If You Want To Know Where JoJo Went, See Where She’s Going

Photo: Courtesy of Doug Krantz.
A typical seventh grader is concerned with mastering fractions and how to smile with braces. Joanna Levesque, better known as JoJo, however, was busy promoting her No. 1 song, “Leave (Get Out).” At 13 years old, the singer was the youngest female solo artist to clinch the top Pop Chart spot in 2004. You’ve probably heard the classic song — if not, maybe her follow-up single “Baby, It’s You,” with its carnival-set music video and lively performance on Teen Nick’s All That. Maybe “Too Little Too Late” rings a bell, from her second album in 2006? That song and its rain-soaked visual made it even further to the No.3 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. After that, you might have lost track of JoJo — and there’s a reason. 
With those first two early hit albums, JoJo and The High Road, it seemed as if JoJo and her dulcet R&B vocals had nowhere to go but up. The Foxborough, MA native was ready to release her third album before her 18th birthday, but her label, Blackground Records, with which she signed a seven-album contract when she was only 12, lost their distribution deal through Interscope. That meant that though she continued to make music, she couldn’t officially release it.  She was essentially held captive for seven years before finally legally finding a way to break free, and didn’t release any new albums for a decade.
It’s hard not to feel for JoJo. She has traveled a long, arduous road. But the voice that comes on the other side of the line when Refinery29 speaks to the singer on a recent August afternoon isn’t one of a person embittered by the hand she was dealt. On the contrary — it’s light, washing over you like a warm bath. It’s confident and thoughtful. It’s the tone of someone in charge of her own life. 
“I'm definitely not somebody to feel bad for,” JoJo says definitively. “I'm definitely a story of grit and resilience and perseverance. That's what defines me.”
JoJo, now 29, has her own label imprint, Clover Music, under Warner Music Group. Because she still doesn’t own her original masters and they’re not available on Spotify, she re-recorded versions of her first two albums, and came out with a fourth in May of this year, titled good to know, which topped the R&B Albums chart in its first week. There are moments within its nine tracks that harken a sense of her claustrophobic past, but good to know also brims with introspection, heartbreak, love, sex, and power. And now she’s released a deluxe version of the album, which features five new songs including features with Demi Lovato and Tinashe. 
There’s a song on the album called “Proud,” which begins with a voice note from JoJo’s mother Diana Levesque, who raised her on her own after divorcing the singer’s late father and even managed her for a time. “You have to live in the present, Jo,” her mother says. “The thing that gets you in trouble and gets you thinking negatively and depressed is living in the past and thinking about the past — the more you dwell on it, the worse you feel. All we have is the present.” The focus of JoJo’s story for so long has been on what she’s been through. But now, JoJo, unbound, is running towards all that she has yet to do. And she's ready for the world to join her.
Refinery29: Why did Demi Lovato and Tinashe feel like the right fits for the deluxe version of good to know?
JoJo: “There's so much dopeness coming out from female creatives right now, and I think these women make these songs even better. Demi and I have known each other from growing up in the industry for a long time, and we’ve always been cool and always had respect and love for each other. She had been really sweet about my album, and talking about how she was digging it. It happened through a really easy conversation. It was really moving for me to hear her singing these lyrics that I wrote and that were personal to me, and really exciting to hear the way that she freaked it. 
“I really became a big fan of [Tinashe] with Songs for You. I just banged that album so hard. I was tweeting and Instagram story-ing myself dancing to her stuff — on the pole, too. We developed a cute internet friendship. Then when we saw each other in person, I invited her to be a part of my video for “Man” and then this song. I think she's amazing.”
Your journey thus far — the highs and the lows — seems to in many ways have been pretty isolating. So it must be nice to share some of your space with some of your peers.
“Yes. I'm an only child and I'm used to moving solitarily, but that doesn't mean that I want to. I really love people. I love collaboration. Because I've been in the game so long, and because I've had so many starts and stops, I feel that some people are apprehensive or not sure how to take me sometimes.”
What do you mean by that? Why do you think people are apprehensive?
[Long pause] I don't know. It's really not my business what people... I really don't know.”
You've been very forthcoming about the difficulties you’ve had to overcome in your career and personal life. In hearing your story, many people empathize with you and I’m sure it's hard for people not to feel sorry for you.
I'm definitely not somebody to feel bad for. I'm definitely a story of grit and resilience and perseverance. I think that's what defines me. More of what I was speaking to before is a general sense of fakeness in the industry — that people say that they want to do something but don't do it.”

I just became so laser focused on not becoming another victim. I didn't want to be a casualty of the music industry.

You mentioned resilience, and that is what strikes me the most about you. It’s wild that you were dealing with all those things at 13 — many people still have trouble even dressing themselves at that age.
“Oh God, so was I. I had a stylist — I didn't know what I was doing.”
You fought a battle to be able to release music for nearly a decade, and a lot of people would’ve probably given up. When you look back on that time, what is the thing that really gave you hope or the momentum to keep moving forward?
“I kind of disagree. I think that the human spirit is really resilient at the core, and I think that a lot of people are stronger than they think they are. When people are like, ‘I think so many people would have given up,’ I'm like, and done what? If you were really in my situation, coming from the family that I come from, from where I come from, there's no giving up. There's nothing to fall back on. This is it. I just became so laser focused on not becoming another victim. I didn't want to be a casualty of the music industry.
“I'm an artist. I love music. What kept me going was getting back to that love, and getting back to that connection. My favorite thing in life is connection — whether it's one on one, or with an audience. That energetic exchange is amazing. Being able to perform live, even while I was going through a lot of stuff, was really instrumental in giving me my confidence back and reminding me of my purpose, which I do believe is to sing and connect and share music and bring people together.”
At least the good thing about music now is you can release it remotely.
“Knowing that people are listening to this body of work, having their own experiences with it, and taking it in during this time is pretty amazing because you'll never forget what you were listening to in 2020, ever. It’s pretty cool to be a part of people's journey through this time, because this album is very much about wanting to escape and not being able to, and then having to deal with yourself, and getting introspective. I think a lot of people are doing that, whether they want to or not.”
This topic of musicians, especially female musicians, owning their own work and taking back power is becoming more publicly discussed. What advice would you give to a young woman starting her career now?
“There's no better time than right now to carve your own path. Look at the way people you respect have moved and maybe be cognizant of it, but don't follow exactly in their footsteps. What works for one person is not going to work for the next. Develop everything about you that is unique, don't be afraid, and use the tools that are right at your fingertips. Make sure that you develop your social media presence. Give great content to your audience, however big or small, consistently, and you won’t need a label. If you want to go that route, you can. I have a partnership with Warner. But there's no ‘one’ way. It's an exciting time to be a woman in music.
“Of course, protect yourself, be knowledgeable, make sure that your team — meaning the people around you — is solid. The reason I'm stressing the importance of giving to your fan base is because you want to have as much leverage as possible, that if you do want to get into a contract with some entity, that you are so solid in what you already have, and you also know your worth and your value to your fans. Also develop your craft: Put in your 10,000 hours. I really still believe that hard work and perseverance are essential.”
You re-recorded your first two albums — something that a number of other people with similar legal battles with their former labels have contemplated doing, including Taylor Swift. Do you think she should do it? 
“She is so brilliant as an artist and as a songwriter, and just a force across the board. Whatever she does will be the right move for her, period. I love that she has shined a light on this really important issue of ownership and power, and gender equality in the industry. Because of her star power, I think that this is really finally being seriously discussed publicly. For me, I rerecorded my first two albums because they just weren't available on streaming services at all. I felt like my history was being erased. But that also was something that I didn't really have a reference point for because the situation was pretty unique. So I'm really glad that I did that.”
Your re-releases stay true to the original recordings.
“I didn't want to make a remix album. My fans wanted to hear the songs the way they remember them, so I did try to make them as similar as possible — also keeping in mind that I'm a grown-ass woman and I have a different voice than I did when I was going through puberty. I was tired of seeing people online asking ‘why did you take your albums down?’ I didn't. They were never there. I don't know what to tell you, I don't own them. So really, that's a thing that you don't think about when you're 12 years old getting into a contract.”
The deluxe version of the album features the track “Proud,” which you’ve said is about your mom. What does that song mean to you?
“That's probably one of my favorites. It started as a freestyle. And I was just thinking about everything that my mom has been through in her life, the adversity that she's faced, the lows that she's overcome, and the woman that she is today, and the arc of our relationship and how I'm just so thankful for how we've developed. She inspires me. And that's what the song is about.”
What was your mom's reaction when she heard the song?
“She just started bawling. She just could not stop crying.”
Besides prepping for the deluxe release, what's been keeping you sane and happy these days?
“Cooking has been keeping me sane. It's been another creative expression for me. I've gotten really passionate about plant-based cooking, as well as baking and mixology. I started a little side Instagram page called JoJo's Sweet Spots. I also am working on a Christmas project, and writing some original songs for that, and starting to imagine and dream about the next album.
“I'm spending more time dreaming. For a long time, I didn't allow myself to dream because it was too painful — because I felt like it wasn't possible. But now, even with everything going on in the world, I just believe in possibilities.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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