Jazmine Sullivan: Clear for take off
Already championed by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Missy Elliott and Jill Scott, 22-year-old Philadelphia songstress Jazmine Sullivan has without question made a significant impact Stateside with her chart-topping, five-times-Grammy- nominated debut album ‘Fearless’.
This month, meanwhile, sees its official UK launch, with Jazmine performing two shows at Camden’s world-renowned Jazz café alongside the single release of the album’s Flamenco-flavoured, controversial “woman’s anthem” ‘Bust Your Windows’.
Indeed, with its drama-fuelled, storytelling lyrics and individualistic, soulful vibe leading to some US critics even dubbing it “the African-American answer to Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back To Black’, ‘Fearless’ boasts production input from the likes of Salaam Remi, Missy Elliott and StarGate. Meanwhile, its diverse musical moods range entertainingly from the old skool, bass-propelled reggae vibe of its breakthrough single ‘Need U Bad’ to the Disney-recalling, cinematically-orchestrated ‘Lions, Tigers & Bears’; while the Sixties girl-group punch of ‘One Night Stand’ contrasts with the rawly-emotive acoustic soul ballad ‘In Love With Another Man’.
“I named the album ‘Fearless’ because I’m just not afraid of ANYTHING right now”, begins a confident Ms. Sullivan over afternoon drinks at Sony’s Kensington HQ: “I’m young, I’m 22 years old… And I just feel that, if YOU embrace your uniqueness by not being afraid to take chances and being different, then everybody ELSE will! You know, I definitely did not wanna exclude ANYBODY! So, if you buy my record and think you’re gonna get just a bunch of reggae beats or just a bunch of R&B beats, you’ll be wrong! You’re gonna get EVERYTHING! I mean, the genres can range from jazz, to gospel, to pop... Because that’s who I AM! And, with me having been inspired by so much, I wanted everybody to SEE that diversity in me.”
“And lyrically it’s very real”, continues a permanently-smiling Jazmine: “Because in life there are hard times and good times, the songs do reflect that. Like ‘Switch’ is a very light-hearted track about a double-date. Where one of the girls gets the ugly guy, and she’s saying she wants to switch to the better-looking guy her friend has ended up with! But then, on a song like ‘I’m In Love With Another Man’, I of course get really deep; while another track - ‘Call Me Guilty’ - is about the mess that whole situation can leave. You know, I consider myself like a painter and an illustrator - and I can take inspiration from ANYTHING! Whether it be my parents’ marriage, or even talking to my girlfriends, watching TV, reading a magazine... And, with the producers I worked with all being very creative people, they in turn allowed ME to be creative. As opposed to trying to hold me back, they were all just very encouraging and were like ‘OK, just do your thing!’!”
Having begun singing in church at age five, Philly native Jazmine actually made her first national televised appearance on ‘Showtime At The Apollo’ aged just 11. Meanwhile, continuing to hone her vocal talents locally, it was actually through later live sets at her hometown’s popular Black Lily showcase (where artists like Jill Scott, The Roots and Musiq Soulchild performed before attaining national success) that she gained her first regular fan-base: “Well, when I realised that I had much more I wanted to express than I could actually say through gospel music, my mother started schooling me in the great R&B artists from her generation like Aretha (Franklin), Chaka Khan and Diana (Ross)”, she recalls clearly: “And from that I started to go to Black Lily every other Tuesday just to go up onstage and perform for the people. You know, it was a really good learning environment for me; to just be watching all those great performers like Jill Scott and Musiq, studying from them, and seeing what it was that made them great. So yeah, I spent a good two or three years just doing that, gaining an audience and gaining fans.”
Indeed, it was also through her performances at Black Lily that Jazmine first got a chance to perform with one of her earliest admirers - the legendary Stevie Wonder, no less: “One of the other acts that performed regularly at Black Lilly back then - the soul music duo Kindred - were actually the invited guests at Stevie’s grandson’s birthday party. So I kinda snuck in WITH them!”, she laughs: “But then, once I got there, I actually got up and sang ‘What’s Going On’ by Marvin Gaye. Which in turn prompted Stevie himself to go over to the piano and start playing his own song ‘These Three Words’! So I started singing along and, before you know it, he and I were going back and forth riffing together - which was really fun! And then, from that, he actually called me to come and perform at this annual event that he holds every year in LA called Toys For Tots. You know, it was a really great line-up - Sisqo, Charlie Wilson & The Gap Band, Kirk Franklin, Jill Scott…”
You know, it was a HUGE deal! But, because I was only 13 at the time, I didn’t fully understand the magnitude of it all”, she continues: “Though of course, now that I’m older, I’m like ‘Wow! I got a chance to perform with Stevie onstage!’... And I actually ran into him again about six/seven months ago, when he came to Philadelphia and did a concert. It was like three hours of back-to-back hits; everybody was singing and dancing and having fun… So I went backstage, and he actually remembered who I WAS - and started playing my song ‘I’m In Love With Another Man’! So yeah, we had a really exciting reunion!”
Despite originally being signed (and later dropped) by Jive Records when she was just 16, it was actually after groundbreaking female rapper/producer Missy Elliott took Jazmine into a Miami studio (along with her partner, fellow mega-producer Timbaland) that today’s record labels started to pay more attention to Sullivan’s more recent work. All of which eventually led to her current deal with Sony Music’s J Records. Prior to the signing of which she had to perform a crucial, nerve-wracking audition with said label’s then-top man, legendary industry star-maker Clive Davis: “Though at the time I was mostly just focusing on my writing, after I came up with the song ‘I’m In Love With Another Man’ I suddenly decided to send my own demos out to people”, she recalls with a smile: “So Peter Edge at J Records heard it. And, when he mentioned I’d need to actually perform before Clive Davis, I was just so star-struck! Simply because of his name and who he IS!”
“You know, ever since I was a kid my mom had been like ‘Oh, we have to get you to Clive Davis because of his track record and what he does with the careers of people like Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys’… So, as soon as I saw him, my eyes just got so BIG! But, at the end of the day, I sang for him like he was just any regular person. And we actually had a really god time in his office! Missy came along to show her support; various other people at the label came, just to show they were on board... So yeah, there was a really great atmosphere! I sang ‘I’m In Love With Another Man’ and the song that later became my first single, ‘Need U Bad’... And, as soon as I was finished, straightaway he was like ‘Welcome to the family!’… And I guess I haven’t looked back since!”
Jazmine performs at Jazz Café, London on September 8 and 10
The single ‘Bust Your Windows’ is released September 7. The album ‘Fearless’ follows September 14, both through J Records
Words PETE LEWIS