick a song, then I’ll pick this song. I can’t just say you know what, put on that D’Angelo Voodoo and it’s over. She might like listening to The Beach Boys for all I know. It all depends on who the person is.
True. Then what kind of woman are you attracted to?
I like a woman with knowledge and who wants to know more about things. I like that. I like when I’m having a conversation and they’re like, “Did you know?” I like depth. Not that I’m against these things, but I’m not really with the superficial. I don’t really want to know what’s going on with Love and Hip Hop. I don’t care. But if you want to talk about Isis and Osiris and put me on that, then I’m down to listen. I like being presented with new things. I like when a woman tries to uplift and educate and make that person a better person. That’s what I appreciate.
Some think being friends with the opposite sex means there’s no sexual attraction. Do you agree? That’s not true. Even in one of my interviews I asked a woman to tell me all the things you love about a man. This is how she answered it: “It never starts off with me being attracted to that person, because that’s more of a risk.” Most of the time, the most attractive person has a super amount of flaws because no one’s ever shot down their flaws or killed their ego. Everyone’s like, you deserve this and you deserve that, so a lot of times it’s hard to break through that. She was like, “I’d rather be with someone who makes me laugh and makes me remember that I’m presently in a moment.” That’s all she said. It’s funny because the more someone makes me laugh, the more I can have conversation with someone, the more attractive they become. It’s like when you walk down the street and you see a couple, and you’re like, they’re together? He probably makes her laugh, he’s probably listened to her problems, he probably points out her problems to her and keeps it real with her. That’s what it should be. That’s how I would like it.
Any music releases from the end of last year to now that you’ve given a thumbs up to?
There’s a couple artists that I listen to that should get a lot more acknowledgement than they have now. It’s funny because they’re my friends. BJ the Chicago Kid is so underrated. And his last project Pineapple Now-Laters is great. Iman Omari dropped an EP called Energy, you should check it out. He just recently dropped an album called VIBErations. He produces and mixes everything himself. He actually produced “Beautiful People” on P.O.P. Then there’s Chris Turner, he’s another singer that’s really, really good. I wrote some of the songs on his album called Love Life is a Challenge. I listen to stuff like Little Dragon. Sampha from SBTRKT is ill. I’m a big fan of this band from Germany called Sohn, which means sun in English. It’s like this indie band that’s soulful. I really like the channel Orange album, it was a good record. I really like the Ellie Goulding, her last record was really, really good. The songwriting is superb on it. Actually, for the past years there’s been so much good music coming out that I’m just happy.
Is there anyone you want to collaborate with?
Yeah, I want to write a song with Yukimi from Little Dragon. That’d be beautiful. Marsha Ambrosius, we were supposed to do something a while ago. That’d be cool to write a song with her, but Floetry Marsha though. No disrespect to the new Marsha, but the more sensual, sensitive in touch Marsha would be dope. I’ve been collaborating a lot but I’ve been trying to not collaborate so much. But if you put me in the studio with John Legend, of course I’m not going to say no. He’s another one who pushes music. Kanye West of course. Everyone talks about his personality and him being kind of wild and unpredictable, but that’s every artist. He just always has cameras on him all the time, so it’s more pointed out than everybody else.
Did you like Yeezus?
I loved that album. I think it’s great. Sonically, I don’t think people realize how well it was mixed and how it was put together. The time that they took in the small amount of time that they did it? That’s another thing that people don’t realize, the hours that go into making one song—people forgot the fact that Michael Jackson used to take three years to do an album. Take a song and he’d work on that song for six months. Or have four songs where it’s like, okay we’re going to keep working on these. There will be like six different versions before they finally decide what the final is. That’s what I do. When I write a song, I’m listening to it everyday for literally a month at least. That’s the minimum. Then I’m going back in.