Jessie Reyez Wants to Fucking Win

"When I am thinking about art, I keep it very pure. But all the goals and accolades and everything else, that's the other side of the spectrum."

Photo: Phillip Harris

BY Vernon AyikuPublished Sep 13, 2022

"Quentin Tarantino on a good day." That's how singer-songwriter Jessie Reyez describes the mood of her new album, Yessie.

Reyez says her favourite Tarantino movie is Kill Bill, but the pop star operates more like a scene from Pulp Fiction — specifically, the one quoting Ezekiel 25:17. In it, Samuel L. Jackson's character recites the holy verse before executing his enemy. A deeper examination of the scripture shows it's all about remembering those who've wronged you and, in Reyez's case, creating beautiful music out of it. That's Yessie: a collection of songs forged from heartbreak, hardships and life, grounded in something spiritual. 
"Science cannot explain the sort of alchemy that takes place in a room where you literally walk in, and things do not exist, and then you walk out, and all of a sudden, things exist. You walked in and created. I feel like that is spiritual," Reyez tells Exclaim! on the line from Los Angeles. She's discussing writing "Mutual Friend," a cutting breakup ballad from her new album, which she wrote in a single evening after having a conversation with a mutual friend of an ex-lover.

"Sometimes you have to work for it, and it's scribble after scribble and little snowballs of paper all over the room because you're searching for it," she reflects. "And some days it just comes, and you don't write anything down — and on those days, I am just grateful, because you feel like an instrument, because it's coming from somewhere you can't explain."

From the beginning, Reyez's appeal has always been her authentic vulnerability and nearly clairvoyant songwriting. She considers herself very guarded. Yet, since the release of her 2016 hit "Figures," fans worldwide have flocked to her for her willingness to be emotionally exposed in her music. So, when Reyez says she feels the most vulnerable she has ever been, it's a reason for fans to be excited about her new project.

"You think the toxicity and darkness and deep-down hurt would be more of a vulnerable place, but because I walked with those walls for so long, this new open and more positive space is definitely outside of my comfort zone," she says.
Leading into Yessie, Reyez has been hyper-focused on her mental health, and now says she feels stronger than ever. This sentiment is reflected in her new music. While her debut feature-length album, Before Love Came to Kill Us, was openly raw, Yessie is sharper, brighter, more observant and self-aware in a way only someone who's been to a lot of therapy can be. "The energy I carry around is different these days," Reyez asserts, "I'm not as consumed by the lows."
Heartbreak is still a major theme of Yessie. That being said, the focal points have shifted, with many songs coming from a softer position, where she is more willing to be the mediator and not the aggressor. This is because Reyez says she now has better tools for dealing with grief. "I never knew how to love without it hurting. I never knew how to love without it becoming all-consuming," Reyez admits. "I am healing, but I don't think healing makes things disappear. It just makes you deal with them different."
What's also different are the global circumstances surrounding the release of Yessie compared to her last album, which Reyez released in March 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic — timing that undermined what was supposed to be the culmination of a lifetime of hard work. On top of that, the pandemic also cut short a North American tour with fellow moody pop star Billie Eilish. This robbed Reyez of the chance to connect with fans and fully reap the benefits of touring after releasing a feature-length album.

Perhaps this is why Reyez is excited to finally hit the road again, taking to Instagram to announce the dates for her North American tour and even manifesting receiving a plaque for selling out all the shows before the album releases on September 16. According to Reyez, maintaining a healthy amount of ambition is part of what keeps her motivated. 

"I am a businesswoman too," Reyez says. "When I'm thinking about art, I keep it very pure. But all the goals and accolades and everything else, that's the other side of the spectrum. It's the other half of legacy. But that second half only comes if I can maintain that purity and keep that holy part."

In other words, don't let Reyez's unassuming demeanour fool you: she wants all the awards and has no problem letting the world know it. "It is the dichotomy; it's the polarity; it is the natural juxtaposition of an artist that wants to fucking win. I wouldn't say I am a purist, but I know what to keep pure."

Even though Reyez is manifesting future Grammys for herself, she still has love for Toronto's buzzing R&B scene, shouting out fellow hometown singers Savannah Ré, Sean Leon and Ebhoni as artists that currently inspire her. "I love to see it. I remember the days when there was a ceiling on the city. So, it is not lost on me that this renaissance is something that is overdue and lit." 

While Reyez is reluctant to admit it, she's arguably at the forefront of Toronto's current R&B explosion, as her success has helped open doors for like-minded artists. "It is very hard to tell you how deep the pool is if I can't feel the floor. I am still swimming. If I even try and articulate that I feel like I have some footing, it feels very counterintuitive, because I feel like I have a very long way to go," she acknowledges.

"I am grateful some people view it that way, but I have some work to do," she says. "I have a few mountains in front of me still."

The first of those mountains is the successful release of Yessie, which Reyez says genuinely excites her. "When I listen to 'MOOD,' the first song on the album, I get amped for so many reasons. It just makes me feel stronger. It is like looking at a capsule of the summary of everything I went through, acknowledging how difficult life is and acknowledging that I have the tools to fucking prosper regardless." 

Jessie Reyez has always been a conduit for pain and suffering, but as she moves toward healing, she hopes to also be a vehicle for change and self-reflection, too. While Yessie is still a collection of songs forged from heartbreak and hardship, the spiritual part is Reyez's new ability to push past the darkness and not sit in it. Still admitting that she's a work in progress, the most endearing facet of Reyez is how sincerely proud she is of how far she's come, both professionally and personally. Yessie is a must-listen for anyone in the thick of learning how to change negative thought patterns and move past toxic relationships. 

"My dad always says this to me: in life, you got to make sure that the highs and lows don't fuck you," Reyez offers. "Don't get too high when the highs get high, and don't get too low when the lows get low, and you will be okay. I just have to remember that and keep it as a baseline. If I am breathing, everything is alright."

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