Welcome to Zoom Date, our feature series where we get up close and personal via Zoom screen with our favorite celebs. They'll be giving us an honest peek into what their "new normal" looks like—from new rituals they've adopted since quarantine, to work projects in the age of isolation, to the beauty and health products they've been using to self-soothe.
I’m talking to JoJo on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon late in May. It’s the kind of afternoon where you realize summer has come, and this time, she’s sticking around.
Sunlight is streaming through our windows, bouncing off of the white walls surrounding us, making our living rooms almost vibrate with afternoon light. By the looks of it, you’d think we were sitting across from each other. But, thanks to quarantine, we’re forced to enjoy this beautiful day while stuck inside our respective apartments, 3,000 miles apart, alone.
JoJo has been gearing up to release her fourth studio album for some time now. After a couple singles last fall, and, oh yeah, that Grammy win for “Say So” alongside P.J. Morton in the spring, everything seemed to be falling into place for one of the biggest drops of the year. “Man,” her official first single off of the album Good To Know, dropped on March 13th, and things were just getting started.
And then the world stopped.
“I was just like ‘Wow, what a time to be alive. What a time to put out music.’”
The timing of the lead single couldn’t have been worse, or better, depending on how you look at it. The beginning of lockdown was the perfect time for a new single to usher in an album that would become the soundtrack to quarantine for so many people, when we had nothing to do but sit inside and stream music.
When you talk to JoJo, you instantly feel you're in the presence of greatness—a presence so strong, you feel it even over a Zoom call. She looks you dead in the eye and does not break your gaze. JoJo is present. She is not afraid to take a breath and give you a thoughtful response. She is not intimidated by an extra second of dead air. Media training has not tricked her into thinking silence must be filled by meaningless banter. She knows that her presence is a gift but she knows yours is too. It is an exchange that elevates the both of you. (Though this interview was conducted before the nationwide protests of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and the countless other Black people that have been murdered by police, the time that it took this interview to go to press has seen JoJo fearlessly standing alongside protesters on the frontlines and using her privilege and platform to help action change in this country.)
Good to Know is like an unflinching look into the life of a young person that has already come into their own, and is now trying to work their way through the sometimes opaque and often confusing free fall of adulthood. The album sees her trying to navigate these times overstimulated but unharmed, a balance nearly impossible to strike.
The record is at times beautiful, relatable—too relatable, confessional, and voyeuristic, so much so that it feels like going through someone else’s phone. On the new single, “Small Things,” we hear JoJo in a quieter, more introspective moment than her big, kiss-off breakup anthems of her early years or the mid-tempo R&B-leaning pop of her more recent releases. It’s a rare moment of nothing more than an acoustic guitar and her own vocals. You can really hear her, the tone, the timbre and texture of her voice. You can feel her emotion.
Good To Know starts with ode to overstimulation and chaos, then takes us on a journey of comedowns, longing, introspection, and then a soft landing with the vocal standout, “Don’t Talk Me Down” and the bonus track “Proud," an ode to her mom. It’s an oddly timely narrative, one that reflects the collective journey that the world has been on since mid-March—the thriving and feeding off of social interaction, then suddenly being forced to stop looking outward, finding comfort and solace within and making peace with yourself. Alone.
Keep scrolling to get to know JoJo.
Obvious question, but what's it like to drop an album during quarantine?
It’s been different. That’s all I can really say is that it’s been different. I love people, I love feeling someone’s energy, so it’s been a bummer that I can’t go and perform these songs in person. But we’ve all been getting creative. It’s a blessing because I still get to connect with people through music, which is what I love to do.
I’ve gotten a lot better at accepting what is over the years, and also, I didn’t take it personally. It’s not like this is a personal attack or the world is conspiring against me. Everybody is going through this. People need music and entertainment during this time, so when I thought about that, I was like, people will never forget what they were listening to during this quarantine, so if they’re listening to my stuff, that’s really special.
The album is arguably your most cohesive and concise work to date. Tell me about how you approached making Good To Know.
I wanted it to feel like you could put it on and go on a journey with it, you know? That’s what my favorite albums allow me to do. I didn’t want to just go get different songs from different producers and writers, I really wanted to hone in on a sound, and a feeling, and do it with a crew. That’s more what I did with the Agape mixtape. I wasn’t sure what it was going to be about, so I went into it and just said how I was feeling.
A lot of Good To Know centers around the wanting love, and losing of love, and being wary of love, but rarely ever actually having love. Was that intentional?
I tend to write about love from all different angles and be drawn to it because I just think love is the most amazing thing. Who doesn’t want it? Especially when it’s real close up to you and you feel like you did something to mess it up. I’m like, "Am I gonna get it again? And do I need to save this?"
I wasn’t at a place where I had love in my life as I was writing this album. I had a lot of shame and guilt and stimulation, or lack of. That’s just where I was at.
The main relationship I’m talking about is the one with myself, or figuring out how to love myself, because I really didn’t, and that informed every decision I made in a romantic way.
“Small Things” was almost the first single, correct? But you went with “Man” instead. Can you talk about "Small Things"?
It’s just a really sticky song. I would play it for people and get really strong reactions. People would have tears in their eyes so there was something about that song that really resonated. But when the new year came, and I was coming off of “Say So” winning R&B Song of the Year at The Grammys, I was feeling really great, and feeling young and energized and empowered.
“Small Things” is a sad song. It’s a sad bop. So I was a little apprehensive about leading the album with that because that wasn’t where I was in my life. But it's a song that I love so much and I knew that it would come around at some point.
What was the concept for the "Small Things" video?
It’s about the different ways that we compartmentalize our feelings, and then open ourselves up to them—whether it’s shame, lust, regret—and about how we try to hold them in. It’s about that longing of losing love and then being like "every little thing is messing me up."
We’re all feeling different sorts of anxiety during quarantine, since we’re social creatures and being confined to our homes for an undefined period of time is so unnatural. I’m sure that spending months planning an album release only to have it thwarted by quarantine can really mess with your head. Can you talk about how you’ve been checking in on yourself and showing yourself kindness through all of this?
I think that those of us who can take this as an opportunity to check in with ourselves are really fortunate because there are a lot of people who are still working or are still taking care of their family members.
As far as self-care, I’ve been finding other ways to be creative, and that’s been something that’s necessary for me because I am naturally a creative person. Having little victories, to me, is self-care. Being able to prepare a meal and be like ‘ooh this is bomb,’ or eating foods that make me feel good, whether that’s fruits and vegetables or a bucket of French fries. I’m just doing what I need to do in the moment and I’m trying not to feel guilty about any of it. That’s self-care to me.
How do you stop and take a moment to check in when you when you find that you’re starting to come down on yourself?
I try to remind myself that if I don’t like the way that this choice feels, that I can make another choice. If I don’t like the way that spending my time in this way makes me feel, that I have the authority to change that and make a new decision.
Or even when a thought comes in my mind that’s negative, I can be like, "Is that true?" I question things. Getting curious about what might feel better. Knowing that we actually have more control over our happiness than we give ourselves credit for.
So we’re all doing endless video calls and Zoom meeting during lock down, which is exactly how you’ve been doing a lot of content to promote Good To Know. Is there anything in your beauty routine that you do differently when you know you’re going to be shot on an iPhone camera and be seen on a screen?
As far as beauty, I’ve been opting for a more uniform look, and a monochromatic vibe, because it’s quick. And even if I’m not perfectly hydrated or well-rested, moisture and dewiness is something that I’m going for.
"I use a lot of products in multiple ways. I’ll use a gloss on my eye and then on my cheekbones. I’ll use the liner that I use on my lips, then sharpen it and use it on my eye, and then I’ll use bronzer to warm up my face and then use it in my crease. Making sure that you’re bringing out your features. What about you?
Oddly, I’ve been doing more with less, because the details don’t pop over Zoom like they would in real life or in a photo. Like, I’ll go a little heavier on bronzer to sculpt my face, and a little more blush to give myself some color, but I don’t wear highlighter on video calls because it doesn’t pop on camera.
Yes! Good point. Less, but what gives the maximum impact. I haven’t worn lashes almost this whole time. And for me, I didn’t always wear liner every day, but now I wear liner because it’s like, I have little lips, so I do like to overline them a little bit because I like the way it looks.
I’m sure that being an artist can be isolating, and that being on the road can make you can feel very alone. I think we're all feeling a little of that now we’re confined to our own homes. How do you combat loneliness?
I reach out to my friends. I’m lucky that I have really great friends and we can be really honest with each other.
I have dealt with loneliness by 'recycling,' and calling people that I really should leave in the past, and getting that fix of knowing someone cares and just having that interaction. Now I’ll reach out to a friend. I’ll go outside and hike.
There’s this whole narrative about “JoJo is back,” but you never left. In the time you weren’t releasing music with the support of a label, if you weren’t recording a mixtape or a feature, you were fighting for your right to put out music. You came close to being another casualty of the music industry and the bad business within it. When you look back on your early, record breaking success, the label trouble, and now a free, successful voice in music again, what do you want your legacy to be?
I want to represent resilience, and freedom, and authenticity. And grit, I think grit is one of the most important things you need to have to be successful, and I’m full of it. Someone who is strong, vulnerable, and real.
Photos by Doug Krantz via Zoom and Skype.