"My head is exploding from just sheer unbelievable-ness," Jessie J says, sitting in a label conference room in Manhattan. "It's been 10 years. I've just wished for this to happen, so I'm trying to take in every single second of it." The 26-year-old British pop star is reeling from the popularity of her new single, "Bang Bang," a Max-Martin penned collaboration with Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj that topped both the iTunes sales and Billboard Streaming charts, then entered the Hot 100 at Number Six.
Although J had previously achieved some chart success with the 2011 singles "Price Tag" and "Domino," her second album, 2013's Alive, didn't even come out in the States. So, even though she was used to writing all her material, when a super-producer reached out with a potential new single, she was ready to listen. "Max Martin had sent it to me and said, 'What do you think?'" she says. "I was like, 'I've never sang a song like this before.' And I'd always wanted to."
How did "Bang Bang" come about?
After Max sent it over, I rewrote some of the song and made it feel more me. I put my vocal on it, and it just felt special, exciting. David Guetta walked past the studio and was like, "I like this song." Emeli Sandé was like, "Oh, I heard that song and it sounded sick." And then Max was like, "I want to get Ariana to jump on it." I was like, "Yeah." She recorded her part in the following two days. Then, within a week, Nicki had heard it and was like, "I want to get on this," and it kind of became this female anthem, like a girl band. Not a feature, but a moment where all of us can really show off what makes us us. And do it together.
I only met them at the video shoot, but I looked at Nicki and myself and Ariana, all three of us look so different, and we're all equally confident. I was pointing at Nicki in the video, I was like, "she's got a booty like a Cadillac, but I can send you into overdrive!" I'm not going to rival what she has, but I've got what I've got. That's what I feel like young women, especially, need to hear. You have to love yourself, before anyone else can even come in. So for me, as a slim, tall-legs-no-boobs-no-bum kind of girl, I've got to represent.
Had you talked to them about the direction of the song, or was that all on Max Martin?
Max said to me, "Don't you want to speak to the girls about it?" I was like, "Let them be them." I don't want to tell them what to say or what not to say. They're there for a reason! If someone wants to feature me on a track, I sing the way I sing. When you do a collaboration, it's a collaboration — Chanel and H&M don't collaborate, and then Chanel tries to make H&M into Top Shop. They want you for you. So for me, I just wanted to make sure it's always them, to the max.
You've said that, for your new album, you're going to bring in a more gospel sound. Why did you decide to do that?
[When I was getting started] what I was presumed to want to do was different from what I really wanted to do, and was good at. I love pop music, and I naturally write pop music, but I sing naturally soul and gospel. A lot people don't know that about me. At the moment, I'm trying to marry the two, and still be commercial and still be pop, but have the element of soul. I listen to Kim Burrell and Dorinda Clark and Lauryn Hill. I'm a fan of voices like that. I want to be on that stage at the festival, you know?
For your previous albums, you've written all the songs yourself. What was it like working with other songwriters?
I think I wrote about half of it on my own. There's a few songs I wrote with no one else in the studio — like, leave me, I need to cry, I need to get it out. And then there are other songs that were sent to me done, and I'd put my own spin on it, which was brand new to me. It was really nice, to be honest, to do melodies that I wouldn't naturally go to. It's like when your friend dresses you and you go, I don't feel comfortable, but I quite like this! Then you see a picture, and then go this is quite nice, I'm gonna do it again my own way.
I'm working alongside some of the most amazing songwriters — Tricky and The-Dream, Max Martin — and it was great having those people phone and say, we've got a song that we've had for five years that we don't feel anybody could sing but you. So to have that opportunity, then put it in my own way, and do all the backgrounds, and vocally produce it, is as exciting and as signature as writing a song.
Is that a theme on the album as well?
No. The album is really confident, but it's actually got a lot of heartbreak on it. Not too much. I can't bare a whole album of heartbreak. And why is everyone always naked on the bathroom floor? Everyone's always naked! I'm like, "Put some clothes on! I know you're sad, but you own a dressing gown."
But I think every woman gets it. What this album represents, is like, I can do it! It's sexy and I feel like I'm in a place now where I'm not scared to say that I'm a bit broken. It was going to be a repack of Alive to be released here, but as we started to write it, it just fell into an album. It just felt like Alive was so long ago. I feel like I've grown up a lot. I think you just go through that stage in your life where something happens, or you go through a breakup and you think, "I'm never gonna get over this person." Then you realize, fuck, I really can. It's OK, and I'll learn that actually they weren't everything I wanted.