INTERVIEW: Toronto, Canada's J-Soul talks to HNHH about his new mixtape "L.I.S.A.," his hit single "Slow Wine," how being homeless changed him and much more.
On his track "Doo Rags," Nas spells out what we all eventually come to learn about life: that there's no substitute for putting in the hard work. "Turnin' nothin' into somethin' is God work/And you get nothin' without struggle and hard work" is a line that should resonate with anyone who's overcome a great deal of struggle in their life, but especially those who use music or another creative avenue to help them break out of a bad situation or period in their life. Believing in the process is sometimes the only truth that you can hold onto in a dire moment and, for a while, that's what Toronto artist J-Soul had to do - just keep the faith.
For more than just a fleeting moment, that's where J-Soul had been, trying to hold on to his aspirations of making it in the music business. Fresh out of high school and finding himself homeless in 2015, the path to that kind of success seemed daunting at the very least, if not impossible. However, the singer/rapper's tenacity paid off when, the very next year, he managed to ink a deal with Birdman and Cash Money Records, a deal that has helped propel him out of the darkness and carve out his own little niche in the hub of Canada's growing music scene.
In fact, Toronto has been a hotbed for soulful-sounding crooners that have used hip-hop style beats to underscore the melodic nature of their vocal delivery, and J-Soul is no different. Though he didn't come off the OVO assembly line, he finds himself with a hit single already under his belt in "Slow Wine," a track that has gained popularity both in nightclubs and bedroom settings the world over. He's also been able to get Birdman on the mic with him on a song appropriately titled "Cash Money," sharing the same sonic space with a man who has played a part in making the careers of many, including one Lil Wayne.
Now, J-Soul is back with a brand-new mixtape called L.I.S.A., a moodier, more atmospheric collection of tracks than one might expect from an artist who seemed destined to hunt that next big mainstream-ready cut. However, as he got chatting about his music with us during our long-form interview, it became clear that, above all else, J-Soul is determined to make music on his own terms and speak in his truest voice. His new music video for "Close Your Eyes" is out now, which you can peep below.
During our interview, he touched on L.I.S.A., his musical influences, what it felt like to ink his first record deal and so much more over the course of our conversation. Check out the transcript below, edited slightly for the sake of clarity and length.
HNHH: First off, I’ve got to start with the fact that you’re from Toronto. It’s super cool to see another Canadian artist doing well. What is your opinion of the Six’s place in the hip-hop community right now? Do you think it will continue to grow in the coming years.
J-Soul: I most definitely think it’s going to continue to grow because I look at Toronto like the new Atlanta, the new New York, the new L.A. There’s so many opportunities down here. Before, you know, artists would have to leave to get poppin’ somewhere else, in like a different city or wherever and then come back to their hometown. But now, with all the opportunities for everyone - singers, producers, graphic designers, whatever the case may be - Toronto is just growing [each] and every day, and I think that’s dope.
It’s definitely become one of the superpowers of the hip-hop world. Do you have any other Canadian artist or Toronto artists that you’re digging right now?
Yeah, you know, one of my favorite artists, he’s pretty low-key from Toronto, his name is Clairmont the Second, and I’m really rocking to all of his music.
You’ve gone through the harrowing experience of being homeless. How do you think that has shaped your creative process, in terms of making music or writing music?
You know what, being homeless definitely brought [out] a different side of me musically. It brought emotion and just realness. Going through that experience just made me realize how life really works, you know, and how you can, one minute, have something and then it can be gone so fast. That’s why I take advantage of every opportunity that I get, and like I said, it did bring out a good emotion. I had different things to write about, everything just made more sense after being homeless. Obviously, when I was homeless, I was going, like, “What the f**k,” but you go through things for a reason, you know?
Tell me what that moment was like when you officially inked a deal with Birdman and Cash Money in 2016.
It was surreal. I’ll never forget the day. I was in Miami, went to the studio [...] and I met with Slim and Birdman. All I could think of was like, ‘Life’s finally going to pay off.’ Which is why I work so hard, which is why my team works so hard, and it was surreal. It just felt like a movie.
What’s it like working with him behind the scenes versus out in front of the microphone, recording the vocals to a song with him?
Birdman is a legend, you know. I look at him as a legend. His strong points are hip-hop, so when we did that record, it’s like I said, it was surreal. It felt like a movie, it felt like a movie scene. It was so, so much fun doing that record and it felt like, ‘Wow, stuff is finally starting to pay off.’
From Birdman or anyone else, have you gotten a piece of advice from someone in the hip-hop or R&B world that really sticks with you?
Advice that I’ve gotten from not only a veteran, but just in general, is to use the opportunity I have right now to reach other opportunities. Don’t just be comfortable with what you have, you know what I mean? Try to really branch out and do different things and understand that better things come when you continue to strive for it.
Do you have another dream collab right now? Rapper, singer, producer?
Yes, and his name is Travis Scott. He’s my favorite artist and, one day, I know that me and him are going to work on something amazing.
Is he someone in hip-hop or R&B that’s really blowing your mind right now?
I feel like he’s very important to hip-hop. I feel like he brought a melodic side, you know. Kanye West was doing the whole autotune and, you know, I also think Travis Scott brought live performances to a whole new level.
Who would you say are your biggest influences musically?
I can say my Top 3. Honestly, Michael Jackson, of course, I think he’s the greatest of all time. I definitely get a lot of my vibes and some of my vocals from Michael. Amy Winehouse, because she’s so honest and I feel like I’m also honest in my music. And she’s very soulful as well. Lastly, like I said before, Travis Scott too. I feel like he’s very good at performing and, when I perform, I always want it to be amazing, you know what I mean?
I want to talk about your new mixtape L.I.S.A. Some seriously smooth vibes going on - was that your objective sound-wise?
Yes. Honestly, when I put together L.I.S.A., I knew exactly what I was doing, me and my team. Like, if you listen to [it] from track one, to the last track, everything is connected, whether it’s the production or it’s the vocals or it’s the story. Like, every record is a story and I just wanted to, you know, make something that was just mood. Cool, vibey, I wasn’t really trying to make any super “turn up” records. I wanted to tell a dope story and make a dope little project.
How much of the project was mapped out beforehand and was there any improvisation in the studio, in terms of writing and recording?
Well yeah, there’s always that last record that comes out of nowhere, and in this case, it’s my favorite project on the record, “The Life.”I felt like, closing the project, we just needed something that would wrap up everything in a dope way. And I actually recorded the last record in probably one of the last sessions I had, when I was working on the project.
Let's chat “Slow Wine” for a minute. It’s the biggest hit of your career so far, what was it like seeing that record blow up when it did?
It was dope. You know what’s crazy? I feel like every artist gets hated on regardless of what they do, there’s haters out there, but for this record, this seems to be … “Slow Wine” is a record that everyone just loves. Everyone just enjoys it - they like to hear it in clubs, driving, getting ready. Like, I see how much my fans and anyone who supports my music [fucks] with this record, and it still continues to grow. Every day I’ll get a different Snap or a DM from a fan across the world saying, ‘I just discovered ‘Slow Wine’.’ It’s like, ‘Damn.’ People are still discovering it, people are still rocking with it, so it feels great. It feels absolutely great to have a record [that] gets so much love, you know?
How would you say your sound has evolved from "Toronto Plaza Hotel" until now?
You know what, "Toronto Plaza Hotel," when I did that record, it was definitely a different kind of record, based on the stuff I was doing before. I used to always, you know, rap or have some turn-up records or some bars, but I just pulled some of my emotion and tried, really tried, to sing. And, doing that record, everything just made sense. When I sang "Toronto Plaza," I felt like, ‘Boom, okay, I have my sound.’ And that’s why like, now, I feel like everyday I’m getting better, but I’m trying to bring back that same feeling of how I felt when I made "Toronto Plaza." I’m getting better each day, just trying to pick up on different types of melodies and vibes.
What are your long-term goals musically?
Well, my long-terms goal is, I want to go down in history as one of the greatest. And I say that because I don’t just want to be a one-hit wonder. I’m not a “mumble rapper,” as they say. I really want to grow and I really want my fans to see where I came from. I want to continue to grow, I want to take my fans with me, and I want to go down [...] I want people to be inspired, because I get a lot of messages from supporters and they are inspired. I just want to continue to inspire and I want to be the artist that [inspires] people to be different or, just tell them to never give up, no matter what you’re going through. Just keep grinding and keep being creative.
In this day and age, when people are dropping surprise projects left, right and center, I gotta ask: can you talk about any upcoming music you’re working on?
I’m always working, but I’m definitely working on a new project right now, and it’s going to be a different side [of me]. You’re going to see a different side of J-Soul. I’m a lot more open to working with other people, like, as you can tell, I don’t have that many features because I’ve just been waiting. So, on this project, you’re going to hear me with different artists and different producers, and it’s definitely a different side of me. I’m even opening up more emotionally and telling personal stories that I’ve never really told yet. I think you guys are really going to rock with this album, especially if you guys liked L.I.S.A.
Now you’ve got me excited for that new material, whenever that drops. I’m going to get you out of here on this: for people who haven’t heard you at all, what’s one thing people should know about your music?
That I’m brutally honest with my music. I want everyone to understand that there’s no gimmicks over here. Very, very, very honest, and I want everyone to know that.