Jhene Aiko Soul Stories

Jhene Aiko Soul Stories
Photo: Milli Moto
One couldn't help but notice a tinge of irony as R&B/soul singer, Jhene Aiko opened with the (noticeably absent) Drake-featured "July" against the very fall-like chill in the air for Manifesto's festival of Community and Culture. However, much like the song itself, Aiko's warm personality belies a cold layer of frustrations with love and mistrust that fuelled her breakout 2011 mixtape, Sailing Soul(s). After being told during a meeting with a label head that she should "sell herself" to be successful, Aiko rejected these comments and would begin pulling together the pieces for her first mixtape. Released to much fanfare and critical acclaim, Sailing Soul(s) re-introduced the once "sensitive" teeny popper as a matured singer-songwriter.

Tragically, a year after the project was released, her older brother Miyagi died of cancer. Despite, these setbacks and a series of troubled relationships, Aiko willingly treads with lyrical buoyancy the troubled waters of emotions with a soulful presence. It's also because of her ability to find strength in her insecurities that Aiko was chosen as a speaker for Manifesto's & the Known Unknown's "Women on the Move: The Last Word," to share stories of empowerment that go beyond her music. Fortunately, music is still her main focus as she is readying the release of her new EP, Sail Out, that will serve as the bridge for her debut album, Souled Out. Exclaim! caught up with the talented artist for a brief chat before her co-headlining performance in Toronto at Manifesto's seventh annual festival to talk about self-love, predicting her own death, and working with Drake on his new album.

In some ways I think your music almost works as a self-help guide about loving yourself, would you agree?
Right. [smiles]

How was it then translating that for people in person for your "Last Word" session [for Manifesto] last night?
I mean for me... my lyrics are just me speaking, you know what I mean? So it's really easy for me to just talk about it. Actually I've always had a problem with public speaking and I would always be like, "If only I could sing this it would be much easier for me," instead of like sugar coating it. Now, I'm just getting used to just [speaking about it]. Like I said my lyrics are for the most part just me talking but with the melody.

You've said in previous interviews that you're avid reader so, if Sail Out was a book what type of book would it be?
If it were a book it would be short stories.

Short stories. About?
About love, sex, and weed. [laughs]

You're clearly very imaginative. I dug up on your tumblr an obituary you had to write for your high school English class that details how the media push you into seclusion and possibly suicide. Is that really how you think it will end?
I... sometimes I'm obsessed with death and I [just] think it's a beautiful thing, you know? I'm very interested in it, inspired by all of that and I hint at it [in my music] because of [my fascination]. I think it would be mysterious in some type of way even if it is a regular way. Have you ever seen Big Fish?

That's a good one.
I love it. It's one of my favourite movies and you don't really know what's true or not by the end of [Edward's] life, but it's just fun [for me] to think of "Was it? What happened?"

Is death another topic you're going to address in your EP and upcoming album?
Definitely on the album. For the EP Sail Out, it's mainly lighter topics while giving you a little glimpse into what happened in-between and after Sailing Souls. [My album] Souled Out is when I'm really digging deeper and that's why we separated the projects, because I wanted to put out new music in the meantime and want it to be a nice smooth transition into me talking about those deeper topics.

Now of course we have to talk about your collaboration with Drake so how did "From Time" come together?
He messaged me and was like, "I think we have to work together again" and I was like yeah. [Our first collaboration] "July" wasn't a really good collaboration, it was a song that I heard and did. So we got together, and he played me some beats and I really loved this one beat and asked if I could take it home with me and he let me spend as much time on it. What I actually wrote was [the song] "Beautiful Ruin" to it, not "From Time." I wasn't saying any of that stuff that's in the [record]. [Watch an acoustic performance of "Beautiful Ruin" here.]

At the last minute when I sent it in I was like, "I'm going to go in the studio, record myself and freestyle something," and I did [the "From Time" verse] in one take and just said what I really thought from his [verse]. I don't really know him like that, but just from what I've seen and what I heard I felt like it was something I wanted to ask and to talk to him about. It's also something I wanted someone to say to me.

Anyway, I sent it in, he liked it and he called me the next week and rapped to me his first verse like, "This is where I'm going with it just so you can lead." So it was a real collaboration and I was very appreciative he made it a collab instead of," I just wrote this hook for you to sing it."

Between the new EP and your upcoming debut album what song emotionally was the hardest to get off your chest?
Probably "Beautiful Ruin." It was just a super personal story. All the stories are personal but that one was like super fresh and it had happened [recently]. I was not sure how to talk about it because the people involved would definitely know and I wrote it right after. Usually, I have to wait for [a situation] to be over to actually write about and sing it. There's also another song called "Promises" with my daughter [on it] and it's like promises to my daughter and to my brother who passed away.