Jessie J pipes up, gets America’s attention
The British singer with the firecracker voice is popping with listeners on both sides of the Atlantic.
The pop/rock/hip-hop hybrid, released late last year, hit No. 2 on the British charts. But it was her follow-up, the Dr. Luke-produced “Price Tag,” that left enough people in the U.S. wondering just who this crotch-grabbing firecracker with pipes was.
Buzz surrounding the singer amplified in March when she was given the coveted performance spot on “Saturday Night Live” for her first American showing. More than a month before Tuesday’s U.S. release of her debut, “Who You Are,” the performance made her one of the first to appear on the show without an album on shelves — a fact that still boggles her mind.
“The producers were taking a risk. There was pressure,” she said over the phone while on a promo jaunt in Australia. “It was the scariest, most nerve-racking thing in the world. No one had any idea who I was. I'd done no promos. It was purely like, go out there and sing. I've always been someone who loved a challenge, and I don't like things given to me easily.”
Born Jessica Cornish, the 23-year-old built a fan base like most newcomers these days: She uploaded videos of herself singing (primarily shot in her bedroom) on YouTube. The clips of the songs — most of which went on to appear on the album — amassed millions of hits. She also penned the platinum-selling “Party in the U.S.A.” for Miley Cyrus.
The hype continued to build this side of the Atlantic as accolades poured in following the February release of the disc in Britain: She topped the BBC's Sound of 2011 list and received the Critics' Choice at the Brit Awards, joining a class that included Ellie Goulding, Adele and Florence + the Machine.
Jason Flom, president and founder of Lava Records, to which she's signed though Universal Republic, said in an email that the label wanted to use her seemingly overnight success in Britain strategically.
“We made a conscious decision that it would be best to emphasize breaking Jessie J in the U.K. first and then transfer that heat back across the pond to the U.S. It also enabled us to secure air time for Jessie on the most important TV programs in America,” he said. “With Jessie, seeing is believing, so this plan has worked wonders. It's her remarkable voice and inimitable stage presence that has made believers worldwide.”
With “Who You Are,” she issued an eclectic mix of pop and R&B, and her penchant to “just tell it how it is” rightfully earned the album its parental-advisory sticker. But for all the growls of aggression and syrupy love odes, the disc brims with self-affirmations and tackles the notion of overcoming adversity. Given the success of “Price Tag,” she certainly is familiar with the concept. The B.o.B.-assisted track hit No. 1 in Britain and the top 40 in more than 20 countries, including the U.S.
“It's funny how people rewrite history when it suits them. It doesn't mean those days when you've pulled my hair or called me names have disappeared,” she said. “I wanted to write a song about it, but in an uplifting way.”
Much has been written about her looks — she wears her jet-black hair in a blunt bob and hasn't found a shade of lipstick she won't try; matched with being openly bisexual, folks have instantly branded her as an untraditional pop star.
“Call me naive, but what is the traditional pop star?” she asked when discussing the media scrutiny. “They panic and go, oh no, she doesn't fit into a box so we'll call her every other artist on the planet. I've been called everyone from Natasha Bedingfield to Lily Allen to Adele to Amy [Winehouse] to [Lady] Gaga to James Brown. It's sad because I've never tried to be like anyone else but myself.”
To that end, she pressed the label to not issue alternative editions of her disc in different territories, as is customary with artists. “I don't want to be one of those artists that's different in every country,” she said. “It's about being consistent. It's about people getting used to you, instead of you catering to them.”
-- Gerrick D. Kennedy
Photo: Getty Images