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Jorja Smith’s connections to her audience feel spiritual. At a sold-out show this May, the soulful British artist used her voice, and her intimate lyrics about tangled emotions, to capture and keep the crowd’s attention. It was a warm Saturday night at New York’s Brooklyn Steel, a venue that holds 1800 people, and Smith wore a red top with corset detail, swaying her hips to the jazzy music of her four-piece band. A lone stick of incense, valiantly burning from her drummer’s amp behind her, did little to dispel the weed haze that filled the room.

As lights drenched the stage in a Ribena-coloured hue, Smith sang the swelling mid-tempo track Let Me Down, which describes the languorous pull of an unhealthy relationship. Two young women with “X”s marked on their hands – a sign, perhaps, that they aren’t of legal drinking age in the States – gazed into each other’s eyes while singing along. At another point in the set, Smith played Tomorrow, a minimal piano ballad responding to an ex-lover who destroyed her confidence, leading her to seek out therapy. “I wrote this when I was a bit confused,” Smith told the audience. “I still am.” At the song’s climax, Smith unleashed the full power of her voice: “I said what I can/ But do you hear me?/ Do I know who I am?” The crowd erupted with an affirmative cheer.

© Laura McCluskey
Metallic Silver Coat: Malene Oddershede Bach
Shoes: A.F. Vandevorst
Earrings: Becca Jewellery

That kind of reaction might not be entirely surprising, given that Smith inspires a cultish fervour online. “Jorja the kinda woman to snatch your soul,” reads one fan’s comment on her YouTube channel. It’s not unusual to read this hyperbole from fans on social media, but Smith is the rare artist that justifies it. There is a quality to the 20-year-old singer’s music that feels out-of-time; her deeply resonant voice – truly staggering when heard live – would suit a Harlem renaissance jazz bar, the luxe textures of 70s disco-soul, or, as Smith proved with her zippy Preditah collaboration On My Mind, the golden age of UK garage.

Since posting her debut single Blue Lights on SoundCloud in early 2016, Smith’s ascent has been swift. Her focused debut EP was followed by a spot on the 2017 BBC Sound of… poll and two features on Drake’s More Life project. Earlier this year, Smith won a BRITs Critics Choice award and then appeared with her own track on the Kendrick Lamar-curated Black Panther soundtrack. Her debut album Lost & Found is an independently-released collection of songs that imbue neo-soul mid-tempos with subtle influences from jazz, hip-hop, and rumbling electronic beats, pulling off another uncommon feat: delivering on the hype.

“I never had any plan for this,” Smith says. It’s two weeks after the Brooklyn concert, and we’re on a comfy sofa in her publicist’s West London apartment, as sunlight streams through large French windows. “I don’t do plans because I don’t like to be disappointed.” When I say that she has an amazing voice, she nervously laughs and says, softly, that she’s “always doubted” that fact. “On my last [UK] tour, every show was shit,” she says, pursing her lips. “I would come off stage and apologise to my band: ‘I’m sorry that you have to perform with me.’ It could just be a note gone wrong, but that can make the whole show awful.”

"None of the locations in the Blue Lights visuals have been in videos. I wanted to put Walsall on the map"

Frequently, Smith casts herself as her own worst enemy. That’s an instinct she shares with modern soul artists like SZA and Kali Uchis, whose journal-like lyrics expose the inner turmoil of post-adolescence, like the quietly crushing feeling of your text message being left on read by someone you really like. The knotty lyrics of Smith’s retro-flavoured Teenage Fantasy lay out the destructive effects of being indecisive in relationships. Meanwhile, she has never sounded as bereft as on Lost & Found’s crushing closing track Don’t Watch Me Cry. While Smith says that her lyrics aren’t always entirely autobiographical, her music, with its unflinching willingness to expose self-inflicted emotional wounds, brings to mind the agonised songwriting of her hero Amy Winehouse. But if Winehouse’s voice sounded, at times, like gravel, Smith’s has a lustre like mother of pearl.

In person, Smith lightens her music with moments of levity. She has a flair for bringing anecdotes to life by adding absurd, comic details (“We got, like, a mousse from Pret,” she says dryly, recalling one ill-fated first date). And she can be quite irreverent in person, too. As the light catches her gold nameplate necklace, she says, “Please don’t look at what is going on with my hand” – before enthusiastically extending her dagger-like beige nails towards me. A few of the acrylic tips have been maimed, leaving jagged stumps. “Disgusting!” she shouts.

Smith says that she feels like an old soul. She grew up in the industrial West Midlands town of Walsall, which is eight miles north-west of Birmingham, to a Jamaican father and white English mum. When she was a baby, Smith’s West Indian nan said that she had already walked this earth before. “I knew too much,” says Smith with a laugh. The first CD she bought was Atomic Kitten’s 2002 cover of The Tide is High. Her taste later expanded to include Lily Allen, Damian Marley, Mos Def, and Winehouse’s debut Frank. Her dad is a former musician, and played in a neo-soul group called 2nd Naicha before Smith was born. Her own song Teenage Fantasy is, in part, a tribute one of the group’s lyrics: “could it be I’m falling in love, or is it just a teenage fantasy?

She didn’t grow up in a strict religious family, but her dad would take her to a local black New Testament church at Christmas. When Smith performed Silent Night at one service, age eight, her talent was clear. At her local comprehensive school, Smith learned the oboe and took classical singing as part of a music scholarship. Before she’d done her GCSEs, Smith was uploading covers of songs like Katy B’s On a Mission and Alex Clare’s Too Close to YouTube, accompanied by her friend Imi on acoustic guitar. Her voice is unpolished in the homemade videos, but it can still make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. On the strength of those clips, she signed a management deal at 15.

© Laura McCluskey
Mesh Dress: Shiori Suzuki
Trainers: Nike
Earrings: Becca Jewellery

As a teenager, Smith was insecure about her appearance, and worried that she wasn’t popular with boys because of her full lips and curvy figure. Aged 16, she worked part-time in a local McDonald’s to get some money of her own and afford the clothes she wanted from Topshop. Around that time, she switched from wearing her natural curls, to styling her hair in a long straight ponytail. “When my dad used to pick me up, he used to think he was picking up a white girl,” Smith says. “He would tell me that I’m not white. He would be like: ‘If it came down to it: you’re black.’”

When we meet, it’s a few days after the royal wedding, and tabloid magazines are still announcing themselves as Collectors Editions – to be cherished, unread, by nans across the nation – to capitalise on the occasion. Smith did not watch the ceremony, but has a distinct point of view on Meghan Markle. “I wish she’d had an afro, ‘cause she’s mixed-race,” Smith says. “That’d be” – Smith’s face lights up as she slaps the thigh of her flared Supreme jeans for emphasis – so!! cool!! Imagine young girls seeing a princess with an afro. How great would that be?”

© Laura McCluskey
Blazer: Fabian Kis-Juhasz
Shirt: Fabian Kis-Juhasz
Tracksuit Bottoms: Nike
Trainers: Nike
Earrings: Becca Jewellery

It’s jarring to remember the gulf between headlines about the more inclusive modern royal family, and the lived reality of lives for people of colour in the UK. Draconian new immigration laws mean that thousands of the Windrush generation – people who moved from the Caribbean to Britain in the 50s and 60s – are currently facing deportation and loss of healthcare. A five minute walk from where we sit talking, the charred remains of Grenfell Tower still stand, in a damning indictment of the government’s failure to protect the capital’s low-income groups and people of colour. This negligence resulted in 72 deaths.The fireproof cladding that Grenfell needed would have cost less than a tenth of the royal wedding’s reported £32 million expense.

Smith is troubled by social injustice, and sang on a Grenfell charity single last year – a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water – to raise money for victims’ families and survivors. A fiery new song of her own, Lifeboats, critiques the UK’s unequal benefits system. Smith wrote the lyrics when she was 16, after a conversation with her father, who is a benefits officer. A deftly rapped verse asks, “Why are all the richest staying afloat?” delivered a tone that is pure Walsall. Smith’s Midlands brogue, with its rounded vowels and subtle sing-song lilt, is not a cadence that you habitually hear on blockbuster Spotify playlists, but she loves the way that it peeks through on Lost & Found. “My accent sounds really strong,” she says, of a spoken word outro on February 3rd. “How cool?”

For Smith, representing her hometown is a point of pride. Earlier this year, she re-released Blue Lights, which humanises men who get mixed up in knife crime. A new video for the song, shot in Walsall, depicts moments of tenderness between men of colour: a barber giving a shape up with care, and young Asian boys eating a chicken shop takeaway on courthouse steps. “None of those locations have been in videos,” she says. “I wanted to put Walsall on the map.”

© Laura McCluskey
Sequinned Top: Paula Knorr
Tracksuit Bottoms: Nike
Shoes: A.F. Vandevorst
Earrings: Becca Jewellery

Smith’s narrative in Blue Lights riffs on a school project she did about police and grime music, as well as a troubling-sounding experience she had with a male friend. “He came round to my house to hang out, but he left his bag,” she says. “It was a little Armani pouch. I opened it, ‘cause it was really light, and it was a flick knife. I went and washed it and put it back. I mean, I didn’t want my fingerprints on it.” Does she think it was for protection? “Yeah,” she says. “Because what’s he gonna do? He’s a mentor for young kids; a sports coach.” She sighs. “People do move like that though.”

In her songwriting, Smith’s superpower is to balance the specific struggles of her generation with the messy minutiae of her own life. Hers is the kind of real-talk that we need. Towards the end of our conversation, as the sun drifts behind a cloud, she speaks about the personal significance of her album’s title Lost & Found, remembering a time when she was lost in Ladbroke Grove, aged 16, in a blur of bustling commuters and blaring horns. “I felt like a small girl in this big world,” she says. “I’m in this big city and it’s a lot to take in.” Even though she’s still grappling with those feelings, Smith is developing a quiet sense of ease with them. “I never really find myself on the album, and I still feel very lost in this world,” she says, as a small smile creeps onto her face. “But I know that I want to sing, and write songs. I definitely know what I want to do. I know the gift I’ve found.”

Photography: Laura McCluskey
Styling: Helen McGuckin
Photographer’s assistant: Dom Fleming
Styling Assistants: Pete Clubb & Aoife Steyaert-Hernon
Set Designer: Lucy Cooper
Hair: Zateesha Barbour
Make-Up: Carol Lopez Reid
Studio: Grand Palace Studio
Lab: Labyrinth Photographic

Lost & Found is out 8 June via Famm Limited
Jorja Smith appears at Flow Festival, Helsinki, 10-12 August