It's Never Too Little, Too Late for Singer JoJo Levesque

The chart-topping pop star reemerges with a more mature identity and a new album after a decade of radio silence.

Joanna Levesque was born in Brattleboro, Vermont, and she grew up in Foxboro, Massachusetts—near Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots—with her mother in a one-bedroom apartment.

Her friends call her Jo or Joanna, but the world knows her as JoJo. She hit it big back in 2004, at the tender age of 13, the youngest solo artist in history to have a No. 1 single on Billboard’s pop singles chart with “Leave (Get Out)” from her eponymous debut album. Two years later, the single “Too Little Too Late” from her second album, “The High Road,” reached No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

And then JoJo went dark. She had a couple of small movie roles and continued to write songs—hundreds of them, she says—but she was tangled up in a legal dispute with her record company, Blackground Records. A decade and two lawsuits later, JoJo signed with Atlantic Records in 2013.

She actually played a show in Cambridge, back in December, at The Sinclair. It was part of her North American headline tour "I am JoJo." She plans to continue touring in 2016.

JoJo is on the eve of a solo album release, her first as an adult. She speaks to us from Los Angeles, where she moved six years ago.

She deflects a question about her “former roots” with the riposte. “Former roots? Forever roots honey! I’m definitely an East Coast girl,” she says. “Just because I live on the West Coast, does not make me a West Coast girl. I bleed [Celtics] green, for sure.”

“New England is my home; it’s my heart. I have the state of Massachusetts tattooed on my ribs and a shamrock on my right hand. I still have a condo in South Boston. I would love to return back, and I will. I want to have a family some day and raise little New Englanders.”

And even while LA is her temporary abode until she can return to Boston to establish roots, JoJo still knows how to do Boston right. We asked her to give us her recommendations for exploring Boston.

The Where Interview: Checking in With Joanna "JoJo" Levesque

People may think of you as the innocent young pop singer they used to know, but fans are about to see a very grown-up you. Do you think they’ll stick with you?

Oh, absolutely. My fan base is incredibly passionate and supportive. It’s a very unique situation that I’m in, having started so young and experiencing such success, and then to have those people stay with me through so much adversity. I had to sue my record label twice and fight for my freedom. It gives me a different perspective than other people who started young and continued on with that ascension. The [new] music reflects where I’m at, at 25. It would be really inappropriate if I continued to make music that sounded like I did when I was 13.

What do you think the major differences are both musically and personally?

Well, the 13-to-15-year-old me had never been kissed and the 25-year-old me has kissed a few frogs. That’s going to make a difference. I’m a woman now. I’m a homeowner. I’m a lover. I’m a fighter. I’m a giver. I’m a friend. I’m a professional. I’ve seen the world, and, of course, it does shape you. I think when you’re a teenager you think you have it all figured out. But now I know I have so much more to grow.

It’s probably not your favorite topic, but can you give us the short version of your absence from the spotlight?

I signed to an independent company that was distributed through a major company when I was 12 years old, and I was locked into a contract with no time expiration. The company no longer had means to distribute me and really wasn’t interested in being in the music industry anymore, but they wouldn’t let me go. A lot of things contributed to me having to sue them, to find a loophole in the New York law that said that you couldn’t hold someone to a personal services contract for more than seven years, and I was with them from [age] 12 to 22, 10 years of my life. Thankfully, my fans stuck by me and I was able to release free music on the Internet via mix tapes [“Can’t Take That Away from Me” in 2010, and “Agape” in 2012] to continue that connection and relationship with them.

Say Love,” “When Love Hurts” and “Save My Soul,” the three songs that make up your ‘tringle’ release called “III,” each have about 4 million hits. Did you expect that kind of traffic?

Whenever you put your music out there’s always that ‘what-if’ how it's going to be received, so I had no idea what to expect. I knew there would be a certain base that came out for me, but the overwhelming love and support definitely surprised me in an amazing way. The ‘tringle’ was a stand-alone introduction for me. I can’t wait to put out [more] content and get on with the rest of my life.

What is your album release plan?

It has to come out this year [2016], but I don’t have a date. I’m taking March to finish up the recording and finalize the track listings. Then, we’ll mix it and master it. So, it’s looking more toward the fall. I am definitely going to be touring through summer, fall and the end of the year, which I’m so amped about.

You must have had quite a backlog of songs from which to choose.

Oh, I have hundreds of songs from the past few years, and I’ve recorded 70 songs in the past-year-and a half. I started fresh when I signed to Atlantic and that feels like a new chapter. I’m not choosing from those [songs that] I wrote previously for my former label.

Is this process like shedding your skin?

It’s more a toughening of skin—not really a shedding of one, just a new development. I don’t feel like a new person because I’ve continued to grow in the past few years. I might seem quite different to them, but I’ve just been living my life and living my truth.

Including some ink are we seeing on you?

I have a “truth” tattoo. A serenity prayer wrapped around like a bracelet. I have a T-rex. I have a map of the world. A treble clef on my marriage finger, and a few other ones. 

What’s the upside of being away from the spotlight?

I think it gave me the opportunity to develop into a young woman without having to make that often-uncomfortable transition of being an innocent teen star into being a more actualized adult. I got to do that in my own time, and I feel very comfortable with who I am. I think going through the ups and downs made me realize what’s really important—family, being a good person, being someone people can depend on, working hard, fighting for what you believe in and being resilient.

When you were approaching your new music, did you think, “Where is the pop landscape of 2016 and how do I get there?”

I guess we considered what was going on with music, and I looked at the landscape and said, “Where does it make sense for me to position myself?” But, the thing is, I’ve been in the studio for the past seven years. I never stopped. It’s not like I’m getting comfortable in the studio again. With the album, I’m very focused on asserting my identity and telling my story in my way.

What can you say about that identity now?

I’ve always been a little rough around the edges, and I still am. I’m a small-town girl, and I have big dreams, and I’m still going after them. The sound reflects that. There’s a lot of determination and a lot of different influences you can hear on it. I sing from my heart. I’m a soul singer who’s making pop music, and you can hear more hard-hitting beats under it. I’m just excited to sing about love of all kinds. That’s what really moves me: love.

Of what singer would you say, she’s used her voice in a way I’d like to use mine?

I think Beyonce’s mastery of her voice is to be super respected, the way she studied opera and knows the Arabic scale. She can do so many different things with her voice, from making it sound absolutely angelic to making it sound gritty and raw. She has mastered her own voice and that’s what I aim to do.

During your absence from the music world, you were accepted at Northeastern to study sociology. Is it still a possibility that you’ll go?

I’d love to go. I met with the heads of the sociology department, and I would really love to do that eventually … and I want to come home to Boston to do that.

Music may prevent that from happening for a while. How far into the future do you see your career?

I want to do this until I’m 70. I think of Tina Turner and Cher and Madonna.

There were young teen stars before you like Tiffany and Britney, and there are certainly more these days. What advice can you offer young performers?

It’s hard to give advice to a 13-year-old. Are they really going to listen? So, I would say: Be nice to your parents, don’t drop out of school, don’t be a shithead and don’t let ‘yes people’ get too close to you.

Jim Sullivan
About the author
As former staff music writer for The Boston Globe and a contributor to myriad publications including The Boston Phoenix ...