Jorja Smith is late. Not just a little late – at the time I’m waiting to meet her for brunch in the City, she hasn’t left her home in Crystal Palace. Oh dear, I think. This is what happens when you switch from recording YouTube covers in your school uniform in Walsall, to working with Drake.
Turns out it’s a misunderstanding. She was waiting at home for me to phone her up for a chat. When she does finally arrive, only her face-obscuring hood and sunglasses give any hint of divadom. The 20-year-old soul singer is all smiles, “grateful” for the opportunities she’s had so far and ready to be even more widely heard.
“Obviously I’ve grown up around YouTubers, people getting millions of hits, but I was never anywhere near that,” she tells me. Her manager discovered her aged 15 in 2012, singing her interpretation of Too Close by Alex Clare with a friend on acoustic guitar. The clip has still only had 4,400 views. “I remember watching somebody called Esmee Denters doing covers that were really popular, and wishing that was me. But I’m glad it wasn’t. Things have worked out okay.”
Okay is right. The year so far has seen her placed high on the BBC Sound of 2017 poll for next big things, releasing two slow-burning solo singles – Beautiful Little Fools and Teenage Fantasy – and appearing twice on Drake’s More Life, a US number one that also featured her fellow Brits Skepta, Sampha and Giggs. The Canadian superstar had Smith lend her languid, smoky tones to his house track, Get It Together, and even put her name in a song title – Jorja Interlude.
Naturally it raised her profile considerably, for good and bad. “I got more followers on social media and a really good response. His fans really liked me,” she says. Then in April, The Sun called her “Drake’s hotline thing,” claiming: “Drake’s secretly hooking up with Walsall singer Jorja Smith… and even popped into her local Co-op to buy SWEETS.”
Raising this with her prompts an exasperated eye roll. “That’s hilarious. A lot of people sent me that story. I had a week of notifications about it. This is what happens when he works with anyone female: people just assume things. I saw he’s supposed to be going out with Bella Hadid now. I’m heartbroken!” she jokes.
Not much seems to phase her. She’s got a debut album recorded and ready to go, but is happy to wait until next year to release it despite the heat on her right now. “People can wait. If you want to hear good music, good music will always be found. There’s no rush,” she says. An imminent tour of the US supporting Bruno Mars should cause her fanbase to expand still further, and she has a more idiosyncratic reason for holding off too: “My favourite number is 11. Two plus zero plus one plus eight is 11 – so, 2018! I want it to have 11 songs. I’ve written loads since I was 16 so I’ve just been picking.”
One of those early songs is Beautiful Little Fools, released as a single on International Women’s Day in March this year, but written when she was 16 and studying The Great Gatsby at school. It’s a jazzy ballad that criticises Daisy Buchanan’s hope in the novel that her daughter will grow up a fool: “That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool,” says the character. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you love yourself?/Well if your mother was Zelda or Daisy, I guess not/Why can’t you be a beautiful little girl/Instead of being a beautiful little fool?” Smith sings.
Today she’s matter of fact about being given a tough time at school for her physical appearance. “I used to like loads of boys and get rejected all the time. I was a bit chubby, I had puppy fat, I had a moustache. I didn’t want to have lips, I didn’t want a bum. I grew out of it, but I feel like everyone went through that phase of wanting to be skinny,” she tells me. “There’s nothing wrong with skinny, that’s the thing, but when you’re not, and you shouldn’t be, that’s when there’s a problem. You can’t really teach anyone that, you have to go through it and learn. I did. Now I like how I look. Boys used to be like, ‘Ha! Jorja’s got a ‘tache!’ It’s okay, I don’t mind. It made me stronger I guess.”
It made her determined to make music that offers a bit more than pretty distraction. Blue Lights, her first single from last year, was written at 17 after watching Dizzee Rascal’s video for his song Sirens, in which the rapper is being chased by red-jacketed foxhunters. It’s about the ingrained flight response among her black friends when they hear police sirens, even when they’ve done nothing wrong. It was played at a Black Lives Matter protest in Birmingham last August.
She also sings a line on Artists for Grenfell’s version of Bridge Over Troubled Water, in between Labrinth and Leona Lewis, though she has since read an angry article which questions the song’s motives on a magazine website. She is now less sure about the value of her contribution. “I felt bad when I was reading that. You can’t fix everything with money. It’s really sad.”
At least she’s thinking about all this. She talks about her ambitions for her songs: “I want to be worldwide, international, in everyone’s ears, and everyone listening to what I’m saying, because I think I say some good stuff. I want to be someone for young girls to look up to, for fathers to want their daughters to listen to me because I’m not rude and I’m actually talking some sense.”
Her own father sang in a neo-soul band called 2nd Naicha and encouraged her early start in the music game. “My mum and dad just told me to follow my dreams. They’re super proud of me,” she says. He has helped her with her lyrics and she says she wants to sample some of his songs.
She had a music scholarship at her comprehensive, played the oboe in the school orchestra and studied classical singing. Her song A Prince, a duet with Maverick Sabre, lifts parts of Henry Purcell’s 1695 composition A Prince of Glorious Race Descended. As well as singing Schubert and Hugo Wolf, she idolised Amy Winehouse, but not to the extent of copying her lifestyle.
“I saw the documentary four times. It’s sad. Her music is amazing, but you make your own decisions,” she says. For Smith, there’s a lot more to come. Right now she’s the special guest of Drake and Bruno Mars, but outright stardom is close and she has the confidence to make it happen. “My head’s really screwed on. I know where I want to go, and I know I want to be here singing and writing music for as long as possible. I’m not going to do anything to sabotage that.”
July 20, Electric Brixton, SW2 (020 7274 2290, electricbrixton.uk.com)