jazmine sullivan

Unfolding Jazmine Sullivan

Words: Maura Johnston
Photo: Ethan Miller / Getty Images  

Already one of R&B’s most formidable singers at the age of 28, Jazmine Sullivan delivers soulful, layered songs that navigate intricate worlds filled with carefully developed characters. We caught up with her in Philly to learn the backstory behind her Grammy-nominated third album Reality Show.

Jazmine Sullivan is sprawled out on a sofa at her parents’ warm, inviting Northeast Philly home on a cold January afternoon, talking about the year that’s elapsed since the release of her third album, the Grammy-nominated Reality Show. “It still feels so fresh and new to me,” she says.

It’s not surprising that the album, which came out in early 2015 and is up for Best R&B Album at Monday’s ceremony, still feels fresh to the woman who made it. Reality Show was one of the best releases of last year, a travelogue through richly drawn characters performed by one of R&B’s most formidable singers. The combination of Sullivan’s lyrics, which fill her songs with intricate character development and plainspoken honesty, and the 28-year-old’s versatile voice make for potent, layered songs that unfold in the listener’s mind over time.

“All the songs are story-based,” she says, “and I think that my upbringing with my mom being a playwright—and I was in a lot of plays—makes me have to paint the picture completely. Whatever way I feel like I need to get the story told, I do it.”

That includes shape-shifting her voice; Sullivan foregrounds its rasp on the sinewy devotional “#HoodLove,” makes it resemble a choked-back sob on the spare breakup lament “Forever Don’t Last,” turns up the acid quotient on the rueful “Stupid Girl,” and softens on the lush “Let It Burn,” which is nominated for both Best Traditional R&B Performance and Best R&B Song. The resulting spectrum is wide-ranging, yet still utterly human. “If you listen to the stories, you can find yourself in all of them,” she says. 

© JazmineSullivanVEVO // YouTube

Sullivan’s father got a job as a curator for Philadelphia’s Historic Strawberry Mansion when she was young. The sizeable centuries-old building allowed for a lot of practice space: “A bunch of big rooms, and I was singing in them,” she laughs. She also performed in churches inside and outside the city under the guidance of her mother, Pam.

“[My mom] was super-saved, so it was super-Christian when I was growing up,” Sullivan recalls. “We had to just listen to whatever she was listening to. Which was lots of gospel, Christian music, whatever was playing in the house. She did listen to Aretha, but as a child I was a little rebellious—so if she was listening to [an artist], I was kind of like, ‘I don’t want to hear that.’ Of course, when I got older, I loved them. My mom was always right.”

At 11, Sullivan tore through the gospel standard “Accept What God Allows” during Showtime at The Apollo (and proved herself charming in the face of Steve Harvey’s light teasing); even back then, her voice was a force to be reckoned with. As a teen, Sullivan would make appearances at a weekly open mic called Black Lily, which was legendary among Philadelphia’s then red-hot neo-soul scene. “That was a moment for Philly,” she recalls. “It’s a shame we don’t have it anymore. I hope that we can get it back, because it was a great time.”

“There was a time when I didn’t even want to sing live.”

Housed at the Old City club the Five Spot and created by the duo the Jazzyfatnastees in 1999, Black Lily showcased and cultivated up-and-coming soul acts like Jill Scott and Floetry; a 2001 video about the series shows Sullivan in action alongside the duo Kindred the Family Soul.

“It was just so special, and the talent was so good,” Sullivan says. “You had to be, because if you’re from Philly, you can’t half-step. Philly won’t play that. We’re tough people, so that makes artists have to step up and work harder.”

“There’s a realness and an honesty and a grittiness to Philly and its music scene, and that’s definitely incorporated in my music and how I write,” she continues. “I’m not a poetic writer. I love writers who are poetic, like Frank Ocean—I think he’s the greatest writer. But [my work] is really straight to the point; it is what it is. And that’s my Philly-ness. That’s my Philly girl that comes out in my writing and in my voice.”

Sullivan refined her singing and songwriting approach as a teen, but finding a proper outlet for that talent was a process. Mega-mogul Clive Davis signed her to Jive Records when she was in her teens, then sold the company shortly after that; the record that resulted, which mostly featured material written by others, never came out. Her debut, Fearless, arrived in 2008; it was sophisticated and smart, with the then-22-year-old Sullivan’s vocal range made readily apparent on tracks like the spiteful “Bust Your Windows” and the steely-eyed “Lions, Tigers, & Bears.” She racked up seven Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist, over the two years following its release. 

“If you’re from Philly, you can’t half-step. Philly won’t play that. That makes artists have to step up and work harder.”

Reality Show, which Sullivan recorded in Philadelphia, came out after she took a years-long break from making music. “I’m trying to figure out who I am… without a mic, paper or pen,” she announced on Twitter in 2011.

“There was a time when I didn’t even want to sing live,” she says now. “I had stopped for so long. I was scared to do it, and I was sad because I was scared to do it, because I was like, ‘This is something you’ve been doing all your life. Who knew that you would get to a place where you were scared to sing? That’s what you do.’ I finally did it, and I got through it.”

Sullivan’s deftness at portraying even unattainable figures both compellingly and compassionately enlivens her relationship with her audience. “I think they see somebody who went through some stuff, like we all do, and fought their way back to their life, to get back to their life,” she says. “We all go through that. And even when you didn’t even believe in yourself, you had to pick yourself up—or whatever you needed to get yourself back to that place, you had to do it.”

Near the end of Reality Show is “Masterpiece (Mona Lisa),” a shimmering track on which Sullivan, her voice lighter than air and accompanied by a gospel choir, declares herself “a work of art… a masterpiece.” It’s become one of the high points of her live set, a point when she and the audience can come together to let their collective wounds heal.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m up here singing for y’all,” she says. “At that moment, at any moment, we are all struggling and dealing with the same stuff. “

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