Singer/songwriter Joelle James was born and raised in Murrieta, California, and graduated from Murrieta Valley High School. She began singing at an early age and studied voice at Berklee College of Music. Immediately after graduating, she was signed by Chris Brown, who had discovered her on YouTube. The song she wrote, “Boo’d Up,” recorded by British singer Ella Mai, spent more than a dozen weeks at No. 1 and went platinum, earning the Grammy for Best R&B Song. She is set to appear as herself in the forthcoming feature film #TwoMinutesofFame and she recently announced a music partnership with legendary record executive Doug Morris. She lives in LA.
Jonathan Soroff: On a serious note, you were with Nipsey Hussle the night before he was shot and killed.
Joelle James: Yes. Twenty-four hours before, we were at the Elite Eight basketball game between Gonzaga and Texas Tech, and my manager and Nipsey’s mentor, Big Bob, has a son [Brandone Francis] who plays for Texas Tech, and Nipsey came to support him, his little bro, his family. We were having the time of our lives. It was so much fun.
Thoughts on gun violence in this country? It’s definitely something that needs to change, but I just feel like people are gonna do what they’re gonna do. It’s just a sad truth of the world. I don’t want to say it’s inevitable, but I think Nipsey really stood for positive change. His energy was so contagious. At the basketball game, all the players were trying to step it up because he was there. It’s so sad and unfortunate that everything he preached and stood up for came back and got him.
What was the last thing you said to each other? He said, “Sis, you need to come by the new studio.” He’d just got a brand-new studio of his own in downtown LA. He was like, “I’m starting to focus on music 100% again. You have to come through the studio.” So we had plans to work on music together. We’d just seen each other at the Grammys, and he was super excited that we were both nominated. It was the best feeling in the world. We were super excited about the future.
Stay Tuned: Joelle James, photographed for the Improper by Heather McGrath at Kimpton Nine Zero Hotel / Better Sorts Social Club; La Perla Robe from Saks Fifth Avenue, Earrings from Intermix Boston, Ring from Quadrum
Speaking of the Grammys, was that the best night of your life? It was one of them. I was very excited to have won. I still can’t believe it. But I’m definitely looking forward to more. I hope I have many more nights like that.
Where do you keep your Grammy? I haven’t gotten it yet. I just actually sent in the paperwork. But when I do, I was initially thinking about the really cute mantel in my apartment, but I don’t think I’m gonna do that. I’m gonna leave it for my parents to look at, so they know that all their investment and sacrifices were worth it.
How many times did you rehearse your acceptance speech? I didn’t. I literally was waiting for the word to be announced, and I said to Big Bob, “What do I say?” He gave me bullet points, and I kind of just mushed it all together in my mind, and whatever came out was a little summary of all that.
What was your red carpet secret? The red carpet literally terrifies me. I’m still not used to it. I’m still a newbie. But I think as time goes on, I’ll get better. I just try to suck in, smile, chin up, chest out. [Laughs.]
How does it feel to have your song made famous by an artist other than yourself? I originally wrote it for myself and I recorded it for myself. So at first, it was different to think that, “Wow! My song is blowing up. I can’t believe this!” But it wasn’t me, which was weird, because I never saw myself as solely a songwriter. I saw myself as the artist. So after getting over that, I was really excited to know that I was affecting people with the song. Seeing how they reacted to it and embraced it, I felt like it was right where it needed to be. It was perfect.
Did you really write it in 15 minutes? Yeah. Fifteen to 30 minutes. I don’t know how. It was sent from above. It just came out of me. [Laughs.] I was late to that studio session and, like I said, I really wasn’t a songwriter, so I was just kinda trying to see what would come out. I had to leave, because the next session was coming in, but I heard this track, and I was like, “OK, let me just lay down what I hear.” At the hook, I was kinda scatting. No words. No lyrics. I was thinking, “What am I gonna put right there? It’s not finished.” And I was like, “I think I’m saying, ‘Boo’d up,’ like I’m with my boo. I think I’m just gonna leave it.” It was a wonderful mistake that it turned into the title and the hook. [Laughs.]
It was the summer anthem of 2018. Do you think the time of year a song breaks has anything to do with how well it does? Like slow jams in the summer, or anything like that? I think with “Boo’d Up” in particular, it didn’t matter what season it came out. The meaning of the song is timeless. It’s just a pure love song. I think anytime of year, people would have loved it. I’m glad it was the summer anthem, but I think it’s an anytime anthem. She [Ella Mai] released it in 2017, and I wrote it in 2014, so that song had a long history.
There’s a drug connotation of Boo’d up that has something to do with crystal meth. Were you aware of that? [Laughs.] I don’t know what that is. I’ve heard that, as well, and I don’t know the terminology, but it’s some kind of drug reference. I definitely wasn’t aware of that. I was just thinking of songs like “My Boo,” with Usher and Alicia Keys. At the time, I was in love with this boy, and I wanted to tell him how I felt, and that’s where it came from.
Do you listen to other musical genres? I love jazz. Growing up, I did receive classical training, but it’s definitely not something I’m drawn to personally. I love all types of music, though. I listen to whatever moves me at the time. I really love oldies, country, reggae, rock. But old school music is my favorite.
Joelle James on the cover of the Improper‘s April 24 issue.
Singer who you’d most like to perform one of your songs? For a while, because I was trying this songwriter route, I always wanted Rihanna to take one of my songs. That would be incredible.
Singer you most welcome comparisons to? I don’t really get comparisons vocally, but my favorite singer was Aretha Franklin, for sure. I sang “Think” on Showtime at the Apollo when I was 11. On all those things, I always sang an Aretha song, or Marvin Gaye, or Ray Charles.
So Aretha’s your muse? Her voice, her vocal ability, her ability to convey emotion and tell a story, was literally how I learned how to sing. Her, Whitney and Mariah. Those were my three, but I don’t think anyone’s going to compare me to them. [Laughs.]
Who would you want to collaborate with? John Mayer. He went to Berklee, as well.
How about a duet? Well, I did a duet with Chris Brown for Kevin Hart’s film What Now? We took the song, “Can You Stand the Rain” by Boston’s own New Edition and we flipped it and called it “Scream.” That’s my favorite duet that I’ve done.
Who was your favorite boy band? Oh, that’s hard. Obviously, I loved ’NSync. I loved Hanson, which is funny. That was me, back in the day. I loved New Edition, even though it was a bit before my time.
Is there a word that you find yourself overusing? That’s a great question. I’m very particular about that exact thing, to the point that if I do overuse a word, I’ll switch it. That does bother me.
Is there a word you avoid because the pronunciation is difficult? Not really. I took poetry at Berklee with Pat Pattison, and he taught me so much. But the way my process of writing works, I kind of just hear the track, or I have it in my head, and I just go on the mic freestyle. If I can make it rhyme or work while I’m singing, great. But if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.
Is trying to write another major hit like waiting for lightning to strike twice? Do you worry about being a one-hit-wonder? Not really. I wrote that song so many years ago, before I had confidence in my own abilities as a songwriter. Since then, I’ve written so many songs, and I think I have a few more in my pocket.
Do you have another inspiration, like the guy who made you want to write that? [Laughs.] I think life, in general, and whatever is happening to me in the moment, is the inspiration. I can always draw from something I’m going through, or something I see that I have an emotional connection to.
Most important thing you learned at Berklee? That’s tough, because I learned so much. But I guess the main thing, on a personal level, was to network with my peers and colleagues. Now that I’m in the industry, everywhere I turn, there’s somebody who graduated from Berklee. Just keeping in touch with all these amazing, talented musicians. It’s nice to have that foundation.
Growing up in Murrieta, were you the outsider or the popular kid? I was definitely popular, because I always sang as a child. Growing up, I sang at Chargers games, Lakers games. I was the anthem girl. So people knew who I was. I did Star Search and American Idol and Showtime at the Apollo. But I was definitely different. Not a weirdo or an outcast, but kind of a little to myself. I didn’t really fit in. I was always doing my own thing, even within my family. I’m the only musician.
Strangest place where “Boo’d Up” suddenly came on? Well, I definitely remember being in my hometown, which is not a cool, hip place. It’s kind of in the suburbs. And I heard it at the gas station, on the radio. I was like, “Wow. It made it all the way to my hometown. That’s crazy.” I’ve had people send me videos from vacation all over the world, and there were people covering it, and in different languages, in all sorts of places. It’s amazing to think that my song went to all these places.
How do you feel being called the return of female R&B? It’s unbelievable. I always talked about this day with my manager and my team. I always wanted to be a weather changer, not a weather reporter, so I guess the fact that I changed the course of R&B today is so amazing. I’m so grateful.
Favorite R&B ballad of all time? Anything Anita Baker wrote. I actually was wishing Anita Baker would sing “Boo’d Up” when I wrote it. It was all her spirit. I love all of Aretha Franklin. Another favorite is a Stevie Wonder song, “Until You Come Back to Me.” I love that song. I love “I Will Always Love You,” which Dolly Parton wrote for Whitney. “Natural Woman,” which Carole King wrote for Aretha. There’s so many.
Song you find yourself singing in the shower? [Laughs.] I don’t know. Probably an Aretha song.
Song you wish you sang? It’s yet to be written. We’ll see.
One thing you want for your career more than anything? I think the main thing is just to be a career artist. I want to create my legacy through music. I want to sustain. Longevity. ◆
Photographer: Heather McGrath; Stylist: Jenny Wilson / Anchor Artists; Hair and Makeup Artist: Kacie Corbelle / Ennis Inc.; Photo Assistant: Juddy; Wardrobe: Earrings and rings from Quadrum, commando bodysuit; Location: Kimpton Nine Zero Hotel / Better Sorts Social Club