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Jessie Reyez’ Realness Will Not Be Diluted

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 03: Singer Jessie Reyez poses for a photo backstage during 2017 Governors Ball Music Festival - Day 2 at Randall's Island on June 3, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/WireImage)

During her four-minute music video for “Figures,” Jessie Reyez smashes her guitar to the ground with full force before looking into the camera with an intensity that implies she can see into the darkest corners of your soul. For the 26-year-old singer from Toronto, emotional honesty is admirable if not easy–she’ll wreck shit and then delve into tear-jerking vulnerability, revealing different sides and complexities in emotion. “The song was still so real to me that I couldn’t quite hold it together,” she tells me when we meet a few days after her performance at a New York festival.  “It ended up being a blessing.”

As a live performer, she is even more striking and exudes an unbridled energy that’s buoyantly captivating. When she sings, she belts from the bottom of her stomach to the top of her throat, as if her voice could rip through her frame with its integrity and candor. But that spontaneous burst of energy remains mostly in service for her performances and recording–when we speak one on one, she’s focused and thoughtful about talking about her music. “No one can interrupt your song,” she says about this dynamic. “I mean, they can pause the song, but you know what I mean.” 

Perhaps these qualities have something to do with her background. Jessie Reyez was born and raised in Toronto, the daughter of Colombian immigrants, and has been around music her entire life. Her father plays guitar, and she felt a deep connection with reggae, which she was introduced to as a child. She refers to her own blend of genres as “Quentin Tarantino.” Songs vary from dark hip hop/R&B arrangements to mellow electric guitar hooks, but what shines through is the rawness and purity of her voice and the brutal honesty in her lyrics.

Since the release of her excellent debut LP Kiddo two months ago, Reyez has been focused on bringing her music and message to life. Last month she released Gatekeeper, a gut-wrenching short film about music industry sexism which resulted in a lot of buzz online, and when we meet, she’s just played Governor’s Ball, her first New York festival. Just last night, she stunned us with a breathtaking performance of “Figures” at the BET Awards. Now, Reyez is headed out on tour with a handful of sold out dates in the US and Europe, and she’s featured on Calvin Harris’ new album, out June 30th.

I really loved your EP, Kiddo, and the song that really strikes me is “Figures.” Obviously it’s deeply personal for you, but it’s also personal for the listener. What was it like to film?

Crazy. Honestly, we filmed more material. I think that was the first or second take of the day, and I was in the middle of my darkness, you know? We didn’t even know we were just gonna do it in one take. That wasn’t the plan. And then after we saw everything, the guys were like, “Jess, I think this is the shot,” and I was like “Fuck! Me breaking down, sick!” And that ended up being it. We shot a bunch of shit, and it ended up on the cutting room floor.

Watching that video and  “Shutter Island,” “Gatekeeper,” I noticed that bluntness and honesty are the running themes in your music. Why is that important to you?

Music’s always been in my home. My dad plays guitar, and I grew up listening to cumbia and salsa and boleros. And then I got introduced to reggae at like or six or seven and I was like, that was just everything. Writing, I actually started with poetry, when I was younger. My grade 7 teacher happened to see one of the notebooks that I filled up with letters, and she said “this is dope,” and went as far as to tell my parents, “I don’t know if you know, but your daughter is lit with the pen!” and I was like, “thank you!” And she was one of the first people in the schooling system that ever took the time to be like, “Maybe you should polish this. You got a little bit of a blade there! Could be a harpoon if you give it some time.” You know?  …But I was awful.

I was an awful singer when I was younger. And my writing, I don’t think it got any substance until I went through my first real heartbreak, you know? After puberty. When you feel like an adult, and you meet someone, and you two become one, and you think that’s it. Getting out of that was my first blow, and that first blow, I needed to get that pain out. And I couldn’t really go to class ‘cause I’d cry, I couldn’t go to lunch, ‘cause I’d cry; I was depressed. And so, my music teacher would let me crash in the music room cause I couldn’t bear to be around people. And the music room had this little corner room with a piano, and he would let me in there, and I would just go there and cry, and play. Cry and write and play.

Your twitter bio says, “I like to sing about shit I don’t like to talk about …” What is it about music that makes it that safe place?

Freedom. I feel like, even conversations. I’m a fan of writing, and writing letters, because I hate when I’m trying to get a thought out and I can’t. Sometimes, in a conversation with someone else.. You know, two people are trying to communicate, so you have this dance that you kind of have to abide by, too, pauses and stops and you lose your train of thought. But in that (writing), it’s like your breath, and you can’t say anything until I’m done. Writing a letter, no one can interrupt your letter. And you put [the song] out, it’s the ability to communicate without having any filter and stuff. And I really appreciate that outlet. It’s poetry or music. There’s other things that people fall to, vices, and I’m thankful to have that.

Speaking of putting things out there on the page, the video for “Gatekeeper” is kinda like that, and it hit me, and probably a lot of other women in music, pretty hard.

Thank you! I’m happy it resonated with you! Thank you for supporting it. I mean, I’m not happy you empathized with it..fuck that!

Seeing it as a film made it so much more real. What made you decide that you wanted to do an eleven minute movie instead of something else?

I didn’t want the story diluted. And of kind of that thing, like communication. I wanted to get everything out. I didn’t want anyone to get a misconception of what happened, I wanted to go through it. I also didn’t want it to come off as this high and mighty, pious kind of thing, just because I happened to decide that I didn’t want to do it. Cause I feel like, we’re all human, and it just so happened that I said no. There’s a point specifically in that video where I talk about how, when I got home, the reason everything was messed up was because I thought about it. I thought, “Well fuck this, you might have to do this. How much do you really want what you’re chasing? If this is the only obstacle, are you willing to break? Are you willing to give it? The fact that you have to question your morality and question your own boundaries, shakes. I feel like it would shake anyone. I mean, that shit shook me, it shook me to pieces. I was crying, I was a wreck when I got in the car, and when I got home. That’s why.  And the director’s amazing. Peter Horn was amazing. He really helped me articulate the story and go through it. But the car, everything that we said, all that shit is verbatim. It was just an experience.

So now you’re actually with a major label- what did that feel like, in contrast to what you went through?

It’s crazy. It was interesting. Cause we had the project done before we started taking meetings with anyone. The project’s been done for a year. Kiddo, the first song was actually made two years ago. And we had “Gatekeeper,” along with the catalog of songs that we were done with obviously. And we would sit down with people and it was interesting to gauge people’s reactions. Cause at times we would play it, and there would be someone sitting across the table that would be visibly affected, or someone would start crying, or someone would leave the room, you know, which was crazy. But then there were, like, cause the other side of the coin, where, someone would get visibly uncomfortable, like, you know I’m talking about you, you know? And it’s interesting when you can read things like that. You don’t wanna partner with an asshole. You don’t wanna partner with a piece of shit. You don’t wanna partner with the enemy that you’re talking about. So it was great  to be able to play that, and almost like that be a testing ground in the way that people reacted to it and be able to read what kind of human they are, you know? It was interesting. I’m happy with our decision though. Everyone’s been nothing but great and respectful, you know?

Do you think that, talking about those kinds of experiences, now that you’ve done it once, that you have to continue or want to continue, being that voice for women in the industry?

I feel like I’ve always just wanted to talk about my experiences, but I never wanted to be this like [sings melody like an entrance for royalty], you know what I’m saying? I think that takes away from the element of empathy and why people connected with so much, so all I wanna do is continue talking about the shit that’s happened to me, like my realness. I don’t expect to go through that again. I won’t let it happen again. The difference, now to then, is a couple years, and thicker skin, and gaining wisdom, and knowing how to move, particularly as a woman in this industry where you have to teach people how to treat people, you know? Then, I was quiet, I don’t know. This is different. If it happens, then I’ll talk about it, but I’m not gonna force anything. I feel like when you try something synthetic, then you’ve already failed.

Are there any other things that you wanna talk about in your music that you feel like you haven’t talked about yet?

Umm, it’s kind of like asking, do you know what kind of days God’s gonna give you tomorrow? I don’t know, I might be dead tomorrow, I might live ’til I’m 60 and climb fuckin’ Mount Everest. It just kinda depends on what tomorrow has in store for me, being a reflection of the experiences that God’s gonna put me through.

Are there any other people who you would love to work with?

Yes! Frank Ocean. I have so much respect for him. It’d be incredible. I hope I can produce, I hope I can deliver, I hope I can come to the table, because I feel like I’d be in awe for a minute. But like, Channel Orange was incredible, to me, and “Pink Matter” is one of my favorite songs of all time.  And if we’re talking living or dead, then Bob Marley, Amy Winehouse, that’d be beautiful. Me, Bob, Amy and Frank in a room? That’d be nice.

How did you initially develop your style? Who were your early inspirations?

I listened to a lot of Bob and Amy, growing up. Otis Redding, Beyonce, Carlos Vives, and then the Colombian stuff, Celia Cruz, so I feel like all of that contributed. I was an awful singer when I was younger, but I practiced. I’ve known what I wanted since I was a kid, so just ‘cause I wasn’t good wasn’t gonna deter me. But it really me, to meet people along the way who bothered to see that little bit of potential. Tyse Saffuri, from Toronto- I auditioned for this girl group when I was like 17, and I went in there with my guitar and my shitty-fuckin’-voice and shitty runs, and did it.

Obviously, I didn’t make it, but I was leaving, all fuckin’ sad and defeated, and I’m walking upstairs, and he comes running up and he’s like “Hey!” and my dad’s there, and my mom’s there too, and he’s like “You know, I don’t know if you’d be the right fit for this, but I see something” like, this is almost a decade ago, he’s like “I see something, you’d be great” and we worked and then he came to the house two or three times, and two or three times he shared with me knowledge that impacted me so much.

He said, “Study the greats, follow the runs, your ear will get used to it, the movement will get used to it, you just need to follow the greats,” you know?  From that day on, that’s what I’ve been doing. Learning that, and gravitating more towards theory, so I know exactly where I’m going, as opposed to just going by heart. Both which are dope, but I’m grateful to him also. And my dad and my mom. Not everyone’s blessed with family that support them, regardless, but they were always down. They’ve always been waving the flag.

Having parents that support you, I think sometimes one underestimates how important that is.

So important, so crucial. I mean, for me, it’s incredible that people do it without that. That’s admirable, that’s crazy. For me, I feel like I had an ally, having those day one’s be like, “okay, that’s what you wanna do, okay.” My mom was even the kind to like, I didn’t want to go to school for it. I just didn’t think that going to school for music was going to affect me. I always that it’s who you know and all that shit, so I was like, “No, I just gotta keep hustling.” But my mom was like, “Go to school for music!” And I was like, “Nah, I gotta go for Kinesiology, or English, or something tangible.” Cause that’s what you’re given since you’re a child, that idea that you need to have something, sturdy, you need to have this, you need to have that. But I had my mom in my ear, telling me, if you wanna go, go headfirst. Blessings.

You’re going on tour in Europe, and I saw that you’ve played in London before. Are there any new cities or anything particular you’re really excited for?

Europe! I mean I’ve only really been to London and France for a day and Germany, which was beautiful, and I went to Berlin. But, every time I cross that ocean, I feel like it’s a lie. Every time I cross that ocean, I mean I’ve only really crossed it twice. Three times? The fact that I’ve done that is insane. I’m stoked. I’m stoked to go live another day and see more land, see more green, more people, more cultures. Connect with more people. The fact that someone across the world knows some words that I put down on a paper because I was feeling like shit, and they liked it, is beyond. That, to me, is magic. I’m stoked. I’m excited. London was actually the first place that I cried on stage cause people were singing “Shutter Island,” fucking full- like, in Spanish there’s a saying that when someone really fuckin’ sings something, they’re singing it with all lung. Pure lung. All out.  And my mom and dad were there, cause they’d never been to Europe, and I brought them out, and I lost it. And just started crying on stage, saying “Thank you!” Everyone sang. I’m amped. I’m just amped for it in general.

Is there any new music we can expect from you in the coming months?

Hell yeah! Yes. I’ve been working. Yes. The answer is yes. The Calvin Harris song is coming out June 30th! It’s on Calvin’s album. And Migos, and Lil Yachty, and Kehlani, and me. Ariana Grande. (laughs). Doesn’t that sound like bullshit? Doesn’t that sound like a lie? Bitch, what? Like, you’re lying. It sounds like a lie.