Jorja Smith’s sound is a projection of her environment.
Having grown up in Walsall in the West Midlands, with parents who claim their heritage from Jamaica and nearby West Yorkshire, Smith is a product of a varied upbringing. Raised on a soundtrack of The Slits, Damian Marley and The Smiths, she was musical from an early age, and spent school holidays travelling between home and London for songwriting sessions. Such sessions might have helped refine her impressively assured sound: musings on youth issues like boredom and break-ups executed with a timeless, jazzy inflection.
Smith made the move to London last year at the age of 18, where she wrote songs in between shifts at Starbucks. But she doesn’t yet refer to the place as home. “Walsall has played a big part in my growing up,” she says. Indeed, her 2016 breakout single Blue Lights, which tackles the issue of police harassment with a nod to Dizzee Rascal’s Sirens, is based on experiences from her hometown. “Everything I’ve learned, I learned back at home,” she says, “but I’m now learning more stuff that I can add to that. As you grow up, you’ll be in different environments and that will have an effect on who you are.”
Smith is very much a product of today’s hyper-connected generation. What’s refreshing, though, is that her music connects with a sense of warmth and honesty that goes much deeper than Facebook Likes. “I’ve always looked up to Amy Winehouse, because you can just believe everything she’s singing about and talking about,” she explains, “and I think as a songwriter that’s just what you want, because if an audience is able to believe you then they can really understand and really connect.” One listen to Smith’s new Project 11 EP shows how much of an influence Winehouse has had on her music. Comprising of skewed pop and modern soul, Smith’s cracked, jazzy vocals tell tales of broken hearts. Her voice conjures smoky basements and glasses of red wine that swing between being half full and half empty.
Small in stature, and casual in Air Max 95s, Smith doesn’t cut an imposing presence. And despite all the noticeable hype, she’s almost entirely unfazed by her own ascending profile. “I’m not in a rush, I don’t feel any pressure,” she says, “I just want to keep writing and singing and performing. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing at my pace, and the rest follows.” There’s a certain youthful innocence to all of this, though it’s one shaped by humility. “I’m a huge overthinker,” she admits, “but you just have to ground yourself and make sure you keep creating better – and better yourself.” Staying grounded is only going to get more difficult as 2017 rolls in, though: there’s an inevitability to Jorja Smith’s stardom that few others will experience, regardless of whether or not she’s realised it yet.
Words: Will Pritchard
Photography: Theo Cottle
Styling: Luci Ellis
Hair Artist: Naomi Regan
Project 11 is out now via FAMM