I didn’t think it would ever happen. I knew landing an interview with JoJo while she was in Chicago might be doable since artists do a ton of press while they’re in town and I can talk my way into a lot of shit. But even after I got the email confirming a sit-down with her right before her sound check on a Wednesday at the very end of August, I wasn’t getting my hopes up. It was just too good to be true.
I thought I’d run into car trouble on the 12-hour drive from Alabama to Chicago the day of the interview (long story), but no.
Or, when I hopped into my Uber from my hotel to the venue, which immediately took a wrong turn and put us dead in the center of Chicago rush-hour traffic, promising to triple the travel time and make me miss the interview altogether.
"This is it," I thought. "I'll never make it." But somehow the driver got us back on track, and I made it with time to spare.
Then there was, inevitably, confusion at the entrance to the venue, security not letting me through because I wasn’t on the right list.
But before I knew it, I was walking around the back of the venue, her manager opening the huge gate into the gaping back lot where all of the tour buses sat behind the stage. The lot, an endless expanse of clean gray cement, beaming white in the afternoon sun, nearly blinded me.
That's when it hit me. I'd spent so long preparing myself for the interview to fall through that I was only now realizing that it was actually going to happen. I was walking in what felt like slow motion, and I heard her manager say to me, muffled and echoey, as if spoken through water, “You’re gonna interview her in her tour bus, cool?”
We approached the huge black tour bus, sitting like a beached whale in a desert of white sand, something out of a Dalí. I reached out to grab the door handle when she stopped, looked behind us, and called out:
“Hey, Jo, you ready?”
It’s almost like she materializes in front of me. In a twirl of hair, a big smile, and the cleanest pair of Js I have ever seen, JoJo is walking toward me.
"Hey, babe!" she says, warmly embracing me. I try wrap my arms around her to return her affection, though unsure if my body is moving at this point.
I follow her to the back of her tour bus and sit down across from her.
She compliments my nails, which launches me into a full two minutes of RAMBLING about that new chrome nail powder, which is on both of our nails.
Just as I snap myself out of it, she clocks me.
"When have I seen you last? Or is it just online?" she asks.
"Oh, I don't know..."
"Yeah, probably just online."
Of any artist in the game, JoJo is the one I've always wanted to sit down with. Her first single, 2003's "Leave (Get Out)," announced the coming of one of the most promising young voices in the industry. Her eponymous debut album quickly went platinum, and her sophomore effort, The High Road, spawned another scalding single, "Too Little, Too Late," making her a fixture in pop, potentially carving out the clear career trajectory of a young Whitney or Mariah.
But in 2008, her former label, Blackground Records, found itself in trouble, which resulted in them losing distribution, which essentially locked JoJo into her contract, unable to officially release any new music. For years.
Which is why, by and large, people know her from her two smash singles, the latter released 10 years ago.
But if you think she hasn't been working since then, you haven't been paying enough attention. Though she couldn't release music with the support of a label, JoJo released three incredible mixtapes: Can't Take That Away From Me, Agápe, and #LoveJo.
To summarize in just a few paragraphs years of struggling to get out of a contract that threatened to end her career seems disingenuous, but these days, we've got a lot more to talk about. She's signed to a new deal with Atlantic, and her third album, Mad Love, finally drops this Friday. There was so much I was dying to ask her that dealt with a whole lot more than, like, my nails.
The biggest thing I've always wondered is if it gets tiring being constantly compared to her 13-year-old self.
"Yes," she says immediately, but with a smile. "But I think it magnifies my growth as an artist. I think the difference is pretty evident. You would hope that you’ve changed from 13 to 25. To me, it just feels like a pretty obvious answer, but I suppose it’s not.
"Since my journey is unique and kind of mysterious to some people, they’re curious about it. Because I started so young, it equipped me with a lot of tools. And until we’re a few years into this next chapter, people will still go back and refer to the success that I had at a young age, so it’s just about keeping my head down and doing the work."
JoJo has been doing the work for years. She's been recording nonstop, turning in what should have been her third album over and over again, none of the music ever seeing the light of day.
"There are so many iterations of this album, but this one was the one that I knew people were going to hear, so it wasn’t like I was coming into the recording process exhausted or beat down. I was actually coming into it very hopeful and refreshed, ready to start anew, and I just had that hunger of a new artist even though I have all this experience under my belt.
"I will say that in the process of recording and writing hundreds of songs in the past few years, it did take a toll on my ego. I think it humbled me in a serious way, and just because you think that this is your best work, it doesn’t mean that you won’t do better work, it doesn’t mean that you don’t need to keep trying things. I learned so many lessons — mostly, don’t get attached to things."
Her fans remained loyal, supporting her mixtapes and coming out for her shows, but being locked into a contract with seemingly no way out was obviously discouraging.
"I can describe it as depression. I was really depressed. Most of my family was just like, 'Jo, go to college. You’re never gonna be able to get out of this contract. It was nice that you had this success really young, but you’re gonna have to figure out something else to do. You’re a smart girl. Apply yourself.'
"But I wasn’t satisfied with giving up the dream that I had started on when I was really young. So I wanted to get out of my mind, I wanted to get out of that place. I was drinking a lot and just trying to feel good. I think we’re all just trying to feel good, and I just wanted to be happy. So I went for the quick fix of, you know, vodka."
Even though she was trapped in a bad deal that kept her from releasing, she never closed herself off from inspiration or stopped creating.
"There would be a couple weeks where I wouldn’t record, but I would never say no to things that I should be doing. Whenever there was a song that inspired me, if it was half-written and I wrote the rest of it, I would go in and do it. Or if there was a song that someone sent to me and I loved, I’d go in and cut it. I’d allow those moments to give me life.
"I would let life inspire me as well. I got myself into a lot of situations with boys I was dating that fueled my creativity. So whether that was for the better or worse, that’s just how it was. I was always letting love, or the lack thereof, my journey of self-love inspire the music.
"And the music, whether it was gonna come out or not, I felt like, OK, maybe I can let this out via mixtape or do this in a nontraditional release so I felt like it wouldn’t fall on completely lost ears. And being in the studio makes me really happy, so that was something I looked forward to."
Personally, I think that her first mixtape, Can't Take That Away From Me, was better than all of the pop releases of the same year. If you haven't heard it, you're really missing out.
"I wrote the first track, 'All I Want Is Everything,' with the intention of it being on my third album, but the feedback I got from that was that it was 'a little too soul.' It was less pop-leaning than they were comfortable with, which is a little bit more organic for me.
"So then I was like, 'I really want to get this message out.' At the time, there weren’t a lot of pop acts doing mixtapes; it was much more of a male hip-hop thing. I’ve always been inspired by the moves of people in hip-hop, so I took a page out of that book, saying, 'I’m a young female pop singer, but there’s no reason I can’t put out a mixtape.'"
Speaking of male hip-hop, in 2011, JoJo put out a cover of Drake's "Marvin's Room" that got a lot of attention. For many listeners, it was a reintroduction to that girl they loved, but this time, she was a grown-ass woman.
"It allowed me to not have to worry about being safe. I never really thought that I was perceived as being a squeaky-clean pop star. Even with 'Leave (Get Out),' I had a bit of edge; that’s what I was representing.
"But with 'Marvin’s Room' and me rewriting those verses, I realized that I could literally talk the way I talk and people will respond to it. It sort of set up this new 'Fuck Apologies' era, which is just saying how you feel, being who you are, and not having to pussyfoot around it."
The music industry has changed drastically since "Leave," with whole new set of rules, and we've got a new crew of girls all doing their thing in pop. But JoJo isn't "back," nor does she have a spot to "reclaim" because the truth is, she never left. She knows there's still a spot for her in music because it's always been hers.
"I see myself with fucking blinders on. I really can’t look to the left or right, or to the front or behind me. It gets absolutely overwhelming. In this era of social media, we’re constantly comparing ourselves to other people and comparing people to other people.
"Being a young woman, it’s just not good. I know what my strengths are. I think it’s my obligation as an artist to be as of open as a book as I can and to keep striving to be my personal best. So you can call it pop, you can call it R&B; I don’t give a fuck. I just want to make music and get on with the rest of my life."
On Mad Love, just days away:
"I love it. It’s an album that I want to listen to over and over again. This album makes me feel empowered. It’s imperfect. It’s just my representation of finding myself at 25, still making mistakes, falling in and out of love. It’s a lot about love, but all types."
After waiting 10 years to finally release her third official album, what happens after Friday, when it's finally out?
"Lots of touring. Honestly, I was in a space for so long where I didn’t even know… I couldn’t even dream. I just felt like my creativity was just stifled. So now, it’s just exciting to start envisioning things, to dream. What can I do next? What is the stage gonna look like? What is this show gonna look like? How am I setting myself apart? I’m allowing myself to ask these questions that I put a stop to for so long because sometimes it’s too painful to think about what you can’t do, you know what I mean?
"It’s really about opening that up and connecting the dots, and the grind is gonna be real; I’m gonna be on the road for a long time. And then back in the studio. I don’t want there to be very long of a time between albums."
Neither do we.
Mad Love is out on Friday. Pre-order it here.