SSENSE : 19 QUESTIONS WITH JORJA SMITH
The R&B Star on Fame, Hypochondria, and Not Believing in Heartbreak
Interview & Styling: Nazanin Shahnavaz
Photographer: Sylvia Austin
“I never dreamt about becoming a popstar,” says Jorja Smith, “I still don’t want to be a popstar.” The 21-year-old English artist is to-the-point and in control. On set she requests a minute-by-minute breakdown of the schedule, while she examines the clothing from the styling pull. Her debut album, Lost & Found, dropped this summer and ascended charts around the world, capping what’s been a quick transformation from SoundCloud artist working at Starbucks, to household name. Smith introduced herself to the world with “Blue Lights,” a four-minute commentary on police brutality, and subsequently released a five-track EP, Project 11, that bolstered proof of her R&B prowess. Smith has now been collaborating with the likes of Stormzy, Kali Uchis and Drake—appearing twice on the latter’s 2017 album, More Life.
On set she eats lunch standing up, rapidly tapping messages into her phone. As hair and makeup fuss over her face, she speaks confidently, efficiently—as if daring an opponent to spar. “I decided when I was 16 that I’m going to keep writing and make something of this,” she says. It’s difficult to argue with her conviction—confidence, sometimes, is contagious. But Jorja isn’t all hard angles. There’s a softness to her, a tenderness in the fluctuations of her pitch, in the way she holds herself during an acoustic set—in the way she reps her mom’s hand-made jewelry. Nazanin Shahnavaz caught up with Jorja to chat before she disappears into international stardom.
How has your life changed?
Lack of privacy. Everyone wants to know what you’re doing. Everyone already knows what you’re doing. Everyone has an opinion on what you’re doing. Did you see the photo I posted in the red dress and everyone commented that I look pregnant? I get it, I don’t have the flattest tummy. What I don’t understand is why people would choose to spend three minutes of their day making someone else feel like shit. I try not to pay too much attention to it because you can get really sad and it’s not real, none of it is real.
What star sign are you?
Are you in love?
Yes I am.
Is your relationship public?
We’ve been together for almost a year now. His name is Joel [Compass], we wrote “The One” from my album. I posted a picture of him with the lyrics and everyone was like “Fuck him!” I probably shouldn’t have tagged him in it, I’m never posting a picture of him again. I was talking to Kali [Uchis] about this, if I’m going to go out with somebody, it can’t just be anybody, and it’s definitely not going to be mister @privateaccount with a picture of a fish as his profile image.
Someone mentioned that Drake has a tattoo of you, is this true?
[Laughs] No, that’s definitely not true. If he has, I haven’t seen it. I’m sure if he had a tattoo of me it would be on the internet somewhere. Look it’s Sade, although it could be me right now with this net around my hair.
How would you describe your personality?
On a day-to-day basis, what kind of scenarios make your blood boil?
Anything. You could look at me funny and I would get pissed off at you.
What fills you with joy, brings you to tears, gives you goosebumps?
I cry at any film, when someone’s dying or if there is an empowering moment. I watched The Florida Project recently and that last scene, I was in tears.
Do you believe in fate?
Do you have any regrets?
Have you ever had your heart broken?
When did you last break someone else’s heart?
I can’t remember when, and I don’t really care. I’m the kind of person that will take a lot of shit from somebody, but once I end it, it’s done.
Do you ever feel lonely?
I like being on my own.
What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?
A strong one. I want people to remember me for my music. Hopefully I won't do anything crazy that they’ll remember me for.
When was the last time you were scared?
I’m not really scared of anything. I’m quite confident. If anything I scare myself, like I’ll have a headache and then I’ll worry something really serious is wrong with me—I’m the worst. So is my boyfriend. We’re the worst. Imagine. It’s awful because I’ll be like, “Stop telling me there’s something wrong with you.” Then I’ll be like “I’m going to the doctor’s because I think there’s something wrong with my head.”
Do you have any unusual habits or rituals?
I get obsessed with things. I get obsessed with ideas, then I correct myself and start being rational. I’m also not very good with affection. If someone is upset, I don’t know what to do with them. Instead of giving them a hug, I’ll touch them with one finger.
What are the biggest distractions in your life?
My phone. To be honest, I’m easily distracted. I find it hard to focus. Even on stage, I’m constantly thinking about other stuff. It could be something that I last said to someone and I’ll keep recalling it in my head. I’m trying to deal with it, I’m trying to learn how to be calmer and not let my mind wander so much but I find it difficult. I think it’s related to my obsessive streak, getting too fixated on things.
What would be your perfect day?
The perfect day would start with me waking up and understanding that Joel might sleep in. I’m horrible, usually if I’m awake that means he has to be awake. I’ll make myself a cup of tea, let him sleep and not freak out and think he’s dead—that’s happened before. Once he’s up, we’ll make some music together and then go for a long walk. I like walking, if it’s the perfect day then nobody will stop us for a photo because he always has to take it and I feel bad. I’m really conscious of time, so I would try my best to be patient and go with the flow, but I would know exactly what time we’d be going for food. I’d get dressed up and we’d go out for lots of food, with all the courses and more. I love sushi and he likes lobster. Then we’d go for a night walk and run around central London. That’s what we do sometimes, or he runs off.
When you’re not working, what do you do for fun?
What? What do you mean not working? I’m always working. [Laughs] When I’m not working I sleep.