JAY SEAN: PRINCE CHARMING
For an independently-released UK R&B track to crash into the British pop chart at Number 11, while dominating both main-stream and urban airwaves along the way, is indeed a feat in itself.
Even more interesting, meanwhile, was that the man behind the January 2008-released single in question - the sexy, Eastern Asia-tinged lament 'Ride It' - was none other then West London singer/ writer Jay Sean. Who, having initially enjoyed an impressive burst of early chart success back in 2004 (including two Top 10 singles 'Eyes On You' and 'Stolen'; plus a Top 30 debut LP 'Me Against Myself') had been absent from the recording scene since being let go by his first record label - Virgin - in 2006.
Having begun his involvement with music by forming a rap duo Compulsive Disorder during his years at a private boys` school, Jay had already started medical school to train as a doctor before his relationship with internationally-acclaimed West London urban/Asian producer Rishi Rish would eventually lead to his own aforementioned solo career. Which initially saw him being highly-touted in media circles as “Britain`s first-ever Asian R&B star”. Nevertheless, the 26-year-old sexy pin-up of today - having now swapped the hoodies and baggy jeans of earlier times for the sophistication of suits and ties - has left behind the Anglo-Asian lyrical issues and singing/rapping/beatboxing musical mix of his Virgin Records days to reinvent himself as a smooth, straight-up R&B singer. Releasing his new song-driven, love-themed second album 'My Own Way' independently through his own Jayded Records (in conjunction with his long-standing management`s already-established 2point9 label).
Recorded in both London and New York and currently pioneered by the summery, melodic retro-soul vibe of the single 'Maybe', moods on 'My Own Way' range from the cinematic strings of pentup slo` jam 'Stay' to the irrepressible, naughty bounce of 'I Won`t Tell' and yearning, midtempo '1.2.3.' Without question one of UK urban`s more charismatic and genuinely likeable characters, an ever-personable Jay - fast-talking and entertainingly opinionated as ever - reacquaints himself with “B&S” for this interesting, in-depth interview.
Your new single 'Maybe' has an old skool Eighties-style R&B feel to it...
"It`s funny you mention old skool R&B, `cause I`d actually been listening to that kinda stuff in my car when I first happened to come up with the melody! As soon as it came into my head, I went to the studio. And, once I got in there, I literally told the producer `Don`t speak to me! Let me just hum this melody to you quickly before I forget it!`... And, once I`d started singing, he straightaway began playing some guitar around it. So it was all very organically written. There was no `Oh, what a cool beat - where`s the sample from?`. Instead of being based on production, it was purely about the song, the melody and the lyrics. And the producer - Alan Sampson - is actually a young kid I`ve had pretty much under my wing for like three years. He`s 21 years old and really talented."
So why title your new album 'My Own Way'?
“It`s pretty much self-explanatory really. This whole entire project has been like my little baby - in terms of me nurturing it, making it, watching it grow, and having really hands-on creative control. You know, `I wanna work with THIS person... I want to write a song like THIS... I want this to be the single...I want these video directors`… And everyone around me in my team has been amazing and has just trusted me to call the shots. So while in that way, of course, I`ve only got myself to blame if it doesn`t work. At the same time, if it DOES work, obviously there`s so much more I can TAKE from that - and it`s just so much more gratifying.”
What did you want to achieve musically?
“Musically I just wanted to have an identifiable sound that created a thread of continuity throughout the album. So that, when you listen to it, it`s not just a mish-mash of songs. I also wanted it to be one of those great albums where you can have it playing from start to finish and not have to run to the stereo to press `Forward` because you don`t like a particular track. So basically I tried to write some real songs that could stand on their own, without being dependent on a hook or a gimmick. While, in terms of the chords I`ve used on each song, I do feel they evoke certain moods in you that help take you on a nice little journey through the stories I`m telling.”
Lyrically 'My Own Way' is a lot less issue-heavy than your 2004 debut LP `Me Against Myself`
“The first album was very much the edgy kid from Hounslow with this little sort of chip on his shoulder saying `HEY! Listen to ME! Check this out!`! It was basically about the struggles of a young kid wanting his music to be heard. Obviously since then I`ve grown up a bit, I`ve matured and I`ve realised what`s actually important to me. So this new album - aside of `Good Enough`, which debates the problems of mixed-race relationships - is full of straight-up love songs. Which - I`m not gonna lie - are the kind of songs I LIKE writing! Either those kind of sad songs that people will play when they`re feeling down and they`ve just been dumped. Or those uplifting songs like 'Maybe', where you`re falling in love and there`s a butterflies period. I just wanted to have an album that people could just enjoy, that could be like a soundtrack to their lives. Rather than just being the soundtrack to this 24-year-old kid from Hounslow who wants to be heard in the music industry. Which is what I was three years ago.”
How did you come to work with world-class US urban producers J-Remy (Fabolous) and Duro (Mariah Carey/Jay-Z/Rihanna)?
“I first met J-Remy when I was doing a concert in Miami. He produces this female artist out in America called Thara, who`s basically the female equivalent of me. In that she`s from an Asian ethnic background, but does mainstream R&B music. She`s recorded with John Legend, Fatman Scoop, Fabolous… So she`s pretty well-connected in that scene. And, after I`d talked to her and J-Remy, he invited me to work with him in New York. So I ended up staying there for about six months and wrote the majority of this album out there with him and Duro - a super mix engineer who`s mixed records for Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Neptunes... And I just learnt SO MUCH from them! You know, I wanted to put together a finished product which could stand up there amongst the Justin`s, the Usher`s, the Chris Brown`s… And I feel I`ve managed to achieve that.”
With 'My Own Way' being partly recorded in both London and New York, did you find a difference in the two cities?
“The main difference was that America on the whole understands how to make great R&B records, in the sense that America has more TOOLS. It has access to a greater bank of songwriters, the best R&B mix engineers… Which is why, for that big, heavy R&B sound, America is the epicentre of where it goes down. So basically I learnt how to write great R&B songs over there. Then, when I got back home to London, I was able to teach my producer over here - Alan Sampson - what I`d learnt, while we were working together on the rest of the album.”
So why the image-change from street youth to designer suits?
“I just felt it was time for a change. You know, it had been a good three-year absence and I`m a firm believer in keeping PEOPLE excited, as well as MYSELF! I`d got SO BORED with my old hair and my old image! Had I not been in the media, I probably would have changed it 10,000 times! I got so sick and tired of that same look, that I was like `Yo, we need to switch things UP here!`! And the new look generally seems to have pleased EVERYONE! I guess a change is always good.”
Also, this time round it`s all about Jay the R&B singer, with very little sign of Jay the rapper…
“Again, that`s come about through maturity. An artist really must know who he or she is at each point in their career, in order to convince everybody that what they`re about to buy here - and get into-is the real deal.And I felt I didn`t wanna CONFUSE people any more with the half-rapping and half-singing. Last time round some songs were hip hop, some were R&B, some were pop, and others were a bit Asian.So with this album I was like`Yo! ONE MESSAGE! Put it out there! This is who I am now! If you `re into it, bloody brilliant! If you`re not, I don`t mind! `Cause you can never win EVERYONE over!`!”
How do you now look back on the start of your career, when your 2004 debut LP was released through Virgin Records?
“In terms of the way things went for me, I`m a firm believer that experience is what makes you. But I`m not saying it was easy. In fact, it was bloody difficult at times! It was so hard being the only Asian guy doing R&B music and being so brand-new that people - including the record company - didn`t know what to do with you. You know, it was like `Should it be more of an Asian thing, or shall we try and put him more mainstream?`. Which made it very difficult to find out who you were as an artist and as a person. But, while the `Me Against Myself` album - which did a great job of summing up who I was at that moment in time - ended up a bit of a mish-mash, that learning curve is what made me into the person I am NOW. It taught me a lot about the industry and hence is the reason why, four years later, I`ve been able to set up my own record company (Jayded Records) and release my new album independently.”
So what led to you leaving Virgin?
“They sent me off to write my second record, and I ended up doing a whole album - a WHOLE 16-TRACK ALBUM, mate!- which we ended up scrapping! Because, when I brought it to Virgin, they were like `It`s too R&B, to be honest`. They felt the market had changed to where it was all about folk/guitar stuff like James Blunt and James Morrison. So they wanted to put me in that kinda direction. And it got to a point where it was inoperable, man`cause I wasn`t prepared to sell out my musical integrity.I love R&B; that`s all I know how to do,and I can`t do anything else CONVINCINGLY. So I left; they left… And that`s when I realised I needed to just go and do this stuff by myself. I`ve got my fanbase; I believe in my music; I believe in my vision... And ain`t no-one gonna stop me from DOING that!”
In the meantime, your massive worldwide fan-base - including USA, Asia, Germany and Australia - has kept you busy…
“You see, I`m very fortunate that I`ve been able to do this inter-nationally. Because there`s not a lot of UK urban acts that have had the ability to DO that. I think the reason why it`s happened is obviously because of the fact I`m a niche artist. In that my fan-base is predominantly Asian across the world, and it`s that Asian fan-base that`s BROUGHT me to all these territories.For example, in Germany there was enough of an Indian fan-base to say `Yo, we want you OVER HERE!`. So I go there and I do concerts. Eventually their non-Asian friends start getting into my music… So, before I know it, the last time I went to Germany-about two months ago-I was performing to an 80% white crowd,looking at them thinking`This is UNBELIEVABLE! And the same thing`s happen-ing EVERYWHERE! When I tour America now - the next will be my fourth tour - there`ll be blacks, whites AND Asians at my shows. And to me that`s just an amazing thing. To know that I`ve got such a worldwide fan-base now, that`s just growing literally from very humble beginnings as part of a niche community.”
So what`s the reaction been like in India, where your first album went five-times Platinum?
“India is pretty nuts, mate! Because obviously for them to have an Indian person doing R&B/Western music is a first, and they LOVE that! You know, they love The West, they love artists like Akon... So, when one of their own people started doing it, they all jumped on board! And I guess the reason I then got propelled into Bollywood movies is because of the fact I starred a Bollywood actress in my video for (the 2004 UK top 5 smash) 'Stolen', and that Bollywood actress blew up! She`s become massive!She`s like Angelina Jolie there now! And obviously, with all her actor and actress friends all knowing who I am, I`ve become almost part of that society there now. So the Bollywood offers started coming in from that.”
Why do you feel you`ve been able to succeed in the UK mainstream charts by going the independent label route?
“I honestly think what it is, is that people here are still hungry for R&B music. There are a lot of people, like myself, who love R&B and will ALWAYS love R&B. And just because England right now isn`t playing it so much and doesn`t have an industry infrastruct-ure that supports UK R&B music, doesn`t mean that there`s not thousands of people out there who are wanting it. So, you set up a little independent label and you go `Here, people! I know you still love R&B! We`re dishing some out! So why don`t you come and have some?`.. And that`s exactly what I`ve DONE! Yes, the majors are brilliant because they have tons of money that they can throw at you; they can put your face on billboards; they can make you mega-famous and splash you all across TV etc etc. But what an independent label does that they don`t is literally service the people who are seriously into it at the grass-roots level, the kids on the street who are HUNGRY for it... And I really truly believe that`s where the source of the music all grows from. OK, I can`t compete financially with a major right now. But I do know that I can definitely have a firm place in the music industry, and stand con-fidently at Number 11 in the UK chart and say `Yes, I am British R&B and I did do this independently`… Because I know I have enough people at grass-roots level who are gonna back me and ensure that I`ll stay around. I mean, if there is a tag I`d like to have right now it`s probably `Jay Sean, one of the few British R&B artists around who`s trying to rep the scene`. Because that`s what`s important to me.”
The single 'Maybe' is out now. The album 'My Own Way' follows April 28, both through 2Point9/Jayded
Words PETE LEWIS