'Never Let Anyone Make You Feel Small': Rochelle Jordan Is Done Being Boxed In

As she releases her new album Play With The Changes, the Toronto-raised and UK-born singer opens up about the personal struggles behind her hiatus and more.

Rochelle Jordan

Image via Paige Strabala

Rochelle Jordan

Rochelle Jordan’s hyperkinetic “Got ‘Em” was one of the first sonically arresting tracks to drop at the top of 2021. With lyrics like, “We could go back to the 405/401 to the city lights” over 2-step garage beats, the track not only encapsulates the diasporic journey Jordan’s music is negotiating, but also the navigational path her own life has taken. Not only is she lyrically referencing major highways in Los Angeles and Toronto, the musical bed on which her vocals rest evokes the sounds of ’90s UK garage. In doing so, Jordan synthesizes the geographical strands with seemingly effortless aplomb, asserting her current musical agenda. 

With the formidable motivational mission statement of “Got ‘Em” in hand, Jordan has followed up that impressive initial missive with “All Along,” “Next 2 You,” and “Something,” representing an impressive array of singles that seamlessly mesh her voice interweaving between everything from R&B, house, garage, and electronic music. All these aforementioned tracks are featured on Jordan’s excellent new full-length project Play With The Changes, out today on electronic artist TOKIMONSTA’s Young Art label. It represents the first full-length from Jordan since 2014’s 1021, representing a seven-year hiatus.

Back then, 1021—Jordan’s follow-up to her buzz-building independent releases ROJO (2011) and Pressure (2012)—blazed a trail across the influential 2010s blog scene with atmospheric, ethereal R&B tracks like “Follow Me” and “Lowkey,” crafted in collaboration with longtime producer KLSH. Jordan’s music garnered her favourable comparisons to Aaliyah for her feathery, layered vocals and fondness for adventurous, futuristic musical arrangements, earning her a fiercely loyal cadre of fans.

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Now re-emerging with a new album in tow, the L.A. based, Toronto-raised and UK-born singer has clearly taken time in the interim to tap deeply into her musical heritage and familial lineage. Indeed, Jordan’s immersive blending of various musical styles is authentically related to her background. Jordan has retained a strong connection to the Black musical styles that have developed in her birthplace and that is highly evident on her new album. But it is with Toronto that she has a special affinity. “It is family, it is friends, it is culture,” says Jordan of the city.

“It’s forever going to be the place that I go to, to find inspiration. It’s going to forever be the place that I go to, to find rest, to reset, to remember the cruel and beautiful beginning, you know? So it does mean a lot to me. I can be a million miles away, but it’s going to be home forever.”

Toronto is also where Jordan made her first musical forays as an artist; she has fond memories of hanging out with her cousin and his musician friends at Humber College and popping into Queen Street jazz clubs where she’d watch musicians like Snarky Puppy’s acclaimed drummer Larnell Lewis play intimate gigs.

Despite the nostalgic ’90s throwback feel of the R&B and UK garage on some of the album’s tracks, Jordan’s songwriting incorporates some topical, if not soberingly timeless themes, especially when dealing with the issue of anti-Black racism on tracks like “Lay.” The production on the track is noticeably stripped down from the other songs on the album to highlight Jordan’s voice to underscore the importance of the heartfelt message in the song.

It’s just one example of the intimate and introspective songwriting behind the infectious BPMs provided by Jordan’s go-to producers KLSH, Machinedrum, and Jimmy Edgar. “I’m very picky with my producers and their production,” says Jordan. ”I always try to find their most jarring music. Like, they’ll send me something and it’s too easy. And I’m like, ‘Send me something that’s kind of a bar. I want the challenge. I need it.’ That’s the way I find my melodies.” 

It’s no wonder, then, that in announcing Play With The Changes on her Twitter feed, Jordan described the new album as her “loudest and proudest work to date.” Complex caught up with Jordan in Los Angeles for a deep and revealing conversation to discuss the evolution of her sound, those Aaliyah comparisons, and the personal struggles behind her extended hiatus, among other things. The interview, condensed and edited for clarity, is below.


The influence of UK garage and 2-step is definitely in your singles you’ve released so far. Why do you think it’s still important—because you not only left England, you left Toronto—to kind of harken back to collect your roots musically? Why do you think it’s important to represent that kind of sound in what you’re doing right now, even though you’re not there?
I think when it comes to what I’m honing in on, or what you’re hearing from me, the best way to put this is that it’s more of an identity thing. And staying true to what I’ve always loved. For this specific project, I made it a mission to basically dismiss myself from a lot of what was going on currently in the music industry. For me, it was not about playing things over and over again. I really wanted to create a space and a bit of silence in my mind, so that I could channel a lot of the music that I listened to growing up as an adolescent. Moving from the UK, at the age of four, I was fairly young. But my brother, he was ten years older than me. And he was into all kinds of amazing music, bringing over briefcases filled with cassettes that were unnamed from the UK, and then my eldest brother—he’s stayed in the UK—so he was also sending my other brother music as well. As a young child, I’m just listening to everything from Shut Up and Dance to the Artful Dodger, the Sounds of Blackness, all kinds of gospel house records, and I can’t even tell you who a lot of them were. But I know the songs. I know the chord progressions. I know the harmonies, I know the melodies. And that’s the moment when I really fell in love with music at a very young age. And at that point is when I made the decision to kind of take music seriously as a young child. So anyway, to just reference back to why I’m kind of honing in on the sound of the UK or maybe influences from Canadian music, or whatever the identity is of Toronto music right now, it’s because it’s important to me to stay true to my identity. It’s important for me to create music from a space of love versus pressure or boxes. I just want to hear things that challenge me, as well in music. 

KLSH is obviously able to connect with you musically in terms of what you want. What’s that creative relationship like? I’m not sure what his musical background is, but he definitely is able to channel that music very well.
He’s so incredibly talented. And he is better off telling his story. But he comes also from a background, as an adolescent, of being suddenly inspired by certain things that were being played and a lot of gospel music, like Fred Hammond, Kiki Sheard, Kim Burrell, down to The Neptunes. And he’s from Virginia Beach as well. So he was in that whole forum, he was a part of those guys, he was in the studio with them. The way we found each other was through YouTube; I was posting some, you know, covers of me singing. And he was looking for an artist at the time. We were fairly young, like in our early twenties, you know, coming out of our teens and just being experimental. But I remember, from the age of 18 to 20, I was on the hunt for production. I knew I wanted to do this. And I was experimenting with a couple of producers from [Toronto] as well. And, you know, as much as we were creating amazing music, it never really connected for me. I was still searching. And the moment that I heard KLSH’s music, when we found each other on YouTube, I just knew instantly that he had his own identity. He was making music from a place of imagination and excitement for me, sonically. What I was hearing was very exciting. So, because we had that same mindset in terms of creating music, I think the chemistry, everything just kind of came together. It’s just incredible the growth that I’ve heard from him, and myself. I guess it’s just the stars aligning in terms of finding my person that could create sounds around me. 

Rochelle Jordan
Play With the Changes is an evolved version of myself. It is me stepping outside of what I boxed myself into, due to maybe others’ expectations of myself.”

Can you talk a little bit about what the title Play With The Changes is referring to?
The past five years of my life have really been a challenge for me as an artist, as a person, as a human. It’s just the change of reality. It’s the cocoon to a butterfly; it’s painful, it’s terrible, but it’s beautiful. And it’s necessary for growth, right? Hopefully you come out on the other side swinging and then you’re good. But it’s needed regardless. And so Play With the Changes definitely represents a twofold mindset. The first one being just me being playful with the music. This time around, stepping away from maybe my more emo, lo-fi R&B sound, which, obviously, I will always dwell in—and that’s where I’m rooted—but just being more playful, taking people on a ride, a roller coaster. I kind of thought to myself during creation, Am I going to alienate my fans that don’t know me for the side of myself that’s very playful and imaginative ? I’m rooted in dance music as well and drum and bass and garage or whatever you want to call it. Like, Is it going to alienate them? But I thought to myself, again, change is good. Change is always needed. That’s basically what I’m trying to say on that fold. And then on the other side, it’s just trying to find the positivity and change in life as well. Because again, change brings about growth, and if you’re not growing, you’re dead, you’re not going to move. And I just wanted to put a positive connotation on it, versus a fearful one, which change usually basks in. There’s a lot of fear that comes with it. And I just wanted to change my mindset on that and change others as well.

Like you’re saying, there’s a personal side to this. And I noticed that you posted on Twitter this really personal note where you mention depression and anxiety. And I’m not trying to minimize those things, because those are real things that people go through, but you also said that you haven’t released new music in a while because of the longest story ever. Can you talk about what version of that story of what you’re comfortable in sharing?
Of course, yeah. Some people, you know, get signed at an early age and blow up into stardom. There’s others that sign and you never hear from them. And then there’s someone like me that came out in the blog era where I was able to just attract people to my music, you know, praise God, and be one of the pioneers. And after 1021 came out, after being independent for as long as I was, just dropping music left, right, and centre all the time, like it was nothing, I think I had felt the artist’s exhaustion starting to hit me.

I was a little bit tormented by the fact that I put out this record, and I wasn’t seeing much coming from it. I was very angsty and I was disappointed. And I was becoming fearful. And I was then starting to torment myself as an artist, like, What’s going on? And it’s funny now, cause throughout the years, even me being completely M.I.A., I get messages every day about 1021, and what it’s meant to people along their way. People that have been depressed, or I’ve walked them through certain situations in their life, I know that there was a reason for that. I understand the value of it now, and how music works. And sometimes it needs time. But after 1021, I couldn’t see that. And the inner saboteur was starting to hit down. And in that time, I ended up falling into a situation where I had somebody who was down to support the record, who was a quite well known person. And this person, I definitely felt like they had good intentions, and they were able to provide me with a lot of things that I needed at the time to start the beginning process of what would be Play With The Changes. But there was another side to that. I felt at times that I was made to feel like I was working for this person, versus the other way around. I was made to feel that this would never happen, almost, without them. I kind of felt cornered in a way. And, thankfully, I had KLSH, I had Machinedrum, and all these amazing producers that I was working with, at the time anyway, and just amazing people  generally speaking so that I was still able to create through whatever business situations were going on. But I hit a wall, you know? And, you know, it was like a rollercoaster of emotions. But I went down into a depression feeling like this person, as much as I felt like they were doing things for me, they really weren’t ready, they weren’t trying to move. So the time was starting to dwindle. And I was getting panicked and freaked out and I just didn’t feel like I had strength anymore to even get out of it. And I had to really fight within myself and find almost that bitch within me to become strong enough to literally cut that situation off and do it in a way that was a little bit ruthless, in my opinion, but good, because it needed to happen. 

That was a spiritual thing that happened to make me get into the mode of understanding my worth again, my value again, what I came here to do, my purpose, finding strength, finding my voice again. It sparked the lesson in me to never forget your worth as an artist, never forget what you came here to do. Never let anyone make you feel small. That’s a small story of it, you know, but that takes time to learn these things. You got to go through it to understand it in depth, so that you can be an example for the next artist and an example for yourself as to where you see your future now. There’s a lot of emotion, a lot of anxiety that comes with these kinds of stories. But honestly, it’s interesting, looking back in retrospect, because I know it happened for a reason. This project had many different titles, many different names in a five year span. And now everything feels so right, from even joining forces with TOKIMONSTA’s label and just understanding what real support looks like. What real creative control looks like, with real people that are passionate about your music, that want to see it fly. They’re not just impressed with it and like you, but they want to see it go. And there’s a common goal in mind. I know what that feels like now, off of what I had experienced prior. And that counts for a lot for me at this point. The sound of the music from the team that I have now, from that experience, it was literally just a setup from God, even if it hurt. Those were the changes that needed to happen. And I’m really happy that it worked out the way it did, for sure.

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Thanks for sharing that. It feels like I understand now, when I saw in that same note that you said this is your “proudest and loudest” body of work, I think I get a sense of why that is now. It’s way deeper than just the sound of the record. 
You got it. Yeah, there’s definitely a spirit in there, like a fighter spirit, you know?

So if we can talk about some of the songwriting, because I feel like some of these things you just touched on are now when I listen, I would listen to them in a way now that would be informed by that. Like, I think “Got ‘Em” might be the endpoint of some of what you’re talking about.

And then a song like “Broken Steel,” I get a sense thematically that this song was about some of this. Was the writing of these songs cathartic in this process for you, and if so, which songs particularly speak to that feeling?
It’s funny, because I’m a writer, where a lot of the times I don’t really feel much in control about what I’m even writing about. Like, I mean, all of my songs, I write them while I’m recording them. I’m literally right there on the mic. And, I’m thinking and I’m just singing things out. It’s funny that you say you can kind of hear what I’m saying through the story that I might have told you. And it’s the same thing for me. Now, when I listen back, I’m like, Ah, that’s the energy that I had. “Broken Steel” was really a story for a song that reflects on the plight of a Black woman and the emotion behind some of the negative stereotypes that society holds for Black women. Like, “You’re so strong, you can take anything. You’re frickin’ made of steel.” And so I was kind of being sarcastic when I said, “Well, I guess I’m broken steel,” because steel doesn’t break that easily, you know? So then maybe we’re not steel, maybe we’re soft and delicate. Maybe I have strength that’s created from a world that’s always taking pieces of who I am without anything worth trading, but I’m still soft. And some of these negative stereotypes and stigmas that have been placed on Black women, it completely devours us. Even when I think about having sickle cell anemia, and my experiences being in hospital and going into the emergency room and not being taken seriously. You know, a doctor saying that he doesn’t see my hemoglobin count is that much lower, you know? So am I really in that much pain? “Do I need to give you medication? You can do this.” And it’s just like, this is because “You are strong!” Looking at Black women, you know, demonizing them in that sense. And, on that record, specifically, I didn’t want to come at it from a point of like, “You did this and you did that!” It was more to reflect on the emotion. In the nighttime, you know, I lose it for real, watching as my cup overfills,  losing all my sense of what I feel. It becomes exhausting. I really wanted to paint that picture so that people could empathize with that, empathize as a human being. 

And you know, the same kind of thing goes into “Lay” as well as the perspective of a Black woman losing her son, losing her husband, losing her brother to police brutality. Just reflecting again on the anxiety of watching your significant other walk out the door, with all that’s going on, wondering if they’re ever going to come back. This is a traumatizing feeling. And, you know, I don’t know where the words came from. I often say that I’m just a vessel that helps me deal and cope with the fact that I’m not in control. So I don’t have to pressure myself to be in control. But yeah, I think over the past two years, with everything that’s been going on, from the Black Lives Matter movement, and also COVID, and all these things, losing people at such an alarming rate, the words just flew out naturally. And yeah, that’s kind of where I left it. But there’s different spirits within this album for sure.

Rochelle Jordan

So earlier, when you were talking about this whole process that you’ve been through in the last few years, and you were talking about 1021, which I haven’t really mentioned at all here. A lot of people were comparing you to Aaliyah at that point. How do you feel like you’ve evolved sonically, like in terms of the sound of what you’re doing, because back then it seemed to lean more towards straight-ahead R&B?
Well, if I take you back to even before the ROJO project, we had a project that’s very ancient, and it’s called Alien Phase. And that was around the first time me and KLSH had been working together. And again, the conversation for us was, “How do we do what The Neptunes did with Kelis?” I’m gonna be honest, Aaliyah wasn’t a part of the conversation. It was Amerie and [producer] Rich [Harrison]. And we were just like,How do we create our voice?’ So there was a lot of experimenting that was happening, there were a lot of, you know, electronic, rhythmic songs that we were playing with at the time. And after that, that’s when we were like, “OK, let’s release some music into the ether.” “How to Feel,” which was one single off ROJO, that one is what got the attention of the masses in the blog era. And the conversation was, “Who is this girl? She kind of sounds like Aaliyah, we’re freaking out over here.” And me and KLSH were like, What? We didn’t even have Aaliyah in mind at all. So we were a little shocked.

But I think that because people liked that sound and then I threw out another one called “Take Time” that was also ’90s influenced, we were feeding the people what they loved. And we realized, Wow, they really liked this kind of sound from us. So, we had a moment of drifting from maybe our more experimental side to giving into, you know, what people were loving, because we love to make music generally. So it didn’t really bother us too much. But we were like, “OK, let’s just go down this route.” And after that came Pressure and we were like, “OK, how do we kind of step away from the ’90s sound a bit?” And then it goes on to 1021. That was kind of me slowly starting to think to myself, I want to be more experimental again. I want to get into something different. When you listen to “Ease Your Mind,” “There You Go,” and “Good One,” with a little bit of a drum and bass undertone to it, I was thinking about these things. I really was. And so after 1021, I said to KLSH, “I want to go back to our original thought process when we were owning it on our route.” Like, what are the things that really caused us to make music? What does that sound like? What was the culture ? What we were listening to? And so it was a mash up of things.

it was really important for me also on this record, to really find my voice even more so because I’ve always had a voice. I know people always reference Aaliyah with me, and maybe it’s a similar inflection, or maybe the tone of our voice can be quite similar sometimes. And I can recognize that, but my identity is very important to me, and I can’t hold a candle for anyone. And I didn’t want that to be the expectation and whether it was or not, you know, I have to break that. And it’s not that I was running away from that comparison. But it’s just like, you know, “Who is Rochelle? What does she sound like, right now? What does the future Rochelle sound like, right now?” So I think Play With the Changes is an evolved version of myself. It is me stepping outside of what I boxed myself into, due to maybe others’ expectations of myself; it is me, showcasing my range, and the diversity that I have within me. I’m a mash up of different cultures. so why not express that on record? And yeah, forever pushing forward is the identity. But I feel like right now it’s important for people to expand—especially Black people—expand out of the zones that you feel like you’ve been deliberately pushed to. When I think about electronic music, dance, music, house music, drum and bass, jungle, garage music, these are Black people that started this. You know, the Black, LGBTQAI+ community that has started a lot of this stuff. So we belong in these other spaces. Whatever comes with that, whatever backlash, whatever pushback, it doesn’t matter. We need to expand as a people and not get so caught up on numbers and the pressure of fitting a certain mould. We are a diverse people. And I feel like I wanted to stay true to that concept and really live it and create it in hopes that whoever’s coming up under me will be inspired to find something within themselves to bring something new to the generations ahead of us.

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