Most artists chase the fame monster, but for Jessica Jarell, the bright lights hunted her down. A native of Diamond Bar, Calif., Jessica was content modeling and acting; only while auditioning for a Christmas play at the age of 11 did she — and her mama — realize that she had pipes. Serendipity struck again when a producer saw her on YouTube and reached out, eventually helping her land a deal at Def Jam Records. The ingénue never released an album on the label but she did rub shoulders with the likes of Justin Bieber (they collaborated on “Overboard” on his My World 2.0), President Barack Obama and VP Joe Biden. Not too shabby for a teenager. Now off the label, the 20-year-old is making music on her own terms. She’s preparing her debut album, Goldblooded, later this year, fueled by her sexy, confident single “Gravity.” Allow us to introduce: Jessica Jarrell.
Hey Jessica! Where are you?
I’m in L.A. I’m driving around, sitting in traffic. I’m trying to get an acai bowl. I get it from this place in Malibu called Sunlife. It’s my favorite. They’re so good. It’s super healthy and they don’t taste like they’re healthy. They’re really good. I love chia seeds and vegetables. All that stuff. Recently, I became [into healthy foods]. Like six months ago. I love it though.
Sounds like you’re a health nut. Do you ever splurge on junk food?
Pizza is my favorite splurge. I’m probably gonna get pizza and Cold Stone Ice Cream. I love junk food. I just don’t eat it a lot. I love it.
Same here. So, you have a very interesting career path in that you sort of fell into singing.
I didn’t know I could sing until I was 11. I was modeling and taking acting classes and things like that, but I didn’t know I could sing. My friends dragged to me to this audition for our school play. I was really shy. I didn’t want to go. I went anyways and was trying to go to the acting audition. Somehow, I ended [up] in the singing audition. I wasn’t even one of those people who even sang in the shower, I was really quiet. I sang this part and they gave me this part. Everyone was blown away like, “Oh my God. You can really sing.” My mom happened to be down the hall in the school, so all the kids ran down the hall like, “Ms. Jarrell, your daughter’s amazing!”
Do you remember what play you were auditioning for?
Oh my gosh! I don’t even remember. It was a Christmas play. I sang, “Come and Worship Jesus.”
What happened after you wowed your elementary school?
After that, I got a vocal coach. Then I got into this group called Future America. It was a group that performed around the city, [which helped] me come out of my shell because, like I said, I was really shy. I didn’t know how to perform. I didn’t want to perform [Laughs]. After that, I started making YouTube videos. I put one up and this producer called me. He was one of the ones who wrote “Big Girls Don’t Cry” for Fergie, Beyoncé's “If I Were a Boy.” He called me like, “You’re amazing. I really want to work with you.” I was like, “Are you serious? Is this a real phone call?” I couldn’t believe it. I flew out to New York and recorded a bunch of songs with him. He happened to be at Def Jam, playing music [for an executive]. I was 12 at the time, turning 13. LA Reid happened to be walking down the hallway and heard my song. He’s like, “I want to fly her here tomorrow. I want to sign her.”
One of the coolest opportunities you’ve had is performing for President Barack Obama and his family at the White House Easter Egg Roll in 2008. How was it meeting the big man?
I will literally never forget that day. It was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had. I was maybe in 7th or 8th grade. I wasn’t obviously old enough to vote but when he got elected I was crying. I was young but old enough to realize what a great moment in history it was. To go there, I was so nervous. I met the family before I performed. They were so, so nice. Oh my God. The nicest people ever. He was so handsome and Michelle was so beautiful. Their kids were very nice. Even the Vice President; I became really cool with him. We talked for like an hour.
What the heck did you talk to Vice President Joe Biden about?
Listen! It was so funny [Laughs]. I didn’t realize who he was. It didn’t occur to me. We’re talking and he’s walking me around the White House, introducing me to his friends. He’s like, “This is my friend, Jessica. Where’s your Mom?” My mom is looking like, “I can’t believe who you’re talking to.” I ask, “Who?” She says, “That’s Joe Biden.” It hit me after the fact. It was really funny.
So on the topic of famous men, you collaborated and toured with Justin Bieber on his debut album. What was life on the road with a young Bieber?
That tour was literally so much fun. We pulled pranks on each other. We did a lot of crazy things. We would fill up water balloons and throw them after each other. We raced our Segways. It was probably the lamest thing to do but we were kids. That tour was amazing and it taught me so much. Me and Justin hadn’t been friends previously, but we got to spend a lot of time together on the tour and we became really cool.
Are you still friends? Is it weird seeing Justin transition from being a boy to a man?
I saw him a couple months ago and he was telling me about his new music and stuff like that. It’s crazy to seeing him mature but he’s like the same person to me. He’s the same person. He’s just a little older. He’s been that way since day one. That’s what I like about him. He hasn’t changed in too many ways in my opinion. I think he’s hilarious. He likes to pull pranks. He’s just gotten older. His new sound is amazing.
This year, you’re preparing to release your debut album, Goldblooded.
Goldblooded is my first album. I dropped an EP before but never an album, so I’m really excited. It’s everything I’ve wanted my album to be. I had planned on putting an album out when I was on Def Jam but I’m really happen that I didn’t, just because I feel like, the way this album sounds is what I would want my first shot. It’s sassy. It’s sexy. It’s fun. It’s relatable. I feel like everyone will really love it.
Who are you working with on the album?
I’ve been working with these guys [production collective] Red Jacket on the whole thing. We record out in Malibu. I love being on the beach. I see a lot of inspiration there. It’s peaceful. One of the guys I write songs with — his name is Tom Higgenson — he’s from the Plain White T’s. I didn’t know he writes urban music. Like, I met him and I was such a big fan as a songwriter already. I just always appreciate timeless songs. I feel like [Plain White T’s song “Hey There Delilah”] is just a timeless song. I met him like, “Dude. I’m like a black girl. I do urban songs. How’s this gonna work?” He’s like, “I got this.” All of the songs I’ve done, I feel are the best songs that I’ve done, which I’m happy about.
You just released your new single, “Gravity.” Where did the idea for the track come from?
When I created the song, the guys had already made that track and I was like, “Great. Turn the mic on. I’m just gonna sing my mind.” The whole first verse is a freestyle. It all just kind of came to me and then we wrote the rest of the song. I wanted something that was just fun. Women with a big butt, whatever butt you have, be proud of it. It’s great. Even with the video, I purposely wore pants and a sweater because I didn’t want it to be about showing my butt cheeks or what sexy outfit I was wearing. I wanted it to be about having fun. Just moving and having a good time.
Last year, there was controversy about whether twerking and music about booty-shaking is degrading to women. Singer Annie Lennox famously said, “Twerking is not feminism.” As a young woman, did you think about how coming out with a song like “Gravity” may be negatively received?
No. When I’m doing stuff, I kind of think of how it makes me feel. People have every right to their own opinion. I love that about art and music. The person who’s putting it out, if we love it we put it out. If anyone would say anything like that, I’d try to combat it by saying, the song is really just about having fun. We can be proud of our bodies. It doesn’t mean we need to display them every chance we get, which is the purpose of not being in my sexiest outfit [in the music video]. There’s definitely a time and place for [being your] sexiest self. I love being sexy. That’s what I love about being a woman.
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(Photo: Shane Lopes)