Jessie Reyez was conflicted about dropping her debut album, Before Love Came to Kill Us, today. In fact, she still is. You get why. For one thing, there's that whole global pandemic going on, taking lives and wrecking economies and forcing us all to live indefinitely in Hobbit holes. For another, the project is kinda, sorta steeped in death. I mean, it's right there in the title. On the album's cover, the Toronto-bred singer-songwriter is posted up in a cemetery. There's also a single titled "Coffin," in which she and Eminem act out a lover's spat resolved by both parties leaping off a roof.
If you know Reyez, you know she likes her love served up with a chaser of savagery. "Fuck being delicate," she sang on her Grammy-nominated 2018 EP Being Human in Public, and she damn well meant it. On the Colombian-Canadian's impressive first full-length, she sings feverishly about fighting and fucking and blowing out brains. "Nobody gets out of love alive/We either break up when we're young or say goodbye when we die," she croons on doo-wop slow jam "Kill Us." And that's pretty much the thesis. Brutal, but honest.
Her album was meant "to act as a trigger to make people more aware of the fragility of life and to take that into everyday decisions," Reyez tells me. "However, that's part of the reason that I was struggling to [release it], because it's just so blatantly about mortality. Considering everything that's happening in the world, it seems more like a theme song for what's going on."
Sure, given the current state of things, Reyez' new LP may appear a bit on-the-nose, but it's also extremely in-the-feels. At least I think so. If you happen to be experiencing heartbreak in the time of self-isolation—which, alright, full disclosure: I am—then on this record Jessie will be your cost-effective therapist (no Zoom sesh necessary). Sometimes sweet, sometimes scornful, she digs into all manner of relationship issues over all manner of genres—from arena-pop fantasies of shooting cheating exes ("Do You Love Her") to downtempo R&B pleas to emotionally-compromised partners ("Imported")—with face-slapping conviction and charisma. And by the end of it, despite the album's morbid themes and world's present doomsday vibe, you will feel alive.
We talked to Reyez about releasing her debut long-spinner amid coronavirus, working with Eminem, and my breakup.
How you doin', Jessie?
I'm good, man. You know, at home. Hunkered down. Quarantine life.
Same, same. How have you been keeping sane while social distancing?
To be honest, well fuck. For me, personally speaking, from a completely selfish perspective, it's not far removed from my reality when I'm not working. Since I'm around people so much, when I have time to relax, I usually take the time by myself for as long as I can. So I tend to be on my own. It's normal for me in that regard. But, of course, with the tour [with Billie Eilish] being cancelled, and just seeing how this pandemic has been affecting people around the world, and how people are stranded in different countries because the borders are closed, it's just insane, man. It's insane. It's so insane it makes music just seem unimportant. Like, there was a solid moment where I just thought I was going to postpone the album. And I'm not sure if I'm making the right decision by dropping it, but I am leaning into it.
Why the hesitation?
Because a week ago I was going to post something about the album and I just felt weird promoting myself during a time when the global community is facing a pandemic. It just felt strange. So I talked to my team and they said, "Listen, we get where you're coming from, but there's also partners involved and there's people who had already bought the album and are anticipating it." But they said they'd be down to do whatever my soul ended up leaning towards.
I was still conflicted, but luckily, there's social media, so I went on Instagram and I did one of those public polls. And I got 97 percent of people being like, "No, fuck that. You need to drop this album." [Laughs.] I just took the messages to heart. People said it would matter and that music is something to look forward to, and that even if everything is paused right now in the world of commerce and society, it doesn't mean that humanity stops. It doesn't mean that relationships stop or that love stops or that music stops. So I'm releasing it.
I don't think music is pointless in times of crisis!
There's moments where I feel conviction in wanting to put it out because I feel like if it helps someone not feel alone during these times—someone that might be quarantined away from their family, somebody that might be missing their ex and can't do anything about it—then it'll help me feel justified in dropping it. But simultaneously, it's difficult when you're literally reading articles about different realities that people are facing, you know?
"I'm the last person who should be offering any sort of advice regarding love. That's like asking a teacher that failed high school and elementary to tell you how to solve an equation."
Well, I can tell you I've been going through sort of a breakup myself, and your album's really been helping me survive it during self-isolation.
Aw fuck, man. I'm sorry. But I'm happy it's been helping you. When it rains, it pours. It must not be easy, especially during this time, to deal with a breakup. And then on top of that with corona going on and affecting your whole life.
It's been tough! Maybe you can give me some advice: Should I text my ex during quarantine? Is that a good idea?
Jesus Christ. [Laughs.] I don't know, man! Yo, first of all, I feel like I'm the last person who should be offering any sort of advice regarding love. That's like asking a teacher that failed high school and elementary to tell you how to solve an equation. Like, I'm not sure. But you know what, man? If you do message them and they don't answer you, at least you'll have it in stone that it's not meant to be, because they literally have nothing else to do. So if they're not fucking answering you now, and they have all this time on their hands, then you just gotta move on, because then they just don't care, you know? If there's any silver lining there, I think maybe that might be it. [Laughs.]
That's right. They're at home like everyone else. For sure they can see their phone!
Yeah! There's no, "Oh I didn't see it" or "I was busy." There's none of that shit. You just ignored it.
How do you usually get over a breakup? What's your process?
For me, personally, I don't know if I can give someone advice on how to successfully do it, because I definitely still struggle with a lot of baggage. I still struggle with trying to heal some old wounds—wounds that are years old. But I think something I've learned is that there is no button. There's no button that's going to fix you tomorrow. It's a constant thing that you just have to be conscious of every day. And if you keep running towards somebody who doesn't love you or who keeps fucking you over, then that's a reflection of lack of self-love. So you have to get to the core of that and learn how to love yourself more and learn how to set a standard for how you treat yourself. You have to talk to yourself like someone you love, because how could you talk to yourself like shit? And sometimes that happens when a person we love isn't reciprocating what we feel.
So, that's one of the main things that I've learned: to put the focus more on me and also take responsibility for as many things as I can, because it's harder when you try to blame someone else, and say, "Well, they did this, they did that." Well, that happened and it's done, but everything that's going to happen from this moment forward is now your responsibility. It's my responsibility.
It's dangerous to hinge all your happiness on one person, who you can't control.
Yeah, it's really dangerous. I think I've learned a lot about myself, particularly in my last breakup, where I tried to do that to somebody and it's just impossible. How can someone else be responsible for your happiness? That's impossible. And it's not fair. It has to be your own.
Otherwise your contentment depends on someone who might not be here one day. And then what?
Then you're fucked. Then you get a coffin for two. See, I told you. I'm not the person to ask for advice for this, man! [Laughs.]
Ha, fair enough! Talk about that theme of mortality. Untimeliness aside, why are you so obsessed with it on this album?
Shit. Well, when I was building this album, the whole premise behind it, and title Before Love Came to Kill Us, was to act as a trigger to make people think about their mortality, and also to play with the opposites of love and life and death. You know, usually, it's life and death. But I just thought about crossing together love and death and [illuminating] the sad side of love, which is that nobody gets out of love alive, because even if you guys make it until you're old and grey, somebody has to say goodbye, because somebody has to die first. But then if you believe in like, your spirit coming back and your spirits reuniting, then I think there is a love that exists that [doesn't] depend on life—that's it's beyond it, because your souls will find each other again.
Tell me about working with Eminem. How did that come about, and is he as much of a hard-ass as people think he is?
So, he actually found me on a late-night show years ago. He saw me performing my song "Gatekeeper," and he sent it to his manager. And his manager was like, "If you like that, you should hear this," and sent him some more shit of mine. And then [Eminem's] daughter also liked my music, so she also helped put that in front of him. Eventually our teams got us together in a studio in L.A. And I was hella nervous because sometimes the songs don't come out—even if I'm comfortable with the art, sometimes it's kinda hard. But I was lucky, man. Our session was natural, the chemistry was magical, it just flowed out. And he's sick to work with, even when we were on set. What I really fuck with is that he's sarcastic as fuck, which is the best, because I am also fluent in sarcasm. It was good vibes. He's dope.
It feels like the world's eyes have been on Toronto's hip-hop and R&B artists for a minute now. Now those eyes are on you. What's that like?
We've had hip-hop in the city for years. For decades. You could argue that our hip-hop history goes far back a lot. We have K-Os, we have Kardi, we have Jully. We been had that. I think the only difference now is that we have this global microphone. We finally have the spotlight. The Drake effect isn't a joke. It's Drake, and it's also The Weeknd, it's Justin Bieber, it's Alessia—it's a lot of things. People have has this joke of saying, "What's in the water in Toronto?" But no. We've had that supply. The only difference is we have the spotlight now. I think that's why people feel like talent [from Toronto] is flooding, because everybody here in the city has just kinda been waiting for that shot. And now we got it.