Jason Derulo: Watcha Think?
With his million-plus-selling debut single ‘Whatcha Say’ having recently hit Number One in the US Pop listings - in addition to attaining Top Three status in the UK and Canada - 20-year-old singer/songwriter/dancer Jason Derulo has unquestionably emerged as one of America’s biggest breakthrough acts of 2009.
Produced by the multi-Platinum J.R. Rotem (of chart-topping Sean Kingston and Rihanna fame), said single blends pounding beats and Derulo’s rich, soulful vocals with an instantly-infectious pop hook sampled from alternative/indie songstress Imogen Heap. All of which provides an ideal conversation-starter, as an unassuming, quietly-spoken Jason kicks off his first day of London interviews chatting to Pete Lewis over morning drinks at West London’s media-friendly K-West Hotel.
“Well, as you know, the song is about a guy asking his woman to forgive him after being unfaithful. And the whole idea for the concept actually started off with my brother calling me one day”, begins a warm-mannered Jason: “He was like ‘I’ve cheated on my girl, but I love her with all my heart. She’s left me, so what should I DO?’!... And, because the way he told it to me was so compelling, I was like ‘If you explain it to HER the way you’ve just done to ME, maybe she’ll give you another chance’!... Meanwhile, around that time, musically J.R. and I had been dibbling-and -dabbling around with the Imogen Heap sample, where it says ‘Mmm, what cha say? That you only meant well? Of COURSE you did’… Which, by pure chance, worked perfectly with my BROTHER’S situation - you know, with the guy begging and the girl being sarcastic back! So it all just happened to be perfect timing - and ‘Whatcha Say’ was born OUT of it!”
Meanwhile, having now virtually completed his upcoming debut album, Jason is quietly confident of its potential mass-appeal: “Yes, you can expect reinvention - a record full of surprises”, he promises: “You’re definitely not gonna hear a bunch of watered-down versions of ‘Whatcha Say’, because every track is different! I have pop/rock songs on there; I have big ballads; I have club records that make you dance... So however you’re feeling, there’s a song on the album that can MIRROR it. You know, I’ve been working really hard - I’ve actually recorded 300 songs - and there’s been a lot of sweat, blood and tears shed over the last eight months! So I’m hoping people really enjoy it.”
Interestingly, Derulo is the first artist to be launched by Beluga Heights/Warner Bros. Records - a new, joint-venture label headed-up the aforementioned J.R. Rotem plus current ‘American Idol’ judge (and Warner Bros. Senior Vice-President of A&R) Kara DioGuardi. Indeed, with his entire album being produced in LA by Rotem, Jason predictably has nothing but praise for his chart-topping studio mentor: “Yeah, the first time I met J.R., we recorded six songs together! So from the off, the chemistry between us was just AMAZING!”, he gushes: “You know, I’d never before experienced a connection like that with ANY producer - and HE says the same about ME. So we genuinely do have a wonderful relationship.”
“I mean, there’d be times when we’d be the only person we’d each be seeing for the whole day, because we’d just be working, working, working”, he continues: “And, with J.R. being classically-trained on the piano and me being a classically-trained vocalist, we do have a lot of similarities musically. To where - though he’s technically the producer and I’m technically the songwriter - I’d frequently have some input into what the track should SOUND like, and he’d often have some input into what the LYRICS should do. So yeah, we collaborate all the time, and we do create together equally.”
Born into a Haitian-American family in Miramar, Florida in September 1989, Derulo’s musical talent came to the fore early on, with him writing his first song at the tender age of eight: “Really, my only musical influence - as I was growing up - was school and television”, he reveals: “Because I didn’t have anybody in my household that sang, or did any kind of performing, AT ALL! So for me, it all really came from the inside. I just always had this desire to sing and perform. And with me having tons of cousins - my grandmother had 15 kids - there was always a birthday! And so I’d be singing and dancing at every family function! You know, it was a huge love of mine that I just continued doing for years and years. And with both my parents having good jobs - I grew up in a financially-stable, middle-class family - there was never any problem with them putting me into various performing arts schools when I was young.”
Indeed, having begun attending Performing Arts School at just eight years old, Jason spent much of his youth studying opera, theatre and ballet. Which eventually led to him, in 2006, graduating from New York’s nationally-prestigious American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA). Meanwhile, having already tasted success as an actor (via lead roles in theatre productions like ‘Ragtime’, ‘Smokey Joe’s Café’ and ‘Lucky Stiff’), he today feels his theatrical background has also impacted strongly on his music: “Yes, I do think musical theatre has affected me as an artist - in the sense that there the whole storyline is explained through the song”, he asserts: “You know, with musical theatre every word becomes so vivid, because you have to SEE everything. And I have really tried to translate that into my OWN songwriting as well. In that I always want the audience to actually see what’s going on in the song.”
“And I also feel Shakespeare has been a big influence on my music too”, he adds surprisingly: “Because, just like with Shakespeare - where every word is perfectly placed and no word is there by chance - I do try not to have any filler lines in MY writing. So yeah, the theatre/acting side has definitely helped me a lot musically. I mean, I actually have a film coming out called ‘Turn The Beat Round’ at the beginning of 2010, which is like a dance movie in the vein of ‘Step It Up’. So, while music is very much at the forefront for me right now, in the long-term I can see the acting becoming equally important in my career. To where I’ll probably kind of end up constantly juggling the two around.”
In addition to his acting skills preceding his chart-topping “pop star” success, Jason has also, for the past four years, proved a successful songwriter to the stars: “Yeah, I’ve been writing for other artists from when I was around 16”, he confirms: “I’ve written for the likes of P.Diddy, Danity Kane, Cassie, Sean Kingston, Lil Wayne... And the reason I actually started songwriting was because I felt I needed to EXPRESS myself! You know, when you’re doing classical music everything has to be sung the way it’s written and you can’t embellish and take your own liberties at all. Which was something that became really uncomfortable for me. I mean, sometimes I’d do certain things and the teacher would be like ‘What are you DOING? You’re RUINING it!’... So at eight I just took things into my own hands, and wrote this song called ‘Crush On You’ for this girl called Amy! Then from there I just kept writing EVERY SINGLE DAY - and at 16 I finally got my first placement! Which proved a major factor in me getting my artist career on track.”
“And, while all the artists I’ve written for have been really cool, talented people that I’ve enjoyed working with, the one that’s REALLY stood out to me is P.Diddy”, he concludes, as our conversation draws to a close: “You know, he really inspires me because he WORKS so hard. And one thing I’ll never forget is, when I asked him how he’d become such a big mogul, he answered me in just two words - ‘NO SLEEP’! Which is something I’ll remember for the rest of my LIFE! Because, since then, I’ve learnt how to go without sleep and to get by with just taking naps!”
The single ‘Whatcha Say’ is out now through Warner Bros. Records/Beluga Heights
Words PETE LEWIS