By the time she was 13, Joanna “JoJo” Levesque was making pop history. In 2004, following the breakout success of her debut single “Leave (Get Out),” she became the youngest solo artist ever to reach Number One on the Billboard Mainstream Top 40. JoJo released her hit sophomore album The High Road in 2008 but fell on hard times after completing her third LP. Due to label troubles, the album remained unreleased, and the singer’s professional struggles began to take their toll. “I got on a cycle of not loving myself and not believing that I really had a future,” she tells Rolling Stone.
After a seven-year legal label battle with her former label, JoJo formed a new partnership with Atlantic Records. The result: Mad Love, her first proper album in 10 years. “I’m really grateful to be able to move on with my life and career and get a chance that a lot of people who have been through similar things wouldn’t get,” says the singer, now 25.
Mad Love chronicles JoJo’s time away from the music scene and also pays tribute to her late father. On the heartbreaking “Music,” she sings, “My only hope is that he’s looking down/Thinking, ‘Oh, my God, my daughter’s doing it now.'” “Our connection was always about music,” JoJo says of their relationship. JoJo spoke to Rolling Stone by phone about how she’s grown since her prior LP, the advice she has for Kesha and choosing self-love over romance.
How does it feel to put out an album for the first time in 10 years?
It’s nerve-racking but very, very exciting. I’m really grateful to be able to move on with my life and career and get a chance that a lot of people who have been through similar things wouldn’t get. I’m taking it day by day and allowing my fans to give me the life that they give me. I’m having fun with it.
Obviously, Kesha has been going through her own high-profile label struggle. As someone who has been through something similar, what advice do you have for her?
I think her going out on the road is a great idea, so she’s able to connect with the people who are supporting her and getting that life and love. It’s not about business; it’s about people. It’s her connection to music and her fans. I would say it’s to control what you can control and put yourself in the best position to get out of your contract. I think she’s doing everything that she can, and I’m sure she’s going to be fine.
Having watched that happen, did you reach out to Kesha?
I did – through a mutual friend, Justin Tranter, who I wrote a lot of this album with.
Was she receptive?
She tweeted me and sent me love.
What did being stuck in a bad label deal for so long teach you?
To control what you can control. To take things one day at a time. To realize you can get through anything if you want to, and you only lose when you give up.
Can you tell me about the track “Music” that you wrote about your father?
It’s not only in the lyrics. My father was always so interested in life on the road. He always wanted to come with me on the road, but he was never well enough. Our connection was always about music. There was never tension, disappointment or anger when we talked about music. He had the utmost love for it. If he didn’t have his personal demons, he could have done whatever he wanted to as a musician. From a young age, he was very, very talented. His and my mom’s love of music and the way they presented music to me, had a huge impact on me. Music was my third parent in a weird way.
What was your relationship with your father like toward the end of his life?
Our relationship was very strong towards the end. I was starting a tour and about to see him in New Hampshire. Just because people are your parents doesn’t mean they’re perfect. You need to have some grace with them. I was at a place where I was accepting him as he was and loving him 1,000 percent.
Tell me about this new album. How has your music evolved in the past decade?
To stay the same from 10 years ago would be strange. Fifteen versus 25 are really different moments in your life. I think the biggest thing is how I’ve grown as a collaborator and a writer and how my influences have grown. This album is a reflection of the things I grew up listening to. You hear that soulful, retro inspiration in a song like “Mad Love.” Then also the things that are going on right now and are inspiring me. The biggest thing is life. I’ve been through my own personal hell both professionally and personally, battling my own demons. I’m on the other side of it. I’m writing my way through it. I’m totally imperfect. I think my strength is in my honesty and vulnerability, so that’s what I try to put into my music.
You were obviously going through a public label battle, but what else were you going through personally?
I was very depressed during that time, and I dealt in the ways that I dealt. My coping mechanism of choice was alcohol to get out of my mind. It made me feel as good as I could. I got on a cycle of not loving myself and not believing that I really had a future. I was going through a lot of family things that I don’t think are appropriate to speak on. I was so unfulfilled that I just didn’t want to be responsible for a while. I used to want to get out of my mind. Now I want to stay in this moment because I’m enjoying myself.
After not having put out music for so long, how did you decide on “Fuck Apologies” as the first single?
It was a collaborative decision between me and Atlantic. They actually came to me with the song. It was halfway done. I loved the people who were a part of it and the sentiment of it. It wasn’t an easy decision. After putting out the three songs from last year, for me, using abrasive language is how I speak daily. Sometimes you need to shake people up with a “fuck” or two.
What were you listening to when you made this record?
I always go back to my comfort zones: James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Aretha Franklin, also some new deep-house-inspired stuff like Duke Dumont to Disclosure, Nao, Anderson Paak, Thundercat. The inspiration is pretty varied. You just can’t help but be somewhat influenced by what you’re listening to.
Were there specific relationships that inspired Mad Love?
There were multiple relationships of the past four years. There were three main ones, but one represented on “Reckless,” that’s from when I was 18 and was just looking back and realizing I was such an asshole and irresponsible with this young man’s heart. That’s where “Mad Love” came from. A lot of this album isn’t really about romance. The album is about love: self-love and lack thereof. This album isn’t predominantly about a boy.