Jessie Reyez: “Death is a big part of who I am”

She’s toured with Billie Eilish and recorded with Eminem, but success hasn’t diluted the uncompromising R&B star

Jessie Reyez should be backstage at the Barclays Center in New York, getting ready to open for Billie Eilish on the North American leg of her ‘Where Do We Go?’ world tour. There should be green room hubbub, soundcheck run-throughs and a nervous walk out onto the stage in front of an intimidating 20,000 people.

Instead she’s some 500 miles away in her apartment in Toronto, alone, surrounded by quiet. The tour has been postponed following the spread of COVID-19 and Reyez and her crew have left the road to enter quarantine.

“We literally got over the border, got off the tour bus and came home,” she explains, seven days into her necessary stint in isolation and clearly missing the road. “It was going well, man. It was going really well!”

Before coronavirus seriously started to shake things up stateside, Eilish and Reyez managed to get three shows under their belts in Miami, Orlando and Raleigh. The Colombian-Canadian R&B singer describes them as “nerve-wracking” but ultimately good experiences. “They were cool,” she sighs. “I would go on stage and by the time I was done it felt like I was leaving with friends. Billie’s dope. Her fans are dope.”

jessie reyez nme cover interview
CREDIT: Philip Harris

The crowds at those shows were lucky and not just because they’re the only ones to have witnessed this version of Eilish’s tour so far. They also got to hear a preview of Reyez’s debut album ‘Before Love Came To Kill Us’ – one of the most hotly anticipated debuts of the year and, at that point, still unreleased.

At one stage, they could have been the only ones to hear some of its tracks for a long time – after the Western world became gripped by fear over this new disease, Reyez contemplated pushing the album back. As its title suggests, it deals heavily with death and mortality, and at one point she wondered if it might be insensitive to put it out in the middle of such a difficult period. So she put a poll on her Instagram Story soliciting opinions from her fans. Fewer than five per cent voted for her to cancel the release.

“Oh, it was definitely mad tough,” she says, noting that taking it to the public was “an indication of how much of an indecisive place I was in”. Her fans’ response, Reyez says, gave her the impetus to stick to her plans and “lean into it”, adding: “Well fuck, if this is what the timing is then I’m just going to have faith that this is what the timing’s supposed to be.”

jessie reyez nme cover interview
Jessie Reyez on the cover of NME

The idea that there’s an end for us at some point – maybe soon, maybe decades down the line – is nothing new in Reyez’s work or life. On ‘Fuck It’, the low-key, dark opening song on her 2017 debut EP ‘Kiddo’, she describes a car crash in a compelling spoken-word intro and later tells an ex: “You’re lucky I didn’t blow your brains out.” If you hadn’t quite got the picture, she made the situation clear a year later on ‘Saint Nobody’, taken from her Grammy-nominated second EP ‘Being Human In Public’. “I think about dying every day,” she sings.

“It’s a big part of who I am and a lot of that I owe to my mum and dad,” she explains. “My dad lost his mum when he was a month old and lost his dad when he was a teenager. My whole life he’s been very matter-of-fact that we live and we die and that’s just a fact of life. My mum has always been very matter-of-fact about tomorrow being your last day. Any time we made plans she’d be like, ‘We’re gonna go to the store tomorrow, if God allows’.”

At first, that might sound morbid – kind of like you’re keeping an eye on your grave and mentally picking out your coffin every morning you wake up – but Reyez manages to bring a positivity to the subject.

“I am up and down, black and white, high and low. I am all those things at the same time”

“Every day you’re paying homage to the fact that man can make plans but God laughs,” she says. “As much as we think our lives are in our hands, if it’s written that it’s gonna all end tomorrow then it’s gonna all end tomorrow. If we embrace that, we know that we’re gonna make the best of today. If someone has to walk away with something [from this album] then I hope they walk away with the idea of life’s urgency.”

Releasing a record about death in the middle of a global pandemic might have seemed potentially insensitive, yet its overarching message makes ‘Before Love Came To Kill Us’ an album we can learn from in a time like this.

Fittingly, given its hard-earned wisdom, Reyez’s journey to reach this point was pretty wonky. As a teenager she auditioned to be part of a girl group and was rejected. Later, when living in Florida for a brief time, she busked on the beach while making a living as a bartender. She used her position behind the bar to bribe club DJs into playing her songs in exchange for shots, and when she went to see bigger names such as Calvin Harris on her nights off, she’d beg them to take her demo CDs.

jessie reyez nme cover interview
CREDIT: Philip Harris

Reyez finally got her break in 2014 when she was accepted into a programme in Toronto called The Remix Project. There, she scored her first major collaboration with Chicago rapper King Louie after he’d held a workshop for her and her classmates. Two years later she released her debut single ‘Figures’, which would prove her big breakthrough moment. After “shitty heartbreak”, she poured her pain into the song, her sadness and anger visceral in a cried chorus of: “I wish I could hurt you back… Tell me, boy, how in the fuck would you feel?” She admits now: “Sometimes it isn’t easy [to perform], but I’m still grateful for that song.”

The musician has since become known as someone who isn’t afraid to imbue her output with strong messages. Her video for 2019‘s ‘Far Away’ portrayed a relationship torn apart by the US’ inhumane approach to immigration. In 2017 she released a 12-minute short film to accompany ‘Gatekeeper’, detailing her experiences of sexual harassment and exploitation in the music industry. But she says that her music isn’t primarily about shining a light on social and political issues: “When you aim with art, you’ve already lost.”

Whatever her intentions, though, the aforementioned tracks have both retained relevance. The latter, she has said, was written after a producer promised her success if she had sex with him – later, other female musicians accused him of doing the same thing. Unlike Hollywood, music has yet to undergo a big #MeToo moment and Reyez says there’s still work to be done in making the industry – and the world at large – safer for women.

“I was able to have the mic and talk openly about [sexual harassment] and set a precedent for anybody that I’m dealing with,” she explains. “But I understand that’s a position of privilege because for a girl that hasn’t put out that song, it still might be mad difficult.”

“It’s nice to be able to make some money from sadness, man”

She sees the issue as being about more than sexual predators lurking behind seemingly professional masks: “I think it stems from the idea of equality and social pressures that are placed on women but not on men. For example, a dude can not wear any makeup and wear a dress shirt and pants to work and it’s fine, but if a girl did that every day she’d get criticised. When that changes more, that’s when things are gonna [get better]. It’s something that comes down to culture rather than headlines.”

Before the dates were scrapped, tourmate Billie Eilish took her own stand on the sexism she and millions of other women face every day. Her set featured a video interlude that showed the teenager removing layer after layer of clothing. “If I wear what is comfortable, I am not a woman,” her voiceover intoned. “If I shed the layers, I’m a slut. Though you’ve never seen my body, you still judge it and judge me for it. Why?”

“Billie’s a legend, man,” Reyez says enthusiastically of that moment. “She’s a legend and she stands in her skin and she stands as who she is. I respect that video so much and I respect her for being able to speak out on that.”

jessie reyez nme cover interview
CREDIT: Philip Harris

Making music has always been the most natural thing in the world for the 28-year-old. “Someone could ask me why I make music and I could ask them why they breathe,” she reasons. Her dad taught her how to play guitar when she was a kid and she began to write her own songs around the age of 11. Reyez was 16 and going through her first heartbreak when she discovered the effect that her creations could have on other people. She played one of her songs for her best friend and they duly burst into tears.

“I was singing about my first love,” she recalls. “I didn’t know if it was any good but I remember it being sad.” It didn’t necessarily feel good to see something she’d written elicit such a strong response; it was, she says, “just different”. Reyez pauses as she looks for an analogy that captures the feeling: “Imagine never touching somebody your whole life and then, one day, you feel skin. It’s kinda like that.”

Around this time she discovered a musician who would become both a source of comfort and a big influence – Amy Winehouse. Much like the late singer, Reyez refuses to put her songs through a filter or water them down, remaining steadfastly honest about her experiences, feelings and life.

“Talking about sexual harassment set a precedent for anybody I’m dealing with”

“I loved Amy so much – her creations, her soul, her ability to put emotions into these sad songs that made me feel like I had a friend in the dark,” she explains, her voice cracking ever so slightly. “It’s difficult when you’re a teenager and you’re going through depression. The first time you get your heart broken you feel like it’s the end of the world. It’s almost like it’s the first time you feel physical pain from something you can’t see. That’s a mind fuck. When I heard Amy, I heard my pain in her voice and it just made me feel less alone.”

Now Reyez has her own fans telling her via DMs and in real life that her music has had a similar impact on them. “That’s wild to me,” she says, dropping her voice to almost a whisper. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that. It’s humbling every time I hear it.”

Though her catalogue does include some upbeat cuts (such as the grimy, party-starting ‘Before Love Came To Kill Us’ track ‘Dope’), Reyez finds it easier to write about the shit that she goes through – and she does so with intensity and vividness. Listening to the album’s lyrics is akin to being repeatedly punched in the gut. This is especially true of the Eminem-assisted ‘Coffin’, in which she describes a toxic but torrid relationship – the kind of all-consuming partnership that feels like it’s constantly about to self-combust. “You make me wanna jump off the roof / ’Cause I love you to death / Just like a fool,” she laments. “I’d rather a coffin / Handmade for two.”

jessie reyez nme cover interview
CREDIT: Philip Harris

“It’s a reflection of my life,” she says firmly of her songs. “If I’m transparent and authentic then that means I’m being honest with the fact that I’m just a kid of polarity. I am up and down. I am black and white. I am high and low. I am all those things at the same time.”

She compares her music to the scenes in Quentin Tarantino movies where another polarity exists – the clash of violence against romance, scenes where lives are extinguished, blood soaks the set and the sophisticated sound of sunny pop tunes twists and twirls in the background. For Reyez, those two contrasting worlds reflect the nature of life itself.

“That’s something true about what it means to be human,” she says. “Look at what we’re going through right now – it’s quarantine, it’s dark, people are losing their lives, people are living in fear of losing their lives. If you talk to five people they’re gonna tell you that, but if you talk to another five people they’re gonna be happy that they’re home with their family or that they get a break from life. That’s just what life is – yin and yang.”

Exorcising her bad times in her songs, she explains, gives them meaning – it’s more positive than just letting them eat away at her. “It’s nice to be able to make some money from sadness, man,” she says with a wry chuckle. “I could make sad songs and be broke but I’m not, so hell yeah!”

“The pain in Amy Winehouse’s voice made me feel less alone”

Yet Reyez’s music has rewarded her with more than financial gain and therapeutic release. ‘Before Love Came To Kill Us’ features her third collaboration with Eminem, following her appearance on his songs ‘Nice Guy’ and ‘Good Guy’, both of which featured on the 2018 album ‘Kamikaze’.

“Being acknowledged by and asked to collaborate with someone that you’ve looked up to as a kid is special,” she explains. “It’s affirmation that I’m on the right path. I remember 8 Mile and seeing him give the middle finger and I was like, ‘This is fucking lit’. I remember hearing ‘Superman’ and being like, ‘This is fucking lit’. It’s an honour.”

Last November, too, Reyez received a big shock when her second EP ‘Being Human In Public’ was nominated for a Grammy. “My jaw hit the floor,” she says of the moment she heard the news. The excitement builds in her voice. “I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a dream – like, I really thought it was a dream and it didn’t help that I had just woken up. I was literally wearing a t-shirt and one sock. It was crazy but it was great.”

jessie reyez nme cover interview
CREDIT: Philip Harris

Her first time at the ceremony, though, was bittersweet. Just before the Los Angeles event got underway, the news broke that basketball legend Kobe Bryant had been killed in a helicopter crash. “It made what we were doing seem really unimportant. I was lucky enough to have my mum and dad with me, which made it tender, but it was sad.”

Reyez has a close relationship with her parents – they join her on the road so she feels like she has a piece of home with her. They motivate her future plans, too. “I’d like to be able to partner with somebody to build an orphanage,” she explains. “I want to name it after my mum because she worked with kids her whole life.”

Like the rest of the world, the star is unsure what her immediate future looks like, aside from the four walls of her apartment: “Fuck,” she says, “it was supposed to be touring and getting ready for summer and festivals and Coachella!”

She’s frustrated but already has a contingency plan – relying on her natural instincts: “The next step right now is more music from my bedroom.” Given her track record at turning lemons into lemonade, there’s little doubt that Jessie Reyez will squeeze something great out of whatever life has planned for us over the coming months.

Jessie Reyez’s album ‘Before Love Came To Kill Us’ is out now.