At just 26 years old, JoJo has lived a lifetime in the pop industry. Known to most as the noughties pop star who styled out hoop earrings while sassing exes, Joanna Levesque initially got her big break performing on US comedy programme Kids Say The Darndest Things, prompting calls to appear on Oprah and America’s Most Talented Kids. At the age of 12, she signed with Blackground Records, home to artists like Aaliyah and Timbaland. JoJo became the youngest artist in history to top Billboard’s Pop 100 chart with her school disco-defining debut single Leave (Get Out), going on to release three albums and sell over eight million records.
When Blackground ceased to be active in 2009, JoJo was left trapped in a label limbo and experienced troubling input from label execs attempting to control her image. But after filing a lawsuit to extract herself from their control, JoJo was finally able to return to public consciousness last year with her third studio album Mad Love. We spoke to JoJo over the phone while she was getting a new tattoo – a turquoise bracelet, specifically – to look back on her journey so far.
2004: Releasing debut album JoJo at age 13
I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember, so I always wanted to make albums, to tour. I was in London with my mum when I heard that I had a number one single in America. We ordered a pizza, and we ate the whole pizza. I was 13 and she didn’t want me to get a big head, so we went about life like it was just another day. I’m lucky that my mum always looked out for me as a child before anything. She protected me from a lot of gnarly things that can happen in the industry. It’s funny to listen back, I sound like a chipmunk, but I remember how I felt. I can hear myself finding my footing as a young person, as a young woman, as someone who is feeling imperfect and wants to see if other people feel the same way.
2009 Onward: Trouble with label Blackground
Early on, I didn’t feel like I was being coerced or forced to present an image that I wasn’t comfortable with. But around the time that I turned 18 I started to get uncomfortable and hear opinions about my weight or the way I dressed. It took me a few years to reclaim my strength and to feel comfortable even in my own skin, in my own style, in my own body. I was reading self-help books, and building myself back up by telling myself that I’m good the way I am. With the contract, I felt like I was suffocating, because I wasn’t able to continue with my career. I got into that situation thinking that we’d be family forever, and now what I want from my label is truly a business partnership.
2013: Separating from Label
Getting out of my contract with the label was very emotional, I’m thankful that I can finally release music. Having success from an early age, having a lot of ‘yes’ people, can shape you into a certain type of person, and it can be dangerous. Facing the adversity with the label, having to really fight for what I want to do for the rest of my life, gave me perspective. I’ve had some very high highs and some very low lows. When I was suing my record label, I recorded several incarnations of albums that unfortunately never got released. I think, through that, I learned about myself as a songwriter. I really grew into that role.
2015-16: Career Comeback
[My debut] came out in 2004. In the years since then there’s been major strides in the way that young women are represented. There are so many different ways to be a woman represented in pop culture now. There’s no cookie cutter model. Now, labels know that shit doesn’t work. My generation, our generation, can sniff out fakes. We want something that’s real. That’s the biggest difference, that we as an audience demand it, and artists respond by being more of themselves, not trying to be an old version of what was considered perfect.
“There’s been major strides in the way that young women are represented in the industry. There’s no cookie cutter model now”
2016: Release of Mad Love album
The album came together in the beginning of 2016. Right at the beginning of the year I got into the studio, I pretty much scrapped everything I had done the previous year. I just followed what was making me feel. The album is shaped by romantic love, sexual relationships, self love. Love is the best shit ever. It drives me. It’s definitely the most fun I’ve ever had making music and the support from my fans has been so beautiful. I’ve been overwhelmed actually. After being gone for so long, to have gotten this reception is just very affirming. It’s the beginning of the next chapter for me.
Mad Love is out now via Atlantic / Warner