JoJo's old label used to own her voice, but now she's reclaimed it with new album "Good to Know"

The Grammy winner appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss her music evolution: "I no longer want to escape my reality"

Published May 29, 2020 6:56PM (EDT)

Jojo (Dennis Leupold/Warner Records)
Jojo (Dennis Leupold/Warner Records)

JoJo earned the distinction of becoming the youngest woman solo artist to score a No. 1 single on a Billboard chart at only 13 years old. An entire generation of angsty teens grew up singing her iconic break-up screeds "Leave (Get Out)" and "Too Little, Too Late" as they survived their turbulent teenage years and then life at college.

To no one's surprise, the Massachusetts native went on to become a Grammy Award winner. But — to borrow from the name of her acclaimed sophomore album — the road to winning a golden gramophone was not "The High Road." It fact, it was the long road.

Though JoJo continued to deliver album after album to her label, hundreds of recordings were never unreleased. Her record label ceased to function and lost its distribution, but it would not release her from her contract. The move put JoJo's entire career on hold because she had unknowingly signed away the rights to her own voice as a minor. 

After years of legal battles, JoJo eventually walked away without a settlement. But she had reclaimed her voice. True fans, of course, know that she never really left. JoJo wasn't allowed to profit off of recordings of her voice, but she found a loophole: She could release recording of new music for free. Those mixtapes, which include covers of Drake's "Marvin's Room" and the spiritual ballad "Glory," gained their own cult following. In the days before Spotify and Instagram were on everyone's phone, JoJo cultivated a community of fans who never gave up hope that she would one day win that Grammy . . . or two or three.

Set to launch a tour to promote the release of her second album since her career comeback, JoJo has had to put things on hold amid a pandemic. As it turns out, however, the title of her new record, "Good to Know," is a motto for the times. 

"My friend Thundercat put it way better than anybody: 'It is what it is. It's good to know,'" JoJo said in a recent interview with Salon. "You just say, 'OK, all we have is the present. And this is where we're at.'"

That cool temperament is a reflection of the woman we find on "Good to Know." No longer 13, JoJo has come full circle. She's made peace with her past, which in addition to her contractual battle, included struggles with substance abuse, the death of her father, and plenty of self-doubt. Today JoJo is a fearless and confident woman, who has grown into her artistry and adulthood, and finally knows what it means to live in the present. 

"I was embarrassed for where I was at in my life, even though I hated feeling like a victim of circumstance. I really felt so out of control that I leaned into that out-of-control-ness," she said in an interview with "Salon Talks." "Now, I'm at a place where I don't at all feel like that disempowered little girl. I feel like a woman who's in bloom, who can create and sustain a life that she loves and have relationships that she loves. I no longer want to escape my reality — that's the difference from the beginning of the album to the end and the music I make going forward."

Among her favorite songs on the new album is "Don't Talk Me Down," which offers a classic singer-piano moment.

"That song is finally deciding to get off of an on-again, off-again cycle with somebody. I accepted him telling me that we were meant to be together and that I was wrong for wanting to walk away. I questioned my own gut," JoJo tells Salon about the ballad. "And it was just kind of my final song to him be like, 'Please, you know how strong some of our connections are, please don't kiss me, please don't cry, please don't try to talk me down, because I don't want to do this again.'"

Now that she's back in control, there's no doubt another Grammy is on the horizon. When JoJo recently appeared on "Salon Talks," she opened about her struggle to regain her voice, both in terms of her instrument and her own self-doubt. She also went on a deep-dive of some of the new album's best lyrics. To learn the answers, you can watch my full interview with JoJo here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below.

You're just coming off of a Grammy Award win earlier this year. Congratulations. How does it feel?

It had so much meaning for me for so long, and I made a promise when I put out my first single when I was 13, I was like, "I don't want to go to the Grammys until I'm nominated." I didn't think it would take 15 years. I already had a No. 1 single at 13, so I was like, well obviously a Grammy will come shortly after that, but life never works out the way you think it's going to. I'm just really grateful to PJ Morton for having me on that song. I'm mad grateful and I think I wouldn't have appreciated it if it had come in the beginning of my career.

It was a long road to the Grammys. You knew since age six that you were going to be a star, your first single set a record for the youngest artist to have a No. 1 single at age 13, you followed that up with another hit album, but then something happened — something unexplainable. As you achieved so much success, you sort of had the ground ripped out right from under you when you were caught in your record contract. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

I signed a pretty standard contract when I was 12 years old — that's the part that's not standard. I'm from Massachusetts. I signed my deal when I was living in L. A.for like six months. I was doing commercials, theater and stuff like that. And then the record label moved to New Jersey, so the contract was ratified and there was like a guardian put on the case and they had to approve everything. The issue wasn't necessarily that the contract was so bad, it was that unfortunately I was just dealing with people who made business decisions that I fell victim to.

I delivered album after album. Nothing came out. I tried to make compromises, things like that, but at the end of the day there was a lot going on behind the scenes that was really confusing— fear tactics that were being put into play and it was really overwhelming. I had to make a decision as to whether I was going to try and go do something else, but it was very much like, you know, you're almost about to come and then you get blue balled. I felt like I was at the cusp of something. I was never comfortable with giving up my dream.

Bring us back to when you entered into that deal. You lived in Foxborough, Mass., where your mom cleaned houses and had a very humble upbringing. Then all of a sudden you're swept up by a label, your mom gets a new car and a great apartment to live in. You get this sense that the label is like family and they're there to take care of you, but then you were betrayed.

I certainly felt like these guys were, my father figures, my uncle figures, my big brothers. We were creating something that was very meaningful to me because I was 12 years old. The production company that I was assigned to was called Da Family and he made it because he was like, "We're a family. We're going to do this to the end of time." My perspective on what I'd be looking for from that type of production-label relationship is completely different today. You need to keep those things very separated. My mom managed me, did the best she could. She did a great job at reacting to things that were coming our way and making the best decisions for me as a whole person, like making my education a priority and making sure that I wasn't going to end up being a total a**hole. At the end of the day, we had no experience in this industry. It's not like we come from a family who would like to show us the ropes. We were just like, kind of baptism by fire.

One of the things that you mentioned in the past is that you signed a contract in New Jersey, but you were actually doing that because there were more relaxed child labor laws there.

That's what I've come to understand, but I don't know.

That label ultimately lost distribution. You continued to record hundreds of records, but none of that music was released. The label owned everything. It wasn't just your name. There have been other artists of course, like Lauryn Hill who've had to change their names with their record deals, but in this case, they actually owned your voice. And I just wanted to know what it feels like for someone to own your voice.

I actually didn't know that they owned my voice because I certainly wasn't reviewing my contract at 12 years old. I allowed the legal professional that were in my life to do that. We were just told how this was the best possible deal that I can get. I come from, as you said, a very humble beginning, and this was a great opportunity for me and for most people.

When I realized that, I'm like, OK. So I can't just change my name cause I don't give a f**k about my name. Like I don't care what you call me, you know? I was getting advice from one lawyer telling me I should file bankruptcy but I'm saying "I'm not bankrupt," and they're saying, "No, do this little trick because that's what rich people do." I'm, like, well, I don't do that. That's not where I come from. We don't just file bankruptcy when you're not bankrupt. It was just so confusing. It's like, "You've done nothing with me, how can you control my voice?" It's just hard to make sense of.

You found a loophole in the contract where you could continue to release music, you just couldn't make a profit off of it. That's when your mixtapes came out and you started touring because you could tour and make money off of that. I personally love your version of "Marvin's Room," so shout out to that. What was that process like for you?

I just looked at what people in hip hop were doing and I was like, "Why can't I do that? Can I do that?" When I started putting out mix apes in 2009 when I was 18, nobody was really doing that in pop music, I guess because pop and profit are normally linked. My objective here is just to be creative and to feel like I'm still a part of what I have been a part of my whole teenage life and to continue on the path of my career and continue developing that relationship with my fans. That made me feel more empowered and probably kept me alive, not just figuratively, but literally.

There is a documentary about you that came out recently. In the film, you said that people actually thought that you died. The fact is, you never left and have been releasing music the whole time.

Yeah, people are just so rude. Even Drake, who has been one of the most highly charted, game-changing artists of the past decade, even when he has some line in a song where it's like "people acted like I died." What can you do? You just stay on your path. It's not my responsibility to like smack everybody in the face and be like, "I'm here!"

You have very loyal and dedicated fan base. During that time #FreeJoJo was trending. I was tweeting it. You've really cultivated that relationship with fans.

It's very easy for me because I love people and my fans are really cool people. They're really caring and they love music. That's been advantageous to me because they have brought that curiosity and shared with other people because maybe people didn't know what was going on with me. My fans are very vocal, they're passionate, and those are traits that I have too, so I feel like it's just an easy relationship.

You were able to eventually get out of that contract, but one of the things that happened is that your music was stripped from iTunes. You actually pioneered something that a lot of folks in the industry are talking about right now. You took your own money and re-recorded your albums. How did you come up with that idea? And secondly, how does it make you feel to see other artists following in your footsteps? Taylor Swift, for example, is talking about doing the same thing. Are we seeing a shift in the industry to give artists more rights?

I see people talking to the internet saying "Artists should own their masters 100%." But when you are signing a deal, especially when you come from nothing and you don't have your own money yet, you don't have the leverage to ask for that. The label's just going to put up millions of dollars for nothing? They need they need ownership. It's a business.

I re-recorded my first two albums out of what felt like necessity to me because I saw my history being totally erased. The catalog of an artist like Aaliyah, who was also on my former label, isn't available on streaming services either and she's not able to do anything. She's not here to protect her legacy and that breaks my heart. It's really, really sad. I just wanted to come up with a creative solution if it was possible. I realized that if I redid everything and created a new master, meaning nothing from the original song, like yes, lyrics, melody, all that could be the same. The run would be same, backgrounds, but they all need to be newly recorded. Then as close as I can get it to the original I could legally do that, like coving my own stuff basically. I wanted to give my fans what they deserve, which is to like have the opportunity to be nostalgic with the music they want to listen to.

You asked about how I feel that other artists have talked about doing it. I think that's really cool. I think that every case is unique and it'll be also interesting to see if people actually end up doing it because it's one thing to say, "I'm going to do this." It's another thing to actually do it.

And again, it's not just that I'm obsessed with my own material. Actually, I don't enjoy looking back and being revisionist, but I couldn't stand by and like look at these comments of like, "Why did you take your first album off streaming?" I'm like, I had nothing to do with that. Here's my solution.

When you came back, you recorded "Tringle," and then "Mad Love." Both had rave reviews and you toured a lot with that album. One of my favorite songs from that album is "Music," which is about your dad, who passed away. I've also lost my mom, so I know it's hard. One thing I love about "Music" is that it exposes some tough secrets, but it's also about love, and love isn't perfect. How did you put pen to paper for that song?

Thanks for that question. I'm sorry that we are both a part of this club, losing our parents too soon. It just sucks, period, and I don't know that it's going to get easier. That song would not have come forward if it weren't for Justin Tranter and Katie Warner who I created it with. I was just in such a raw place and Justin is such that gentle creative and collaborator and he just really felt me that day and was like, would you be open to kind of writing about what we're talking about right now. I was like, "Yeah, I would love to do that today." Sometimes you need a little help from friends.

One of my favorite lyrics in that song is, "Tell me who would I be without you?" It speaks to the profound impact that one person can have on your life.

Oh my God, it's so true. It applied in so many different ways because like yes I would, we were writing about my father and my family, but also it was about how music has been the most consistent love of my life.

When I was performing it on tour, it took on a whole new meaning when I looked into the eyes of fans and we were saying to each other and that is such an honest exchange too, like, "Who would I be without you if y'all didn't stick by me and support me?" I would be singing at a cafe if it weren't for my fans.

Your dad had issues with substance abuse, and you recently opened up about the same thing. Your manager said that you were a shell of yourself and very depressed. You said, "I should be dead." How did you get back on track?

There wasn't really like a rock bottom. I just wasn't happy with myself. I wanted to stop feeling like a victim. I wanted to take more control of my reality and I felt like by overdoing things, by drinking to excess or drinking to escape or experimenting with substances, I didn't like the way I felt the next morning. I didn't like the decisions I made. I didn't like the people I'd make out with.

I was like, "What are you doing?" I just had to take a cold, hard look at myself. I'm thankful that my mom has had her own experiences that she's been a great person walking by my side through it and us healing together. I have been consistent with a therapist for the past few years, lots of journaling and even people in my creative life, like Lido and Doc McKinney who I worked with on this album. I would read them journal entries from years ago and they'd tell me nobody's judgmental of themselves or other people.

Sometimes you need someone to hold a mirror to you, to then be like, "Maybe this is something I need to soften. Maybe not everything is the end of the world. Maybe I need to find a new way to feel good other than a chemical substance." Maybe I need to explore the chemicals that my own body makes, through yoga and meditation and breathing and vigorous exercise, all these different things. I just got curious about how I could take control of the way I felt.

Mental health is something we need to talk about more, so thank you for that.

And there's no one right way to do it. You've got to nurture yourself and re-parent yourself in some ways. We all probably were deficient in certain things growing up. love this quote that it's not your responsibility for what happened to you, but it's your responsibility for processing it and dealing with it today. I've been on antidepressants for a long time. I still am. This is not something that goes away in an instant. I just want to encourage you to find what works for you— whoever is listening.

I've never spoken about it before, but I've had similar substance abuse issues. A lot of therapy helped, getting on some medication helped. Your first single from the new album, called "Man," is out right now. It exudes confidence, from your vocals down to the choreography in the music video.

From all accounts that I've heard, our 20s are weird. They're painful. Now that I'm at the end of my 20s, I'm just a lot more comfortable and confident with being who I am. I am made up of all my faults, all my experiences, my fluctuations and like it's all good. It's a place of acceptance.

I think with the song "I Am," I was just really trying to act as if I'll fake it till I make it and affirm those things. Sometimes we have to physically write those things down and look at them and have a mantra. There is a lot of power in the tongue. I wanted to say those things because for so long, my self-talk was so negative. Now I'm reaping a little bit of the benefit of the work that I've been doing for the past few years on myself. I still need a lot of work on how to sustain a loving, healthy relationship with a romantic partner, but my relationship with myself is the best of it.

This album is one of your most personal. It's called "Good to Know." With this album and this title, you're taking into account everything you've learned over the past few years, every piece of feedback and criticism, as you say, it's all just information. What does that mean to you?

My friend Thundercat put it way better than anybody: "It is what it is. It's good to know." You just say, OK, all we have is the present and this is where we're at.

I just got a notice that your New York concert is hopefully rescheduled for November, so fans will get a chance to see you on tour by the end of this year.

I'm so anxious to get back.

While you are in quarantine, you remixed "Leave" as a PSA on staying home. And you're spending time with your mom. Do you normally live together or is she quarantining with you?

She just moved out from Boston to L.A. like six months ago, so the timing of it is pretty crazy. She was staying with me until she got on our feet, but now she's kind of here indefinitely because she's not able to work. I'm really grateful though that we're not alone.

With this album, you have come full circle — owning your career and owning your voice.

I was embarrassed for where I was at in my life, even though I hated feeling like a victim of circumstance. I really felt so out of control that I leaned into that out-of-control-ness. Now I'm at a place where I don't at all feel like that disempowered little girl. I feel like a woman who's in bloom, who can create and sustain a life that she loves and have relationships that she loves. I no longer want to escape my reality — that's the difference from the beginning of the album to the end and the music I make going forward.

Speaking of not being a girl anymore and being a woman, one of the songs I love on the album is "Comeback," I love the line when you talked about running into someone who's from your past and it's not even the words that matter necessarily, but as you say, my body knows you. This song is about sex, quite different from the "Leave (Get Out)" days. What is it like to be able to talk about these subjects now?

It feels very natural. Sex has been a really defining part of my life actually as a woman, and I've used it as, you know, as a distraction, a divine experience, a way to bond toxically, and I've used it to express love. During the making of this album, I was abstinent. This song "Comeback" was about fantasizing about if I were to have any experience with the person again that I wrote a lot of the album about. I was processing a lot of feelings of shame and guilt because I had betrayed his trust. It was kind of like fantasizing about how tense that would be, you know, to get that person on the other side.

Did abstinence help your creative process?

Yeah. I am no expert about the chakras or the energy centers in the body, but from what I understand our sexuality and our creativity exist in the same energy center. I think it's represented by orange, so that's why there's this theme of glowing orange on the album. I wanted to keep all that to myself.

In "Small Things," you write that you are really good at holding in all your emotions and all your feelings, but that the more you fight them, the bigger they seem. Especially in talking about losing a parent, I feel like it's easy to just say "Oh yeah, I feel great," but you see something that triggers a memory and it can totally derail you.

Yeah, you're totally right. When I listen to the song now, although it was about a romantic relationship, the only thing that makes it explicitly that is a line in the bridge, but when I sit back and think it really can be about someone who is no longer in your life in the way that you're used to. It's about those emotional landmines where you feel like you're fine if you pushed your feelings down or you compartmentalize that, but then you trip over one of these landmines and then you're not okay.

Do you have a favorite song from this album?

I like the ones you asked about, but "Don't Talk Me Down" is one of my favorite ballads that I've written. And I love a good ballad. I didn't want the album to be full of them, but I wanted to have a classic singer-piano moment. That song is finally deciding to get off of an on-again, off-again cycle with somebody. I accepted him telling me that we were meant to be together and that I was wrong for wanting to walk away. I questioned my own gut. And it was just kind of my final song to him to be like, please, you know how strong some of our connections are, please don't kiss me, please don't cry, please don't try to talk me down because I don't want to do this again.

Last thing, is it true that part of your new contract says you can continually release music, instead of waiting for the next album?

Yeah, and it's just a different time in music. I really want to release things in a non-traditional way. I love that we just don't have to follow the same rules that were applicable years ago. I'm going to continue to change the times change and my label knows how much I want to just stay consistent and put things out and continue to grow.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

By Joseph Neese

Joseph Neese is Executive Editor of Salon. You can follow him on Twitter: @josephneese.

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