Born Jessica Cornish but nicknamed Jessie for short, the ‘J’ is a random add-on that she says can mean “anything you want it to”. Citing Billy Porter and Terrell Carter among the many greats who have influenced her musical creativity, Jessie says she has never been afraid to experiment with her gift. “I’ve always enjoyed doing creative stuff with my voice as it is an instrument in itself. When I was younger I used to do voice-overs for cartoons.” In fact, Jessie’s bold and comical facial expressions coupled with her witty and off-the-cuff banter are reminiscent of a cartoon character. Always animated, she admits to being slightly loud and hyper, but unapologetically so.
At just 22 years old, Jessie’s CV read’s like any typical popstar’s, having studied musical theatre at the Brits school from the age of 16, joining a girl group shortly after. At 17 she saw an offer on the table from Gut Records, which she readily accepted. However, the road from rags to riches rarely runs smooth and Jessie experienced this firsthand when her label went bankrupt before her first solo record was even released. “I was left with all these songs and a deal waiting for someone to buy me out.”
She concedes it was difficult securing another deal as the market had become saturated with young and talented British soul singers. “Adele, Duffy and Amy Winehouse were all out at that time – no one wanted to sign another UK female artist. So I went to America to do songwriting, did a few showcases and it all went a bit crazy.”
Jessie says the love she received in the US helped her to decide her path. “I was always tied between being on stage and being an artist, and I never really knew if I was strong enough to be put in the public eye.” While she admits the path to success hasn’t always been easy, she defiantly insists she wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. “I realise that struggle, that pain, that fight has made me who I am today. I’m glad that it’s been difficult.”
With both feet firmly on the ladder to success, Jessie stresses she is still very much ‘normal’ and unaffected by fame. “My sister said to me the other day, ‘I care about your job as much as you care about mine.’ That sums it up really. When I go home we don’t talk about this. I’m a 22-year-old girl from Essex and I’m very normal. When I get a day off I don’t go raving. I’m at home and I cook or I invite my family and friends round and I have a games night.” This all sounds miles apart from the girl who, when in LA, is partying at Jamie Foxx’s mansion or scribbling all over super-producer Dallas Austin’s studio walls.
As down to earth as she may be, Jessie J is not naïve to the fame game, admitting that people’s attitudes have changed towards her as her career snowballs to dizzy heights. “The amount of love I’ve been given is stupid. My life is changing by the second and it scares me. People are coming out of the woodwork… like people I may have gone to school with but never spoke to. It’s all a bit crazy.”
With the eagerly anticipated release of her debut album, Who You Are, on the horizon, Jessie reflects on the risqué video for ‘Do it Like a Dude’, which officially introduced her to the world at the end of last year. “I did it because I knew it was controversial and I wanted a reaction. The video is a reflection of a part of me that not everybody gets to see.”
Content with having stunned the nation with her unexpected debut, she is now bracing herself for another whirlwind 12 months ahead. Having put in the hard graft behind the scenes for many years and growing a loyal and steady fan base in the process, the result has culminated in Jessiemania. To the untrained eye she has seemingly come out of nowhere, gracing the pages of every showbiz column and Internet blog on a weekly basis, her statuesque 5ft 9in frame peeking out from every TV screen across the land.
But with success comes its fair share of haters, and though overwhelmed with the support she has had thus far, Jessie has also had to thicken her skin against those who are not so encouraging. “People want to hate me. The Internet has created this world of confident hate. People feel comfortable to attack. Of course it’s going to hurt. I’ve had a little cry now and again. I just have to take it in my stride and not let the craziness eat away at why I started this journey in the first place.”
It is this strength of character and self-awareness that adds a vulnerability to Jessie J and allows her fans to feel as if they truly know the real person underneath that fierce, immaculate, razor-sharp bob. We first saw this vulnerability via her YouTube channel where she would upload videos of herself singing acapella on her bedroom floor. Although she seems to have the world at her feet she says she has had her moments of doubt and has not always been the strong, confident young lady we see today.
Recalling one of the most poignant moments of her life and career, Jessie reveals how she came to write the favourite track off her debut album of the same name, ‘Who You Are’. “I was in Hollywood by myself and so confused. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I was being shoved around from labels to studios… I’d just given up on being on stage. I looked in the mirror and one bit of hair wasn’t in place. I remember getting so angry because this one hair wasn’t perfect and I just began to cry. I went into the studio the next day and started writing how I felt. I was a mess. I remember singing it through tears. The album version is the demo – I didn’t ever re-record it. Now I get messages on YouTube and Facebook from people saying, ‘This song has saved my life,’ and it means so much to me because I know this song saved my life too. Literally.”
Currently writing for Jordin Sparks, Christina Aguilera and Leona Lewis to name but a few, Jessie insists writing is her outlet and music her therapy. Known for her autobiographical and personal lyrics, she insists on a heart to heart with the artists she writes for. Compelled by the need to bring truth to the music, she says this can only happen if the artist is singing something real to them. “I want them to feel like this is their music, their song – so I will sit down with Leona [for example] and ask ‘What’s going on with you? What do you want to talk about?’’’
Although Jessie has no qualms with writing for megastars, she maintains that she comes first as an artist. “I always keep the best [songs] for myself. I’m lucky that I can write a song I love and still have it put out by somebody else. ‘Party in the USA’ was supposed to be for me but it went to Miley. It’s about learning what suits me and what doesn’t.”
It’s clear the future is very bright for Jessie indeed. As she reflects on the journey so far and the journey that still lies ahead, she smiles. “Five years ago I could’ve been in bikinis singing ‘Up in the Club’ – but that’s not what I wanted to do. You’ve got to be true to who you are…
Words by Toya Berry, photography by Sai photography
Jessie J kicks off her UK tour at the end of March, full list of live dates below:
31st March – Glasgow, O2 Academy
1st April – Bristol, O2 Academy
2nd April – Birmingham, O2 Academy
4th April – Manchester, Academy
5th April – London, O2 Shepherds Bush Empire
7th April – Dublin, Academy
8th April – Dublin, Trinity Ball
9th April – Belfast, Mandela Hall