Jessie Reyez On Her Very, Very Good Year
Three years after her big break, the Canadian singer-songwriter is entering the next phase of her career as R&B’s introspective rebel.
Our second-annual 29 Powerhouses ranking is a celebration of Canadians who changed the game in 2019. One of them Jessie Reyez, whom senior writer Kathleen Newman-Bremang sat down with in November just before Reyez was nominated for her first Grammy.
In the fateful moments before Jessie Reyez sustained a career-pausing injury last June, everything went wrong. “It was like Final Destination,” she says, referencing the early-2000s horror franchise in which death chases a bunch of people, and after many near-misses, they all die. Reyez, curled up on a couch in the basement of a Toronto photo studio, is recalling the day she suffered a herniated disc that threw off her scheduled summer of gigs and led to months of physical and emotional turmoil for the 28-year-old Toronto native.
The first Final Destination sign: Her guitar was damaged at an airport in Delaware. That night, she tweaked a nerve at her concert during a routine backbend (one of her go-to moves), then she missed a step going down a set of stairs and bashed her knee on a metal barricade. Finally, security wasn’t informed she’d be crowd-surfing, so when she leapt into a sea of fans, a guard grabbed her leg mid-air and her back “got fucked up.” “We had to cancel so many shows; we had to cancel the Europe run. I was so upset,” says Reyez, her signature deep, gravelly voice shakes at the memory. “We had to reschedule this, and I didn’t think they were going to bring me back. I thought it was over.”
The “this” Reyez is referring to is the Apple Music photo shoot we’re on set of: She’s its “Up Next” feature artist of the month, a rising industry star handpicked by the music streaming giant’s editorial team. The title has also been bestowed on Gen Z pop darlings Billie Eilish and Khalid, fellow Canadian and collaborator Daniel Caesar, hip-hop’s hot girl of the moment Megan Thee Stallion, and chart-topper Bad Bunny, to name a few. These artists are spotlighted and promoted to a global audience. "For me to get recognized by a music company like Apple, it means more work and less sleep, but it also means I am closer to my goals,” Reyez says, dressed casually in an orange tank top with an oversized plaid shirt hung loosely over her shoulders. “It’s an affirmation that people have resonated with my music.”
It's been just three years since Reyez's breakout hit “Figures” — a guitar-driven, harrowing tale of heartbreak masquerading as a bluesy pop R&B record — dropped on Apple's radio station Beats 1; it was premiered by host Zane Lowe. Since then, she’s performed at the BET Awards and won two JUNOs (including Breakthrough Artist in 2018). She’s worked with her idol Eminem, hitmaker Calvin Harris, and was featured on Beyoncé’s The Lion King: The Gift album earlier this year. She’s released two critically lauded EPs (Kiddo in 2017 and Being Human In Public in 2018), and her first studio-length album is coming early next year. “I think now, Jessie knows her ability and what she’s capable of. It’s been a real joy for us to watch her find her audience without compromising her identity,” says Lowe. "I've seen her confidence grow."
During the photoshoot, that confidence is on full display. In a cropped long-sleeved tee and matching black low-rise baggy basketball shorts, her long, dark-brown waves pulled up into a messy half bun, she’s serving levels and lewks — dropping into a squat or waving her arms high and rhythmically while Bob Marley’s “Jammin” plays in the background. Reyez moves like a veteran, as if she’s been practising for this moment her whole life.
Born in Toronto to Colombian parents, Reyez says her house was full of Latin music. Her mom caught her glued to the television attempting to imitate Italian opera singer Luciano Pavarotti at age three, but Reyez doesn’t remember that. Her first memory of music involves another injury. “I remember fucking up my finger in the elevator in our apartment one day,” she laughs. “I had to go to a [piano] recital and I did the recital anyway.” The recital took place at a music school in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighborhood that Reyez’s mother "begged" to accept her daughter even though it was against their policy to work with students so young. From there, songwriting became a refuge for Reyez. She’d “run to poetry” during the requisite woes of teenagerhood, she says, like getting her heart broken for the first time at age 16.
That heartbreak changed her relationship with her parents for the better. Now Reyez’s mom and dad tour with her and are her “best friends.” “Prior to [the breakup], I was an asshole,” Reyez says, getting emotional. “I was always running away from home and hating my parents. I’d be like, ‘why can’t I sleep over like the other kids? Why can’t I have the Phat Farm [clothes] like the other kids?’” She pauses to wipe the tears now streaming down her cheeks. “Meanwhile, my dad is working overtime, while my mom is babysitting kids from 6 in the morning until 8 at night and then cleaning houses. After the breakup, I looked up and [my parents] were the only people still standing there. That shit changed everything.”
As Reyez talks about how her parents helped her get over heartbreak despite working multiple jobs and raising three kids in a new country, I think of the dueling narratives of her latest single, “Far Away,” which was released in October. It’s a quiet love song about a long-distance relationship but it’s also a striking message about immigration. She sings, “You're still a world away/ And you're still waitin' for your papers/ Been feelin' like the government wants us to break up.” The music video juxtaposes a couple falling in love with the reality of losing a loved one to deportation. It’s not subtle. There are flashbacks of someone getting detained by U.S. immigration officials while images of Donald Trump and his border wall flash alongside a scene of Reyez and her leading man embracing in a cage.
“I just wanted to take the opportunity to say, ‘I see you.’ I see the little girls crying for their parents in cages and in them, I see me,” Reyez says of the video. “Maybe it’s just easier for me to feel empathy and anger for those families because that could have easily been me. That kid looks just like me when I was a kid. Same colour, same hair, same everything.”
“I just wanted to take the opportunity to say, ‘I see you.’ I see the little girls crying for their parents in cages and in them, I see me."
It’s not the first time Reyez has used her personal connection to a ripped-from-the-headlines issue as inspiration for her songwriting. She was one of the first artists to bring the #MeToo movement to the music industry. In 2017, she released “Gatekeeper,” about the alleged sexual misconduct of music producer Noel “Detail” Fisher, who was accused of rape and sexual misconduct by multiple other women. (In September, one of his accusers won a $15-million USD lawsuit against him.)
With “Gatekeeper” and “Far Away,” Reyez has emerged as an outspoken feminist voice for women of colour in a pop landscape that is still overwhelmingly white, but she balks at the notion she has a responsibility to be socially conscious in her music because of her gender or her race. “If I feel it, I say it,” Reyez says simply. “If I broke my knee today, I would sing about breaking my knee tomorrow. If I got hit by a car on Tuesday, I would sing about getting hit by a car on Wednesday. I don’t sit there and think, ‘I want to talk about a social issue’ or anything like that. I love women. I’m a woman. I guess I’m a feminist.”
For her upcoming debut album, she explores her favourite topic: death. “Death has a negative connotation and love has this happy aroma around it, right?” she gets excited and leans forward. “Well, I make death beautiful and I make love fucking dark.” Reyez launches into a lengthy explanation of the album’s themes in regards to both: “In the best-case scenario, you find the love of your life and you guys get married and you last 80 years.” Reyez pauses. “Then, one of you dies. No matter what.”
Reyez’s dark fascination with death is almost as strong as her ambition. She tells me about the time in 2018 when Jay-Z booked her for his annual Made In America festival. Backstage, the hip-hop mogul asked Reyez how she was feeling, and she replied, “I’m hungry.” When he offered her something to eat, she responded, “No, I’m hungry for life."
Retelling this moment is the most Reyez laughs all day. She was mortified. For her, it’s an anecdote about an introverted kid embarrassed by her candour in front of one of the biggest stars in the world. To me, the story is a telling glimpse into Reyez’s drive. She is starving for more — in her career and in life — and currently, she’s not being shy about it.