Jorja Smith has an umbrella on her head.
It turns out brightly coloured novelty headgear makes soundcheck go that bit quicker for a 20-year-old superstar-in-waiting. Smith is at the Junction in Cambridge, nearing the end of a sold-out UK tour. She wanders outside to talk to Music Week full of happy energy, counting down the last few days before she becomes the 11th winner of the BRITs Critics’ Choice Award.
“I didn’t think I’d get it,” she says, her voice skipping with excitement. “Loads of people said, ‘She’ll never get that because she’s not with a label’. Well, oh look, I got it! Haaa haaa!” She stops just short of sticking her tongue out for emphasis. Putting a straight face on, she continues. “I knew how much of a big deal it was but I didn’t think I’d be considered. I’ve done quite a lot, I’m very proud and it’s an honour. I’m very happy.”
It’s easy to see why: right now, Jorja Smith is about as hot as it’s possible to be as a new artist. Her oboe lessons and shifts at Starbucks are not yet a distant memory, and already she’s worked with Drake, Stormzy and Kali Uchis, recorded a track for Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther soundtrack, signed a publishing deal with Sony/ATV, toured America with Bruno Mars and amassed over five million monthly listeners on Spotify. Drake was even spotted in Co-Op in her Walsall hometown.
Smith is fast becoming an icon for her audience, too: she excitedly recounts a recent meeting with two fanswho’d travelled from Germany and Sweden to hear her sing. “More people know about me now…” she says, tailing off into bashful laughter. “A load more people, but my friends and family are the same. The main thing is, more people are watching me and listening to my music.” Smith is right: attention has surged since she put smoky R&B debut Blue Lights on SoundCloud in 2016. Manager Zubin Irani found the singer five years ago, and has used graft, mystery and restraint to maintain a close-knit circle around her ever since.
His Twitter bio simply reads: ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get’. Smith’s music comes out through Irani’s FAMM company, and there’s no sign of a record deal on the horizon yet. “I’m pretty clued up [about the industry], but I’m just being myself,” she says. “I never really feel pressure, I’m doing things on my own terms. I can’t really slip up being me.” Her logic is simple, as is her explanation of the impact of her work with Drake. Of her two appearances on the rapper’s More Life mixtape - which received 89.9 million Apple Music streams on release day alone – she says, “some things just happen”.
I never really feel pressure, I’m doing things on my own terms. I can’t really slip up being me
Smith is quick to emphasise the hard work behind the scenes, and has been touring hard and writing, writing, writing. Yet she does acknowledge that, “Things have fallen into place really well, touch wood… Uh oh, this is fake wood! Can you touch some wood if you’re near any? Thanks…”
Superstitions dealt with, we return to the subject of that record deal. “When I was 12, I thought, ‘You can’t make it unless you’re with a label, you have to go to America and sign a deal,” she says. “Living in Walsall, that’s how I thought you became a successful singer. Now you can do it by yourself, if you have a good team and the music is good… I don’t know any different.”
Guy Moot, Sony/ATV’s UK MD and president, worldwide creative, managed to strike a deal with Smith around the end of 2016, and tells Music Week: “Jorja is not only a quality artist, she’s also capable of being a global star.” The publisher recounts how he “went the extra distance” to sign her. “We wrote love letters, poems, all sorts. It was really important, not just, ‘Why we want to work with you’, but some musicality, how we identified with her music.”
Moot says Sony/ATV made a “very flexible deal”, adding, “As publishers, we want to be seen working with artists in the development stages until they decide one day they need to get a record deal. We want to be involved in that process early and with Jorja it was very happy.” He talks admiringly of the “great plan” Smith’s team is executing, too. “It’s done in such a respectful and cultural way, not just, ‘Let’s blow it up, let’s have some hits’. It really is the building blocks of what a modern artist should be doing to grow.”
Once Smith has wowed the BRITs, focus will shift to her debut album, which she notes will drop in June. “There’s no title yet, but I love it, man,” she says. “It’s my first big body of work, like my EP [Project 11], but bigger, with songs about things I’ve been through, not just about love or injustice, held together by my voice.” Smith isn’t setting any targets for the record. “I’m not sure if people will expect anything,” she reasons. “Hopefully people will be waiting to hear it, but I don’t think I want to say it’s going to sell loads, because if it doesn’t that’s so disappointing. For me, not anyone else.”
Moot stresses that the record won’t contain “three-minute pop songs, dumbed down”, saying it comes from “a place of emotion rather than formulaic songwriting”.
Unsurprisingly, Smith’s supporting cast is intimate, and Moot names only previous partners Maverick Sabre and Charlie J Perry as collaborators. “She creates better in a small group of people she knows,” he says. Speculation around the record will intensify until release day, and Smith knows it - she’s acclimatising to celebrity fast.
But right now, there’s a show to play, and she heads back into the venue, leaving her parting shot hanging in the air behind her. “I want the whole world to listen to me, so I’ll have to deal with it…”