From 1972 to 2004, the most famous musician from New England known to the wider world as “JoJo” was Jonathan Richman, the pre-punk songwriter who led the Modern Lovers on songs like “Roadrunner,” lately the subject of a campaign to make it the official rock song of Massachusetts.
But 10 years ago, Joanna Levesque overtook Richman as Boston’s most famous JoJo. An uncommonly gifted child singer born and raised around New England, she was part of the last wave of the early 2000s teen-pop explosion: As a 13-year-old, Levesque scored a Number One hit single with “Leave (Get Out),” and she rated a harmless namecheck in Eminem’s 2004 “Ass Like That.” By 2006, JoJo’s “Too Little Too Late,” from her second album, The High Road, reached number 3 on the Billboard pop chart. It’s about as perfect a pop song as they come.
And then? The troubles of her label, Blackground Music, and the changing tides of popular music have delayed her third proper album for the past seven years. While JoJo, now 22, has recorded but largely discarded tracks for the record, she has released two mixtapes, 2010’s Can‘t Take That Away From Me and last year’s Agápē. Her 2011 remix of Drake’s “Marvin’s Room” led to last year’s “Demonstrate,” a sumptuous collaboration with Drake’s producer Noah “40” Shebib. JoJo is all grown up, a far more committed musician and seasoned live performer than most of her mid-Aughts pop peers, and she’s champing at the bit to make that elusive third album. She spoke to Rolling Stone while driving her guitar player, with whom she’s taking lessons, to the gym in Los Angeles.
What are your earliest memories of singing?
I used to sing songs by Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston for the ladies at the nail salon. I would ask them for money. I guess I felt I should be compensated for my singing even then.
Did you ever have a Boston accent?
When I was 11, my mom and I moved to California, and at my first day at school, I asked “wheh the bubblah” [water fountain] was. The whole classroom laughed at me, and I knew that I had to do something about my accent if I didn’t want to be the laughing stock of the school. But sometimes a pinch of it will come out if I’m really comfortable, drunk or angry.
You were 13 when your first album hit big in 2004. What is your impression of that time?
I couldn’t believe that I got to stay up late at the studio and eat junk food, and people liked my music and wanted more. But I had no fucking clue what I was doing from day to day, and I had no concept of image or brand. Now, I look back and cringe: the content of the songs were not age-appropriate. I’ll hear something and think that it sounds too AutoTuned and void of emotion. When I hear my first hit, “Leave (Get Out),” I’m affectionately looking at a young girl who I don’t really know.
But do you feel the same way about 2006‘s “Too Little Too Late“? That‘s a similarly constructed breakup song as “Leave,“ but a 15-year-old can convey heartbreak better than a 12-year-old.
I loved “Too Little, Too Late” from the moment I heard it. It’s written by Billy Steinberg. He has a gift for big Top 40 songs like “Like a Virgin” and tons of others. When my team heard that song, they knew I could hit the sweet spot, musically and in terms of subject matter. It’s the perfected version, and we also didn’t want to freak my fans out.
While your follow-up to The High Road was developing, you recorded personalized remixes for Sean Kingston‘s “Beautiful Girls“ and T-Pain‘s “Can‘t Believe It“ and put them up on MySpace. But it was your version of Drake‘s “Marvin‘s Room“ in 2011 that really knocked them dead.
One morning in New York, I was really hung over. I drank too much because I was really fucked up over a situation with this guy. And my best friend called me: “You’ve gotta hear ‘Marvin’s Room’ – it reminds me of you.” I wasn’t in the mood to listen to anything, but he forced me to listen to it, and I was immediately inspired to get on my phone to write down what I was feeling at that time. I wasn’t ballsy enough to tell him what I felt, but that song gave me the courage I needed in real life.
So in 2012, you worked with Noah “40“ Shebib, Drake‘s main collaborator, on “Demonstrate.“ It‘s a breakthrough, showing the perspective of a young woman rather than a teenager.
It’s the most sexually liberated record I’ve made. 40 produced the tracks, and one of his in-house writers wrote the lyrics and melody with me.
But while the song was played on R&B radio and spawned multiple YouTube cover versions as soon as it hit the Internet, it was never released officially, and the video was shot but never released. The song was supposed to herald the new direction for your first album since 2006. What is your relationship with your label?
I don’t have a relationship with Blackground. They’ve stopped communicating with me, and they’re unable to promote, market and distribute an album.
What do you want now in terms of releasing a formal album, rather than the mixtapes you‘ve put out for free on the Internet?
Well, I haven’t recorded an album in so long that I don’t recall what it’s like. But I want to release an album with the support of a reputable company, one that has distribution, pays its bills and has respect in the business. It’s hard to flourish as an artist when the industry as a whole wants nothing to do with the label you are signed to.
Your mixtape Agápē is inspired by Joni Mitchell and Andre 3000. You cover “Free Man in Paris“ and you‘ve made a video for the single “Andre.“
My mom and dad bonded over Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. As I’ve grown older and started to explore myself as a writer, I’ve gone back to Blue and Court and Spark over and over again. I’m so impressed with her writing prowess, individuality, boldness, and her own brand of feminism. I couldn’t connect from a lyrical standpoint with her songs until had I had experienced that kind of sadness. It’s the same with The Love Below: It didn’t make sense the way it’s supposed to until I had my own sexual experiences.
You tweeted that Harmony Korine‘s film Spring Breakers “was like a punch in the gut.“
That movie is perverted, honest, and probably scary for people who don’t want to acknowledge what’s going on with young girls these days. I don’t want to sound judgmental, because I’ve gotten really fucked up at parties. But I know those kind of girls: they’re looking for their identity or sense of purpose, and finding it in their sexuality and in craziness. They think that being drunk, high or dressing provocatively is the same as being a grown-up. It’s poignant – the girls in the movie are chasing this perpetual spring break, having fun, being young, sexy and fucked up. But the bottom line is that you can’t do that forever.