At a time when the internet is overwhelmed with new musicians, there’s one quality that helps rising artists stand out today: authenticity. For Jessie Reyez, a Colombian-American singer-songwriter from Toronto, Canada, it’s what helped her first single, “Figures,” gain so much traction, with its all-too-relatable question of what an old flame would do if she had the ability to reciprocate the hurt that they caused. With the song and short film “Gatekeeper,” Reyez solidifies that realness, throwing caution to the wind and recalling her troublesome interaction with a music industry gatekeeper who attempted to take advantage of her.
“Oppressive. Fucked. Whack,” she describes the encounter while sitting in a spare office at NYLON. “It’s just whack. And you think about, like, younger females who have yet to go through it, whose souls are still pure, who haven’t been touched, and that makes me angry.” It’s a statement that resounds even in the bustling office, but our conversation is far more lighthearted otherwise. Fresh off of the release of her debut EP, Kiddo, and caught up in the excitement of its accompanying tour, the 26-year-old is exhilarated, grateful, and thoughtful as she reflects on what she’s achieved so early in her career (namely, a packed crowd at her Governors Ball set, in spite of how early in the day it was) and looks ahead to her future, which includes a feature on Calvin Harris’ anticipated upcoming album. Get to know the rising star below as she talks Tarantino, spirituality, and what it would be like fighting off dinosaurs in Year One; plus, snag tickets to see her live while you can.
What are you most proud of so far in your career?
The fact that I can keep my priorities in check. All I do is work and [spend time with] family, and I’m very proud of that. I’m proud of the fact that I can just focus on the bullseye and go. Thank god, I don’t have to worry about distractions of veering off course because my focus is very defined. I’m proud of that.
What famous person, dead or living, do you most wish you could have as a roommate?
Bob Marley, all day. What I talk about more often than not is shitty experiences or heartbreaks, because I don’t like keeping that feeling in, but when I’m happy, I like to keep the feeling [to myself]; that’s why I don’t have that many happy songs—it’s the negativity that I want to let out. But when I watch other people do the complete opposite, and put such happiness out and infect the world with it, I think that’s beautiful. I respect that so much, particularly because I’m not so immersed in that side of creation.
People do tend to gravitate toward those songs that kind of talk about negative things, though. Like, “Figures” talks about such a specific feeling that I’m sure a lot of people have had, but may not have been able to put into words in the way that you did.
The fact that people reach out and say, “This made me feel better,” or “This made me stop crying,” that makes me happy. And it’s crazy because something so negative can create something so positive as a default effect.
What is your favorite driving music?
Reggae. Or salsa. Or Colombian cumbia. Blasting. They make me happy—you can’t listen to a salsa song and be sad. Even sad, heartbreak salsa songs, people are salsa dancing to it. And with reggae, you succumb to this happy place when you listen to it.
Whose career would you most like to emulate?
Beyoncé. I think she’s fucking incredible. I think it’s beautiful that she keeps her family close. She’s about her family, and she hustles so hard, and her work ethic and her mastery of the art show, and her knowledge of theory. Her effect on the community, her philanthropic work that she doesn’t boast about but it’s there, I think that’s so incredible.
What is your favorite place to write music?
It’s not really a place, it’s just a state: I prefer to be in angst. I prefer to be angry, because then after I’m done, six hours later, I feel better. You know that saying, you have to be sad to know what happiness is? There has to be night to know what daylight is. There has to be cold to know what heat is. So, I’m in that place, and then after, I can create something that I can look at and be happy with.
Describe your aesthetic in three words.
Violent, soul, Tarantino.
I love soul music. I’m a fan of authenticity, I’m a fan of rawness; I’m a fan of keeping things as honest as possible, because I fucking hate when people lie to me, and I hate when I can feel like there’s a layer of bullshit. Violent because, like I said, I feel like a lot of the music I write comes from that angst, like “Fuck!” If I’m going to put everything into it, it might not all be beautiful, it might not all be roses, but I’m gonna give it to you honest at least, you know? Even with mistakes, even with flaws, but flaws are the fun. And then “Tarantino” because I have always been a fan of having someone hear a song—so you play with five senses, you play with your hearing, but then if you can write a song in a specific way, where you can force a person to imagine something, it’s like you’re touching something else even though you’re not supposed to; you’re not in that world, but, for some reason, the words that I’m saying are making your mind’s eye imagine something else, and then it becomes cinematic on top of audible. I love that, and I feel like Tarantino does that all the time, and he does it reversed, like the music that he combines with the scenes. I love him and [Stanley] Kubrick. He’s like a violent, soulful Kubrick.
If you have to wear one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Boots, T-shirt, and shorts because I hate wearing pants. I detest it. I feel like I’m locked up. Pants feel oppressive. It’s probably because I hate wearing bras, and I feel like that’s freedom. And I love my boots. I could’ve said Chucks, too, though.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
I pray and thank God for the opportunity. I speak affirmatively about what’s going to happen, just speak it into existence. I burn sage every now and then. And some whiskey. [Laughs] Gotta get a little sprinkle of holy water, and then I’m good to go.
[Laughs] Any brands in particular?
Jameson. I love some Jameson.
If you had to live in a past time, what do you think would be the most fun era to live in and why?
I don’t know about fun, but Year One. I know it’d be a bitch—I’d need to have some AKs and fucking gear to fight off dinosaurs and everything—but I’d love to see what happened. There’s just so many possibilities. We have hope and spirituality, but at the end of the day, all we know is we have our day one and the day we die, everything else is just what we’re told. So to see and experience things the way they were before they were touched by this synthetic idea of society and social norms and before culture came to be, I’d love that.
What activities do you enjoy doing alone?
I love being in the woods. When I can just walk barefoot in the grass and just sit down and breathe. I love that so much. Yoga—I love doing, too. Sometimes when it’s just me and my guitar and I’m creating—I love doing that shit alone. Sleep, when you can just cannonball into it—fuck, love it. But walking in the grass and chilling and breathing. That’s my alone time. Sometimes, during the day—I don’t know if you ever do this when you’re dealing with so much and so many people—I’ll just be like, “I have to go to the bathroom.” But I don’t have to go to the bathroom, but I just go to the bathroom to center myself and breathe. Sometimes you just need to cleanse, even if it’s just a moment. Then I’ll go back and continue working, but sometimes I just like my alone time.
When are you most relaxed?
In between my mom and my dad. When I lay on her lap and my dad is on the other side of the couch and it’s calm. I feel like I melt.
Do you have siblings or are you an only child?
Yeah, my big brother is super dope. He’s a wicked dad, too. Four kids. He’s a fucking grinder. My dad and my brother are different kinds of men. They’re cut from a different kind of cloth. My dad didn’t come from much in Colombia, and his mom passed when he was just a baby, so my grandfather raised [my dad and his two siblings] on his own. Then my dad had a child with his first wife, and she passed, so he went through [loss] twice. He raised my brother and met my mom and then my brother had a child young but hustled regardless. He kept going with his fucking schooling, married my sister-in-law, has a house, is a fucking teacher, is a scientist. Part of the reason I’m so focused on family and work, instead of socializing, is because I have such a high standard for people I want to keep around me, because I was blessed with such a good family.
I’m forever grateful. There’s nothing I could ever do to repay them. That’s unconditional love because I was an asshole. Asshole years—everybody has them. But my day ones are real day ones.
What was the last great thing that you read?
The Celestine Prophecy. It talks about the power of positivity and energy, and other people’s energy, and how you can connect and disconnect with other people and how everything has a purpose. The origin of that purpose might be unknown to you, but you just have to trust in what’s supposed to happen and just vibe. Be valuable.
What kind of person were you in high school?I was a little meaner than I am now. I was a little more insensitive than I am now. Less centered. More sporadic. I feel like I’m a child of extremes, but back then, my ass was on Mars and then back to Earth—just all over. I had good friends. I guess I’ve always been guarded, but I was less guarded then. I was more out there.
What do you think helped you become more centered?My family, and seeing how life can act as a turnstile sometimes, with people. You see the people that are still there, that are still fucking riding—that shit made me want to be a better person, to show my appreciation for those pillars of wise, wise people that still stayed. And showed me that kind of love. I feel like that helped me so much.
What’s a quality about yourself that you’re genuinely proud of?I’m sensitive. I’m proud of being sensitive. I’m proud of being empathetic. Some people don’t give a fuck about any people. I give a fuck.I’m proud of that because I don’t feel like everyone is like that. I feel like it’s a gift. It’s a blessing and a curse, but still a gift.
Do you have any phobias?I’ve conquered a lot of fears, but when I was younger, I was afraid of people breaking [into the house]. Since I was a kid, I used to sleep with a bat beside my fucking bed. A 10-year-old with a bat! I’d have nightmares of people breaking in, but I was ready. When I lived in Florida by myself, I had my artillery.
What’s a side of you that people are unlikely to know about?I’m so honest all the time, I don’t even know. [To manager] What don’t people know about me?
Manager: Maybe that you’re bad at sleeping? Oh, yeah! At night. But during the day, Zs all day. I’m nocturnal.
So do you work at night?Yes. I work the best at night. My dad says something’s up. He’s like, “You might be half-vampire.” I thrive at night, I love it.
What are some new hobbies that you wish you could take on?Drumming. I wanna step up my tempo. Piano. I just want to master music theory and be able to play different instruments.
You’ve had training though, right? Piano was my first instrument. I was super young, my mom put me in there when I was like three years old for a few years. Dance was my second love. I picked up the guitar because my dad plays. And then I played in church. In choir, we would run through chords and everything.
Where do you hope to be professionally in five years?Dominating. I want to be a respectable artist, and make a contribution to art history and music history. I want to have made moves toward the philanthropic shit that I want to do before I pass away. Still be very in touch with my family, have bought my dad a farm already. Have started a school by Colombia by then. Have a Grammy or two by then. I’m going to be on my way to a Nobel Peace Prize! Lot’s of shit. In five years—hopefully still not dead.
Why is philanthropy so important to you? My mom is a half-saint, so that’s been drilled into me since I was a kid, to give back and help. You don’t know why you were born in this body. You could’ve been born in a much, much, much worse situation. But your soul just happened to enter this one. Everyone has a purpose. If you have light, share the light. If you have knowledge, share the knowledge. I just got that from my mom, she’s always been like that. I wanted to help those that need the help, as opposed to help those that everyone can see you helping. Genuine. It doesn’t have to be blasted. That’s why I respect Beyonce. I don’t feel like they blast her, but she’s getting it. She does it. I’d like to do that and make my family proud.
If there was one phrase that sums up your approach to life, what would it be?I want to die a legend.