British R&B Singer Jorja Smith's Road to Stardom Lead to America | Phoenix New Times

Army of One: Jorja Smith's Patient Road to the Spotlight

From listening to The Streets and Dizzee Rascal in England to collaborating with Drake and Kali Uchis, this Walsall native is going places.
Jorja Smith returns to Phoenix for her first headlining performance.
Jorja Smith returns to Phoenix for her first headlining performance. Rashid Babiker
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It’s November 15, and Jorja Smith plays her album’s closing track, “Don’t Watch Me Cry” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. As Smith lets the final line to the wind, the notes hang in the air in a stillness that seems to last a lifetime. The crowd is hesitant, not sure when to let the moment go. Colbert himself looks like he’s forgotten to breathe. Then, silence is overwhelmed by ravenous applause. Colbert rushes across the stage to shake her hand. Smith smiles and obliges. The vulnerability and doubt of the song wane, and in their place is pure fearlessness. This is the moment she’s been waiting for.

This past Monday, the 21-year-old British singer began a North American tour in Seattle, where she tripled her venue capacity from the previous visit in under six months. The North American leg of the Lost & Found Tour comes on the heels of the critically lauded debut LP of the same name. Smith has spent the summer traveling Europe and Asia, playing for audiences from a dozen different countries.

“I don’t really have words,” Smith tells Phoenix New Times. “Every day amazes me, I’m very grateful and happy for all that I am able to do.”

Smith has walked a long road to the point at which she finds herself now. Back in February 2016, she uploaded her first single, “Blue Lights,” independently to SoundCloud. The track was instantly met with rave reviews. Here was an 18 year-old from Walsall, an industrial town three hours north of London, giving the world a beautiful, heartbreaking story of love and compassion amid crime and profiling. She arrived on the scene far ahead of her years, and she hasn’t lost an ounce of ground since.

Lost & Found is the long-gestating culmination of Smith’s career thus far. From the humble beginnings of “Blue Lights,” the singer has rolled out one well-timed single at a time, building anticipation over two years. “We are so lucky with social media and the internet to be able to just upload music whenever we want,” she says. In this way, even the strategic aspects of Lost & Found feel intimate and personal – a true hallmark of the SoundCloud generation.

While songs like “Blue Lights” show Smith’s propensity for telling the stories of others, much of Lost & Found is focused on herself. Standout track “February 3rd” is a testament to self-love and the growing pains of self-awareness. “I think we are constantly learning to love ourselves as we make mistakes, learn new things,” she says. “I’m definitely going through this now – every lesson is a good lesson.”

While influences like Amy Winehouse and Nina Simone may be more obvious, Smith’s sound reaches further upon close examination – the Dizzee Rascal sample on “Blue Lights,” for example (“I listened to a lot of grime and U.K. rap growing up”, Smith says). Fellow Walsall native Mike Skinner of The Streets also provided a backdrop for Smith’s storytelling. “My dad would play The Streets when I was growing up,” she says. “I love Mike Skinner’s spacing and phrasing of his lyrics. He tells stories and paints pictures with his words.”

Smith’s early works caught fire, and it wasn’t long before North American phone numbers started popping up on her phone. She made TV spots on shows like HBO’s Insecure, also appearing on Kali Uchis’s “Tyrant” and Kendrick Lamar’s soundtrack to Black Panther. “I Am,” her striking contribution to that record, is unlike anything else in her catalog. “‘I Am’ is such a dark record,” she says, “and lyrically I love it – it’s quite empowering.”

But for crafting Lost & Found, Smith relied on no co-signs, taking a very individual, grassroots approach to production and personnel. “I didn’t want features,” she says. “Everything I write reflects who I am or what I’m going through at that time … It’s my first album – I want people to get to know me first.” Furthermore, her producers meet her on her level. “I met Cadenza when I was 16,” she says of the “Where Did I Go?” producer. “I used to come up to London on school holidays and I had a session with him. Tom Misch I actually didn’t meet until later on. I found the beat for ‘Lifeboats’ on his SoundCloud.” Striking, independent, and devoid of handholds, Lost & Found is a testament to the immense work she’s put in.

On tour this year, Smith has incorporated a handful of covers into her live set. Rihanna reggae murder ballad “Man Down” has appeared, as have classics by Erykah Badu and The Roots as well as the Fugees. “I normally mess around with the band and we just jam,” she says. “It’s fun doing covers and turning the songs into something else.” In some ways, it’s also a fitting nod to how far she has come. In just a handful of years, she’s gone from uploading acoustic covers to YouTube, to playing her own critically acclaimed songs live to thousands of fans.

Now, ready to take America by storm, Smith looks forward with an immovable stoicism. When asked if she’s ever afraid there are certain songs some audiences won’t connect with as well as her London fans, she says absolutely not. “People listen and if they like it, they’ll listen again and share,” she says, “I’m not scared to release music I love.” Smith has found her voice, and if there ever were a time before where she was lost, it is entirely a thing of the past.

Jorja Smith. With Ravyn Lenae. 8 p.m. Thursday, November 29, at the Van Buren, 401 West Van Buren Street; Tickets are $25-30 via Ticketweb.
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