Hello World, Meet Jorja Smith

Hello World, Meet Jorja Smith

Jorja Smith, whose depth and complexity far transcends her 21 years, is a powerful, soulful voice to be reckoned with. Her career is poised for a meteoric ascent.

Jorja Smith, whose depth and complexity far transcends her 21 years, is a powerful, soulful voice to be reckoned with. Her career is poised for a meteoric ascent.

Photography: Solve Sundsbo

Styling: Anna Trevelyan

Text: T. Cole Rachel

This interview appears on the cover and in the pages on V115, our Fall 2018 issue. Head to shop.vmagazine.com to order your copy today!

Listening to Jorja Smith’s stunner of a debut album, 2018’s Lost & Found, it’s easy to forget that it’s a work crafted by someone just barely out of their teens. Filled with wry observations about longing, identity, and the politics of race and woman-hood, the album is both astute and beautiful—a soul-infected platter of slinky R&B that sounds like it could have been released during the glory days of British trip-hop, centered around a voice wise beyond its years. So when Smith turns up to talk about it, popping by a sushi restaurant in midtown Manhattan en route to a taping of a late-night talk show, she is the very definition of unassuming. Fresh-faced in shorts and a T-shirt, she is both radiant and almost unrecognizable from the glam femme fatale seen in the videos for breakout singles “Let Me Down” and “Beautiful Little Fools.” Sitting down for a cup of green tea, Smith laughs when I mention that I might have mistaken her for a student on her way to class. “My nan always told me I was an old soul,”she says, “But people forget sometimes that I’ve only just turned 21.”

When pressed about her seemingly limitless supply of self-confidence and chameleonic sense of style, Smith credits a childhood spent mostly in the company of adults, which granted her an ability to adapt to almost any social situation. “I’m a good talker,” she explains, “I was the 11-year-old kid hanging out and walking the dog with the 50-year-olds who lived up the road. I know how to get on with people.” Though she’s still a relative newcomer in the pop landscape, Smith has been making music— in some way, shape, or form—for most of her life. As a child growing up in the West Midlands of England, she sang classical music and absorbed her parents’ collection of reggae and soul records before eventually falling under the sway of Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen. “I used to sing covers. That’s how I started playing piano,” she says. “But I just wanted to sing about my own life. I used to write in my room and come down with my laptop and headphones to make my dad listen to what I just wrote. Now I miss doing that.”

After beginning to write and record her own material, it wasn’t long until her song “Blue Lights”—a heart- rending meditation on police brutality—found its way onto SoundCloud. Written when Smith was only 17, the song quickly racked up over 100,000 listens and quickly set the wheels in motion on her burgeoning career. Less than a year later, she was saying goodbye to her sleepy hometown of Walsall and heading to London. Not one to waste time, she quickly let loose with a slew of singles and an EP, 2016’s Project 11, as well as high-profile collabs with English rapper Stormzy and two features on Drake’s More Life. She was also the only female singer to land a track on the Black Panther soundtrack, which was personally curated by Kendrick Lamar. While many emerging artists might have buckled under the sudden wave of attention, Smith stepped into the spotlight with an almost preternatural amount of grace. “Suddenly being out in front of this huge audience was amazing,” Smith explains. “But it’s a bit like being the new kid at school who gets invited to sit at the cool kids’ table. It’s great, but I’m ready to have my own table.”

Smith’s full-length debut was the perfect calling card to secure her a place at the pop cultural table. Lost & Found manages the rare trick of sidestepping easy categorization. Flirting with the conventions of jazz, folk, and gospel, the album is the sound of self-discovery unfolding in real time. On “Teenage Fantasy”—written when Smith was 16—the emotions are appropriately cinematic: “We all want a teenage fantasy / Want it when we can’t have it / When we got it we don’t seem to want it.” The record is full of emotional revelations, all writ large by Smith’s powerhouse voice. “I’m constantly finding myself,” she sings on “February 3rd,” as if self-actualization is a journey she hopes might never end. Despite comparisons to everyone from Lauryn Hill to Portishead, Smith prefers to think of her music as something that remains distinctly her own. “I don’t write for anyone but me,” she says. “I just wanted to make a classic, or what I thought was classic. I like things that feel real.”

Realness is at the core of Smith’s being, both musically and personally. Despite having spent the better part of the past year sharing stages and studios with the likes of Bruno Mars, she seems to have suffered none of the whiplash of sudden fame. Instead, she is more resolute than ever about working according to her own intuition, both creatively and professionally. “I just move forward,” she says. “I don’t question things because I think when you start questioning things too much, maybe you get a bit paranoid. You second guess. I just do things. So far, it’s worked out okay. I’m the only person that can disappoint myself. Nobody else can. I am the only person that can fuck things up for real. So I just have to make sure I’m okay.”

While Smith will spend much of the foreseeable future touring across multiple continents in support of Lost & Found, including a stint in Japan (“I’m getting pink hair extensions before I go there,” she laughs), she is most excited about the possibility of going home, adopting a new puppy over the holidays, and creating the space to write new songs. Though she is admittedly headstrong about the way she likes to work, she considers herself extremely lucky to have people around her who can give sound advice. “Kendrick Lamar asked me a really interesting question about where I see myself a few years from now. I learned a lot from him. He’s a Gemini, like me.” She pauses, smiling before rattling off a few other notable Geminis. “So was Biggie, Tupac...I’m just saying.”

So where, exactly, does she see herself in five years? Or 10 years? What does the future look like if you are a star on the rise? “I don’t rightly know,” she says. “Right now I just want to sing to more people, and have more people listen to me. I want to establish myself. I don’t want to always see other people’s names in front of my name.”

Whatever the future holds, Smith doesn’t seem stressed about it. She seems happy, grateful, and wonderfully eager. “I’ve been reading Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, but I haven’t finished it. I keep going back and reading the same bits over and over again because I don’t have a bookmark. So I don’t actually know where I am,” she laughs, “There’s a great line in it about how a tree doesn’t wait for summer to come; it’s patient. I, however, have no patience. I want to grow. Now.”

JORJA WEARS NECKLACE BULGARI, ON FACE M.A.C MINERALIZE SKINFINISH IN PERFECTLY LIT
Credits:
MAKEUP LISA ELDRIDGE (STREETERS), HAIR SYD HAYES (ART + COMMERCE), MANICURE ADAM SLEE (STREETERS), PRODUCTION SALLY DAWSON, PAULA EKENGER (SUNDSBØ STUDIO), DIGITAL TECHNICIAN LUCIE BYATT, PHOTO ASSISTANTS SIMON MCGUIGAN, GRACE DIFFORD, RICHARD KOVACS, STYLIST ASSISTANT HAMISH WIRGMAN, MAKEUP ASSISTANT SIOBHAN ASHMAN, HAIR ASSISTANTS HOLLY HAWGOOD, JASON LAWRENCE, RETOUCHING DIGITAL LIGHT LTD

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