Watching Jessie Reyez on set, with her waist-long hair half tied up in a scrunchie and her tongue out for the camera, it’s clear she’s not your typical polished pop star. The 28-year-old singer-songwriter, who’s collaborated with artists like Sam Smith, Eminem and Dua Lipa, channels a rootsy R&B hybrid in her own music, reminiscent of both Amy Winehouse and Tracy Chapman, and makes translating vulnerability into power her signature. For her two universally acclaimed EPs, Kiddo (2017) and Being Human in Public (2018), she penned liberating anthems and ballads that grappled with anxiety, and in April 2017 released the track and film for “Gatekeeper” – a gut-wrenching retelling of an encounter with predatory behaviour in the music industry that foreshadowed the #MeToo movement. Now on the cusp of her first full-length album, expected early next year, she continues her personal and creative evolution while reflecting on the places that have inspired her music along the way.
Jessie Reyez Talks Family, Multiculturalism and Toronto's Booming Music Scene
enRoute There are generations of your family at your video shoot, including your sister-in-law and niece Val – how has your Colombian heritage shaped the way you approach your craft?
Jessie Reyez It’s interesting when you come from an immigrant family, because it almost feels like growing up in two worlds at the same time. But this helped shape me as a person. My heritage gave me another language and influenced the food I like, the music that I listen to, my temper – everything. It gave me the ability to be more empathetic and versatile.
ER How has your mother tongue influenced your approach to songwriting?
JR In Spanish, it’s easy to work with imagery and analogies that would sound so over the top in English. Spanish has the ability to carry the weight of such intense poetry without sounding cheesy. Even though the music that I’ve released so far is in English, it’s almost like my seeds come from Spanish.
ER What part of growing up in Toronto left the biggest impression on you?
JR Multiculturalism here is dope. When I first started elementary school, I didn’t speak any English and I remember being mad nervous. I knew some words but had a crazy accent. When I got there, every other kid also had an accent. I didn’t realize until I moved away that I was fortunate to live in a place where the norm was to be different.
ER Do artists really need to leave Toronto in order to make it to the next level?
JR I think anybody from Toronto right now is really lucky because it feels like the city is going through a renaissance. There’s so much juice here. There’s an abundance of talent, and what’s crazy is that the talent’s always been here, the only difference is that now we have the mic and the spotlight.
ER You toured a lot in 2017 and 2018. What was your favourite place to visit?
JR I love this spot in northern California called Mount Shasta, which I discovered on the Kiddo Tour. It’s calm, with massive green lakes, open blue skies, cliffs and not many people. I swam, chilled, meditated, talked to God, talked to the lakes. That place brings me so much peace. Algonquin Park, three hours north of Toronto, is another one of my favourite places in the world. I like nature.
ER Have you always liked nature?
JR My dad reminded me of a story the other day. He said I used to cry all the time when I was a baby. When I was a month or so old, my parents took me camping. They dunked me in the lake and I freaked out a bit, but then I slept through the night for the first time. I’d heard that story before, but I just put it together then.
ER Is there anywhere else you’ve travelled to that’s given you insight into yourself and your work?
JR The first time I went to Los Angeles, my mindset shifted. The second you land, you can feel it. I’ve always had a passion for music, but in L.A., everybody has that passion. Everyone there is chasing something or they’re ready to prove a dream, so everything moves faster by default. Out there, man, everyone’s on it, so you need to be on it.
ER When you get on a plane, what’s your routine?
JR I need to moisturize and spray some rosewater on my face. I need a thick book and my headphones and some floss – I’m a serious flosser. And I need a snack, my airplane pillow and an extra hoodie in case it gets cold. I make a little nest, then I’m good to go.
ER What can you tell us about the album?
JR I think people will see a new side of me because it’s a reflection of my life in the moment. No two days are the same. Yesterday I felt better, tomorrow I might feel worse. It’s an expression of my current state, like a bookmark, or a stamp. I equate it to eating something bad – your body just reacts, and I feel like that’s what happens to me when I write.
ER Where were you when you wrote it, and do you think that location had an impact on how it came together?
JR I was on the road for all of 2018, and January 2019 was the first time off I had in two years. The second my body knew it, it was like, “Oh, holidays? You’re getting sick.” I was supposed to go to L.A., but the doctor said I shouldn’t travel, so I was stuck in my room in Toronto, and it’s been years since I’ve been alone in a room with my guitar. I was so upset about being sick, but then I wrote one of my favourite songs on the album, which might not have happened had I been somewhere else.
What’s your first travel memory? I travelled to Colombia when I was 10. Everything was great except for my parents asking my teacher to give me homework so I didn’t slack off while I was gone.
Who’s your dream seatmate? Beyoncé, so I can pick her brain about music, discipline, family and business.
Travel has the power to… Change your perspective so much that it forces you to grow.