Multi-talented Brit Award-winning singer-songwriter Jorja Smith is coming home as her new album, Falling or Flying, is released this month. She explains to Jules Boyle why all roads have led her back to her roots
Seeing the sky, the trees – and feeling a lot more like herself. That’s how the supremely talented singer-songwriter Jorja Smith described her decision to move back to her hometown after spending years living and working out of London. And the catalyst for returning to her Walsall roots was her new album Falling or Flying which releases this month.
Jorja explained: “I started going back to Walsall before I began working on the album, then when I finished it, I realised how much I actually missed being home and how much I needed it. I’m definitely a small-town girl and a Walsall girl in particular. I think I was just too overstimulated and too overwhelmed by London, so it’s nice to be able to just see the sky and some trees now.
“I feel a lot more like myself and that I have a life here. In London it’s just too much. It was the album that brought me home though, as it was mostly produced by my friends DamDam, who are a duo from there. I linked up with them originally when they had a studio in Birmingham, then they moved to London so we worked there too, but all roads led back to Walsall!”
Now aged 26, Jorja has been writing songs since she was 11 after her father, himself a former musician, encouraged her to have piano lessons as an eight-year-old. She grew up listening to reggae, punk, hip-hop and R&B and says she was inspired by Amy Winehouse’s approach to song-writing about social issues.
Jorja earned a music scholarship at Aldridge School where she learned to play the oboe and studied classical singing before taking music at A-Level. At age 15 she was uploading videos of herself singing cover songs on YouTube and was scouted by a manager who could see her potential. After graduating at 18 she moved to London where she continued writing songs and working as a barista.
In 2016, her debut single Blue Lights sampled Dizzee Rascal’s song Sirens and racked up more than 400,000 plays in a month on streaming site SoundCloud. Two years later her debut album Lost & Found was released to critical acclaim, peaking at number three in the UK album chart. In the same year she won the Brit Critics’ Choice Award. And in 2019, she was named Best British Female Artist at the Brit Awards and was also nominated for a Grammy Award.
Jorja said: “My Lost & Found album was me around 16 to 20, while this new one is me at 24 to 26, so I’ve stepped into womanhood. I’m a lot more sure of myself and I’ve got more things to say, with less observations and more actual lived-in experiences. I’m still in the early stages of womanhood to be fair, but I’m definitely more confident in who I am now. I’ve always loved experimenting with different sounds and ideas, so I’m even more up for doing that kind of thing. This was the first time I made an album after already making one before, so I had learned so much already, but there’s now so much more I’ve learned that I will definitely be taking on to my third album whenever that is.”
We suggest that the new record feels like it could be a real statement of who Jorja is? “I never have an agenda when I’m making tunes, I just like singing and jamming,” she says. “There’s no concept or themes, but I guess there’s a lot of self-realisation as every song ends with a full stop, like very abruptly and just like *that*, which wasn’t planned either, so it’s all very definitive and very much where I am right now. So, without it being a deliberate statement, it is.
“The title, Falling or Flying, is how I felt both in my career and in my life, I literally didn’t know if I was falling or flying. They’re both completely the opposite, but also so similar for me in that I didn’t know if I was doing good or bad. It’s also a reference to me and my personality, as anyone who knows me knows I have no middle ground. No half-measures!”
After being in the public eye since she was a teenager, Jorja says that in recent years she’s come to realise how naive and confident she was in the beginning. While she’s still super-confident on stage, she’s more cautious when it comes to things like this – interviews and photoshoots! “I think it comes from always having people’s eyes on me. It’s weird though, as nobody teaches you any of this and there’s no handbook. You just have to figure it out yourself as you go along. I’ve been lucky that I’ve met some good people who’ve been there before and been able to get some good advice, but at the end of the day, you just need to work it all out for yourself. I feel like I’m still not finished growing up, to be honest. I’m still only 26!”
Jorja highlights the pressure that so many artists are put under to perform not just in the studio or onstage but also on social media. She said: “I’m fortunate that I’m not on a major label where there’s a lot of pressure to be on social media every day. I have a funny relationship with social media, actually. Again, it’s all or nothing with me, as sometimes I’m all over it and happy to be posting things, then some days I just cannot be assed with it and won’t go anywhere near it, even if I should be doing something!”
Jorja has some launch shows for the new album coming up which she is excited about, as well as the prospect for a full tour. She says she loves playing shows the most because then she can see what impact her songs have. “If people are singing along, if they’re smiling or crying and just how they are enjoying themselves. That’s when I know I’m not falling, I’m flying! I absolutely cannot wait to tour. I don’t have dates yet, but they’re coming I promise you. I’ve never been more excited to get onstage and let people hear what I’ve been working so hard on these last few years.”
Jorja has worked with artists, from Drake and Calvin Harris to Stormzy and Loyle Carner, and says there’s so many more people she’d love to collaborate with. “I’m always scared to say them out loud in case I jinx it! But Frank Ocean, 100 per cent Frank Ocean. I absolutely love him.” But she adds: “As much as I like plan things I’m very much never looking too far ahead, like I’m definitely not thinking about five or 10 years in the future. I’m very much about being in the moment, seeing what happens and hoping for the best!”