JMSN's Quiet Rebellion: Choosing Freedom Over Stardom

JMSN's Quiet Rebellion: Choosing Freedom Over Stardom

How one R&B artist opted out of the hype.

Published June 28th

It’s a Thursday night at the dimly-lit (Le) Poisson Rouge club in Manhattan, where a rather heterogeneous crowd — in terms of race, gender and fashion sense, in particular — has begun to thicken, packing the dance floor which is blanketed in a deep red glow. A disco ball sways gently overhead as cool air is pumped in and Sam Cooke bellows through the speakers. Some sprightly dance and mouth the words, while others refill their drinks or use the venue’s complimentary wi-fi. Every so often the door to the side of the stage opens and a silhouette appears, and the audience collectively quiets in anticipation, until it is realized that it is yet again not the man they’re here to see.

Around 11:00 p.m., a five-piece band emerges — a drummer, bassist, guitarist, pianist/saxophonist and background singer — and takes their places on stage, beginning to play the easily-recognizable opening notes to “It is.,” the title track of the new album that JMSN released early last month. It’s a darkly-toned and brooding intro and it serves as the welcoming music for the 29-year-old artist, who abruptly appears dressed in a massive turquoise jacket of faux fur, jeans and white Vans. When he steps to the mic, he smiles and stares down the audience.

“What up, New York?” he asks a few times, playfully, before clutching the mic stand tightly and closing his eyes as his part sets in. As he sings, they remain closed, so committed to the vocal performance that it seems as though he’s already forgotten he’s on stage. It’s as if all of a sudden he’s back in the booth. His eyes remain shut throughout the song, his head shaking at times, until he’s passionately uttered the final lines: "I don’t think about the past, the past is gone, gotta carry on."

By the time he leaves the stage for the first time it is past midnight and one thing is clear: this is unlike any show you will find elsewhere in most genres, but especially amongst the rest of R&B. While his set was well over an hour, it is fascinating how few songs he actually played. This is not because he spends time on Kanye-esque rants or telling stories to the audience — he actually does far less of this than most artists do — but rather because just about every song evolves well past its recorded length and bottoms out into a perceivably improvised breakdown. Each band member watches intently as JMSN conducts, offering different musicians solos along the way, and seemingly ending each song at a point determined only then; it is as if each time they finish a song, it is the first time they’ve played it that way.

After the crowd provides its customary “One more song” chant, he and the band reemerge for an encore, “Bout It,” a favorite from his self-titled 2014 release (which is more commonly known as “The Blue Album”). The song itself is unusually short, with just two lines in each of its two verses. But after giving the audience its chance to shout along to the lyrics as he sings, he steps away from the mic and just allows the music to breathe. He isolates different bandmates as soloists and allows them to riff. The original beat becomes nothing more than a template. The music is rich and even though JMSN hasn’t touched the mic in several minutes, his performance is just as captivating. As the audience looks on, he basks in the grandeur and spontaneity of it all — gliding around the stage with his expressive dance moves, which have been made music video famous, in a state of euphoria that I’ve only seen in live shows on rare occasions. It’s powerful to see a performance that allows you to imagine how the music is made rather than just being in the presence of the artist to consume pre-recorded music playing on big speakers. It’s a part of performance art that we seemed to have lost, and that for this show only, has returned in a resonant and captivating way.

. . . 

JMSN, born Christian Berishaj in Eastpointe, Michigan, is one of those artists who — to the less informed or observant eye — seems to have fallen out of a once very present and radiant spotlight. At 17, he signed his first major label deal with Atlantic Records, where for three years he was the lead vocalist and producer behind Love Arcade, a group presented to the public as a full-on band, despite performing music written and recorded entirely by Berishaj. After the group disassembled in 2009, he resurfaced publicly with a deal at Universal Motown, with a new haircut, a radically different sound (it was most often referred to as electro-pop, although earlier demos were more in the vein of the rock music he’d made as Love Arcade) and a new stage name: Christian TV. He performed on So You Think You Can Dance? and released a song, “When She Turns 18,” that Britney Spears deemed her “favorite song of the summer” in a widely-publicized tweet. But — as he explained to me after a recent performance — the music he was making was far more influenced by the producers and songwriters that Universal assembled around Berishaj than by his own taste.

“I remember them being like, ‘You need to stop producing your own s**t and work with these big producers.’ Or, ‘You need to stop writing your own songs and have these people who know how to write songs write them for you,’” he said. “They would tell me to sing more like Rihanna or to use more Auto-Tune. And they’d play songs for me like ‘I Gotta Feeling’ by the Black Eyed Peas and say I should make something like that… It’s difficult because you want them to put your album out, but in order to do so you have to make compromises.”

While the 2010 mixtape Who The F**k is Christian TV can be found in the Internet’s depths, the anticipated debut album never came to be. Berishaj recognized that he really believed in his ability to make it doing his own production and songwriting (he does his own mixing, too), and while still signed as Christian TV, created a full project that later became his first as an independent artist and under the moniker JMSN.

“Something really clicked for me, for sure. It was like an epiphany. I was so submerged in the industry and meeting all of these people. And then I just decided I was going to believe in myself and go out here and try to make music as best I could. I wanted to bet on it being good.”

The last straw, he said, came when he brought the project, Priscilla, to the label and told them this is what he wanted to release. When they said they wouldn’t push it for him, Berishaj left and JMSN was born.

.   .   .

Priscilla was far moodier and more R&B-influenced (and more critically-appreciated) than anything Berishaj had released to date. And while many reasonable music fans and journalists could understand his motivations for backing away from a record label once his new music became available, the far more perplexing of his moves in the public register was what came after.

Priscilla firmly placed JMSN within the conversation of best new artists operating within the various creatively-named alternative sub-genres of R&B (see PBR&B, hippy R&B, etc.) He drew frequent comparisons to The Weeknd, who, coming off his third mixtape release, was as much of a critics’ darling as anyone in the genre. Instead of being called a favorite of Britney Spears’s, he was commended by Usher. Then came the attention from several hip-hop artists and labels, who saw him as the “cool, new guy in town” and wanted to connect.

For the remainder of 2012, he would prove his move to independence was a successful one, as he sang background vocals on four songs off Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, produced a song for Ab-Soul, guested on a Game song also featuring J. Cole and turned in a hook for Tyga. One blog referred to him as “TDE’s favorite crooner” and suddenly sites like Complex took notice and wanted to interview him.

But no move proved more hype-inducing than the release of “You’re Gone” in January of 2013, a haunting collaboration with Ab-Soul about date-rape, which was expected to be the first single off of their joint release Unit 6. The project became one of the year’s most anticipated and quickly all of his media attention steered accordingly. The year came and went and while no Unit 6 appeared, JMSN put out his second solo project, Pllaje, which received a significantly reduced amount of attention. Journalists continued to interview him, but the focus had shifted almost exclusively to a uniform set of questions: “Where was Unit 6? What was it like working with Ab-Soul? What was Kendrick like?” It was then that JMSN knew he needed to revise his path once again.

Unit 6 really was the point that turned me off that path. Instead of people liking JMSN as an artist, it was much more like, ‘What’s going on with Unit 6?’ I just didn’t want to be defined by that. That’s not really me, it was just this thing where me and him were like, ‘Hey, let’s make some s**t.’ I didn’t want it to be about hype or me being the new guy who’s on everyone’s songs. I wanted to build a real, tangible fanbase. I just didn’t — and still don’t — want it to be about the hype.”

. . .

Two days after his impressive performance on Saturday evening, I head to the SOHO House, a members-only club for creatives that — in addition to this site in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District — has locations in London, Istanbul, Berlin, Hollywood and more. It’s a rare off-night on tour and yet he’ll still be playing a small set in the Vinyl Room for friends and club members later on tonight.

It’s around 7:30 p.m. by the time I arrive, and JMSN and his band are running through soundcheck. The stage is significantly smaller than that of LPR and is arranged like a living room. There’s a carpet underneath the piano and behind JMSN is a fireplace and a mantle decorated with various vases and white walls filled with framed pictures. Apart from the long bar and its wooden stools, the seating is in the form of plush couches and armchairs spread along the opposite wall — littered with interspersed dark reds, yellows and greens.

JMSN is dressed down in a black tee, jeans and the same white Vans, with other bandmates also playing it low-key, like Andrew, the drummer, in shorts and a baseball cap. They play through “Street Sweeper,” “Bout It” and “Waves” as they try to get rid of the feedback, get the sound levels right and get the delay off JMSN’s guitar. There’s the same youthful energy about him as they play, but his presence today is far less animated and arresting than the other night. At a few points as they test other instruments, he yawns and wipes his eyes, and  later he mentions that he believes his voice is about to go. During a mini-freestyle jam session, he exclaims, “I’m losing my voice tonight!”

After soundcheck, we head upstairs to a quieter space. Inside the Drawing Room is a wide array of separate meeting spaces, each distinguished by its own color patterns on the sofas, chair cushions and ottomans. It’s a large room, and yet it’s rather intimate too, due to the faint, low-hanging decorative lighting and candle centerpieces. At a small table in the back there’s a booth on one side and a chair on the other — JMSN takes the booth and leans back immediately, his neck resting against the top of the black leather. But while his body is slouched, his eyes are intently focused on me, and as we begin to talk, his eyebrows slightly raise and his head nods along subtly. He’s a great listener and he makes certain that I’m aware he’s thoughtfully chewing on every question I raise.

It seems like you put a lot of emphasis on your performing and really incorporating your band into your act. How has your set evolved into that from earlier on in your career?
The show is really the most important thing to me. It’s the performance. You make the songs to play them live. That’s why you’re making the songs. Why would you make them to never play them?

But part of it is also having the best players I could to have the freedom to do this type of stuff. I want to continue to hone in on the show, and I couldn’t ask for better players than the ones I have now. They’re really able to do this stuff. I don’t have to be confined to whether or not each band member can play this or that. It’s amazing.

It seemed to me like much of the performance was unscripted, that on any given night a song might be played differently than it ever has been before. Is that the case?
Yes, 100 percent! Performing sometimes can be so calculated. The way we do it there’s a lot more freedom, and that’s how I make music. It’s free of format and I enjoy it so much. Each show we really discover something new, some new territory to which we can go.

Also, I like challenging these guys with where I end the song or tell them to come back in. We need to communicate and be together. It’s not like you’re just sitting there playing the drums knowing it’s going to end in the same specific place. If you’re not looking at me, you better be, because we’re gonna go to a different part. It keeps everyone on their toes. I enjoy it. I think they enjoy it. It’s really fun.

To your point about this also being how you make music, this album in particular sounds much less fine-tuned and exact in its recording than anything you’ve done before.
Yeah, the whole idea of the album came from letting stuff be. That’s where the title It is. comes from. Trying to get out of making things perfect. There’s something special about the imperfections… it’s soul… it’s character, and I think you need that.

You were very vocal about your appreciation for Prince. What do you take away from his approach to making music and what he might’ve been trying to warn us about the changing landscape of the industry?
Prince was always evolving. He never made two records or played two shows that were the same.

But also, you’ve gotta make albums. I want to listen to albums. I want to listen to full ideas. Someone who got in a room and made an album. It’s not just like they made a collection of songs and whatever was the best, they fit. It’s not about that, it’s about the moment. It’s important.

A lot of publications and labels have been discussing the declining attention span in music and how it’s causing a lot of artists to put out more EPs and singles rather than albums. What do you think of all that and of the role streaming is playing in music?
Those guys think everything is fleeting and s**t because they made it that way. They’re the ones that pushed it to this point. There are still people who enjoy listening to music. I’m not skipping tracks looking for the new hot shit. I’ll listen to a ten-minute song and enjoy every minute of it. There’s a lot of people like that. But, if you’re out there trying to meet your numbers for the quarter, that’s how you’re going to think about it.

I want to talk a little bit about your past, but also want to be conscious of the fact that you get asked about it a lot, and typically with the same questions…

Yeah, I do. [Laughs]

What really pushed your decision to go independent when you did. You seem to be proving a really important point about what artists can do with their music if they aren’t confined to the expectations of labels. Was that your intention, or did you just need that creative space for yourself?
I was definitely trying to push everybody forward and out of this thinking about labels. There is so much more than that. We don’t have to let the man, per se, control what we’re doing with our art. We can all make so much — I don’t wanna say better s**t — but we can. We really can. I wanna push it forward. I wanna be one of the people who sticks to my guns and pushes it forward and proves that we can do it without that s**t. And it’s hard as f**k. Don’t get me wrong. But you can do it. And I’ll take that and go through that to prove that.

Recently Tyrese and several other R&B artists spoke out against the direction in which R&B is headed. What do you think about the way the genre has changed or is changing?
Well, it’s funny to me when I see stuff like that with Tyrese, because I’m just like, ‘Why are you trying to be involved in that world?’ I’m not sure what he’s worried about. He had the No. 1 album in his first week as an independent. Why is he worried about trying to stay relevant in that world? I’m just not really part of that world, anymore. I don’t f**k with that world. [Laughs]

One of the most unique things about this record that I want to make sure we talk about is the spoken word sections. How did those come about? Were you anxious about how they’d be perceived?
I just wanted to say a bunch of s**t. I was venting. Yeah, I was scared to put it out because I’d never done that before. The fact that I felt scared about it and was being vulnerable felt like a good reason to put it out. It was my ego saying, ‘Hey, you might not look cool if you put this out.’

But mostly they were messages to myself. I was airing out everything I needed to, and it gave me a little bit more freedom to not be confined to what people think I typically do.

What do you think is next for you now that you’ve found this new creative space?
I have a new project that is already written and I just want to keep evolving. I feel like every tour someone will say, ‘Man, this is the best I’ve ever seen the band. Where do you even go from here?’ And I’ll just say, ‘You said that the last time, too!’

You have to want to get better and keep challenging yourself. That’s the most important thing. It’s gotta evolve. I’ve gotta get better at my singing. My guitar playing. My ability to lead the band and produce them.

The reason I’m independent is so I can continue to change. If you can just keep making music that sounds the same over and over, good for you! [Laughs] I would go f**king nuts always recording songs that sound the same. I’d lose my mind. As an artist I have to evolve. I have to make music that sounds different. I have to be challenged.

.   .   .

By the time we head downstairs, it’s past 10:00 p.m. and his show is in less than an hour. He’s coughing quite a bit and needs to rest his voice, as well as take a shower. It’s night six in a row for him.

His manager Adam and I talk about JMSN’s perception in the media and how much of the dialogue around his career has been dedicated to things he’s done in the past — the times in his career during which he certainly had more eyes on him. As recently as this album’s media cycle, JMSN was asked in an interview about working with Kendrick Lamar, a question he’s been asked dozens of times over the years, so his response is well-documented. His reply was considerate enough, but rooted in his own feelings about being consistently asked the same things: “Well, what do you want to know?”

It’s a narrative that remains because most journalists peering at JMSN’s career from the outside still see his Christian TV or TDE-affiliate years as the content capable of garnering the most attention, even three-plus years later. Because his current efforts take patience and, well, effort to fully appreciate and comprehend, it’s rarely the subject matter of these conversations. The media wants to shoot for the story, and writing one about an artist’s commitment to a live show that is different every night or an album which is less refined in its sound or recorded quality aren’t ones that make for compelling clickbait. But he’s also not big enough to reward the more in-depth microscopic lens that someone like Kendrick might receive after releasing something new.

In his foreword to Angie Martinez’s new book, My Voice: A Memoir, J. Cole wrote the following: “The people who document hip-hop today are cowards too. Jaded by now. Entitled. So afraid of losing their jobs. Slow to see the waves coming. Quick to ride them when they do. Nothing to say that isn’t being said already.” Whether or not you agree with the totality of his statement, which seems to implicate everyone involved (I don’t), there’s certainly some truthfulness to this. This is where I think the greater meaning and influence of an artist like JMSN gets lost. Asking about Unit 6 or the studio sessions for good kid, m.A.A.d city is a proven reader attractant, but discussing the potential importance of an artist who places most of his emphasis on his performances and making sure they exceed what has become a really low bar just isn’t. Adam says he has no idea whether or not JMSN will have a big break with how he currently makes music, but that he’s OK with that.

By 11:00 p.m., the room is filled with about seventy or eighty people, and after the band takes the stage, a small group piles up in front, just a few feet from the microphone. JMSN walks in wearing the same clothes and looking less refreshed than I’d hoped — his second interview ran longer than I think he would have liked — but still, when the opening chords of “It is.” set in, he’s fully engaged.

Psychologists often talk about how when one is skilled enough in a particular area — whether it be an athlete, a performer or someone who slices smoked salmon at a bagel shop — they experience “flow,” which is a complete and full immersion into the activity. There is no better way to describe what came over JMSN in that show than this, as he took turns between dancing and riffing on his guitar, while remaining in the center of it all, never demanding attention, but assembling and directing and reveling in the beauty of it all.

In an industry where so many under the spotlight are often unsatisfied and unhappy, JMSN has found bliss. He’s not thinking about how many copies his album has sold or whether he should’ve gone with a different single or whether he should’ve recorded one last take on that guitar part in the studio. No, for this moment he is completely absorbed and the music and his career and this performance simply is.

Written by Jeff Baird

(Photos: Matt Sherman)

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