Jessie Reyez Is Achieving Superstardom on Her Own Terms — Even During a Pandemic
Published May 27, 2020Jessie Reyez knows all the best parking lots in Toronto. A few years ago, this knowledge was mission-critical: the singer-songwriter and her now-manager would cruise city streets at night looking for the ones with the best lighting, the least number of vehicles and minimal supervision. With a water bottle as microphone — and a streetlight acting as spotlight — she would practice her stage performance and how best to perform under pressure.
Best angles, breath control, what dance moves worked while singing and, most importantly, how to move the crowd. She laughs about it now, recalling it with a matter-of-fact offhandedness, as if all artists see the bigger picture the way she does.
Point is, she's been in it to win it for a minute; to hear her tell it, fame is just a side effect to her dedication to the music. Even with the release of new album Before Love Came to Kill Us in the midst of a global pandemic, Reyez is thinking a few moves ahead.
Before Love Came to Kill Us is an ambitious, self-aware and wholly realized project that leaves the Canadian-Colombian singer/songwriter feeling a way. It's a pop record — albeit one infused with her soul, hip-hop, dance and vocal sensibilities — that's openly raw, emotional and positions Reyez on the cusp of superstardom. No pressure. But unlike before, she feels she's ready for whatever comes.
What came was COVID-19. When Reyez should have been celebrating and opening for Billie Eilish on a North American tour, instead she was conflicted about even putting the long-awaited album out into the world.
"It messed me up because I was like 'I don't want to seem insensitive,'" she would tell The New York Times. "I've grown up thinking about death as something that could easily happen tomorrow. But I know that for everybody else, there's a lot of fear right now. I'm conflicted. But I've decided I'm putting it out, because indecision never did anything for anybody."
Not only did she keep to the album's initial release date, but she doubled down a week later with a deluxe version, with new album art and remixes of "Far Away" featuring verses from A Boogie wit da Hoodie and J.I.D, a remix of album track "Ankles" featuring Rico Nasty and Melii, and "Worth Saving."
"You know when Kendrick Lamar or Beyoncé drop an album, it feels like the world stopped for a second? I feel like they've put in work and hours and proven themselves enough to merit someone sacrificing time from their life for someone you've never met for their art. That's a fucking big thing. It's an investment."
It's something she hopes her full-length debut accomplishes.
With Reyez, what you see (and hear) is what you get. F-bombs pepper her conversation and lyrics, her frank approach to sex and relationships is piercingly honest and her meta level of self-awareness means she's acutely aware of er own perspective, but also of how she's perceived.
She hopes you feel it, but you know where the door is if you don't.
"I'm not going to lie and say I make music for other people, because I don't," she says. The fearlessness that was "Gatekeeper" — depicting the sexism and misogyny she experienced in the music industry and turning down producers that wanted to sleep with her to advance in her career — is the energy that underlines Before Love Came to Kill Us.
Reyez's willingness to expose industry machinations, ability to wield her own artistic identity and sexual expression, and determinations to be a star without being a major label puppet have established a platform for herself and for future pop stars to shine on. Her holistic emotional complexity — and willingness to hold herself and others accountable — have endeared her to fans and amped up her accessibility factor in a post-SoundCloud world.
She's blunt about it: Reyez's music is her sanctuary, an extension of her dedication to craft, to artistry, to self-preservation. It's home to her emotions, her anxieties, her fears, her faith and her passions.
It's a selfish thing when you really think about it, she says. "It's like why you breathe. Do you breathe for others or do you breathe for you? The fact that people connect with my shit after the fact is a positive by-product. In that positive by-product, if people connect with it and get that sense of urgency and tell someone that they love them and don't be scared, and confess who they really are to the world, that would be lit," she says.
Being successful in the music biz in 2020 is her near-term goal; staying true to her vision and being true to herself and her Colombian-Canadian roots within the industry machine is the immediate challenge. Jessie Reyez was nominated for a Best Urban Contemporary Album Grammy in 2019, but it has been years in the making. In the dreaming. And she wants that fucking Grammy. "A lot of people say they don't care about a Grammy. But I say fuck that," she says. Earning the nomination meant a lot for her. "I was so happy. As a Latina and a brown-skinned woman, I'm just really happy to have been included."
Plus, while R&B and hip-hop vibes have played a key role in her process, Before Love Came to Kill Us isn't about genre. It's about mood. Whether it's the trap feel of breakup anthem "Ankles," the power pop punch of "Love in the Dark" or the blunted reality of "Coffin."
Finishing it took "a long fucking time," she notes.
Some of the record was created in her Toronto bedroom, some in Los Angeles. "Sometimes it's just me and my guitar. And then sometimes it's me as a producer. But all of it is from the heart."
It's why the album was released now, pandemic be damned. Reyez continues to stay engaged with her fans via Instagram and TikTok, performing virtually — by way of brand partnership gigs or charity concerts — with stripped down sets straight from her Toronto apartment. The decision to release and perform the album as-is is already proving to be the right one.
It stays true to the album's themes of life and death, and love and death — the negative characteristics that come with love. It's about the idea you keep mortality next to you and you keep death present, Reyez says. It's the reason why she keeps her lyrical content and musicality honest: "Today, I might not be an asshole, because I have to talk to God about it tomorrow. I'm not lying, because I have to talk to God about it tomorrow."
It was about putting in that work. "We studied albums: we studied Kendrick, we studied Amy [Winehouse], and studied great ones. Because my goal is to make something timeless. Something that lives on after my body is dead. But the process hasn't changed. It's always heart to mouth. Heart to mouth," she says.
The project is infused with her Colombian roots, her mother and father's birthplace. They originally came to Canada for a better life and the Canadian-born Reyez is their hopes, manifested. "Being Latina in Toronto is lit. I'm proud of it. I'm proud of being Canadian. I'm happy I'm born here. I feel like in Toronto you can throw a rock and hit fucking ten different countries. Walk down the street and you hear ten different languages. It's crazy," she says.
"I feel like if I maybe was born somewhere else where there was more of a nationalistic attitude, I don't think I would have been as encouraged to maintain my roots where I can wave my Canadian flag and wave my parent's flag. My parents also had a big hand in that. When they moved here, they were taking English classes and they were told that they had to speak English at home. They couldn't just practice English at school that they had to practice at home with each other and with each other and us. So, they made a conscious decision to be like well we're just going to take the L with the English and then we're going to keep Spanish in the house. And so, my mom has a big ass accent, but I maintain my native tongue. That wouldn't have been possible had I not been born here."
She recalls putting on impromptu talent shows for her family as a kid — "putting fruits in my hair and pretending to be Celia Cruz" — and taking her dad's guitar to sing and play in church. Songwriting began in earnest in high school.
"It was always a part of me," she says of music. School after high school wasn't, however. So, when her family moved to Florida around the early 2010s, her life was making music in between odd jobs and the beach. "I didn't want to go to college, because school wasn't really for me." It was a pivotal time, she recalls. "I was living in Florida and I was bartending, and I was frustrated because I just felt like I wasn't making the kind of moves that I wanted to make."
Getting rejected at auditions. Getting no responses or excitement from producers. Getting told that a publishing agency was interested and then getting no callback. There were just a lot of negatives that kept adding up, she says.
"But music's always been home. So maybe that's why I fought for it. Music's the only thing where I felt at home. And my parents work hard as fuck. I feel like the drive that I have I learned a lot from them.
"I remember listening to BJ the Chicago Kid's song 'Dream II,' which is like the most potent song I've ever heard. And I just remember hearing that song and being like 'Fuck this, I'm going to do anything and everything I can.' It really made me want to work hard and motivated me to want to work harder, to hustle harder.
"When you were a kid and you're looking at your goals and looking at the TV — the music videos and award shows — you see these people living out their dreams, but you can't bridge it," she muses aloud.
Throughout it all, it was her faith and family that served as the anchor as life got dreamlike. "A lot of it was my mom and dad. They taught me my spirituality, having prayer and faith in God, which helps. Still helps," she notes.
Before Love Came to Kill Us presents Reyez in full bloom, fuelled by lyrics and a sonic mentality that reflect her interiority — her wins, her losses, her insecurities and her inherent power as a woman and artist. Reyez is, in many ways, the template for a 21st century artist on a major label. Forging her own path, Reyez is a musical wunderkind and artistic director, curating and cultivating her platform by way of her hand in the way she presents herself, her music videos, her songwriting, even down to her interactive social media presence. It's all organic, yet thoroughly calculated as an indie-minded artist on a major label — down to her image, the drip-drop of standout singles and videos and the all-star producers and artist collaborations.
The last 18 months have been a whirlwind of touring; when Reyez injured her back during a gig, it forced her to slow down and became a teaching moment. "I was depressed for a minute, because I was stuck and I couldn't fly and I couldn't move and sing. It reminded me that I'm not a robot. To keep my team and my vision moving, I need to be healthy," she says.
"I stopped drinking in April of last year. I used to drink a lot. It feels like that wasn't helping me," she confides. "And I started talking to a therapist. Which is weird but helping. You can hear my mental state at times in my songs. Whatever. It's human.
"The pressure that I feel — everything else that came with it that I didn't expect. Like interviews and photo shoots, politics and meetings. All this shit that's not the art," she says. "Recording and performing are the only two things that are pure for me in this industry. So, it's hard to feel scared of that. It's hard to fear that. I get to put something out there that's the seed of everything. As long as there's truth in it. And there's truth in every song. I feel like that makes me feel safer in a weird way."
She adds: "It's about my life and experience. I always say that if I break my leg today, I'm going to sing about having broken my leg. So, it was just my life. The only difference between this album and my other shit is that now we have a bigger budget. So now instead of using programmed violins and programmed strings, now we got a fucking orchestra.
"I've always been free with it. I don't like the idea of genre. I'm lucky that even the label that we partnered with and anybody who works with me kind of respects that. We lay that out in the beginning. You can't taint that. You just can't. It's got to stay sacred. There's a purity: heart to mouth to pen to sound. That highway needs to stay clear. I'm lucky that I have a team that supports that and sets the tone for anybody that we're working with. Regarding making this actual album. We listened, we studied great albums. We want to make something timeless."
But it will never be about filtering or censoring herself. No holding back.
"The day I start censoring myself I'm fucked. People can sense that. And maybe that's why I've been able to have the little success that I've had. I've been able to connect because maybe people resonate with the truth," she says. "And honest to God like the only people I ever fucking worry about is my parents and then my brother. He has kids — my nieces and nephews — and they might sing some of the terminology in my lyrics that he won't appreciate."
Reyez didn't end up winning that 2020 Grammy. But success means different things to different people. "I want to do more philanthropic shit I feel like that's where I'm failing. I want to do more. I'm happy about making my health a new priority."
That's a whole new world, she offers. Reyez in the mainstream, speaking and singer her truths.
"I need to love myself more. I didn't understand that before, that if I don't work, this doesn't work. The machine stops. My team stops," she says.
It's a movement even a pandemic won't derail.
"I want to help everybody come up. I want to just do good by others. Authentically. I want to work on my character. I want to make sure that I am staying consistent and when times are hard to be my own friend. Just to love myself more. So, when times are hard, I can lift myself up to me. So I can lift up others."
Before Love Came to Kill Us, indeed.
Reyez didn't end up winning that Grammy, but she's just getting started. "Everyone says they just want to be nominated, but fuck that. I want to win."