Meet The L.A. Soul Songstress Who's Breaking The Rules, and Getting Away With It
The music industry can be tough on women like Jhene Aiko. Not in the sense that she couldn’t succeed commercially; she has dabbled in major labels for decades and even earned notoriety in her pre-teen years as a collaborator with R&B group B2K. What has been a persistent challenge for Jhene — the multi-racial, and yes, ridiculously gorgeous singer/songwriter from L.A.– is being seen for who she is: a brilliant singing talent whose soulful, deeply affecting, cerebral music doesn’t adhere to common categories.
She’s making headway in the quest to tell the truth, however. Her mixtape Sailing Souls earned her love across genres last year, and her new lulling, subtle single “3:16″ (streaming below) is raising eyebrows and giving fans something comforting to listen to, without all the crazy hooks. We spoke to her about her new works, about straddling all kinds of scenes, and about being a mom.
What is 3:16 about?
3:16 is about addiction and losing something that you love. It’s not just about addiction with drugs or love or anything, I wrote it to be interpreted however the listener wants to take it. For me it was just confronting my darkest thoughts regarding losing something that I can’t live without. Also I was born on March 16, the song is 3 minutes 16 seconds long, and also it’s strange, but I always wake up in the middle of the night and catch the clock at 3:16 am.
There have been some comments under 3:16 saying that they listen to the song when they’re feeling depressed. how do you feel about that?
Well, I think it’s good that they’re listening to the song and not doing anything else or harming themselves. That’s why I make music, so I can get through what I’m going and get other people to connect to it. When you find someone , it makes it not as hard, you don’t feel like you’re going through it alone. Everyone doesn’t wanna dance all the time, you need those songs that when you’re sad. You can be in the moment and get over it.
You seem more drawn to the chiller, more cerebral, whispery sound, no huge hooks are anything. Is that what comes naturally?
I think that I’m a softspoken person for the most part, and I really believe that if you have to say something important, you don’t have to shout it. people will listen to me more if you’re pleasantly saying it and not shouting. Whatever I write about is what I’m going through. Not all my songs are sad, the mixtape was about relationships and other things. Souled Out, the album I’m working on now will be released in early 2013, a lot of those songs are very introspective, and I guess some of them might be depressing, but there’s definitely a wide range of emotion, and with this album, people are going to see what I can do with my voice.
In promotion on Sailing Souls last year, you mentioned a million years ago that you were turned during a meeting with a major label because they asked you to sell yourself. Does that still hold true?
I’m signed now to Def Jam, through Artium. The reason why I chose to sign through him because I wanted to have more control over what I do. When I was younger I didn’t really have that control. It’s important to show people who I am. For me, music is self expression and I wouldn’t want to tell a story that’s not mine. It wouldn’t be believable. I would be a liar. So far, everyone at Artium is supporting me in everything I want to do. They’re making it easy for me.
I can’t imagine how intense the pressures must have been on your label as a kid.
Well I remember one day, when I was freshly signed I was out in New York, and I was with B2K and they had a show, and we had a truck or whatever with some of the label people. It was early in the morning and I’m a quiet morning person, I have to warm up to the day. I remember staring out the window, and at the end of the day I get a call from my management and they said “Someone in the car at the label felt like you were arrogant, and you weren’t this weren’t that.” I was 13 at the time! I was crying and saying “what do you mean?!” They would try to sugarcoat things for me, but they were saying i need to change things they didn’t like….Being so young I was very sensitive to it all. I always listen to professional advice, but when it comes to me being me, that’s definitely something I’m not going to compromise. I have a clear view of who I am.
If your daughter wanted to do show biz, would you want her to?
She has already expressed to me that she wants to be on TV and she wants to be a singer, she makes up songs throughout the day. I would never take my experience and put it on her and say “you can’t do this!” because of what I went through. I would just give her good advice. I would let her do it, but I would tell her my story about what I went through so she could be prepared. She’s surrounded by family and people who love her. Sometimes kids get taken away in the business. And that was something, my mom was always with me. Nothing could go too badly, because no one wanted to get on her bad side.
How has motherhood changed you?
I think that, being a mom has kept me more honest. It has also made me rely on my relationship with my mom. I used to not tell her a lot, but when I had a daughter I was a more honest person in general, and through my music because I want my daughter to be honest with me. I want her to be able to tell me anything and be who she wants to be and not be afraid or wonder if I’m thinking she’s doing the wrong thing…I want her to grow up and really know who I am.
What’s interesting is that your music has been featured all over the place, it can fit in the more R&B/hip-hop world and places like Pitchfork. Have you noticed that? Has that been surprising?
Yeah, and you know my mom always said “you can do whatever style of music you want to.” Artists back in the day they weren’t confined to one genre of music, they would do a pop album, country, blues, and no one thought it was crazy. It was still in their vein of music. Because of how I grew up, around so many different cultures, that impacted my music. I like that, that the audience isn’t confined to, ‘oh you’re an R&B type,’ or oh, ‘you’re on an indie site.’ I like to pick beats that don’t just sound streamlined.
Do you think that will ever translate to collaborations that are outside of the hip-hop and R&B circuit? There are all these great fits that come to mind when I hear your music, like oh, Little Dragon.
Oh yes! For sure. Because I was with B2K when I was younger, the audience started out as just an R&B audience. I just grew up doing and listening to a little bit more hip-hop and R&B…I haven’t reached out to a lot of people but I want to work with whoever wants to work with me and make music with me! Little Dragon is amazing! And I love Gotye! I love Jon Mayer! There are so many people who are like, ‘really?’
What’s next for you?
I’m definitely going to to release new songs between now and the album release, though there’s no exact date for that. It’s called Souled Out and I’ll let release the date when they let me know!
Watch Jhene Aiko’s “3:16″ off her upcoming album Souled Out