In the R&B world of blonde ambition, the key to longevity is creating a brand. And at 21 years old, Jazmine Sullivan has already been pegged as the second coming of Lauryn Hill, while dodging the “neo soul” label affixed to fellow Philly singer/songwriters. But not many artists (old or new) get to say they had a vocal battle with legend Stevie Wonder or that they auditioned live for music giant Clive Davis. With the September 23 release of her debut album, Fearless, Sullivan hopes to showcase herself as an independently minded and eclectic artist, ready to change the way you think about her music.
The Urban Daily: How long have you been singing?
JS: I’ve been singing since I was like four or 5. I started singing when I was out at church. I decided when I was 12 to sing R&B and my parents were really supportive. My mom got me an audition from the Jazzyfatnastees for something called The Five Spot, which was an organization started for females. I sang there for about three or four years before Tory Green, who was an A&R at Jive Records, contacted me and I got signed to Jive when I was around 16. Well, 15 going on 16, actually. And I got dropped from Jive when I was 18. You know, I was so young, and I didn’t really know who I was as an artist at that time enough to be able to express it to them. They had one vision for me and I didn’t really have another. So it just didn’t work out. But it actually ended up being a blessing because I had time to go through some things that a teenager should go through and I took that time to focus on my writing.
During that time I wrote the song, “In Love With Another Man.” My mom and I realized that it was a special song, and we sent it out to different record companies. Peter Edge from J Records heard it, and called and said how amazing the song was and invited me to his office. And I got there, and I sang it for him live he was just like “Okay, we need to start doing something.”
So, for almost a year I worked on getting some songs together to present to Clive, because you know, you have to have your stuff together before you go and stand in front of Clive. So, we took that time out, got about five songs, including the single, “Need U Bad,” and I preformed for Clive he was like, “Welcome to the family.” So I’m here now. That was pretty much one of the highlights of my career, because I’ve always wanted to sing for Clive, and my mom always put it in my head that that’s who we want to get to. Because he was known for being able to recognize special artists and special talents and singers, so we’ve always wanted to get there. I’ve never been star-struck, but when we saw Clive I was like, “What?!”
TUD: How old were you when you wrote your song, “In Love With Another Man”?
JS: I was 19, 20? I’m not saying I went through all of these life-changing things and I wrote it; it still is a pretty deep song for somebody my age, but what I do is, when I write, I gather information from all different kinds of sources. So it could be from my parents, my friends, or anything – TV, movies, anything. I try to write music that is real and music that will relate to people
TUD: So how old were you when you started writing music?
JS: I started writing, I would say, at about 15. I wasn’t really good at it but I just wrote, and I just tried to do it just to learn. So I started writing early.
TUD: How do you go about writing? Do you write to music, or do you write first and then try to find an instrumental?
JS: Someone gives me a track, or gives me the music and I write to it. I try to listen to the song and what the track is saying so that when I write it’s not all over the place, so that when I write it, it should be a good marriage. Very rarely do I have the lyrics first. I may have an idea in my head like, “Okay, this is what I want to write about,” but if it doesn’t go with the track, then I won’t do that. Because I think that in order to have a great song, there has to be a good marriage between the lyrics and the music.
TUD: I know you wrote Christina Milian’s “Say I.” Are there any other songs that have been on the radio, or anywhere else for that matter, that people would know that you’ve written?
JS: That song, which was intended for my album with Jive, that’s been pretty much the only song that I’ve written. I actually co-wrote it with Cool and Dre. But I would like to write for other artists. But right now I’m just focused on my album and getting my stuff together. But once the album comes out and I kind of settle into the industry, then I’ll start writing for other people.
TUD: I’ve heard a lot of people compare you to Lauryn Hill. How does that feel as a new artist, being compared to someone whose work is still so respected in the industry?
JS: Well, Lauryn is great artist. I’ve listened to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill a million times like everybody else. I think it’s easy to compare me to her because of the reggae vibe on the single. But I think once people hear the rest of the album, they’ll see that we’re two totally different artists, and they’ll respect me for who I am. But of course, there’s no other Lauryn and I have no problem with the comparison [laughs]. She’s a great artist.
TUD: How would you describe the album and yourself as an artist? I know you started in Black Lily, and a lot of people who come out of there – Jill Scott, Musiq, Floetry – they all get pegged as “neo soul” artists. But how would you label yourself?
JS: I try not to label myself; I make music. When people hear the album, they’ll realize that there really is no label for me. I been influenced by so many different genres, and its included in my album. There’s really not one thing that you can say I am. I try to be as creative as I can and include all those things so that it can reach everybody. I don’t want to leave anybody out. So, you know, if there’s somebody that loves jazz, they should be able to get a taste of it on my album. Or if there’s somebody that loves R&B, they should hopefully get a taste of it on my album. Or if there’s somebody that loves reggae, or hip-hop, or pop or anything, they should be able to get it all included in my album because that’s who I am. And I’m just not afraid to be different and try different things, and do different things. And that’s the main reason why I named the album Fearless, because that’s really where I’m at right now: I’m not scared to say certain things that other people may not say. I’m not afraid.
TUD: How many tracks have you written and co-written on your album?
JS: I’ve written and co-written every song on the album, which is a blessing because not a lot of artists, let alone new artists, get that opportunity. I’m just really happy to be at a label that supports me and let’s me be that creative.
TUD: What producers are you working with on this project?
JS: Of course, Missy, who’s a good friend of mine; Stargate, who are pretty big right now, Salaam Remi, Jack Splash, Fistacuff, Dirty Harry, and Anthony Bell, who’s from Philly. I think I have a well-rounded album. I think I have a mixture of really well-known producers, and producers that aren’t so well-known. And some in the middle. When I was working on the album it was really about getting good music and a credible album. So the music could come from anywhere as long as it’s good.
TUD: And how did you and Missy end up getting connected?
JS: I met missy when I was about 13. I was around singing for a bunch of people, a bunch of artists trying to get put on. But missy was one of the artists who just let us know early on that she wanted to be a part of my career, and that she believed in me. We reconnected when I got signed to Jive when I was 16, and she really helped with that situation, because they were like, “Why would Missy Elliot want to be a part of this girl’s album?” So that made them pay attention to me as an artist. And she’s my friend, so we’ve been in contact and have done things for a while now. I did “Free Yourself” for Fantasia, I sang background. So, she’s been in my life for a while now.
TUD: Who are your musical influences? Who did you listen to growing up? Who are you listening to now?
JS: I listened to a lot of gospel growing up, mainly because my mom didn’t listen to anything R&B or hip-hop or any of that. But then she started schooling me on the artists that were out during her time like Aretha and Chaka and Donnie and Stevie, and I actually got a chance to perform for Stevie when I was 13.
TUD: How’d that come about?
JS: I kinda of bumrushed my way there. Kindred were actually supposed to perform for him and his family at his grandson’s birthday party at his daughter’s house. And I kind of snuck in and I sang, “What’s Goin’ On?” And immediately we connected, and he started playing “These Three Words” and I sang a little bit of that. And we started having a rifting contest – he would do a rift, then I would do a rift, then he would do a rift – so we had a lot of fun that night. He invited me to L.A. for this annual Christmas event, which is still, to this day, probably the biggest venue that I’ve performed at.
TUD: Do you have any guests on your album, or is it all you?
JS: It’s all me right now, but I’d like to get Andre 3000 on it. He heard “One Night Stand” and wanted to be a part of it, so I’m crossing my fingers ’cause I really want him to be on it. If he doesn’t, it’ll probably just be me, but hopefully he’ll be on it.
TUD: Is there anything you want people to know about yourself as an artist?
JS: Pretty much that I’m open to trying different things; so don’t be so quick to label me as one thing, because I’m probably not that. Or if I am that, there’s more to it. I’m very creative and I like to do a whole lot of different things.
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