Jessie Reyez is yelling and loving at the same time
|Toronto Star 26 Mar 2020 at 15:56|
Since 2016, Jessie Reyez, a Canadian songwriter whose parents came from Colombia, has built a fervent audience for songs that delve into loyalty and betrayal, ambition and obstacles, heartbreak and vengeance — songs that map the messy, volatile mood swings of 21st-century romance. The 2016 single that brought her international attention, “Figures,” is a ballad built on doo-wop guitar picking that veers between anger and tears; it has been streamed more than 63 million times on YouTube alone.
From the beginning, Reyez, 28, has come across with palpable sincerity and a sense of emotional transparency. “I’ve always made it a point to be authentic,” she said via FaceTime from her home in Toronto, wearing a nondesigned T-shirt with a cartoon montage of movie gangsters. Her luxuriant long black hair was gathered on her head in two asymmetrical poofs.
Reyez doesn’t strike simplistic pop poses; she doesn’t present herself as an inspirational superwoman or a sexual dynamo, a creature of pure affection or of long-suffering self-pity. Ambivalent impulses flicker constantly through her lyrics and flaunt themselves in her voice, which can be sweet or raspy, childishly innocent or acidly scornful. Her music, though it’s categorized as R&B, pulls together the impulses of folky singer-songwriters and syllable-spitting rappers as well as pop melody and hip-hop impact.
The fans who eagerly sing along at Reyez’s concerts see their own growing pains in hers. That reaction can still surprise her. “I never really made music for other people,” she said. “I always made it selfishly. I always made it in my bedroom by myself.” But seeing people connect with tracks she made to soothe herself has changed her outlook: “It helps me feel like I’m doing something right, you know?”
“Gatekeeper,” which appeared on her 2017 EP “Kiddo,” bluntly describes her music business #MeToo encounter with a producer who claimed to be interested in her voice: “30 million people want a shot/How much would it take for you to spread those legs apart?” she sang. She not only made a music video of the song itself but also a 13-minute film dramatizing the incident.
Reyez wrote “Far Away,” released in 2019, about a faithful long-distance romance, only to realize after she finished writing the song that certain lines jumped out at her: “You’re still waiting for your papers/Been feeling like the government wants us to break up.” The song’s video showed wrenching images of an immigration raid and family separations. “I felt motivated to want to make something that would act as a conduit for empathy, as a window for anybody who’d never been through it,” she said.
Reyez released her EPs in 2017 and 2018; the second, “Being Human in Public,” was nominated for a Grammy for best urban contemporary album. She also had guest spots on songs by hitmakers like Romeo Santos (singing in Spanish), Calvin Harris and Eminem, who returned the favour by appearing on the new album as the seething but still attached boyfriend in “Coffin,” a lovers’ quarrel infused with mortality that imagines a coffin “handmade for two.” A picture of it appears on the album cover.
Eminem, who discovered Reyez singing “Gatekeeper” on late-night television, said he admires both her directness and her craftsmanship. “She sings from her heart,” he said by phone from Detroit. “She’s writing about [expletive] that she’s been through and stuff like that. But it’s not easy to do what she does, and she makes it look so easy.”
He added, “She doesn’t sound like anybody. Her style of singing, the way she enunciates her words and everything, she’s just naturally dope. It seems like she’s not even trying, and she’s that good. Her voice and her cadences don’t sound like anybody I had ever heard before.”
This year, Reyez was all geared up to release her full-length debut album, “Before Love Came to Kill Us,” which arrives Friday. She was treating the album, unlike the songs collected on her EPs, “as a project to be taken in as a whole,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Let me put my phone on airplane mode, let me sage the room, let me grab a bottle of wine or a bottle of whiskey, and let me sink into this.’”
In years of songwriting, Reyez had reserved some of her darker, more probing songs for this moment. Her fall 2019 headlining tour introduced a devotional, elegiac ballad, “Love in the Dark”; she followed it with “Ankles,” which sneers at a cheating boyfriend’s dalliances over a blend of choirlike vocals and ratcheting drum-machine beats. (Reyez gives a songwriting credit on “Ankles” to her mother, who consoled her after a breakup with a saying in Spanish that other girls “don’t come up to your ankles.”)
The plan was to release the LP while she was touring arenas, opening for teenage superstar Billie Eilish. While rehearsing her new songs for the stage, she decided to overhaul the album, swapping in songs and punching up mixes, giving the music more jolts — and forcing her label and streaming services to scramble with new files.
“When I was building the album, I remember hearing from multiple people that it needs to be cohesive, cohesive, cohesive, and I kind of let that get to my head,” Reyez said. “But my entire time as an artist, I’ve always been a child of polarities.” Contrast, she said, is part of who she is. “It’s innately in me to want to yell and love at the same time. I haven’t been compromising this whole time as an artist. Why would I start with my album?”
The tour got underway; Reyez was on the road with Eilish in early March when the coronavirus brought nearly all the pop machinery to a halt. Instead of singing in arenas over the coming weeks, now Reyez is at home trying to improve her piano playing.
“I feel weird promoting in these times,” she said. “It feels like music is kind of minuscule in comparison to what’s going on.”
Facing the prospect of the pandemic, Reyez started having second thoughts about releasing an album called “Before Love Came to Kill Us.” “The whole premise of the album was to motivate people to think about their mortality,” she said. “Now that it’s coming out, at this time, either I’m insensitive or I’m tuned in.”
She added: “It messed me up because I was like, ‘I don’t want to seem insensitive, but this has been my reality for a long time.’ Because that’s just the way I’ve grown up. I’ve grown up thinking about death as something that could easily happen tomorrow. But I know that for everybody else, there’s a lot of fear right now.”
Reyez put the question to fans on Instagram: Should she postpone the album? The response, she said, was overwhelming. “It was like 3% or 4% of people saying yes, and everybody else saying ‘[expletive] no! Because the music helps me in these times.”
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The album plunges into tangled relationships: vituperative and clingy, flippant and desperate, awash in second thoughts. Gentle bossa nova chords accompany Reyez as she sings about murderous jealousy in “Intruders”; “Deaf” is a revenge taunt set to skidding, sliding, disorienting electronics. “Kill Us” moves from a 1950s slow-dance kiss-off to tremulous thoughts of a second chance.
There’s also a song in Spanish: “La Memoria,” a mournful reproach to a lover who mistreated her and a reminder of Reyez’s Latin heritage. “It’s in my face, it’s in my blood, it’s in my dark hair, it’s in my brown skin,” she said. “It’s in the way that my soul lifts up when I hear Colombia. It’s in the way that I hug my mom. My parents purposely kept me connected to our roots, our blood.”
Reyez still has misgivings about releasing the album now — not for its music, but for the state of the world. “I’m conflicted,” she said, gazing earnestly in the FaceTime camera and then shrugging. “But I’ve decided I’m putting it out, because indecision never did anything for anybody.”