For our "12 Days of Christmas" interviews, we speak with JoJo to discuss just how far she's come since her initial rise to fame in the early 2000s.
Joanna Noëlle Levesque, better known as R&B vocalist JoJo, has spent the last few months making her long-awaited return into the spotlight. When she was just a young teenager, the Boston native found herself thrust into fame thanks to hits like “Leave (Get Out),” and “Too Little Too Late”-- songs that still give you the same feeling today as they did back in 2004 and 2006. After a tumultuous few years fighting with the industry for her right to release music, we’re happy to announce that JoJo is definitely back.
On October 1st, the 30-year-old dropped off trying not to think about it, a 12-track project that sees her confront her anxiety and other inner demons head-on. Titles like “World of Sunshine *intro*” and “Fresh New Sheets” have a pleasant overtone to them, but the songstress admits that deep down, she was feeling anything but happy when she started the recording process.
Image provided by artist. Photo credit: Alfredo Flores
Thankfully, things seem to have done a complete 180 for JoJo since then. Following the EP’s release, she headed out on a mini-tour that began in her hometown, and is set to hit the road again to reconnect with her fans in North America and the U.K. in the new year. She’s feeling older, wiser, and more mature than ever before, and her newfound confidence clearly comes through not only in her music but in her persona as a whole.
For the latest edition of HNHH’s 12 Days of Christmas interview series, we chatted with the Aquamarine actress about her return to the industry, the beautiful R&B renaissance that’s been happening as of late, coping with tough mental health struggles, the life-changing impacts of therapy, advice for up and coming stars, and artists using platforms like TikTok to promote their music.
HNHH: Let's start with something recent. The AMA's last night— first of all, I loved your outfit. Did you have some sort of vision or inspiration in mind, or did you just want to make a bold statement?
JoJo: Honestly, I had seen these dresses with cutouts in the hips, and I was like, “Ooh, that's so sexy.” I had tagged a few of them and saved them for inspiration, so when me and my stylist were talking about a look for the AMAs she was like, “Would you be interested in doing something custom?” I'm like, “Yeah, that sounds awesome.” So we went to that designer Usama Ishtay. I had seen the short dresses, and he made me a full-length version of it. I wanted to make a statement. I wanted it to be sparkly and feel glamorous, but have a little bit of exotic dancer woven into it, hence the cutouts and it being a little bit revealing for me.
JoJo on the red carpet at the 2021 AMAs - Amy Sussman/Getty Images
Was that the same stylist that did your tour?
She did an awesome job. I loved all the looks from that.
Oh, thank you. Yeah, I love working with her.
The AMAs in general—how was it being back on the red carpet?
It was my first red carpet since the pandemic, so it was really amazing to be out and seeing people, and the energy was great. I had such a good time. It felt really, really nice. I went with one of my good friends, and one of the people who’s on my team, Ronaldo, and we just fangirled at New Kids on the Block and New Edition. I became a Olivia Rodrigo stan last night. [Laughs] Things are looking good. It was fun.
That's understandable. She's very easy to stan.
She's so bomb.
Going to the opposite end of things, back to your childhood. You've talked about growing up with a single parent in Boston, how do you think that impacted you?
I think that [it] impacted me and my mom's relationship and the fact that we really leaned on each other for a lot of support. Being an only child and also growing up in a single-parent home makes you more mature, maybe grow up a little faster. [You] also learn how to entertain yourself, because you're going to be alone a lot. I would say that it definitely shaped me and the adult that I am today.
Your first time performing in years was in Boston. What was it like to be back on stage there?
It was exhilarating, especially knowing that my family was in the audience and that a lot of fans who have been ride-or-die for me since day one were there, and there's nothing like a hometown show. I don't live in Boston anymore, but I always get so emotional because it is a homecoming. My uncle was there, and he's like, “I’m just glad you didn't give somebody a lap dance this time so I didn't have to cover my eyes.” [Laughs] It was awesome. It was so great.
That's awesome. Back in 2020 on your Instagram, you wrote that you were feeling depressed, unmotivated, and just unsure about anything. How have things changed for you since then?
I mean, I'm having a good day today, but it's a day-to-day thing. I’ve kind of been on a roller coaster with self-esteem, and now I'm really working on trying not to get my validation from external things, or people, or moments. It's easier said than done for me, especially since I've been in the music industry and in the spotlight since I was so young. That did shake my sense of self, so it's taken time, but I'm back to a place where I'm trusting my gut, I’m having fun, and I'm believing in a future for myself and that I'm worthy of dreaming. So I've definitely lost the plot.
I've lost myself and what I’m doing this for many times over. I'm thankful not to be there anymore. I think that has a lot to do with my friends and family, my boyfriend, my therapist, my fans, and being able to speak openly about things, because I’m not good at pretending. It's much easier for me to be transparent, so the fact that my transparency has been met with people being like, “I’m so glad you said something because I feel this way. I don't know what I'm doing. I thought I should have had it all figured out by 30. I thought I would have like arrived to this place where I’m like, “No, I'm done being depressed,” but it doesn't always work out that way, and in this society, there's a lot of things to feel anxious about. Apparently, I'm very much not alone in that.
Image provided by artist. Photo credit: Alfredo Flores
Definitely not. So your comeback— would you say that it feels more of a resurgence of you as the JoJo we know and love from “Too Little Too Late” and Aquamarine, or more of an entirely new career?
It's hard to separate who I am today from where I've come from or what I've done, so I definitely don't think it's a resurgence of that person, because that person was a child. I was 15 when “Too Little Too Late” came out, 13 when “Leave” came out, and 16 with Aquamarine. I was a fetus. Now I'm a woman, and I think I'm the best version of myself. I've done those things, but I'm excited about now and what happens moving forward, because it’s more fun. It's more fun being me today than it was back then.
"I was 15 when “Too Little Too Late” came out, 13 when “Leave” came out, and 16 with "Aquamarine." I was a fetus. Now I'm a woman, and I think I'm the best version of myself. I've done those things, but I'm excited about now and what happens moving forward, because it’s more fun. It's more fun being me today than it was back then."
I imagine it's much less pressure as an adult.
It's less pressure as an adult, and the industry has changed. Expectations have changed. I think there's no better time than right now to be yourself and carve your own path. It didn't feel as much that way in the mid 2000s.
What would you say it's like to finally have the freedom to make music on your own terms?
It just feels good to be able to make music and have it put out because that's what I was fighting for— just to be able to move forward with my career. I wasn't allowed to release music for a long time legally. It feels great to be able to do what I've done since I was a little girl. I am definitely living my childhood dream by being able to do that.
That must feel really, really exciting for you.
Yeah, it's very validating. It was a very weird fight, and I'm just grateful that my fans have rocked with me and that people who haven't heard of me might discover my music and stuff. It feels good. I love being an artist.
I saw a recent tweet of yours and you were talking about how sometimes record labels will encourage artists to make their music go viral on TikTok. If you could have one song go viral from your project, which one would you like it to be?
I think “Spiral SZN” is viral-worthy for sure. It's so sticky, and I think it's a funny title— just the idea of, “Okay, one thing after the next, now I'm spiraling out of control, this is spiral season.” I think that one's a good contender.
I agree. You actually showed up on my TikTok “For You” page yesterday. Are you a fan of the app outside of work purposes? Do you like to use it for fun?
I love the app actually. Like a lot of millennials, I think I was resistant to it for a while, and then I'm like, “Oh my god, I love this, I can really waste a lot of time scrolling incessantly.” Finding things, learning things… I have a lot of fun with it. I like to use it however I like to use it. I think that trying to make something go viral is against the whole idea of what virality is supposed to be, and that just feels yucky, so I just have fun with it.
Totally, I think that's a good approach. Fans have also been begging you to see your version of Drake’s “Marvin’s Room” on streamers for a long time. How frustrating has it been for you to not be able to deliver on that?
It's frustrating, but also, that's not my song. I did write new lyrics to Drake's song, and there would be a lot of jumping through hoops to make that happen. We've tried over the years. Of course, I always want to make my fans happy, but you can't make everybody happy. If people want to hear it, I think it's on YouTube, and I perform it on my new tour, so if you want to scream it along with me, please come through.
Good to know. What would you say was the hardest lesson you learned from your first deal as a child?
The hardest lesson was about contracts in general— the length of them. The idea that essentially, when you're coming up, most artists like myself have no leverage when they're coming into a major label deal situation. It's all about leverage. That's why I would encourage artists to stay independent as long as they can to build up their own following, to stack some bread if they can, so that they don't feel like they have to sign any type of contract. You feel like you don't have room to negotiate because this is an amazing opportunity. Especially for someone like me, who's coming from a really humble beginning— my mom was cleaning houses for a living, I was 12 years old. We just didn't know. I think my experience was definitely like trial-by-fire— just thrown into the fire, and I learned along the way.
One thing I really admire about you is how open you are about mental health, particularly on this new project. How do you conquer doubt when you feel like clouding your brain personally?
I'm lucky enough to have people around me that I can open up to, and they'll shake me and help me readjust my perspective. If you have one person that you can be honest with about your feelings, you're really fortunate. Obviously don't drain this person, but you can tell people how you feel because you're not alone, and sometimes that takes the weight off of you, the big monster. That's how it is for me. I'm able to have a new perspective on it, look at it in a different way, and take a moment to focus on gratitude because I—and most of us—have many things to be very grateful for. When you focus on gratitude, doubt seems pointless, or it just seems trivial.
About the music video for “Anxiety”— what was it like to work with Omarion and Lauren Jauregui on that project?
That was awesome. I mean, I've loved B2K and Omarion since I was a little girl, so I'm a huge fan. We ran into each other at a mutual friend's birthday party and caught up because we've known each other since we were younger in the game and everything. And then I just thought that it would be really fun to have a couple fun guest moments in the video. I reached out to him, and I’ve toured with Lauren before with Fifth Harmony. I love her. We always support one another. I think she's amazing, I love the project that she just put out. It was really fun. That was one of my favorite videos to ever shoot.
I thought the whole concept was really, really fun, and it paired so nicely with the themes of the album. Recently, you posted a throwback photo with Lindsay Lohan, and in the caption, you talked about feeling like a “fish out of water” at parties in Hollywood when you were younger. Is that still true, or do you think you've grown out of that with confidence and age?
No, I still feel like a f*cking weirdo. [Laughs] I still feel imposter syndrome. Even when I’m at fancy places, I’m like, “Oh my God, I don't belong here.” Even though I've been doing this for so long and I've lived in LA for 10 years, I still feel like an outsider. That's my own thing. But I guess I'm kind of happy that I don't feel super comfortable hobnobbing and doing the Hollywood thing, because I'm not very good at it. I'm not very good at being fake. I just like people or I don’t, and I feel like doing that pretending to be friends with everybody thing, I'm just not the best at [that]. I like who I like.
That's totally fair. I think if I was in your shoes, I'd be doing the same thing. [Laughs] Obviously, becoming famous at such a young age couldn't have been easy for you— but if you could go back now and talk to your younger self, what’s one thing you'd like to say to her?
I would say, “Don't think everybody knows better than you,” because nobody knows what's best for you. Don't lose contact with your gut, with what you know is right for you. Just because you have a lot of people in your ear, stay strong, and don't think that you have to be like anybody else but who you are. That's what I would want to say to my younger self and to younger artists, or just younger people.
I love that. That's very special. Do you think that being in the public eye makes it harder when you have self-esteem issues? How do you deal with having people watch your every move?
I think so. Who doesn't struggle in some way with self-esteem? I guess unless you're a sociopath or a narcissist, or some type of “-path”, I don't know. I feel like to some level, we all are questioning ourselves or comparing ourselves to other people, and their achievements, or their looks, or their talent, or whatever—their relationship, their life. Social media makes it really hard not to do that. But I would say that being in the public eye does make you more hyper-aware of things, because people that you don't know make comments about everything. I'm grateful that I wasn't in a situation as a teenager, like some other girls were, who were in the generation before me like Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan, where they were chased and hounded. They had no privacy, and I can't imagine what that was like. I didn't have that experience. One good thing that came out of my long period of not being able to release music was that I did get to make my mistakes and go through a lot of awkward moments—not in front of people.
You frequently mention astrology in some of your posts. Is that something that you incorporate into your work, like how some people will drop on the full moon specifically? Or is it just a personal interest?
It's a personal interest. I'm on these apps, The Pattern and Costar. I think they’re really dope. I think it's cool. I'm certainly not into it to the point where I'm like, “Oh, I would never date this sign because we're not compatible.” I don't know if it's that serious, but there is definitely stuff that we can learn about ourselves and others in relation to the moon. I think it's interesting.
Totally. I agree with you. When you're not listening to your own music, do you have any contenders for your personal favorite album of the year right now?
No, I'm obsessed with myself. I only listen to my own sh*t. [Laughs] I'm totally kidding. I just love what a year, what a season, what a moment R&B is having right now. I love Summer Walker's album. Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales is so great. I love Giveon. I love H.E.R. I love Silk Sonic’s project. Who else am I missing? Victoria Monet. I love that album so much. Lucky Daye.
"I just love what a year, what a season, what a moment R&B is having right now. I love Summer Walker's album. Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales is so great."
Image provided by artist. Photo credit: Alfredo Flores
I love all of those too. Speaking of R&B, how would you say the industry has changed from 2004 to now?
People used to fix their mouths to say that R&B was dead, and I think that particularly from the mid-2000s to now, we're having a renaissance. It's really cool, and what I love about pop music in general—because R&B can be pop, hip-hop can be pop, country can be pop—it's whatever is most popular, whatever is most poppin’. And I love that. Genres are melding, and we're taking inspiration from a lot of different places. Honestly, the more that we can move away from genre, I think that would be great. I think that being able to play and take inspiration from wherever you feel is great for art and music.
Totally. Going back to therapy, how would you say it has changed your life?
It made me more aware of my patterns and helped me see things from a different angle, hold myself accountable, and come up with actionable plans as to how I can be the person that I want to be, or how I can overcome. I think that therapy has been good for helping me make sense of the past, and now, moving forward, I'm equipped with the tools to be present and plan for a future. Therapy is good for realizing why you do some things you do. Now I think the next step for me is finding a coach, to help me figure out what my next moves are. I think I think I’ve unpacked a lot of my past, and I'm done with that. I’m done with the past.
No, I agree. I feel like all the most successful people I hear from, they all have life coaches, so I think there's something there. You've also said before that spending time in the gym is a good outlet for your energy. Has health and fitness always been a priority for you, or is that something that you dove into with the pandemic, like a lot of other people?
My mom is so lit when it comes to getting her steps in, and by getting her steps in, that woman will pound the pavement or go on a hike for 10 miles, or she'll be in the gym. My mom is super fit— not in the way of pumping iron or doing pilates, but she's very nature-oriented. She'll be outside, moving her body, communing with the sun, the birds, the animals, and all that. She's really set the tone for me with how activity is a non-negotiable part of a day. When I move away from that, because I can definitely fall into ruts where I'm not working out or I'm not being active, I feel it. Being active and sweating, getting your heart rate up, that's releasing free, good drugs in your brain, and I want those drugs. I try to stay consistent with it because it just makes me feel better. And also, taking control, taking inventory of what it is that you're putting into your body, eating as naturally as possible— while also living. I love Wendy's. I love fries, I love all that stuff, but I really try to balance it with eating mostly vegetables and making as much stuff at home as I can. But I also really like cookies and bullsh*t. [Laughs]
Balance is absolutely key. A while back, you shared that you spent about 10 months practicing celibacy in wake of a bad relationship with your ex. Was that helpful for you? How did that change your mindset?
It was helpful, because I didn't want to go backwards. I didn't want to recycle or go back into my, “Oh, I know that I could call this person. We care about each other, we could have sex, it would be nice.” I didn't want to use sex or intimacy as a coping mechanism to not deal with how I was feeling, which was sad, confused, ashamed— a lot of different things after the end of that relationship. I also was curious about how it would be to keep all that energy for myself: that creative energy, sexual energy, sensuality. I wanted to channel that into making music, and I thought it was wonderful. I think periods of intentional abstinence from whatever it is— even if it's Lent and you're giving up something, or if you're doing a fast or something. For me, fasting from that type of intimacy and that exchange was good. I also realized that I didn't want to have sex with anybody that I wasn't in love with. I'm too sensitive for that. I tried several times over the years, and I just realized, “This really isn't for me.”
Totally, and the relationship that you're in right now, does it feel healthier to you?
It's the healthiest relationship I've ever been in, for sure.
Good, I'm very happy for you. Apart from your upcoming tour, is there anything else that we should be looking out for you in 2022?
Yeah, I'm getting back into acting a little bit, which I'm very excited about. I have an arc on this TV show that I love. I'm a fan of the show. I don't know when they're announcing it, but I think that should be coming out next year.