Interview: Jorja Smith: “I thought I’d be a police officer”

Jorja Smith: “I thought I’d be a police officer”

This ridiculously talented 18-year-old Walsall newcomer is seeing her name in (blue) lights.

When Jorja Smith turned sixteen, she considered a life away from music and, er, in ‘the force’. Sixth form beckoned, and she’d either stick to what she did best, or choose a career on the opposite end of the spectrum. “I thought I’d be a police officer,” she remembers, two years on. Left “thinking music was too difficult”, she kept writing until doors began to open.

Police crop up in ‘Blue Lights’, a Dizzee Rascal-nodding single that’s sent Jorja’s name stratospheric. One draw is in how she reinterprets Dizzee’s anthemic ‘Sirens’, but her delivery is another thing altogether. Notes float over hard-hitting subjects, twisting and turning when there doesn’t look to be a route beyond the norm. She possesses a stop-you-in-your-tracks vocal, the kind legendary stars deliver on a whim. No pressure, then.

“‘Blue Lights’ didn’t have to be based around the police,” she states. “[It’s about how] you shouldn’t have a guilty conscience if you’ve got nothing to be guilty for. That’s what I picked up, growing up. A lot of my friends are black boys. And every time they saw police, they’d be on edge. I was thinking, ‘Just act normal. You’ve done nothing wrong.’ I expanded that and made it into a big story.”

The Walsall newcomer - now based in London - always knew she wanted to pen stories. Studying music at A Level, she practiced singing in French, Italian and Latin, learning how “the notes move” in different languages. “The songs would be written in an English version. But it’s better to have a good understanding, because you won’t be able to sing well, if you don’t know what you’re singing. That’s why I write all my own stuff. I find it difficult to sing something someone else has written and I don’t have an idea what they’re on about!”

Her debut single’s Dizzee shout out was one thing. For the follow-up, she travelled back to the 17th Century, re-jigging a Henry Purcell composition, ‘A Prince of Glorious Race Descended’. On both of her standout moments, she doesn’t strictly borrow from the past - instead, she gives previous hallmarks her own edge. Again, it boils down to that voice. Two tracks aren’t a lot to work with, but like the very best singers, she seems to capture several emotions at once. She’ll draw a natural sadness out of one line, before flicking a switch and turning a subject on its head. It’s something you can’t teach.

Stormzy’s already a big fan, and Dizzee Rascal himself reached out to Jorja on Instagram, declaring his love for ‘Blue Lights’. In fact, it’s hard to think of a more recent outpouring of love from all sides for a new act. Rarely is it this well deserved.

Taken from the May 2016 issue of DIY, out now. Subscribe to DIY below.

Checkout

More like this

Divine Intervention: Angel Olsen

Divine Intervention: Angel Olsen

For her new opus, ‘Whole New Mess’ finds Angel Olsen looking to the future but reaching back to the past, to an emotionally-purging set of recordings that would lead the singer to her rawest work yet.

Get To Know… Leyma

Get To Know… Leyma

Sharing his new project ‘Tomorrow’s Almost Over’ today, meet the rising lo-fi artist.