Jessie Reyez Is Using R&B to Deal With Old Demons

We caught up with the Toronto singer who introduced her candid charm on her debut EP ‘Kiddo’. Today, Jessie Reyez is destroying double standards with her new single, “Body Count.”

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May 7 2018, 7:00pm

There’s a wave of women in R&B who carry as much bravado as your favorite rapper, while still managing to sing past their most vulnerable moments. That quality is present in the gravelly tone that slithered through SZA’s Ctrl, and the swagger that dripped from Kehlani’s SweetSexySavage. Since her debut EP, Kiddo, Jessie Reyez has pushed the boundaries of her songwriting, proudly claiming not to just be crazy, but as she claims on “Shutter Island,” crazy enough for a custom-made straitjacket.

The 27-year-old Toronto native returns with “Body Count,” an acoustic anthem filled with not-so gentle reminders that the sex lives of women aren’t up for debate. “It’s about body count, like your kills: who have you slept with, who have you fucked, and about how sometimes in this society as females we don’t have as much freedom to be proud of that without having to be shamed or criticized for it,” she tells Noisey. Crowning it an “anti-shame, anti-judge anthem,” is fitting as she belts “I dodge dick on the daily,” over guitar strings. “Body Count” picks up the baton where Kiddo left off, and Reyez isn’t done being relentless in her truth.

Noisey: You were bartending in Toronto and Fort Lauderdale. Do you remember the moment where you knew you had to pursue music?

Jessie Reyez: I can actually pinpoint it. I was at home. I was at my apartment in Fort Lauderdale. I think it was a Wednesday before going to work. I was cleaning the house. I was counting my tips, I counted my money... all that and thinking about life. I put on BJ the Chicago Kid’s Dream II. That was like a holy moment for me. I just remember getting inspired and being like, Fuck. This is what you want. What are you doing? Don’t waste your time. Don’t waste your shot. You have the ability. You can walk, you can talk. You can sing, you can work. You’re good. You can accomplish anything. Then I just started just moving harder—hustling harder.

So would you say you were you using bartending to expand your network?
I forever had my mixtapes on me. Any bar that I was working, you can guarantee that I was in the DJ’s ear, before or after my shifts. Like, I’ll send you a free shot bro, just throw my track on. It’s sad though because sometimes that won’t make the most difference, you know? That doesn’t make a difference for the people in the club. If you don’t have that shit online that’s like having a commercial for a product that’s not ready. So it’s a waste. It’s a matter of working smart, which I learned after the fact. I had to go through those things to feel the struggle. I feel like that’s how you appreciate the view more. If the journey’s been uphill when you finally start seeing just a little bit of the view, that feeling is sick. That for me is people singing back the lyrics at a show is like seeing the tip of a tree uphill. I remember writing songs on the backs of receipts. I remember printing out receipts and if it was a slow night or something, I would just be there and I would be singing and I would be writing. Songs on receipts.

“Fuck It” on Kiddo is such a statement. You open with “I crashed your Corvette,” and the whole song is about how you could have killed him. What made you choose to introduce yourself to the world in that way?
That shit was real life. That feeling was real life. It was legit, me getting into a massive fight and then going to the studio and being like, I’m going to fucking kill someone if I don’t let some of this stuff go. And that came out.

On Kiddo, you kind of redefine what it means to be crazy. You call yourself crazy and loco as almost an endearing thing. You could have said “I’m crazy,” but instead said “My straitjacket’s custom made.” How do you push your pen beyond just saying what’s already been said?
A lot of thought goes into it. Shoutout Daniel Daley. He was one of my mentors in The Remix Project. He was like, ‘The first line matters a lot. It’s like I got you by the gut. That’s your bait.’ He also told me another piece of advice that I’ll never forget. He’s like, ‘Jessie, the world’s been around for so long. There’s nothing new under the sun that hasn’t already been talked about.’ The key to having something beautiful is being able to convey a normal human emotion but say it in a way that’s never been said.

So many songs say “put your hands up.” Wicked songwriting is what Bruno Mars did. “Put your pinky finger to the roof.” He’s saying put your hands up in the air. That’s that quintessential line and he just made it something else where it sounds unique and it adds elegance and it adds visuals. I think that’s sick.

A lot of your songs deal with heartbreak, and you’ve previously said you write better when you’re in angst. But in that same token, you’ve said you’re a lot happier now. Do you have the challenge of not being able to tap into certain emotions anymore?
Nah man. I wish I had that fucking problem. My demons are not that easy to shake. I’m learning to love myself more. I know that some artists maybe chase a darker path because they think that the angst is going to make it that way, but I’m learning to love myself, so I don’t want to be in that place. I struggle with insecurities. I struggle with forgiveness. I struggle with letting someone go that did me dirty without vengeance, which is an evil thing. That’s not me fully letting it go. I’ve worked really hard to let those demons out but some of them still haunt me. Some of them still follow me around. Maybe one day when I’m older and evolved and healed then it’ll be easier and then I’ll start making shittier music. But, for now, no worries everyone. My demons are in my fucking suitcase. They’re good.

I want to talk a little bit about “Gatekeepers.” I know that song predated Hollywood’s #MeToo movement. Going into that, how difficult was it to relive that moment not just on the record but for the short film?
I didn’t expect it to be that intense. That’s a five year old memory. I’m grown now, I’m stronger. I’m a lot more vocal. I’m more secure with myself. I got in the car with the director and the other actors. We’re about to rehearse, he’s like hold off on rehearsing. He’s like, I want you to go through it. The rehearsal was more so for everybody. We got in the car and it starts going, and I have never gotten so angry at a stranger. I started sweating, and I started getting angry and I had to work harder to act the way that I acted five years ago because I’m like, fuck if that happened to me now, I’d probably catch a charge. I was younger. I was quieter. I was scared. I was nervous. I was desperate. So many things that the older me looks back now and I’m like man, that sucks. I’m happy it ended the way it did. I’m happy I chose to go right instead of go left. But that was interesting. I didn’t expect to sweat, I didn’t expect to get angry. I was trying to act like I was that kid again.

Historically, women of color are not always believed when they speak out about sexual harassment which is apparent in the current #MeToo movement. Did you take that into consideration when it came time to tell this story?
I’d be lying if I told you I sat there and had a blueprint thinking about how people were going to receive it. Thinking about who was going to believe me. Thinking about who it was going to resonate with. Who would play the song, who wouldn’t? Who would get pissed, who would be sad? I didn’t. It’s crazy because people always say it’s perfect timing but it wasn’t. I equate it to if I walked out of this room and I broke my leg, tomorrow I would sing a song about breaking my leg. It’s just something natural. It’s like breathing. It wasn’t until after the song was made and we would go into meetings and certain female A&Rs would get in their feelings and you’d see a girl start tearing up. We’d play it in another meeting and we’d see some guy in a room go tense after hearing the song. You could almost read someone’s energy response to that and be like you’re on this side of the argument. There wasn’t a blueprint. It was just the way it was received after the fact.

Although it was five years ago, how did you move forward learning how to trust new producers and people?
I say this all the time to young girls and young boys: Google who you’re fucking working with. Ask around before you go and go with somebody. We live in an age where it pays off to be a good person because more times if you’re a bad person it’s out somewhere. Had I Googled...and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that I should do that, but it’s the world we live in. It’s either walk out and complain about it not being fair or put your arm around and get ready to fight because that’s the only way you’re going to survive. It’s not an easy life, but you just gotta move prepared.

You have “Hard to Love” with Calvin Harris. How rewarding was it to know you snuck him a mixtape as a teenager to then getting a DM from him? What was going on in your mind when you got a DM from Calvin Harris?
No fucking way. The way it happened was just really organic too. He just hit me like, yo “Figures” is doing really dope. People in the industry are excited about you. We weren’t at a million views yet, we were just at a little bit of buzz. So when he said that, I was like man, thank you. Then we talked a little more and he was like yeah, I’m working on something, before anyone knew about Funk Wav, you should come out to LA, we should work. Flew me and my manager out and then we got to work. It was only supposed to be a one day thing and then we got together and the vibe was sick and it turned into a few days and I ended up flying back and it turned into a week. Now it’s turned into just working a lot.

“Hard to Love” is just one good collaboration of yours. What’s the story behind getting Daniel Caesar on “Figures, a Reprise?”
“Figures, a Reprise” with Daniel Caesar came to life because Danny had a five-day sold out in Toronto. One of those days he asked me to be a guest and I was like hell yeah. I was going to do “Figures” but he has like a dope band and his whole team is sick. I was like alright cool, let’s try something new. If I only do half of the song solo with my guitar, which is how I usually do it and then pass it off to the band. That was the first time I’d ever performed “Figures” with a band, was that night. We did and it just felt good. Everybody had been asking for a remix and been like throw drums on it, throw this, throw that. Just to make it more commercially viable and I was like no, fuck that. I like it for what it is and I’m not trying to chase that commercial shit. I like what it is and I feel like its touching who it needs to touch. So I don’t want to conform just to make other people happy if I’m satisfied with it until that. That was an affirmation that that was a moment because it felt good. I’m happy I held out because had I not maybe that opportunity wouldn’t have been so apparent for that to be the moment where we actually took it. It took it to the next level. So then I hit Danny like yo, you trying to do this and he was like yup. A few weeks later, we had it done.

What’s it like to tour with your parents?
I know I’m grown but there’s a part of me who will eternally be six years old. I really love having them around. I realize some people weren’t blessed with close relationships with their parents. I’ve had friends be like, ‘I wish I had your folks, I wish I had that.’ My dad and my mom, they sacrificed a lot—especially, as an immigrant family in a new place. Anybody that hasn’t gone through that, doesn’t understand how big of a sacrifice it is for a family to come here and not give up their culture. They’re also putting their kid in a compromised position. They were told, ‘If you guys want to learn English properly then you gotta speak it at home.’ My mom and dad had a real conversation about it. They’re like if we speak English at home for us to be able to go in the workforce and have a loose tongue with it, our kids aren’t going to learn Spanish that way. So they sacrificed having that thick accent and not being fluid in it since they got here for us to be able to maintain that culture. My dad worked his ass off. He worked nights, did fucking flooring, painting, gardening. My mom too... babysitting, gardening. Everything they could. I’m not going to be able to repay it back in this life. It’s impossible.

What can the fans expect from Jessie Reyez moving forward?
More recounts of my real life. Honesty and trying to learn from legends any time I’m around them. I’m just trying to sharpen my pen more. Work on my voice. I’m still chasing a shelf of Grammys. I’m still chasing a farm for my father. I’m still chasing my philanthropic efforts to start two orphanages and name them after my mother. Get featured on South Park. That’s it. Just those five goals. That’s what I’m chasing.

Kristin Corry is a staff writer at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.