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Interview: Jazmine Sullivan Talks Reality Show, Frank Ocean, and More

Sullivan chats about Reality Show, her earliest experiences as a gospel prodigy, and her long hiatus from the industry.

Interview: Jazmine Sullivan Talks Reality Show, Frank Ocean, and More
Photo: Shane McCauley

Draped in a trench coat, with a cup of hot tea steaming at her side, Jazmine Sullivan kicked off a press junket at Manhattan’s Platinum Sound Recording Studio by warning she had come down with a cold. “I’m gonna try,” she muttered, before proceeding to blast through the speakers with almost every known dimension of her voice—the range, the rasp, the runs—magnificently intact. Meeting her after this brief, intimate set, I soon discovered how allergic she is to grand pronouncements about her music, and how sincere she is in her modesty. But that didn’t help me shake the feeling that the woman who had performed three feet in front of me, whose 2008 debut, Fearless, breathed life back into late-aughts R&B, had grown into one of the all-time great soul singers. For half an hour, we chatted about her earliest experiences as a gospel prodigy, her long hiatus from the music industry, and the process of writing and recording her superb comeback album, Reality Show.

I recently heard you say that during your time off from the industry you developed a phobia of performing live, which surprised me because I think the stage is where you really blossom. So I wanted to ask you about your first moment on the national stage, when you sang “Accept What God Allows” at the Apollo at the age of 11. What was going through your mind then? Did you already know you wanted to be a professional singer?

I can truly say I was fearless when I was a kid. I had been singing in church so much by the time that I got to the Apollo that it was almost just like singing at a bigger church. Singing was definitely something I knew I wanted to do early on, but at that time I wasn’t even writing. I didn’t know I had that gift yet. But singing was always a big part of my life. Just like you, I was shocked I had this phobia of performing live. I really never thought that would happen to me.

Were you approached by gospel labels after Apollo? When did you decide to go secular?

At the time that I chose to sing R&B, I was actually getting ready to sign to a gospel label, and my mom had asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this, and I said, you know, I don’t think I do. It’s funny, because it wasn’t like I was writing or even going through anything at the time, but I felt like God was revealing to me that there was more in me than singing gospel music, and that I could possibly reach more people.

I’m curious how exposed you were to jazz at an early age, because if you go back and look at some of your old performances, particularly at the Black Lily in Philadelphia, the jazz influence is quite pronounced.

You know what’s crazy—I didn’t listen to any jazz growing up…

What? You’re one of the only mainstream R&B singers today who can scat.

And I don’t even think I can scat—I do a version of it. I don’t remember listening to any Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald. My mom, though, is very well-versed in music; her iPod is crazy. She sang background for McFadden & Whitehead, and she had a little solo career. She loves a lot of different types of music. Scatting has always been something natural that I do. I don’t even think of it when I’m doing it; it’s just something organic that flows out.

How rooted are you still in the Philly music scene? You got your start at the Black Lily at a time when Bilal, Musiq Soulchild, Kindred, and a lot of other soon-to-be-important neo-soul acts were coming through there.

I think Philly is always going to be a part of me. There’s a grit and authenticity that comes with people from Philly. You hear it in my voice, in the way I speak. I don’t really get to talk to many people from that scene, though I just did a show with Kindred, and I did recently see Jill Scott and her son. I was looking at him like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe he’s that big,” and she was looking at me exactly like I was looking at him. It was surreal, because she did see me when I was a kid.

How do you construct your performances and bring that element of “liveness” to your studio work? Do you plan the tones and inflections you’re going to use before you get in the recording booth? Or is it more of a trial and error?

With any song, the music speaks to me and helps me figure out how I want to approach it. I don’t map out my runs; I really don’t even think about runs. For the most part, I’m trying to stay away from that when I’m recording because I’m most focused on the lyrics coming across and telling the story. If you notice, I don’t do a lot of adlibs on this album. Vocally, I think there’s a natural growth, but to be honest, I pay the least attention to my singing. I don’t sit around and study runs; if I did I’d probably be a lot better at it. I want to get better at things I know I need to get better at, like my songwriting.

You could have easily gotten a deal and just sung other people’s songs. When did you realize that you wanted to write your own music?

Probably around 13 or 14. I was so bad; I can’t even listen to those songs. But I just always had a will to say what I wanted to say. My mom always thinks I’m trying to outdo her, so she was like, “You started writing songs because you didn’t want me to write ‘em no more!” I always looked up to her; she’s the most creative person I know. But by 13 or 14 I started getting the desire to write down the way I saw the world. I was writing about love, which I knew nothing about—and still I don’t know as much about it as people probably think I do. But you can even hear that in my writing, how much I’m trying to figure this shit out. I’m obsessed with love, but it’s so hard to describe or explain.

You have that line in “Lions, and Tigers & Bears”: “I’m not sure, no, I’m not sure…”

Yeah, “I’m not sure” is kind of the basis of my understanding of love.

How much does the singer in you factor into the songwriting process? You listen to some of the other great female singer-songwriters in R&B, like Mariah Carey, and you imagine while they’re writing a song, they’re keeping in mind that moment when they can make that key change and hit the sweet spot in their range. Is that something you think about while writing?

It’s different with each song. Sometimes I think about the vocal performance and whether I’m going to sound great by the time I get to the bridge or do something special vocally. But on this album it was more about serving the story.

My favorite on this album, “Brand New,” goes in so many different directions tonally, vocally, rhythmically, and lyrically. Can you tell me a bit about the process of writing it?

With most of the songs, I just got a list of tracks—I didn’t even know who made them, so it wasn’t like I was thinking, “Oh, that’s a Pharrell track, let me work with him.” On “Brand New,” the way I come in on the first verse, no one is expecting me to sound like that. And the story is one that I haven’t told before and I thought I could do a little justice to it. When I heard the track, I didn’t know I was going to write about [“the baby mamas and the down-ass chicks” who get dumped by their just-signed rapper boyfriends]. I get the track, I’m thinking this shit sounds hot, and the line just comes out. If I like the line, I continue. It’s unveiling as I’m writing it; I’m on the journey just like you guys are when you’re listening to it.

So you don’t tend to break it down into segments…

No, especially not with “Brand New” and “Mascara.” I think with “Mascara” you can tell because that song never really stops, it just keeps going. So there’s never a moment where you think, “Oh, she wrote that hook five days ago.”

How involved were the producers beyond providing the tracks?

To be honest, I did a lot of the stuff by myself. I was just in the studio in Philly by myself. I slaved over these songs.

What’s the oldest song on the album?

Probably “Forever Don’t Last.”

How soon after your relationship ended was that written?

It was ending, but I was still in contact.

That’s one of those vocals like Aretha Franklin, “Ain’t No Way.” It’s built to be epic and raw, like it’s pushing at the limits of expression. Do you go back to that emotional place every time you sing it?

Not so much now, because I’ve moved on with my life and I’m happy. But it definitely sounds the way it does because I was fighting back tears. I was really going through it, and I was trying to talk myself into being okay with the fact that a relationship I had just spent so much time trying to work through was now something I had to let go of.

You could have gone on and written an album like Adele’s 21, entirely made up of songs about this breakup. Was it a conscious decision to not do that?

No, it was more subconscious. I was trying to not think about what I had gone through. But what’s funny is that parts of my relationship found their way into almost all of the songs. Even though “#HoodLove” sounds like it’s about a very specific kind of character, I actually see myself in that song because I was that woman. I didn’t have no .45 in my Louis bag, but I was that woman who did way, way too much for her man.

Do you ever think you’ll go back and revisit some of the songs on the unreleased album you did even before Fearless? YouTube is a goldmine for finding all that material.

Ha! Y’all get to hear every bad note! No, I don’t want to be singing “Braid Your Hair.”

There’s much more of a neo-soul flavor to those songs.

I think you hear from me what I’m surrounded by at the time. I was doing a lot of Black Lily dates back then, so that was what was coming out of me. But by the time I got to Fearless, I was hearing different styles and started incorporating them into the music.

How hard was it for you to step away from the game in 2011?

Oh, that was easy. One little tweet and “Goodbye!”

Because I have to say, I saw that tweet come on my feed in real time and was devastated.

Ha! Well, honestly that wasn’t difficult. Coming back has been the difficult part, and I didn’t know it would be.

What’s been the most difficult part?

Even the simplest things that I’ve been doing all my life had me scared. An artist is supposed to be made of confidence; if you don’t have that, who are you? Building back that confidence in my art was hard to do.

Now that you’re back, have you noticed any change in the R&B scene?

I’m not even so focused on R&B as I am on music in general. I’ve seen some really dope artists pop up, and I’ve been inspired. Frank Ocean is bangin’.

He’s a storyteller, just like you.

Yeah, but Frank is so poetic. I don’t write like that. I can tell a good story in layman’s terms and have it make sense. But I love the way Frank makes such a simple story, or a simple thought that we’ve all had, sound so beautiful. Lana Del Rey—the songs I’ve heard are so bangin’. She’s singing over this beat with a hip-hop flow. I love music that crosses genres, so I wasn’t focused so much on R&B as I was on artists who were pushing music in a more open direction.

I need to ask when we’re going to hear “Champagne Tears” [a song Jazmine teased on her Instagram that has yet to be released].

A lot of people who heard the album early, like my mom and my friends, asked why I didn’t put that on there. I might release that one day!

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