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.

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