JESSIE REYEZ

From Kens­ing­ton Mar­ket to the 905, a day in the life of Toronto’s next big pop star

NOW Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - By SAMANTHA ED­WARDS

JESSIE REYEZ with Sa­van­nah Ré at the Dan­forth Mu­sic Hall (147 Dan­forth), De­cem­ber 3 & 4, doors 7 pm, all ages. $25-$30. tick­et­mas­ter.ca.

Jessie Reyez is hun­gry.

Sit­ting on the small cov­ered pa­tio of Perola’s, a Latin Amer­i­can gro­cery store in Kens­ing­ton Mar­ket that’s been there since the 1960s, she rips open the tin foil of a freshly made pa­pusa and dumps a pile of hot sauce on her plate.

“These are not ac­tu­ally Colom­bian, they’re El Sal­vado­rian,” she says be­fore tak­ing a bite. “And they’re fire. Oh my god, I’m so happy. This sauce is lit!”

It’s 5 pm on a hot Septem­ber day and this is Reyez’s first proper meal of the day.

I asked the Toronto singer/song­writer to take us some­where sig­nif­i­cant to her, and she’s cho­sen Kens­ing­ton as her first stop af­ter our photo shoot. It’s where she used to busk with her acous­tic gui­tar at the cor­ner of Au­gusta and Col­lege and play open mic nights at The Su­per­mar­ket. It’s also home to some of the city’s best Latin Amer­i­can food, which the Colom­bian-Cana­dian 27-year-old rarely gets to eat when she’s on tour.

Like Bon Bon Bum, a deliri­ously sweet straw­berry-flavoured Colom­bian lol­lipop with bub­ble gum in the cen­tre. (She bought a fam­ily-sized bag.) For dessert af­ter the pa­pusas, she buys a hand­ful of chur­ros from a sidewalk ven­dor across the street and passes me one.

“These chur­ros have dulce de leche in­side,” she says, grin­ning. “They’re deep fried and they’re fuck­ing fresh.”

STAY­ING HUN­GRY

Reyez has been tour­ing for the bet­ter chunk of 2018, open­ing for Par­tyNex­tDoor in Europe, play­ing mas­sive fes­ti­vals like Lol­la­palooza and Afrop­unk in Brook­lyn, and sup­port­ing Halsey’s arena tour across North Amer­ica. Later this month she em­barks on a head­lin­ing North Amer­i­can tour that ends with two home­town dates at the Dan­forth Mu­sic Hall in De­cem­ber.

The tour is in sup­port of her sopho­more EP, Be­ing Hu­man In Pub­lic, a seven-song col­lec­tion that finds Reyez deep­en­ing her re­la­tion­ship with R&B, pop and soul, even tap­ping Kehlani and Nor­mani (for­merly of Fifth Har­mony) for a remix of her anti-slut-sham­ing ral­ly­ing cry, Body Count. There are fem­i­nist an­thems dis­guised as de­mure hymns, in­ti­mate con­fes­sion­als and fiery in­dict­ments against misog­yny. It’s both catchy and self-as­sured, a charis­matic mix of raw bravado and vul­ner­a­bil­ity.

Reyez has had a big year al­ready – she’s col­lab­o­rated with fel­low break­out Toron­to­nian Daniel Cae­sar, international stars Calvin Har­ris, Sam Smith and Eminem, and in Span­ish with Romeo San­tos. She also won the 2018 Juno Award for break­through artist of the year and was nom­i­nated for two MTV Video Mu­sic Awards. But with Be­ing Hu­man In Pub­lic and her big­gest solo tour to date, Reyez seems fi­nally poised to break out big on her own.

It didn’t come out of nowhere. She spent years try­ing to net­work with pro­duc­ers and spam­ming mu­sic in­dus­try gate­keep­ers with demos.

“There are peo­ple who aren’t hun­gry enough. They don’t take ad­van­tage of the days they have or the hours they have to make their shit hap­pen,” re­flects Reyez. “I was hun­gry. I’m hun­gry still.”

THE HUS­TLE

Four years ago, Reyez was work­ing as a bar­tender in Fort Laud­erdale, where her fam­ily had re­lo­cated tem­po­rar­ily, writ­ing lyrics on scrap re­ceipts, busk­ing on the beach and brib­ing DJs with free shots to play her songs.

Be­fore mov­ing to Florida, she’d been hus­tling for her mu­sic since high school. She au­di­tioned for a girl group when she was a teenager – she was re­jected – and then later, burned mix CDs with her demos to hand out to big-name vis­it­ing DJs like Steve Aoki and Calvin Har­ris at the Gu­vern­ment. Years later, in a serendip­i­tous full-cir­cle mo­ment, Har­ris and Reyez col­lab­o­rated to­gether on his songs Hard To Love and Prom­ises, and co-wrote Dua Lipa’s multi-plat­inum sin­gle One Kiss. (And, no, Har­ris did not re­mem­ber the time when Reyez climbed on her buddy’s shoul­der and snuck on­stage to give him her CD.)

While in Florida, she was ac­cepted to the Remix Project, an arts in­cu­ba­tor for Toronto youth from marginal­ized com­mu­ni­ties that’s bred tal­ents like Won­daGurl and Rich Kidd, and moved back to the city. For nine months, Reyez worked non-stop, writ­ing new songs while un­der the men­tor­ship of Daniel Da­ley, one half of lo­cal R&B act dvsn.

Last year Reyez re­leased her de­but stu­dio EP, Kiddo, fea­tur­ing the break­out sin­gle Fig­ures (later re-re­leased as a duet with Daniel Cae­sar). Over a sparse gui­tar melody, Reyez sings about the heart­break of realizing an ex will never change, her voice sound­ing equally ten­der and fiercely fed up. On an­other stand­out sin­gle, Gate­keeper, Reyez re­counts an ex­pe­ri­ence with a preda­tory pro­ducer early in her ca­reer: “30 mil­lion peo­ple want a shot, how much would it take for you to spread those legs apart?” This past spring, she re-

THERE ARE PEO­PLE WHO AREN’T HUN­GRY ENOUGH. THEY DON’T TAKE AD­VAN­TAGE OF THE DAYS THEY HAVE TO MAKE THEIR SHIT HAP­PEN. I WAS HUN­GRY. I’M HUN­GRY STILL.”

vealed on Twit­ter the “sleaze­ball” in the song was Noel Fisher (aka De­tail), who pro­duced Bey­oncé’s Drunk In Love and 711.

She’s been lauded by fans and jour­nal­ists for speak­ing out, but Reyez, who re­leased the track prior to the #MeToo reck­on­ing, has said she didn’t write the song to nec­es­sar­ily spark a larger con­ver­sa­tion about misog­yny in the mu­sic in­dus­try. She’s al­ways drawn from her own ex­pe­ri­ences.

“When I write a song, it’s me talking about le­git shit that I’ve been through. It’s me try­ing to make a copy of that mo­ment in the stu­dio. If I keep go­ing back to the song a week later, I’m di­lut­ing that feel­ing,” says Reyez. “It might be more per­fect, but it’s less raw and the raw­ness is what res­onates the most with some­one, be­cause that’s what some­one’s go­ing through. They’re not go­ing through some pol­ished ver­sion of it.”

Sola, for in­stance, is about fail­ing to live up to the ex­pec­ta­tions of a for­mer part­ner’s mother. “It’s about feel­ing like I don’t fit into a lot of the stereo­types [of what a girl­friend should be]: they’re so quiet, so sub­mis­sive, they don’t make scenes in pub­lic and they for­give eas­ily,” says Reyez. “Those women your mom would want for you. I’m not that type of chick.”

Sola is the first song Reyez has ever writ­ten in Span­ish, which adds an­other layer of in­ti­macy. “When I sing in Span­ish, my tone is dif­fer­ent. I feel more re­laxed be­cause that’s how I speak to my fam­ily,” says Reyez. “It feels like my de­fault.”

Born in Toronto, Reyez grew up near Jane and Drift­wood and then moved to Bramp­ton when she was around seven. “When I went to school, I didn’t know a lick of English, but it was okay be­cause there were so many im­mi­grants in the area, a lot of the kids didn’t speak a lick of English ei­ther,” says Reyez. “It was nor­mal to have a wicked ac­cent.”

In con­trast to her mul­ti­cul­tural peers in Toronto, her class in Bramp­ton was mostly made up of white kids. “I didn’t un­der­stand why other kids would make fun of my ac­cent, but that shit’s a bless­ing. It made me stronger and it made my skin thicker for the shit you have to deal with as an adult.”

It also helps that Reyez has such a tight-knit fam­ily. She’s much closer with her par­ents than your aver­age 27-year-old sell­ing out con­certs across North Amer­ica. When she won her Juno this year, she brought them on­stage to ac­cept her award. They catered the re­lease party for Kiddo, and when they can swing it, Reyez also brings them on tour.

Af­ter our mini-culi­nary tour of Kens­ing­ton, we drive to her brother’s house in Vaughan, and her whole fam­ily is there to wel­come her: her brother, sis­ter-in-law, four nieces and neph­ews, and her par­ents.

She opens the front door, lifts up her small­est niece in her arms and snug­gles up next to her on an over­sized arm­chair. She’s clearly most re­laxed when she’s with her fam­ily, laugh­ing with her nieces and neph­ews and speak­ing in rapid Span­ish to her par­ents, even as I prod them for em­bar­rass­ing sto­ries of Reyez as a child. (The best ones I get: her putting on per­for­mances for her par­ents pre­tend­ing to be Colom­bian singer Celia Cruz; or how when her older brother was ob­sessed with Snow’s In­former, he’d hear lit­tle three-year-old, pig-tailed Jessie try­ing to sing along from down the hall­way).

On tour­ing with their daugh­ter, Reyez’s father says, “In the be­gin­ning, we wanted to stand in the front, right close to the stage. But some­times [the au­di­ence] starts mov­ing too much, do­ing some wave, and we didn’t like it there any more,” he laughs.

RAW EN­ERGY

Sit­ting on a bench on King East af­ter our photo shoot, Reyez scoops up her mass of dark wavy black hair and ties it into a half bun with a red vel­vet scrunchie – her sig­na­ture look, turned into a car­toon on her lat­est sin­gle art. Reyez says she’s “aching for the mu­sic” to come out and anticipating the al­bum’s re­sponse. But in a way, she’s al­ready in the midst of it.

Al­though Be­ing Hu­man In Pub­lic comes out next week (Oc­to­ber 19, on Is­land/FMLY), Reyez has been re­leas­ing tracks for the past cou­ple of months. In the age of sur­prise al­bum re­leases, it’s an al­most an­ti­cli­mac­tic ap­proach to a record drop, but it’s one that Reyez and her team thought about care­fully.

“The way we con­sume mu­sic, the way we con­sume every­thing, has changed. You used to sit down and watch a video, but now you just swipe through stuff. It’s hard to get some­one to sit down and lis­ten to an al­bum in its en­tirety,” Reyez says. “I feel like once you prove your­self as an artist that can deliver a fuck­ing full dose, like Bey­oncé or Ken­drick… I want to work to­ward that.”

Iron­i­cally, de­spite Reyez’s fears that her songs might get swiped past on In­sta­gram by a lis­tener with a short at­ten­tion span, it’s on those very plat­forms where peo­ple are dis­cov­er­ing her. Be­fore she of­fi­cially re­leased the track Fuck Be­ing Friends, con­cert­go­ers were al­ready singing along to the cho­rus, rec­og­niz­ing it from YouTube videos and In­sta­gram clips from past per­for­mances.

When I bring this up, that maybe she’s un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the de­vo­tion of her fans, she ad­mits, “I know I’m my own worst critic. I just want to get bet­ter.”

She talks about get­ting bet­ter a lot: how she should be bet­ter at gui­tar since her dad taught her how to play when she was 10; how even though she’s try­ing to eat health­ier on tour, she has a “weak tongue” for junk food; how she should med­i­tate and do yoga more be­cause it’s good for her men­tal health; how she’s con­stantly work­ing at be­com­ing a bet­ter song­writer.

It’s not that she’s self-dep­re­cat­ing or naively ig­no­rant of her tal­ent. She has a seem­ingly in­sa­tiable de­sire to keep hus­tling and push­ing her­self into new ter­ri­tory, some­thing she’s been do­ing for the past decade. She’s rad­i­cally self­aware, which might ex­plain the ti­tle of her EP.

“It means be­ing hon­est in sit­u­a­tions where you feel like other peo­ple have masks on. It means hold­ing your flaws out for strangers to see,” says Reyez. “That was the driv­ing theme be­hind the al­bum. I feel like peo­ple can smell bullshit or when some­thing’s not sin­cere, so I never want to do that.”

Backed by a ma­jor la­bel and with her pop­u­lar­ity grow­ing, re­main­ing true to her­self has be­come even more im­por­tant. She’s a self-pro­claimed con­trol freak and has been prac­tis­ing re­lin­quish­ing con­trol to mem­bers of her team. She used to be ob­sessed with set­ting up her own merch ta­ble, fid­dling with T-shirts while she should’ve been warm­ing up back­stage. Now, she lets some­one else do it.

For the past two years, she’s been on “artists to watch” lists and get­ting shout-outs from El­ton John and Steven Tyler, but so far in her ca­reer, Reyez’s high­est chart-top­pers have been col­lab­o­ra­tions with other artists. These days, though, Reyez’s as­cent feels in­evitable. The ques­tion is whether she can make the leap to full main­stream pop star­dom. (In a city where the big­gest hip-hop and R&B breakouts have been men – Drake, the Weeknd, Daniel Cae­sar, etc. – Reyez would be a wel­come change.)

In Toronto, at least, her star power is ob­vi­ous. I wit­ness it my­self as we walk through Kens­ing­ton, where mul­ti­ple groups of young women ap­proach her for self­ies. One woman, who I ini­tially as­sumed was a long-time friend be­cause of how warmly Reyez em­braced her, gushes that she’s re­cently moved from Saskatchewan to pur­sue mu­sic and that Reyez is one of her mu­si­cal in­spi­ra­tions.

It’s not un­com­mon for her to get ap­proached by fans, but Reyez is vis­i­bly over­whelmed by the ex­pe­ri­ence to­day. For the first time dur­ing our in­ter­view, she’s at a loss for words when I ask how she’s feel­ing. So I ask what she said to the young woman.

“I told her that [Kens­ing­ton] is where I started play­ing shows and that I used to busk here. It’s the cra­zi­est when it hap­pens... it’s sur­real and it gives me so much joy and pure en­ergy,” Reyez says, be­fore tak­ing a long pause. “It al­ways hum­bles me.”

THE RAW­NESS IS WHAT RES­ONATES THE MOST WITH SOME­ONE, BE­CAUSE THAT’S WHAT SOME­ONE’S GO­ING THROUGH. PEO­PLE CAN SMELL BULLSHIT OR WHEN SOME­THING’S NOT SIN­CERE, SO I NEVER WANT TO DO THAT.”

Reyez at a cor­ner she used to busk at in Kens­ing­ton Mar­ket. “I used to play in front of a fruit stand. At night they’d put all the [pro­duce] away and it would just be me sit­ting on the crates.”

Reyez in the en­closed pa­tio of Perola’s with one of her favourite Colom­bian can­dies, a Bon Bon Bum lol­lipop.

Reyez sits out­side of The Su­per­mar­ket, where she per­formed at open mic nights.

Reyez with her niece (left), sis­ter-in-law, brother, mother, niece, father and two neph­ews at her brother’s house in Vaughan.

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