JEREMIH: Perfect presence
Having grown up in the Morgan Park neighbourhood on Chicago’s South Side, Jeremih Felton - in addition to now being a chart-topping R&B vocalist - is also a self-taught multi-instrumentalist, having started playing drums at three years old before moving on to the sax, piano and bass guitar.
Graduating at just 16, he initially enrolled at the University Of Illinois, to pursue a career in engineering. However, having received unanimously-positive feedback after performing a Stevie Wonder tribute at one of the campus talent shows, he finally accepted that singing was indeed his calling and instead began attending Chicago’s Columbia College to pursue a music degree.
Initially guided by his cousin Willie Taylor (a member of US chart-topping R&B boy-band DAY26), an enthusiastic Jeremih - while attending the aforementioned Columbia College - in early 2008 began collaborating in the studio with producer (and fellow student) Mick Schultz. Following which, with one of the many songs the twosome worked on - the sexual slow-jam ‘Birthday Sex’ - by the following October gaining regular rotation on influential Chicago radio station Power 93, by March 2009 Jeremih found himself prestigiously signed to iconic R&B/hip hop label Def Jam.
May 2009 meanwhile found Jeremih, even more significantly, sitting pretty at Number One on the US R&B chart with the aforementioned ‘Birthday Sex’ - an impressive feat which, two months later, was also repeated by Jeremih’s self-titled debut album. A promisingly-diverse R&B set which - produced entirely by the aforementioned Mike Schultz (who additionally co-wrote every song with Jeremih himself) - combines jiggy, club-flavoured tracks like the sexy ‘That Body’ and catchy ‘My Ride’ with classy soulful ballads like the hauntingly mellow ‘Starting All Over’ and wistful ‘My Sunshine’.
All of which a beshaded and immaculately-groomed Jeremih discusses with Pete Lewis, during his first-ever international interview at Mercury Records’ buzzing Kensington High Street HQ.
The background to Jeremih’s breakthrough US chart-topping single ‘Birthday Sex’
“I actually wrote the song in September of 2008. At the time, me and my partner Mike Schultz - who produced the whole of my album - were basically just having fun in the studio. We weren’t thinking about a record label, we weren’t thinking about a single, we weren’t thinking about radio… We weren’t thinking about ANYTHING! We were just making records purely for the love of music. You know, I’d actually met him in like January 2008 and - throughout the rest of the year - whenever we had free time we’d just be knocking out records. And ‘Birthday Sex’ was one of those records that just came instantly! I wrote the song ONE day, and I recorded it the NEXT!”
How it first came to public attention
“’Birthday Sex’ was actually chosen as my first single by a radio music director in my hometown of Chicago. Her station played it on-air for the first time on October 30th 2008, and it just got an immediate reaction from the listeners! Like I’d hear people calling every day - and every night! - and be like ‘It’s my BIRTHDAY! I wanna hear my birthday SONG!’... And so I do think the lyrical concept really did help that song out! To where I feel it’s gonna be a timeless record that’ll still be played YEARS from now - simply because it’s become a new birthday anthem!”
How Jeremih breaks down his self-titled debut LP
“Musically I feel like I have no limitations, and there are a lot of different FEELINGS on this album. Because, every day that I was recording, I literally felt different! So I guess, from days when I wasn’t feeling that good, I have songs that might make you cry - like ‘My Sunshine’. Then, from days when I was in a good mood, I have songs made for the clubs that’ll make you wanna DANCE. I mean, there’s even a song for the fashion shows - ‘Runway’ - that I actually wrote when I was watching ‘America’s Top Model’ on television! Then there’s about three tracks for the baby-makers, that I feel are similar to ‘Birthday Sex’... So it’s a really versatile album. There’s uptempos, a lotta different ballads... I mean, my own favourite is ‘Starting All Over’, which is a slow soul/R&B ballad which some people are even comparing to the likes of Stevie Wonder and Raphael Saadiq! You know, you’d never automatically assume it was by Mr. ‘Birthday Sex’, because it’s a totally different SOUND! So yeah, everyone, it seems, has their own favourite track. Which is definitely a good thing.”
The role music played in his early background
“I was raised on the Southside of Chicago, and my whole family was musically-inclined. Like, at family reunions, we’d have TALENT shows - and I don’t think many families can DO that, or SAY that! I mean, I grew up in a household in which they’d always play old skool classic R&B love songs - Al Green, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye... And my mom has even said that, when I was in her womb, she’d put the headphones to her stomach and play those songs to me! So music has just literally always been in my blood! In school I played in a Latin jazz band, I was in a concert band, a marching band... So I was able to play all these instruments - the piano, the snare drum, various percussion instruments like congas and timbales… And I genuinely feel that, without those aspects in my life, I probably wouldn’t have got this far - either as a musician OR a vocalist. Because rhythm is just in my blood, and it’s always BEEN there.”
How Jeremih came to sign his deal with the mighty Def Jam label
“’Birthday Sex’ became Number One within like a week on the radio stations in Chicago. So the people there were suddenly calling me ‘the new R. Kelly’ or ‘the new Kanye West’... And it was actually quite funny. Because, while in January/February of this year we were still standing outside various record labels trying to get a meeting, come March every label was calling US! So - with the record having reached the ears of (Def Jam president) L.A. Reid - we had a meeting with his A&R, Karen Kwak. At first she was like ‘We want you to come back another day and do a showcase for L.A’… But then later on, after I’d gone to the bathroom and come back, she was like ‘You don’t have to come back - he wants to see you RIGHT NOW!’… So I went in there that same day, sang ‘Birthday Sex’, ‘Imma Star’… And, once I’d sung ‘Starting All Over’, I knew we had them hooked! Because I looked round, and everybody there had their eyes closed, just bobbing their heads to the speakers... Then, once I’d finished, L.A. was like ‘So what are we WAITING for?!’.. And I guess the rest is history!”
The single ‘Birthday Sex’ is out now. The album ‘Jeremih’ follows August 24, both through Def Jam
Words PETE LEWIS