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High Note


Jorja Smith

Jorja Smith on tackling the toxic side of fame, overcoming her insecurities, and using her music to amplify topics she’s passionate about

She’s the Brit Award-winning, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter who’s collaborated with some of the biggest names in the music business. But JORJA SMITH has never been one to take center stage. Here, she talks to ZING TSJENG about tackling the toxic side of fame, overcoming her insecurities, and using her music to amplify topics she’s passionate about

Photography Danika MagdelenaStyling Natasha Wray
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This image: jacket, dress, pumps, and earrings, all Bottega Veneta. Opening image: sweater, Christopher John Rogers; earrings, Laura Lombardi

Jorja Smith is “a bit” famous. That’s how the 23-year-old singer from the West Midlands puts it. “I’m from a small town in Walsall,” she laughs. “There are not many people that come out of Walsall, but I’m one of them.” She’s underselling herself. Put it this way: Smith’s debut single Blue Lights kick-started her career back in 2016. Since then, she’s become a firm favorite in the music industry, amassing 3.4 million Instagram followers and recording tracks with some of the world’s biggest artists, including Kendrick Lamar, Drake and Stormzy.

Today, Smith is speaking to me via Zoom from her hometown, some nine miles from Birmingham (“Brum”, as she calls it). She’s makeup-free and sat in her childhood bedroom wearing an oversized lilac sweatshirt and slugging periodically from a water bottle. The sound of gospel music wafts in from her dad’s home office. Occasionally we are interrupted by their dog barking.

This is how Smith likes it. She likes coming back to her family home and knowing everyone on the street, even if – as she swings her laptop round to show me – her mum now uses her old room as a dumping ground for storage. “I prefer home so much more. London’s too much,” Smith says. “It’s not good for my head.” Her Midlands lilt returns once she’s back home, too, but five years of living in the British capital has blessed her with half a dozen different ways to say, “Are you mad?” (Smith on having to deal with money as a teenage singer: “Accountants when you’re 18 – are you mad?”)

Shirt, Valentino; sunglasses, Loewe; earrings, Carolina Bucci

Everything about Smith’s style – the dazzling Halpern jumpsuits, The Fifth Element-esque Mugler bodysuits, Maisie Wilen party slips – made me expect an aloof diva. Smith, like many other great R&B divas before her, is a Gemini (see also: Patti LaBelle.) The voice helps, too. On her new track, Addicted, Smith’s slinky mezzo-soprano floats above a skittering instrumental like a feather on the wind, leaping into a higher register on the word “hardest”. She makes it sound easy.

“I’ve become a lot more CONFIDENT within myself and my BODY… [But] nothing’s changed. I [still] don’t LIKE the attention now”

Dress, Missoni; mules, and earrings, Bottega Veneta

“I found it embarrassing – I didn’t want people to know I could sing,” Smith recalls of her childhood. “My mum told people I could sing and I’d be like, ‘I hate you! Why are you telling people?’” But when Smith was eight, she wrote the church nativity play and found herself dishing out the role of “camel” to her brother while simultaneously awarding herself the Silent Night solo. “No one turned up,” she deadpans. “None of the kids were there.” Instead, Smith sang to a room full of adults. One of them was a gospel singer named Tracey, who turned to Smith’s father and said, portentously, “She can sing.”

Still, Smith spent most of her teenage years running away from her voice, writing songs in secret and showing them to her dad, who worked for the council and fronted a neo-soul band called 2nd Naicha. “I’d come down and play my dad my tunes. Then he’d be like, ‘Can’t hear a chorus’. [So, I’d] go upstairs, write it again, get annoyed… I was so lucky to have parents that actually encouraged art,” she says.

“I think we’re just socially AWARE – and writing about what’s going on and what we WANT to and what we OBSERVE and what we’re passionate about”

Jumpsuit, Saint Laurent; earrings, Carolina Bucci

Despite the support, Smith admits she often felt insecure about her talent – and looks – as a child, deliberately shunting herself into the background, even when she enrolled in a weekend school for performing arts. “I didn’t want to have big lips. I didn’t want to have an ass. It was quite sad. It wasn’t until I moved to London [that] I loved myself more,” she says. “I’ve become a lot more confident within myself and my body. Sometimes I want to put on a tight sexy dress or something hugging because I’m feeling myself… [but] nothing’s changed. I [still] don’t like the attention now,” she laughs. “I guess I’m just more confident – I love performing.”

Top, Calle Del Mar; pants, and slides, Gucci

When Smith released her debut album Lost & Found in 2018, she was barely 19 and still riding off the viral success of Blue Lights – a track, sampling Dizzee Rascal, written about knife possession. Smith was nominated for a prestigious Ivor Novello songwriting award for it and, that same year, headlined the O2 Academy Brixton, where Rascal hopped onstage for the duet. Newspapers began hailing her as the poster girl for the rebirth of jazz and comparing her to Smith’s childhood hero, Amy Winehouse.

“Classics – that’s all I used to listen to,” she says of her early influences. “Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Miles Davis. Now I’m listening to so much new stuff. I like UK rap – that’s what I listen to a lot.”

Smith’s tastes are too broad to remain genre-bound, though. She’s detoured via hip-hop collabs with Drake, dancehall with Popcaan, garage with Preditah and grime with UK rapper Giggs. For a while, you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing Smith’s voice, which riffed like a languorous summer evening stretching endlessly into the sultry night.

“There’s so much shit people don’t REALIZE, that you don’t KNOW – no one TEACHES you”

Polo shirt, and earrings, Bottega Veneta

That’s how she’s reached this point. Famous but “not Beyoncé” famous, as she describes it. It comes with certain drawbacks. Despite her success – the two Brit Awards and Grammy nomination for Best New Artist – Smith found herself unable to enjoy it. She loved being onstage, hearing her fans shout the words to her songs back at her. Everything else? Not so much. One time, she says, she was crying on a plane, upset after an argument. “The air stewardess could see I was crying.” Instead of being checked in on, Smith was asked for a selfie. “I’m crying,” Smith remembers saying. “Yeah, but my daughter loves you.”

She is upfront about the impact her success has had on her, talking with disarming openness about her insecurities (“I’m a massive worrier”), how fame has affected her mental health (“There’s so much shit people don’t realize, that you don’t know – no one teaches you”), and the crippling perfectionism that makes her second-guess herself. “When I was 15, I remember telling my friend, ‘You look like you because you’re you, and don’t compare yourself to other people,’” she recalls. “But here’s me, not listening to myself at 15.”

“I just write about what I BELIEVE in and what I think people NEED to hear. Hopefully, me writing the song has CHANGED their thought process or opened their mind a bit”

As her star rose, Smith pushed through it. She took the selfie and did the small talk, all while doom-scrolling through nasty comments on social media. “I was going through a phase where I wasn’t that happy,” she says today. “It was not nice for me; it was doing more damage than good.” Then the pandemic-shaped pause of 2020 happened. She took stock, “realized who I was”, ditched the “toxic people” in her life and resolved to be kinder to herself. She still has female friends in the music industry, she says, but loves “like, my actual friends” from before Jorja Smith became Jorja Smith. “We support each other however we can.”

When George Floyd was killed in May last year – “murdered by police”, Smith corrects – her friends mourned collectively. “Seeing all these videos of Black people getting killed all the time, we don’t want to see it anymore.” As black squares populated her feed, she ended up staring at her phone, debating over whether to post about it. “I don’t know what to say,” she told her dad. “Do what you do,” he told her.

Bodysuit, Max Mara; skirt, The Attico; earrings, Paco Rabanne
Dress, Missoni; mules, and earrings, Bottega Veneta

The result is By Any Means, a Roc Nation-released track that wears its Black Lives Matter message with pride. Does she feel part of a more political generation, campaigning for greater racial equality? “All this shit happens in our lives,” she counters. “I think we’re just socially aware – and writing about what’s going on and what we want to and what we observe and what we’re passionate about.”

She’s no activist, Smith emphasizes: “I just write about what I believe in and what I think people need to hear. Hopefully, me writing the song has changed their thought process or opened their mind a bit. That’s all I ever wanted to do.”

For now, she’s holed up in Walsall, teaching herself how to mix, working on the EP release that Addicted is part of, and keeping herself to herself. She just bought a farm near her hometown and is doing it up. In the next decade, she sees herself “looking out over my field with the window open, sun shining, making myself a tea – maybe some goats running around”.

“You know what’s MAD? I’ve got so many [award] PLAQUES, but I’ve never put them UP in the house, ever”

Sweater, Christopher John Rogers; earrings, Laura Lombardi

She’s committed to celebrating herself more and taking time to enjoy her triumphs, too. When Lost & Found came out, she acknowledges that she barely took a breather to toast the achievement. This year, it’ll be different. “You know what’s mad? I’ve got so many [award] plaques, but I’ve never put them up in the house, ever.” For the first time, she’s putting them on display “because I’m actually proud. Before, I was never proud.”

And as for fame? She’s dealing with it in her own time, rationalizing it as a drawback to a career full of upsides. “Celebrating your wins and successes is what I’m moving to,” she determines. “Just celebrate – life’s short.”

Jorja Smith’s new eight-track project, Be Right Back, is out May 14

The Fashion Challenge

From the perfect post-lockdown party dress to a beach-ready look for that first vacation abroad, watch as Jorja Smith puts her styling skills to the test with her fantasy outfits for when the world fully reopens…