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Sliding into a booth at a New York’s Theatre District restaurant, Jhené Aiko, 25, was still thinking about the night before. “I was nervous,” she admitted to The Hollywood Reporter about her first live TV performance, with Drake on Saturday Night Live. “I think the Native Americans said, every picture takes a piece of your soul, so imagine what video does. In time, it will become more normal, I guess,” she paused, smiling. “Maybe.”
Aiko prefers crowds over cameras, and in April, she will play her bucket-list festival, Coachella, among OutKast, Ellie Goulding and Pharrell Williams. The following month, she plans to release her first full-length for Def Jam, Souled Out, for which she will write and record another 10 songs — one featuring her five-year-old daughter. “The album has been shaping up to be a story of my journey to some type of enlightenment,” Aiko says. “I realized there weren’t a lot of cuss words, and it wasn’t as vulgar — even though that’s a part of me. I just felt like, I’m growing up. I’m becoming more of a mom.”
Aiko spoke with The Hollywood Reporter on growing up too fast, writing screenplays, and coming close to selling out.
What was the first record you were drawn to?
Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette. My older sister would play her and Fiona Apple. The words were in the booklet. I don’t even know if I knew how to read that well. I listen to that album now still, and I’m just like, “She’s a genius.” This album should win Grammys still.
She’s taking it to Broadway.
That’s gonna be dope. … I’m working on a screenplay that is gonna be basically the story of Souled Out. I definitely want to take my time with it and submit it to Sundance. I might not necessarily be in it, but I want to write it.
You and Drake performed together on Saturday Night Live, but in almost total darkness.
When we were rehearsing it, it was smoke on the ground, and I guess they cut it last-minute. I’m very camera-shy, just because I’m a singer-songwriter. I had never really thought about having to be on TV and all that.
After, I always get nervous. [Drake’s] like, “You sounded great.” And I was like, “But a couple of people on Twitter…” And he’s like, “Don’t go on Twitter. Don’t go on the Internet.”
You don’t envision performing to one specific person?
I don’t. Even with photo shoots, a camera is just so intrusive. Even the look of it is — this foreign thing. And I think the Native Americans said, every picture takes a piece of your soul, so imagine what video does. In time it will become more normal, I guess. Maybe.
How has motherhood shaped your songwriting?
I met Kid Cudi once — I played him some songs, and he felt like I said too many cuss words. And when the album was almost done, I realized there weren’t a lot of cuss words, and it wasn’t as vulgar, even though that’s a part of me. I just felt like, I’m growing up. I’m becoming more of a mom. I’m finding the balance between being myself and being responsible for what she grows up and sees me as.
She’ll be listening to your records one day.
She does. Her father [O’Ryan] plays her all the old-school stuff. She’s into Rick James right now. But instead of “Super Freak,” she says, “Super Free.”
Will you steer your daughter toward or from signing a record deal someday?
From it. I was signed at 12, and I got home-schooled during that time. When I was 15, that’s when I decided to focus on school and get released from my label. I was a child. I should have been focusing on school from the beginning, ’cause I ended up falling behind and having to work really hard to graduate. If that’s her passion, it’s always gonna be there, and I will definitely encourage her to practice. But there’s no need to rush. And it’s better anyway when you do know who you are, and you know what to talk about in your songs.
Have you finished making Souled Out?
I’m averaging four songs a month, so between now and then, I’m going to write and record at least 10 more songs. I definitely have enough songs for an album already … There’s a song that I have with my daughter where I’m singing to her. She sings, she’s on there. And I do a verse about my brother who passed away. Just really digging deeper into those things. The album has been shaping up to be a story of my journey to some type of enlightenment.
And peace seems to be a recurring theme, like your “Bed Peace” video nod to John and Yoko.
She follows me on Twitter, and she has the same birthday as my mom … I just thought it was so cool how they were so public with their affection towards each other. I feel like their love and their message as a couple was, they are the ultimate power couple. They were really standing for something to change the world. And it is working, still … So many people just stray from their path, I feel like. But once you really have that platform to help or to just enlighten people about something that has helped you, share it. If you really genuinely just want to help, do it.
Who else does that effectively?
They’re few and far between. I feel like there’s a lot of rock stars that do that. And I think mainly it’s because they’ve done everything else, from drugs to sex. But not a lot of people in R&B and rap [do], cuz a lot of people get caught up in the life.
Personally, I would like to grow into someone that the music is the example, as well as the lifestyle. I’m only 25, so I’m still getting there. I’m not gonna pretend to be like this crazy-peaceful person and put out an album that’s like heal-the-world when I’m still dealing with inner demons.
Do those demons include ever coming close to selling yourself out?
To me, selling out means doing anything that’s compromising who you are, your integrity, your beliefs. If I don’t believe in wearing fur — but this designer wants to pay me $3 million to work for her, when in my heart I don’t believe in that — to me, that’s selling out. Or doing this song because everyone at the label says, “This is the perfect song for you,” but it’s about something crazy that I’ve never done or something that I don’t have any connection to. If I do the song, that’s selling out.
I’ve been asked to write for people that I felt like it would be a really good paycheck probably, but I felt like it was too much of a compromise. And in my mind, that’s selling out. The money is not the motivation for what I do.
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