Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter, JoJo (born Joanna Levesque), needs to write. The act is part of her self-care, part of a crucial regular practice. If she doesn’t put pen to paper, her mind can become more of a minefield. It can be dangerous up there, she says. The writing could be journaling or jotting; it does not need to be public or poetic. But it needs to happen. And at one point recently, the writing wasn’t coming for JoJo. She felt stifled.
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At the time, the last thing she’d composed was a holiday album in July. It had been six months since she’d written and it was becoming painful. Coupled with the creative inertia, JoJo was experiencing severe bouts of depression and anxiety. She reached out to her record label and told them she needed to write about what was going on in her brain. And she began to do just that. This is the origin story of JoJo’s sleek, stellar new record, trying not to think about it, which is out now.
“After releasing Good to Know, which was the album I released in 2020,” JoJo tells American Songwriter, “I was definitely on a high from being able to stay busy—even though we were all locked down and sheltering in place, I was so grateful that I had music to connect to people with.”
But then the end of the year came and things slowed down, JoJo says. That’s when the self-doubt and depression crept in. It’s a reality many artists know. After a high of achievement, there can be a valley of despair, reasonable or not.
“I found myself in the position so many other people found themselves in,” JoJo shares. “Like, what’s next? What the fuck am I doing with my life?”
JoJo says she experienced “sheer terror” and “lost faith” in herself, in her ability to write and perform music. It was devastating. But then she began to write about it. Writers know the old sayings, things like “The only way out is through” and “If you want to write, then write.” These adages are cliches but they’re also true. And JoJo knew it then and knows it now still. It’s the weapon she has against negative thoughts, self-sabotage, and isolation tendencies. Work.
“I turned 30 in December,” JoJo says. “And I started that off by jumping out of a plane. I cannot live life in fear anymore. I used to be such a fearless little girl. Over the years, though, life starts piling on and I’ve built up these protective mechanisms. I just wanted to shed some of that. I want to put out music that’s a reflection of my truth and also that I hope can be a reflection of other people and what they are feeling.”
JoJo has been entertaining people since a young age. She grew up in Massachusetts (has a tattoo of the state on one side of her ribs) and both of her parents were musicians. Her mom, who worked as a house cleaner, was a church soloist, a soprano. JoJo’s dad, who wasn’t around a ton as she grew up, was a blues musician who played guitar and harmonica. All of her earliest memories, JoJo says, were of music. Her first memorized song was the Barney theme. Aretha Franklin, Bob Seger, and George Benson came soon after. As a kid, JoJo, an only child, impersonated these artists and soon she and others realized she was good at it. She had talent. But with this talent came her very mature, self-imposed responsibility.
“I wasn’t in singing lessons or anything like that,” she says. “We had a very humble life. We didn’t have much and I think that music was an escape for me. I thought that it could perhaps take us to a different and better life. I saw it was something that could take us somewhere.”
JoJo saw people’s faces light up when she or others sang. She knew its power. She specifically found power in R&B music, which itself is both entertaining but also very expressive of deep emotions like isolation and unrequited love. The genre and its stars resonated with JoJo.
“I don’t want to comment too much on what my parents were going through,” JoJo says, “but they both had their own struggles. I think I could resonate with some of the pain that was being transmuted through the music I was listening to and in some way, I connected with it. Not that I had experienced the pain of what these older people were singing about—there was just something about it that was comforting.”
Over the years, JoJo also acted in television shows and movies. She was able to use her skills in that field, as well. As a result, she was also able to lose herself in her characters. And while JoJo finds herself focused these days more on music, she maintains a lot of respect for the craft. But while she’s adept at character, on her new album, JoJo is forthright and honest about herself and her bouts with mental health issues. Completing her new album, she says, brought confidence back. By listening to herself, telling her story, the verve returned.
“Being in practice,” JoJo says, “exercising those creative muscles is part of the work. I don’t know who said that quote, but, ‘If you want to be a writer, write.’ That’s part of my self-care. It’s maintenance that is necessary for me to be well. So, I’ve been doing that work and opening up to collaborative producers and co-writers, and going through some of those processes was game-changing for me.”
On her new record, JoJo shines between songs about trying to distance herself from those negative thoughts. Hits include the sweet-sounding “B.I.D.” and desperately honest “Burlinda’s Theme.” With every album, JoJo says, she goes through a sense of loss and then a renewed sense of discovery. But the person she rediscovers in herself is never the same person as before. It’s a new “tier,” she says. The world is not predictable, JoJo has learned, no matter how hard one tries. But if one listens, pays attention, one can hear everything.
“What I love most about music,” JoJo explains, “is that it’s like a portal. It can transport you to another place and time, to another universe, to another part of the world. It’s my first love, my truest love. There’s not a day I could spend without music. And I can’t say that really for anything else.”