JoJo’s applying mascara as she FaceTimes with one eye open. We were supposed to meet in person to discuss her new album, Good To Know, but the spread of COVID-19 forced us online. “Girl, if I wasn't on a virtual promo tour, I wouldn't [be putting on makeup],” she laughs.
The fact she’s even on a promo tour isn’t something JoJo, born Joanna Noëlle Levesque, takes for granted. Her 2004 debut single, “Leave (Get Out),” released when she was just 13, went viral before going viral was truly a thing, making her the youngest solo artist in history to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Pop Songs chart. But then things got complicated.
Two albums released in quick succession were followed by a 10-year musical hiatus due to a long, drawn-out legal battle with her label Blackground Records and Da Family. Finally released from her obligations in late 2013, she signed with Atlantic Records and released her third album Mad Love in 2016, but things didn’t go as she’d hoped. “With Mad Love I didn't really feel like I had an advocate, creatively, I didn't feel very strong because I was just coming off the lawsuit that I was in for a long time, and I felt really deflated,” she recalls. “I felt so out of control in my career for so long, not only just with labels, but with people that were on my team, and I just didn't feel like I really had full authority, or full agency over my own choices.”
Working on her new album, Good To Know, finally gave her the autonomy she craved. She gathered a group of her favorite writer friends at a Los Angeles-adjacent Airbnb, where she converted some of the bedrooms into studios. “I knew I wanted the beats to be harder, and I wanted it to be something that guys weren't embarrassed to play in their car,” she says.
The beats may be harder, but so are the lyrics. JoJo rose to prominence in an era where the pop music machine was at its height. In a decade when Beyonce went from burgeoning R&B solo artist to an industry icon and the personal writing of Taylor Swift redefined our expectation of female pop artists, JoJo needed not only to reinvent her sound, but reinvent her storytelling. Luckily, she was willing to go there, ruminating on two specific recent relationships that were more like “on-again, off-again situationships.”
“I would get really close to somebody, and then pull away, or sabotage it, and do something to bring some drama or spice into the mix,” she says. “It made me feel like I was in control of something. Some people do that with food, some people do that with money… I guess you could call me a love addict.” Those tendencies surface on her new album with “So Bad.” “[That song], for example, is about meeting up with somebody and basically premeditatedly cheating,” she says.
“I was not being the smartest with how I was getting home after going to the clubs in LA. I woke up many times and didn't know how I got home. I had a total disregard for myself and others.”
The album mines a familiar coming-of-age mantra of acceptance, an echo to Demi Lovato’s Confident or Selena Gomez’s Rare. “I felt like some things I'm saying on this record feel a bit like an overshare, just with my emotions or with my desperate sexuality on some of it, and I was just like, ‘Oh OK, bitch. That's how you feel? Good to know,’" she says. “It’s about finally looking at myself and being like, ‘Oh OK, you're all right. You're still here. It's all good. Accept yourself. Love yourself.”
While other stars in the mid-aughts were in the limelight, JoJo was off the grid — and struggling. “The behaviors that I engaged in could've easily led to me not being here anymore,” she says of the experiences she documented on the record. “I was not being the smartest with how I was getting home after going to the clubs in LA. I woke up many times and didn't know how I got home. I had a total disregard for myself and others.”
One of the songs on Good To Know, “Pedialyte,” is a reminder of those emotional and physical hangovers. “I used to want to get out of my mind because I was uncomfortable within myself, and I wanted to escape reality,” she recalls. As she’s gotten older, the singer found herself moving away from the coping-mechanism behaviors she once relied on.“I actually like myself better when I'm in control of my words and my faculties, and I know that I'm not going to embarrass myself and need to apologize for something in the morning,” she says.
Finding this control also meant revisiting old ground. Her protracted legal battle with her label prevented her music from being available on streaming services and iTunes, so in 2018 she re-recorded vocals and production on her first two albums. “To be able to own the masters and then make money from these new versions, and be able to have the creators of the songs make money, it did make me feel like a businesswoman,” she says. She’s a long way from the 13-year-old girl who released her first Billboard hit, surviving the darkness of the music industry and her own demons. “I've been a businesswoman since before I was an adult, but this was a move that made me feel powerful, and I hadn't felt that in awhile.”
Considering her past personal chaos, and the current global chaos, JoJo is pretty thankful to be where she is right now. Her mom, who played assistant photog on Bustle’s virtual photo shoot, recently moved to Los Angeles from her home state of Massachusetts to be closer to her daughter. She’s keeping busy having FaceTime happy hours with family and friends. Oh, and she’s back to going viral. In late March, she flipped “Leave (Get Out)” into “Chill (Stay In),” to urge fans to quarantine. Lyrics like "I've been waiting all day here for ya babe/So won't cha come and sit and talk to me” are now pandemic-friendly verses like “I never thought corona could be such a nasty b*tch/But now that she's here, boy, all I want/Is for you to use common sense.” Since its release, the song’s racked up over half a million views on YouTube. “I'm glad that it made people laugh because I think that that's medicine right now for us,” she says.
Virtual photography by Tory Rust
Assisted by Diana Levesque
Makeup consultation by Ashleigh Ciucci