You remember JoJo. Even in the early ‘00s, when the next Britney Spears was seemingly popping up by the dozen, there was always something special about the pop singer. JoJo, with her soulful vocals and wide-eyed appeal, seemed poised for pop superstardom from the moment she released her #1 hit “Leave (Get Out)” and caused every teenage girl (plus me) to dump our imaginary no-good boyfriends.
If anyone thought she would be another casualty in an oversaturated pop market (RIP, Willa Ford), JoJo managed to prove the naysayers wrong time and time again. After her debut album JoJo went multi-platinum in 2004 when she was only 13, she followed it up with The High Road in 2006 and another smash hit in the single “Too Little, Too Late,” cementing her status as the pop laureate of teenage heartache.
And then, suddenly, JoJo fell off the radar.
But it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. In fact, JoJo had continued to release music independently through a series of mixtapes, YouTube covers, and demos that her cult-like fanbase devoured but flew mostly under the mainstream radar. As is too often the case when an artist disappears for no apparent reason, it was eventually revealed that Jojo was embroiled in a nasty years-long battle with her label, Blackground Records, that culminated with her suing them in 2013 to get out of her contract after endless conflicts, including her alleging the label forced her to lose weight by withholding the release of her music. After The High Road, Jojo wouldn’t release another studio album for 10 years until Mad Love in 2016, after successfully severing ties with her old label.
A casualty of that divorce, though, was JoJo and The High Road, which were both released under Blackground and unavailable on iTunes or any streaming platforms. And JoJo couldn’t help still feeling burdened by the fact that fans couldn’t easily access her old albums. Which is exactly why she decided to take matters into her own hands and surprised everyone by releasing re-recorded versions of her first two albums on December 20, to coincide with her 28th birthday. Aside from some minor ad-libs and JoJo’s vocals, which have only grown richer with age, the re-releases are nearly identical to the original albums and are sure to make every twenty-something nostalgic for a time of Tamagotchis and frosted tips.
To celebrate the release, JoJo caught up with W to explain why she decided to re-record her first two albums from scratch, and to reveal the other surprises she has planned for 2019.
There have been plenty of reports over the years about the dispute between you and your former label. Could you tell me in your words what exactly went down and why your first two albums were unavailable?
I wish I had a better reason for the first two albums not being available, but I think the simplest answer is that my former label just didn’t make a deal with the streaming platforms. As far as I know, nobody’s music from that label is available on streaming, which includes Aaliyah‘s last two albums. I wanted my music to be out there because if people were just discovering me for the first time, it looked like I started my career in 2016 with Mad Love. That was really weird for me, especially because I put out my first album when I was 13 in 2004.
So the long and short of it is that there was just no one inside fighting for you?
Exactly. To listen to my first two albums, people have to find it on YouTube or find physical copies. Nothing was ever really said to me, it just suddenly wasn’t on Spotify or iTunes anymore. I think it might’ve been for a few months, though.
It definitely was, because I remember there being a huge uproar among your fanbase on social media when the albums were first pulled.
That’s how I realized it was a thing, too! I didn’t know because it’s not like I’m monitoring to make sure my stuff is still up, that’d be weird. But my fans let me know and it was just frustrating to see their frustrations and to know that something they should easily have access to wasn’t available to them.
Whose idea was it to release re-recorded versions of the album, and when did the process begin?
My manager Gita and I were talking about how this was something we’d seen in comments a lot on Twitter and Instagram and just how it was not right. Even though I’d gotten out of that record deal, I was still feeling the effects of how things were mishandled. We wanted to try and come up with a constructive way to satisfy what my fans wanted and to also get the creatives, myself included, the publishing money. Streaming is something that is very lucrative and important for an artist’s career and it was being missed out on not just for me but the people who helped make these albums. We had lots of conversations with my lawyer and we made sure this was something we could legally do. Because I was like, “Can we just put it out? Do I need to re-record them?” And that was the way we got around it, remaking everything from scratch 100 percent—recreating the tracks from the ground up, completely new vocals, completely new backgrounds. Me and my favorite engineer went in and we recorded it in about two weeks. We did two songs a day, and then the mixing process took a lot longer. I didn’t want it to be a rushed thing but I was just so excited, and I remembered all the harmonies and all the backgrounds and it was just flowing naturally.
How long ago would you say that was?
We finished mastering literally a few days before we put it up, and mixing was done maybe two weeks before that. But I’d say I finished cutting vocals on it in September.
I can’t believe you kept it a secret for that long!
I wanted it to be a surprise! I wanted it to feel like it was coming out of nowhere. I didn’t wanna tease or do any of that stuff that we feel like we need to do, I just wanted my fans to have it and I wanted it to be there.
Oh we were definitely surprised, everyone on Twitter was freaking out because it truly felt like it came out of nowhere.
I love that! I’m a fan of other artists and get excited, too, so I was putting myself on the other side like, “How can we do this the best way?”
I was just tired of seeing the same complaints on my timeline and having to be like, “I have nothing to do with that,” or, “Ask Blackground.” I felt so out of control and I hate feeling out of control, so I like to try to focus on what I can do. One of my favorite quotes is: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” I have it tattooed on me because it’s so important to me, so I started because I wanted my fans to have what they deserve, which is access to my entire catalogue. But then it turned into something I didn’t know I needed. I really connected with myself as a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old recording my first and second album. I vividly remembered being so excited, so innocent and naive… It was healing in a way that I didn’t even know it could’ve been and it really put me in a good place to start making new music because I had just been so angry. It felt really good to be able to reclaim my time and my history in a way.
Given all your personal and professional struggles, this project really does feel like a power move to reclaim your career.
I had no idea how it would be received. I even felt like, “Why am I going into the past, you know? Why is this an important thing for me to do?” But everybody’s journey is different and nobody’s career looks the same. Instead of being angry or resentful I just wanted to own it and to put new energy and good feelings on that part of my past. I need to look forward and put out new music but part of me was like, “That’s my foundation, that’s where I began, I love my roots!” It was unfinished business for sure.
It’s understandable for artists, especially one like you whose style has evolved so much over the years, to look back at your earlier work and sort of roll your eyes. Was that the case for you?
Oh yeah. I feel like when most of us look back at the things we did when we were preteens and teenagers it’s kind of embarrassing. We look at what we wore, how we treated our moms, how we spoke… and same goes for me! Sometimes when I listen to the choices I made as a singer, some of it is so cringe-worthy for me. Some of the songs I thought were way too mature, especially on my second album like “This Time” and “The Way You Do Me.” “How To Touch A Girl” wasn’t about sex at all, but I know the title was a little insinuative. I love the new version of it and it makes me feel warm and fuzzy because it feels like such an organic sound.
Given the time that’s passed between the original records and today, were you more interested in retaining the original essence of them or updating them with a more contemporary sound?
I wanted to keep it as nostalgic and true to the original as possible because this was supposed to satisfy the fact that those albums weren’t available. I didn’t want to do totally new versions with new production, chords, and things like that. I wanted it to feel nostalgic so people would be able to listen to it and remember when they listened to it for the first time, or for people who are listening to it for the first time to get the early ‘00s sound that people still really dig. I wanted to keep it true to the original version but be able to grow as a singer because I sound much different in my twenties than I did in my early teens, so I didn’t wanna try and make it sound like I was the same age but hit the notes that I know my fans wanted to hear and just find that balance.
You talked on Twitter about the lyric change to “Breezy,” but I noticed other slight alterations on “Demonstrate” and “Not That Kinda Girl.” What was your reasoning behind those ad libs or alterations?
I don’t really know! With “Breezy” I wanted to update that lyric because the writer who wrote that song for me had this really mature lyric when I was 12 years old like, “That’s my name that’s tattooed on his chest,” and everyone was like, “Absolutely not, there’s no way she can say that.” And I was like, “Well, why not?” I thought I was so grown and I wanted to say it. But we rewrote it as, “I’m his one and only, nothing less.” But now I have no problem with saying that so I’m gonna say it. And I thought it would be something cute my fans might notice. But as far as songs like “Demonstrate,” I’ve been singing these songs live so I brought that into my mind when I was in the studio. I didn’t really think about too much of it upfront, I just did it!
Something that’s always struck me about your career is that even though your lawsuit prevented you from releasing new music for a decade, you still embarked on sold-out tours and grew your fanbase through all of your mixtapes. What do you think your fans have latched onto so passionately?
I think people relate to me because they see this resilience in me where I refuse to stop; I refuse to let setbacks be the end of my story. You can go through depression, anxiety, lawsuits, losing things, and not seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, but I think having your own agency and knowing that you can be the captain of your own destiny is a goal we can all aspire to. I don’t know why I’ve been so lucky, I have such a priceless relationship with my supporters. I would be crazy to say that I haven’t lost fans over the years or that I haven’t gained new ones. It’s been up and down. We’re a community and we’re transparent and imperfect and that’s tight. That human connection is something we all need.
I saw your Bowery Ballroom show this summer on your Leaks, Mixtapes, & Demos Tour, and it was amazing to see a sold-out crowd of people singing along to every word of such deep cuts from your catalogue.
I was apprehensive to do that tour but I saw my fans talking online about how much they loved that material, the stuff I put out through mixtapes when I legally couldn’t put out music and didn’t know what I was gonna do, so I was just writing songs and talking about how fucked up I was at the time. But they related to it so I just wanted to look them in the eyes and sing these songs together because that’s my favorite exchange.
Now that the re-releases are out and you can finally put to rest that part of your past, what can we expect from you in 2019?
I’ve started working on the album and I’m just feeling great. I’ve been in such an amazing groove diving into this album and writing everyday and being in the studio and riding off the energy of connecting with my love for music. I just can’t wait to get back to L..A and get working on the album. There’s no timeline and I’m not trying to put any pressure on myself. It’ll be ready when it’s ready, and I can’t wait for people to have it.