Jessie Reyez is a successful singer-songwriter, proud Latina, and bad b*tch. She is unafraid to speak (and sing) her mind, creating powerful art in the process. She is currently embarking on a huge tour to promote her sophomore album, YESSIE, which includes a gig at Manchester Academy. Ahead of the gig, she sat down with me to discuss her incredible career so far.
Jessie’s breakthrough single was, of course, ‘Figures’ (2018), which remains her signature song to this day. Jessie referred to her breakthrough as “insane” and “surreal” – not just because of the success of the single alone but because the success led to further success. She admitted, “I had no idea that that was going to be the [breakthrough] song because there had been songs before that.”
Jessie compared her breakthrough to Malcolm Gladwell’s interpretation of a tipping point. Gladwell refers to a tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point” (in his debut book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference). Jessie explained, “It was just a moment where, like, everything had just culminated, and it was, like, okay, there’s no choice but for the universe to respond now to how much I’ve worked and how much time I’ve put in. So, it just, it felt like cause and effect.”
Jessie later reworked ‘Figures’ into ‘Figures, a Reprise’ featuring Daniel Caesar. Jessie not only loved working with Caeser but also producers Jordan Evans and Matthew Burnett. Further, “It was strategically intentional to give the song a second life, to give it a second moment, and also to collab with another Canadian artist, to keep it in house, it just felt right… I love Daniel; Daniel’s amazing.”
I then asked Jessie about her favourite Canadian artists. She unsurprisingly loves Drake: “Apart from being dope with me and my team, he’s done a lot for the city [Toronto], and that goes without saying.”
She also loves Alanis Morissette: “I actually did a small contribution to a really dope night where Canada was honouring her, and it was nerve-wracking to sing in front of her, but I sung ‘Ironic’, and I got the chance to give her her flowers, you know, and say ‘Thank you.'”
During her soundcheck for the performance, Jessie told her manager that she was scared she would mess up the part of the song where she switches registers “hella, hella fast”. Her manager told her that Alanis would love it if she did, for she’s “the queen of imperfections.” This resonated with Jessie.
“I let her know that she made me feel at home in my mistakes, which is a gift for anybody but from [a] Canadian woman to another Canadian woman, it just feels a little more intimate.”
I told Jessie it must have been incredible performing in front of one of her idols, to which she responded, “It’s nerve-wracking, incredible but nerve-wracking! I should just like wrote her a letter!”
As well as being a successful singer, Jessie is a prolific songwriter, most notably penning two hits for Calvin Harris in 2018: ‘One Kiss’ (with Dua Lipa) and ‘Promises’ (with Sam Smith). I asked Jessie what it’s like having somebody else turn a song she (co-)wrote into a hit – does part of her wish she had sang it herself?
“I’ve always said, there’s a lot of songs that never see the light of day, and some that might never, but what’s nice is that when I’m pitching songs for other people, often times, it’s like I’m making a sweater, and I’m trying on the sweater, and the sweater’s beautiful but for whatever reason it doesn’t fit me. It’s still beautiful.”
Jessie continued: “I like aggressively hold on to the idea that the greater good is always conspiring so I just think that everything happens for a reason, so if a song is bigger for someone else, I don’t even like the idea of thinking, ‘Oh, I should have kept it,’ because that’s not what happened, that’s not what’s supposed to happen.”
“And I’ve been able to build so much, for example with Calvin, he’s changed my life, you know, given me that opportunity… So I’m just really grateful, and [I’ll] hold on to that forever.”
I told Jessie that I love how she is unashamedly herself and is unafraid of speaking out. Back in 2017, she released a short film, Gatekeeper, which addressed sexism and exploitation in the music industry. It specifically was based on her experience with music producer Noel ‘Detail’ Fisher, who was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women, including Bebe Rexha. I asked Jessie if she had worried that the film could negatively impact her career, for everybody knows how powerful the music industry is, and many artists have been blacklisted for calling out record labels and producers.
“I thought about it but the only discussions I had prior to [the film] were with my parents to like prep them so that they didn’t freak out when they saw it and prep them because I never talked about it and I never told them ’cause I didn’t want them to worry. But I also wanted to be like, ‘Hey, the worst case scenario where it looks like this is going, isn’t, like, just wait ’til you watch the whole thing before you freak out…
“But in the greater scope of things, no, because I’ve always just been allergic to censorship, period… If I’m an artist censoring myself, what the fuck am I doing being an artist? … So, I was hesitant when it came to my family but that was about it… It hit what it needed to hit; it did what it needed to do.”
The music industry is not just more difficult for women but also people of colour – and Jessie is both. However, Latin music (especially reggaeton) has been taking the world by storm for years now.
“I think it’s great. I love that there’s Latinos everywhere. But things come in waves, you know? It’s just like fashion. Everything is so cyclical. So I think that it’s dope that right now we’re in a moment where there’s very much a Latino wave, and I think it’s lovely, and I think it’s great, and I think we should make the most of it.”
“But I also think that there’s room for more of a permanent Latino presence in entertainment that’s less of a flavour of the cycle and more of a just, like, permanent structure that almost doesn’t need to be acknowledged. I think that’s the goal, like when you get to the point of like, you don’t have to differentiate or say, ‘Oh, this is a Latino moment,’ or ‘This artist only got featured ’cause we’re highlighting Latinos right now’. I think it’ll be great when things are so permanent that they don’t even need to be acknowledged because it’s just become a staple of within the mosaic of what entertainment should be – and have representation.”
Growing up, Jessie loved artists such as Celia Cruz and Carlos Vives (she still loves old school Latin music, especially Cumbia).
Jessie is currently headlining a tour but in the past she has opened for some huge artists. It must be daunting singing for a crowd of people who are there to see somebody else and are probably unfamiliar with her catalogue.
“Being a support act is never an easy thing ’cause of everything you mentioned, it’s rather daunting, and you have to walk out with the mentality of, ‘I’m climbing this hill no matter what’, and not let the reluctance of the crowd win. You just have to go out with that mentality, you know, ‘I’m winning’. And it helped make me a better performer, by default.”
“It’s a gift and it’s a privilege to walk out to a crowd waiting for you, singing your lyrics, and I’ve been lucky to be at the receiving end of both, but when you’re walking out to a crowd that doesn’t know a thing and that’s waiting for somebody else – that’s like being at a restaurant, ordering spaghetti, and having somebody bring out a salad. And you’re like, ‘This is not what I ordered’. But every now and then, those salads be hitting the spot. I just needed to make sure that my salad hit the spot, I have some avocado in there.”
Jessie continued, “So it’s been quite the experience but it’s made me a better performer but obviously there’s a privilege, there’s almost a comfort zone of walking out to people who know it [your music], and you have more of an opportunity to be challenged to open up – and, by default, you get better.”
I ended the interview by asking Jessie what fans can expect from her gigs. “Presence, joy, freedom… I encourage people to come and use their voice, I encourage people to be themselves, I encourage people to be open. Life is not easy and life is full of a lot of shit we got to deal with so I can make everybody just be present for the night. Presence really helps alleviate a lot of the burdens… So if I can just make everybody be present with me, and I can be present with them, it’s a great night.”
It sure sounds like it!
If you fancy a great night, you can catch Jessie Reyez at Manchester Academy 2 on January 29.