Jessie Reyez had big things planned for 2020. The Columbian-Canadian R&B singer was poised for full-blown superstardom as the year kicked off, touring with Billie Ellish and releasing her hugely anticipated album Before Love Came to Kill Us—which we spoke with her about earlier this year—with Universal. Then, of course, the coronavirus pandemic hit—and the runaway train that was her career suddenly looked like it was derailing.
But Reyez isn’t one to be easily discouraged, and over the course of the rest of the year, she hasn’t stopped impressing. Her album came out in late March to effusive reviews and dozens of award nominations. She blew up on social media, using her Instagram and Twitter to connect with fans while touring was out of the question. And most memorably, she performed the most socially distant concert imaginable when she kneeled on top of the CN Tower and sang the national anthem before the start of the NBA playoffs, proving that you don’t need a concert hall to wow a crowd.
Now, Reyez is unveiling a brand new track, recorded at home on her own during the downtime of quarantine. She’s teamed up with Google and YouTube Music to release “Prendida” exclusively through Nest Audio Sessions on YouTube Music, and it just goes to show, no matter how tough things get, Jessie Reyez can’t be stopped.
We caught up with Jessie by phone to talk about the new track and her outlook on the next year and beyond.
Tell me about the new song you made for Nest Audio Sessions.
Like every song I write, it’s about my real life. I’m getting to a point where I didn’t want to let myself be burdened by old heartbreak. I’m trying to force my consciousness to the now as opposed to the past. I don’t write a lot of happy songs, to be honest, but this is kind of a happy perspective on heartbreak—because it’s the end of it, you know?
So how did you stop being affected by the heartbreak? What was the emotional breakthrough?
It wasn’t so much a breakthrough, I think, so much as just a natural process. The only constant in life is change, so I don’t think you can stay in heartbreak forever. It was closer to the end of me going through that experience.
"I struggled with depression when we first went into lockdown. It was a lot. I’ve had to really focus on how to find my peace with that."
I tried to Google Translate the title. It seems like “prendida” means something like “turns on”? Is that right?
Well, it’s kind of like an idiom. If you take the literal meaning, then yeah. If you say, "Is the light on?” you’d say, “La luna est prendida.” But if you’re out drinking, and you’ve had like 10 drinks, you’d say, “Yo, is homegirl prendida?” You know what I mean? It means “lit,” in the feminine. So, the song is basically called “lit,” but the feminine version.
So “prendido” is the masculine version, I assume?
I’m going to start using this, so I want to be clear about the conjugation.
[Laughs] Right, exactly, you’re going to get prendido tonight, on a Monday.
We’re in a pandemic! There’s no such thing as Monday anymore.
Pretty much. I agree. We’re kind of living in this grey area of what scheduling is.
You especially have had a strange year. Your album came out like, right at the beginning of the lockdown.
Mmhmm. Yeah, totally. I was on tour, opening up for Billie Eilish, and getting ready to drop the album, going a million miles a minute—and then all of a sudden it was just an abrupt stop. It was definitely intense to go from being on stage with thousands of people to being back in the city, back in my room, and four walls. It was intense. It was drastic. I almost didn’t put the album out.
Really? What made you change your mind?
We’d already delayed it at that point I think twice, because of other factors, so I was apprehensive about doing it again. I figured I could ask in real time, so I went on Instagram, and I was like, "Should I postpone it until after the pandemic?" The album has a lot to do with mortality. It was supposed to be more of a catalyst, because most people go through life without really thinking they’re going to die. We just focus on the future. I’m going to do this next week or next year.
But the pandemic changed that?
It changed the context. It became a comment on mortality and death. It was never supposed to be that—but that’s what it became. It was like a stick and move. You figure it out as you go. I’m glad I decided to drop it. It wasn’t what I expected, and I didn’t even get to play the songs live with my band until two weeks ago. But I also believe that everything happens for a reason, as cliche as that sounds. I think it was meant to come out the way it came out.
"People talk about having to leave Canada and having to go elsewhere to get love—so it’s nice to get it at home."
You did get to perform a song live in the summer—when you did the national anthem on top of the CN Tower before the Raptors played Brooklyn. How did that come together?
The Raptors and me have been wanting to collab for a long time. We wanted to do something a couple of times prior, but the scheduling just didn’t work out, I was always on the road or whatever. My manager mentioned he had this idea, and I was like, fuck yeah, let’s do it! Especially because we were able to sit down and consciously make a decision to make the moment matter more than just music. To make the moment more than an anthem. It was a valid fucking statement, you know? It’s a weird thing to talk about because the moment speaks for itself. But I’m really happy that we were able to do it, and especially with an organization like the Raptors. They’ve been fearlessly vocal this year.
What’s your outlook like for the next little while?
Fuck. I feel like we’re all in the same boat—anyone trying to pretend they know what’s going to happen is just guessing. At the end of the day we don’t know if things are going to get better quicker. I’m kind of just really trying to focus on the now. It’s the best thing for my mentality. I struggled with depression when we first went into lockdown. It was a lot. I’ve had to really focus on how to find my peace with that. So I feel like that’s my outlook. Anything can happen. I’m just grateful I’m alive and the people that I love are alive. Whatever comes is what I’ll deal with.
You’ve been hugely acclaimed in Canada especially, getting Juno and Polaris noms and winning the Prism prize. What does it mean to you to be so embraced at home?
It’s been so nice to get that love. People talk about having to leave Canada and having to go elsewhere to get love—so it’s nice to get it at home. I’m proud of being Canadian. I’m proud of being Columbian-Canadian. It’s not a perfect country, and that’s not to say that racism doesn’t exist here. Sometimes politics gets involved and things get messy. But I’m proud of the times when my art has been appreciated, and especially here at home.