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Issue 1067

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Feature

LITTLE JACKIE: Big Future

Little Jackie
Little Jackie

The influence UK retro-soul girls like Amy and Duffy are blowing up internationally and can unquestionably be heard this month on ‘The Stoop’ - the debut album from America’s highly-touted Little Jackie - which blends the in-vogue old skool R&B sound with a quirky hybrid of New York hip hop and melodic pop.

The creation of genre-defying singer-songwriter Imani Coppola and multi-instrumentalist Adam Pallin, Little Jackie’s bittersweet musical vibe combines a respectful nod to the soulful Motown rhythms of the past with a sneer to the many social and cultural issues that consume today’s public. Its sweet melodies contrasting with spicy, bold commentaries on cuts ranging from the singalong chorus and egotistical assertion of ‘The World Should Revolve Around Me’ and bitingly tongue-in-cheek lesbian theme of ‘Guys Like When Girls Kiss’; to the isolated, drunken sarcasm and Sixties bounce of ‘28 Butts’. Its thumping, goodtime title track meanwhile came about from Imani literally stepping outside and sitting on the steps of her apartment building in the alternately beautiful-and-ominous Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.

“Yeah, basically the song ‘The Stoop’ came outta me moving into a neighbourhood in Brooklyn where pretty much the origin of the social culture exists on the stoop. There’s almost a military expectation that, if a brother walks by and says hello, he will not go until you respond! Here in Bed-Stuy, you gotta come off your high horse!”, begins a confident-sounding Imani from her inner-city New York home: “But, while it does have its own kinda beauty, there’s also a constant undercurrent of danger here that definitely challenges you - in many ways - to understand the people who grew up in this environment. I mean, I grew up in Long Island - by the water - and I moved INTO this neighbourhood consciously, to live cheaper and to be exposed to this culture. So in that way it was a little bit of an anthropological experiment, and I do feel I’ve been tested in a lotta ways. I’ve been held up at gunpoint; I’ve been hit by a car; I hear gunshots every night... People here are a little more dangerous. So, while it’s a LIVELY neighbourhood, it’s also a HOSTILE neighbourhood. And what I’ve basically discovered is that I don’t think I can withstand the harsh realities of inner-city life. I’m definitely ready to move on!”

Musically, meanwhile, the album’s retro vibe came about from a meeting of the minds between Imani and its producer Michael Mangini (whom she first worked with on a demo way back in 1997!): “It wasn’t really a decision made with any premeditation”, she recalls: “It basically came about through me and Mike doing some stuff for another artist, whose style is pretty much in that Motown vein. Mike thought it would be a great idea if - 10 years after we made our FIRST record together - we gave it a go once AGAIN, to see what we could come up with by putting or own take on that new vein of music that’s based on the Sixties-retro sound. And, because I enjoy writing in every genre, for me it was just another opportunity to apply my abilities to a different style of music. You know, I don’ t really have any strong feelings one way or another about today’s retro vibe. To me it’s just part of popular evolution to repeat the past and put a modern twist on it, and I’m basically just going with the times. As the old song says, it’s just a little bit of history repeating!”

Nevertheless, much of Little Jackie’s quirky edge can be attributed to Coppola’s frequently-biting, often tongue-in-cheek lyrics: ‘Well unfortunately - or fortunately, I’m not certain which side I wanna take right now - I wrote the majority of the lyrics for this album in a state of anger. Because I was going through a break-up that I didn’t initiate!”, she chuckles dryly: “My ego was definitely bruised - it probably still is - and a lotta the lyrics were inspired by frustration. But, you know, I do always try to give my lyrics a different twist. Instead of being completely angry, I try to infuse my songwriting with humour and wit and sarcasm. I try to take my own personal little things and broaden it, to make it popular in some way and identifiable by other people. You know, I happen to be an artist - and I happen to have a pallet right now, and an AUDIENCE. So I do feel that, whatever pain you go through in life, it’s kinda your responsibility to use it as an opportunity to teach or set an example, basically.”

While Imani was responsible for the melodies, lyrics and vocal production, the album’s programming and co-writing meanwhile was done by Little Jackie’s “other half” - aforementioned Boston native Adam Pallin. Who grew up listening to hip hop and the golden oldies his parents would playing during long car-drives, and has previously worked on projects for both Welsh singing sexpot Tom Jones and US-charting ‘American Idol’ finalist Elliot Yamin. Nevertheless, surprisingly neither member actually met until the album was completed: “Adam was introduced to me through the record’s producer Mike Mangini, who actually masterminded the whole project”, reveals Imani openly: “Mike basically conceptualised each track; it was Adam’s job to take that skeleton and put flesh and blood on it; while I basically put the COLOUR over it. So Adam and I never actually worked together until recently, when we put the band together. We actually worked individually during the making of the album - me in my bedroom, and he in the studio! Basically what would happen is, Mike would send me a track over the internet. I’d write to it, and send it back to him. Then I’d always be on edge, waiting for his e-mail back! I’d be like ‘Is he gonna get this? Is it too weird? Is it too taboo?’... You know, sometimes he’d say ‘This is cool’. Every now and then I’d get ‘This is perfect’ - the words I’d always be longing for! And other times I’d get ‘This is lacking a certain swagger you have’… And I guess the ‘swagger’ is basically just a PERSONALITY I put into the songs, rather than who I AM! But, as far as Mike was concerned, I think it was that swagger that made the tracks come to life.”

Indeed, Imani’s “swagger” is never more evident than in the album’s aforementioned punchy first single ‘The World Should Revolve Around Me’, which she has named her “anthem”! “Being an artist isn’t conducive to having a healthy relationship. And that song is definitely the pinnacle of my fucking ego being bruised by my last partner leaving me!”, retorts the self-confessed “potty-mouthed”(!) Ms. Coppola: “Basically the title represents a very childlike perspective that most people find identifiable. Obviously, at a very young age, the feeling that the world should revolve around you is pretty much the norm. But then - as you grow up and you compromise, you submit, and you find you’re basically part of the machine of life - you realise that it DOESN’T! And, while I obviously don’t REALLY think the world should revolve around me, I’m basically being defiant in saying ‘I don’t see the point of a partnership’. While, at the same time, I’m really creating a fantasy for EVERYONE to share and enjoy. You know, why not, at least for a few seconds, just sing along like it’s your song? For three minutes of your life let the world revolve around YOU!”

Meanwhile, Coppola’s strong, unapologetic persona comes through even more strongly on the cutting ‘Black Barbie’, whose swirling strings, early Sixties sway and sweet girlie harmonies belie a bold, sarcastic attack on the modern media’s exploitation of celebs like Britney, Paris and Lindsay: “’Black Barbie’ is definitely a blatant lyrical reaction to seeing the exposure of these celebrities who are just ‘doing their thing’”, she admits: “At the time I wrote it, the formulaic thing was - get really drunk, hit somebody in a car, go to jail, go to rehab, get pregnant, find God… There were like five or six steps of fuck-up! It just seemed to be a trend. And unfortunately l felt like someone needs to take a standpoint on this. Because the media is NEVER conscious of the standard it’s setting, for people who look at these celebs and decide that’s what they wanna BE! You know, as a child, other than your parents, your role-models are the people that the world celebrates. And, if the world is celebrating people who are just constantly in a state of fuck-up, then it’s CONFUSING! So ‘Black Barbie’ is basically just my attempt to make fun of these people by pretending to BE one!”

And things get even MORE personal within the furiously uptempo Sixties-Motown grooves of ‘Crying For The Queen’ - a bitchy put-down of a certain troubled London soulstress: “Yeah, that’s another example of a song written pretty much in the same spirit as ‘Black Barbie’”, continues a straight-speaking Imani: “Maybe I was a in a bad mood and I wanted to ATTACK someone, I don’t know… But I was definitely attacking Amy Winehouse at the time, verbally AND lyrically. Not that she needs any more abuse of course. But at the time I was just annoyed that she was getting as much exposure and attention for being brilliant at what she does while at the same time destroying herself. It’s almost like success isn’t what she’s strived for and maybe she doesn’t want it, I don’t know. But it CONFUSED me, and I think it’s confusing the REST of the world as to exactly what she wants outa life. I know it’s difficult for a young person to show the world that they’re struggling when they have so much exposure, and it’s difficult maybe for them to ask for help. But to me it just seems like she’s laughing in the face of humanity.”

A far more poignant mood, meanwhile, is attained on the LP’s surgingly tuneful closer ‘Go Hard Or Go Home’, where Imani reflects on the abuse she suffered growing up in Long Island while being raised in a musical household by a black mother and white father: “That’s definitely a personal song where I decided, for once in my life as a form of therapy, to write about this thing I’ve been trying to block out from my life”, she explains soberly: “I do it acoustic live and I can’t say that it’s easy to sing that song. But then I also feel that, if I’m gonna do this as an artist, in order for people to REALLY understand who I am, they have to understand where I’m COMING from. And that song reflects a FRACTION of where I’m coming from. I probably had the most weird, unique, devastating upbringing... The one positive thing being the MUSIC, in that artistically and musically both my parents were geniuses. They were extreme, very open-minded, very free in some ways… But they definitely did not adhere to social standards in ANY WAY WHATSOEVER! So, growing up, my siblings and I were definitely alone, definitely picked on... But, at the same time, we all had an instrument that we each excelled at. We were definitely known in our school as the Coppola kids who were great at music. But, as far as anything else, we were ostracised!”

Interestingly, however, Imani feels the breakthrough of hip hop into the mainstream did eventually help her become more accepted within her local community: “Yes, hip hop was definitely a way for me to accept that I was half-black”, she explains: “You know, I grew up in an all-white neighbourhood, where me and my family were probably the only black people in our entire school system! So being black - or any part black - was really not acceptable... And, because it was a racist neighbourhood and we wanted to fit in as best we could, we always adhered to white culture… Until hip hop made the mainstream, and then people suddenly started thinking we were cool because we were black! So yeah, that was a major transition in my life. Because I suddenly went from pretending I was WHITE all the time, to pretending I was BLACK all the time! You know, with my parents being hippies, neither of them really had a colour in the cultural sense. I mean, it wasn’t even brought to our attention that we were different, until people started telling us we sucked for it! So, when hip hop became popular, it was an opportunity for me to be ACCEPTED. And I just went with the flow!”

Indeed, the love of music instilled into Imani through her parents would eventually see her studying at the State University Of New York: “Yes, I studied there for a year, before I got signed to a record label. After which I never made my way back to college”, she relates: “Basically because I was studying Studio Composition, and I felt that the goal of every Studio Comp major was to be signed to a label and to be doing recorded music professionally. So, with me having already achieved that, I thought it would be a little silly to go back and study it! At that time I was really passionate - to the point of being obsessive - about just recording my ideas, whether that be songs, or just these sonic theatrical pieces I was working on.”

In fact, it was during her freshman year at university that Coppola had her first brush with fame. When the demo she recorded with aforementioned, then-Digable Planets producer Michael Mangini landed her a record deal with Columbia Records. Which, in 1997, in turn resulted in the the then-19-year-old’s debut album ‘Chubacabra’ earning a strong radio and MTV buzz with its cheeky, Neneh Cherry-reminiscent lead single ‘Legend Of A Cowgirl’. Nevertheless, mainstream success was short-lived when - due to creative differences - Imani was dropped before the release of her second record: “I was young, completely arrogant and totally unappreciative of having a label supporting me”, she recalls candidly: “Partly because I felt like I had so much more to offer artistically than they were allowing me to do.”

Over the next decade, nevertheless, Coppola became a fixture on the Brooklyn music scene, releasing several independent albums - often distributed through the internet - including 2004’s self-released ‘Afrodite’. Following which, in 2007, she was picked up by rock icon Mike Patton’s Ipecac Records, who released her punk-pop-flavoured eighth LP ‘The Black And White Album’. Meanwhile, with the current EMI-released Little Jackie project marking her long-overdue return to centre-stage, she happily explains how the name came about: “Little Jackie was initially my alter ego. Whereas, in my opinion, Imani Coppola is a REAL artist, Little Jackie represents my ‘POPULAR artist’ side. I originally got the name from a Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam (Eighties chart-topping Latino-R&B trio) song called ‘Little Jackie Wants To Be A Star’. But then, for this current project, someone at the record company thought it might be a cool marketing edge to make Little Jackie into a duo! And to me this is probably my last attempt at becoming a superstar! If it blows up - WONDERFUL! If I become a superstar - FANTASTIC!... And if don’t, I guess I’ll stay very happy just being a crazy-lady artist - making art every day and having that be my food!”

The single 'The World Should Revolve Around Me' is released August 25. The album 'The Stoop' follows September 1, both through S-Curve/Parlophone Records
Words PETE LEWIS

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