When I ask Jorja Smith if there’s anything she would’ve done differently on her musical journey so far, a clear, decisive "no" glides from her mouth before I can finish the word "differently". She wasn’t remotely blunt – if you’ve caught one of Smith’s shows you’ll know that she’s softly spoken and one of the most pleasant people to watch on stage. But with that telling "no" I’m reminded that this young woman knows exactly where she is, why she’s here and how she managed to do it. I know; I’d kill for that level of life-orienting self-assurance too.
"I guess there’s always the 'what if'," she adds thoughtfully, "but no. I love how everything’s gone and I’ve learned. I don’t think anything’s really [a] mistake, you just learn. It’s all lessons."
We’re sharing a sofa backstage in her dressing room and Smith is sipping a mug of hot water with slices of fresh lemon bobbing at the rim. Classic, I think smugly, although not quite able to put my finger on why I’m so weirdly satisfied to see Smith partaking in this sensible post-show ritual that I imagine the other great vocalists of our time do, too. As she jumps up to hug someone goodbye and thank them for all their help today, the mug falls and hot water spills over her phone. I make a lunge for it and awkwardly try to dry it on my leg and a nearby blanket, panicking about having just witnessed the tragic demise of a millennial superstar's most sacred possession. Smith shrugs, smiles and reminds me that iPhones are waterproof now as she settles back into her position on the sofa. I pretend to be as balanced and chill as she so effortlessly is, and jump back into our interview.
I’ve been writing for so long, I’ve been working hard on everything; I take my time
It’s undeniable that Smith now sits comfortably within that bracket of "great vocalists of our time". In the last couple of years we’ve seen her collaborate with the likes of Drake and Stormzy, join Bruno Mars on tour, win a BRIT award and release her highly anticipated debut album Lost and Found. From the outside looking in, her upward trajectory appears immense and relatively sudden, but that's not quite the case. "I’ve been writing for so long, I’ve been working hard on everything; I take my time," she explains.
The resulting album, released in June, has been incredibly well received, of course. And it's not just fans and critics who are excited about it. "I love it. I really, really love it," Smith beams. "I think it feels how it’s supposed to feel and I feel very good about it." Needless to say, she should. Performing a modest set earlier in the evening at Nike's secret The Force Is Female event, the crowd didn’t miss a beat as they sang her lyrics back to her. There’s nothing but pure joy in Smith’s wide eyes and even bigger smile as she tells me how amazingly strange it feels. "This is the first time after my album, having the tour and everyone’s singing the lyrics. They already know the songs!" As a fan, my first thought is well yeah, obviously, but clearly it comes as a bit of a surprise to the 21-year-old singer. "Every time I’m just like, 'What the fuck?!'" She politely apologizes for swearing, to which I assure her that it’s totally fucking fine, and adds: "It’s so crazy that there’s all these young girls and boys singing back to me. It does feel really weird, the fact that these lyrics are touching them."
Smith’s awareness of how significantly her influence has grown in the wider sense is a different thing, though, and something she’s not too keen to follow as actively. "I don’t really pay attention, I think if I did then I would lose my mind." It must be scary to acknowledge that there are so many young women to whom you already mean the world, I offer. "I know, and I’m just like 'What?!'" she laughs. "But then they realize that I’m just normal and shy as well."
When I ask if she's met many of her fans, she admits that she's yet to chat directly to very many of them. "Sometimes, after shows sometimes," she says before adding, purposefully: "I like singing on stage and writing albums and writing songs and giving that to them. Sometimes things get too much. Sometimes I just want to be by myself and like, I can’t meet everybody, you know? So, I write my songs and that’s for them."
She used to get sucked into the pressure of social media when she was younger, she says, but now: "I don’t care. It’s not real." I can’t help but think that her careful distance from the madness that comes with rising stardom is really damn smart. From this perspective, it gives more weight to the significance of things like the mentoring scheme she’s been fronting recently. The Nike-backed initiative saw some of Smith’s friends, who are stylists, product designers and photographers (to name a few), mentor young women aspiring to do similar things in creative industries. I’m sure none of us needs reminding that, as a young woman making her way in the big bad world, it’s really difficult to see the heights you can reach when there aren't any women visibly walking the path ahead of you. "But if you’ve already got another young woman in front of you," Smith says, before pausing to rephrase. "It’s not even about being in front, it’s just doing what maybe you’re looking to do […] then you feel like you can do it."
I know how things look online and things can look perfect and I’m doing this and that, but I’ve still got to deal with stuff that we all deal with.
It would be silly not to ask how things feel for Smith in the music industry right now. We're slowly seeing more young female solo artists come up and their progress feels more welcome than it did some years ago, when there could only be one type of girl with one type of look, singing one type of song. Does it feel as supportive on the inside as we’d hope? "Definitely now. I’m meeting people in the industry and making friends. I always remember Adwoa [Aboah]. I became friends with her and she’s so very positive and I really love her. It’s just nice meeting other women who are going through things but working on themselves, on their talent, just doing what they want."
She may come across as nothing but poised, elegant, cool and completely in control, but it’s equally as important for fans to know that it’s not always as it seems. "I’ve got my issues, you know? And I know how things look online and things can look perfect and I’m doing this and that, but I’ve still got to deal with stuff that we all deal with. I’ve had my own problems growing up – not feeling I fit in, not wanting to be myself and you’ve got to be you."
From where I'm sat, it looks like she's nailed it. Smith is sincere, talented and thankfully feels no need to be modest about how hard she's had to work to reach this point in her career. When people think of her, she hopes their first thought is that she's honest. "And nice," she adds, which catches me by surprise. As we wrap up our chat and I pop my coat on to leave, Smith jumps up to give me a goodbye hug and a thank you, too. And while I leave the dressing room mumbling variations of thanks, congratulations and "I hope your phone's okay", all I'm able to consider is that yeah, fair play. Jorja Smith may well be the nicest person I've ever met.