There hasn’t been a career that has taken off so fast, so spectacularly and so all-consumingly as Jessie J’s in recent memory.
Number one singles and a debut album that headed straight for the top, millions sold worldwide, show-stopping performances in front of a global audience of billions at the Olympics, a full-blown Saturday night prime-time TV career, extraordinary acts for charity that hit the headlines, Glastonbury, the Diamond Jubilee Concert and songs for the likes of Miley Cyrus and Chris Brown… To think – three years ago, we didn’t even know who Jessie J was and now she’s a household name from Southend to Sydney. And it looks like things are only getting more exciting with an upcoming album that already has a top 5 single, “Wild”, on it despite the fact that single was released almost secretly. “There was no pre-promo, no six-week build-up…” says Jessie, delighted that everyone seems happy to have her back. “I just wanted to do it for the fans and to see what would happen without all the social media and stuff. And it went to number one in four countries! I couldn’t be happier…”
This phase of a career in music that started while she was still at school kicked off with the single “Do It Like a Dude”, a feisty performance with a video so strong there was certainly no ignoring this explosive new singer-songwriter, surfing between tough r’n’b and rap – and, according to one journalist, between Katy Perry and Alice Cooper - with what would soon be an instantly recognisable, highly copied, look.
That was followed by “Price Tag”, the anti-materialistic anthem of its year, and an album that sold in its millions going platinum several times over. But that was just the beginning of a journey that would see Jessie become the first British woman in history to take six top ten singles from one album and never mind that it was her first outing.
“The first album is to show why you should be here,” says Jessie now that she’s working on performing the new one, working on visuals, designing costumes. “The second album is why I should stay, so that first single is a good sign, even though I thought it didn’t sound like anything else on the radio.” Having spent so long on the new album, Jessie asked someone else to describe it to her: “They said, ‘Positive, honest, uplifting, anthemic…,’” she says. “Words that I love. I hope that’s what it is. I feel really proud of it and feel it really represents me.”
Going back to the real beginning and you have a working-class girl from east London, daughter of a social worker and a nursery nurse, obsessed with Whitney Houston (and really listening to the lyrics!) and badgering her parents to allow her to go to dance classes with her older sisters.
At the age of four she was doing ballet then tap then modern dance and then jazz and then started acting. By seven she’d formed a baby girl band with her sisters called The Cornish Pasties (her underused surname is actually Cornish), was taping herself singing whole albums worth of material for relatives for Christmas and was already working a bob. By nine she was starring in the West End in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Whistle Down the Wind. All of this with a heart condition that had her spending time in Great Ormond Street Hospital, sometimes being allowed out on day release with her heart monitor to attend rehearsals.
“I always knew it was the only thing I was any good at,” she says now that, at 25 years of age, the whole world knows she’s good at it. “Maybe because I was loud.”
Having done well at school – ‘A’s in the subjects she liked (English, Drama, Art), ‘E’s in the ones she didn’t at GCSE – she enrolled at the prestigious Brits School, birthplace of talents such as Adele and Amy Winehouse, travelling an hour and forty-five minutes each way every day, spending the time writing a diary that she would later turn into songs.
Having won an award on ITV for Britain’s Best Pop Prodigy, presented to her by Bee Gee Robin Gibb, she realised that maybe it was music, not theatre, that would be her future. “There’s footage of me saying, ‘I just want to be a singer. I’d love people to hear my voice and know it’s me’,” she says now, “and it’s so surreal watching that not knowing that this was going to happen. When I won that, I thought, “Maybe I should be a pop singer”.
While studying for her A levels and working part time in toy superstore Hamley’s in London’s West End – “I was very busy. I don’t like sitting still” – she got her first taste of the pop-star experience: she auditioned for a girl band called Soul Deep and got the gig. It was for an anti-violence single for the Mums Against Guns campaign and, “It was something I really believed in,” she says. It was around this time that her parents moved Jessie and her sisters out of east London after a stabbing near the family home.
But things soon turned sour, making her realise she needed to take control of her music career, even if she was still in her teens. “I remember being at the showcase for Soul Deep, singing sexy songs and doing these moves and thinking, ‘Is this what it’s come to? Songs about boys and being in the club?’” she says now. “I realised that there were so many songs of my own that I wanted to write…”
Coincidentally, it was at that showcase that Guy Holmes from GUT records picked her out as a potential solo star, while the other girls in the group were also looking to go their own ways, maybe picking up on a similar sense of anti-climax. At the same time as this realisation was coming over Jessie, she was auditioning for a part at MTV to play a character in a drama series who worked at a record company and would eventually be discovered and made into a star… “Basically, it was Hannah Montana with a bob!” she laughs explaining that she chose music over the TV career because that’s what she believed in. MTV contacted Jessie later to say they were canning the show as they couldn’t find anyone like her to star in it. “I thought that was a bit exaggerated,” she laughs now, never one to blow her own trumpet and reluctant to let anyone else blow it for her.
It was a promising career in musical theatre she was leaving behind (she’s a pretty good tap dancer, by the way: she’ll show you if you ask her) and she still hasn’t written it off, saying she’d love one day to star in something like Wicked. “I love playing characters,” she says, “Not being me. In the music industry you’re playing yourself, which can be very scary.” Pop stardom felt like overnight success to those of us watching from the sidelines but, as is always the case, it wasn’t like that. As far as Jessie was concerned, it was the moment she landed on Later… With Jools Holland to sing “Price Tag” that she realised she was on her way. “There were other moments but it was such a whirlwind of a year that it’s hard to pick a single moment,” she says.
In fact, her first two years in the spotlight would be filled with moments like her barnstorming performance at Glastonbury – “I had my broken foot but the minute I stepped out the sun came out” – a spot on the Diamond Jubilee Concert stage and the Olympics performance where she was the only act along with Emeli Sandé to get two slots. “As I was walking up that catwalk I said to myself that I’d reached that moment where I’d watched people like Beyoncé do that when I was 14 and 15 and here I was! I was literally shaking with excitement!”
And you have to add to those achievements some pretty impressive statistics: coming up for 15 million sales, a Brit, the BBC Sound of 2011 award, two number one singles in the UK, number ones in no fewer than 19 countries, a number six hit in the US with “Domino”. There are many more. We could go on. And that’s not to mention her part in two series of The Voice UK, the highly-rated BBC1 Saturday night prime-time show where she has mentored hopefuls alongside legends like Sir Tom Jones and will.i.am. She may have left it behind now, but that doesn’t seem to have dampened her enthusiasm for the show.
“They sent over the diary for the next series and they needed me for 42 days and for 40 of them, I’m on tour,” she explains. “I was gutted but my tour is way more important, I’m not afraid to say that. But I’m excited about being a fan of the show and just watching it. And I’m sure they’ll replace us with great singers who’ll put in the time like we did. I’ve warmed up the chair and I know I’ll be a bit miffed not to be there…”
Somehow along the way, she has found time to do the charity work she always dreamed of doing when she was the little girl with the heart condition at Great Ormond Street Hospital hoping to meet Baby Spice when she came around the wards. Some of it has been discreet, under the radar, some of it has been front-page stuff, such as the moment she shaved off her trademark bob for Comic Relief, donating the hair to be woven into wigs for children who had lost their hair during cancer treatment.
And now comes the matter of the second album and a brand new world tour… “I wrote my first album when I was 18. This is definitely more mature,” she says of the new project on which she has worked with the likes of Rodney Jerkins, Claude Kelly and Stargate. But of 21 songs written for the album, Jessie wrote or co-wrote all of them. The control she used to dream of is unquestionably hers. “I’ve controlled everything,” she says. “The covers, I’ve picked Rankin to do the photography, I’ve chosen my video director, I’ve written the treatment, the pictures that go in the sleeve, the track listing, it’s all me. I’m a control freak. And I should be in control. It’s my baby and I don’t like it when I’m not in control!” And she laughs. But that doesn’t mean she’s not serious.