Jesy Nelson On Life After Little Mix

On the cusp of her highly anticipated solo debut, Jesy Nelson sat down with MTV.

Jesy Nelson was on the cusp of her eagerly anticipated solo debut when we spoke two weeks ago via Zoom. Her debut single, “Boyz”, featuring Nicki Minaj and samples from P. Diddy’s “Bad Boy 4 Life”, would be released just a day after our chat. It was her first artistic endeavour since she left the internationally famed girl group, Little Mix, and Jesy was naturally excited about getting her work out into the world. Our interview, light-hearted and jovial, fed off her energy. Jesy was affable and nice as we joked about the enduring pull of men with good tattoos.

Still, the anticipation for Jesy felt palpable. This was her moment, one that she had endured so much to achieve. She has survived years of vicious trolling; mental health struggles; and an industry that continues to pit women against one another. Not to mention her departure from one of the most beloved girl groups in the world. All of that led to this juncture; her opportunity to introduce herself to the world as Jesy, a solo artist.

It feels strange, now, listening back to my chat with Jesy, knowing what has transpired since her single was released, along with the “Boyz” video (which I hadn’t seen before we spoke). There has been so much water under the bridge – from concerns that Jesy, a white woman, Blackfished and appropriated Black culture in her “Boyz” video, to Jesy’s clumsy denial of these criticisms. Then came the public fallout and what appeared to be a mass unfollowing of Jesy from the remaining Little Mix bandmates, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, Jade Thirlwall, Perrie Edwards and, finally, Edwards’ dog. Shortly after was the ill-conceived livestream with Nelson and Nicki Minaj, where Minaj – responding to a series of leaked messages supposedly sent by Leigh-Anne Pinnock to a fan about Jesy – went after Pinnock and suggested that any supposed criticisms relating to Nelson and cultural appropriation boiled down to jealousy. (Note: the messages apparently from Leigh-Anne have not been verified.) The suggestion feels far-fetched, given that Pinnock is of course, a Black woman who is also an active and vocal supporter of Black rights. (She recently released a documentary on racial injustice in the music industry and founded an organisation dedicated to supporting Black communities.)

It’s been far from the creatively defining release that Nelson told me she was hoping for, coming off the back of a band with a success story like Little Mix’s. “This is my one shot to show people who Jesy Nelson is as a solo artist,” she said. 

It’s hard not to wonder if I had another 20 minutes with Nelson, what, if anything, she may answer differently about her debut, now mired in inescapable controversy. My conversation with artist Jesy Nelson just below.

MTV Australia: What was your creative inspiration for “Boyz” and what was it like working with Nicki Minaj?

Jesy Nelson: I was going through a break-up and I thought, you know what? I need to write a song about this, because there are so many girls who probably do feel the way I do. In fact, I know there are. And then I was like, oh my God, if we sampled the original “Bad Boy 4 Life”, that would be so sick.

That is the era of music that I grew up on, and [P. Diddy] is just an absolute bloody legend. Then, the queen of rap, Nicki [Minaj] jumped on it, which was absolutely amazing. There's no one else I would've wanted on the song and it just felt right. We're buddies, which is great as well.

Talk us through how “Boyz” came to be.

I actually originally didn't know I was going to [make my own] music. I just knew that I wanted to go in the studio and take my mind off of things. Obviously, I was in a really low place at the time. And for me, music is literally a form of therapy. It can take me out of the worst mood and make me feel really good.

I went in with two of my friends and like I said, I was going through a break-up at the time. So I just felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. [We] went into the studio and it happened so naturally – [“Boyz”] was like the first song that we wrote, which is crazy.

You’ve talked about how important a first solo release is; that pressure to make an impact. How do you feel now, during release week?

You know what? I feel very confident. Whether this does really well or it doesn't, I love that I've been true and authentic to myself, I've done everything that I've wanted to do. This has come from me. And I think you feel that during the sound, the video, and so... I'm so, so proud of it. So, don't get me wrong. I know I've said that you only get one shot to make your stamp as a solo artist. But what I mean by that is, to make the right first impression. This is my one shot to show people who Jesy Nelson is as a solo artist.

I put my heart and soul into this, hence why I wanted to co-direct my video. Everyone knows this has come from me. I think fans as well can really tell when a song hasn't come from you. I want my fans to listen to this and be like: ‘I can really tell that this has come from Jesy. This is Jesy's story and I can really relate to this.’

Because I know a lot of my fans – when I've been open and honest about some of my struggles – they really relate to that. I chat with them regularly about stuff that they're going through and that's so important to me.

I just really want to create music that people can relate to. And if it helps them in some way, then amazing.

I know you've said that going solo is your chance to share more of your own stories. Have you thought much about how you want to navigate that in future? How much would you like to keep sharing with the public?

I don't think you can really control that. When you write a song, you're telling your story. So for me to not be able to be completely 100% honest, I don't feel like I've been real to myself, true to my thoughts. Like I said, music is a form of therapy. So when I'm in the studio, if I've broken up with my boyfriend or a friend or I'm feeling insecure that day, that for me is [a sign] I need to write about that.

Growing up, like for me, the person that I loved as an artist was Jessie J because she was so open and honest in her songs. And when I was going through a shit time, I could really relate to her. I want to be that artist for my fans.

It could be a lot of emotional labour if you do choose to share so much of yourself...

But I'm quite open and honest anyway, I have been since I've made my [BBC] documentary, I don't really hide that much anymore. I've been honest about everything that I've been going through. So it's only natural really for me to put that into my music.

It's just about literally taking control of my life now. That's so important to me. Don't get me wrong, I will never disregard having Little Mix because I had the most amazing time. I had the most amazing platform, but yeah, it was really hard. And now to really take control of my life and do genuinely what makes me happy, I think this is what I needed to do.

You've had so many highs and lows over the last 10 years. I'm curious as to what you hope for in the next 10 years? What's going to be different?

Obviously, what I really want is for people to generally be like, ‘Okay, I get it, I get why she wanted to tell her story’. In terms of my personal life, I think just to generally be mentally in a good place. Obviously I know I've got my ups and downs, but I think what's different now is I've got a completely new team who really support me and really look after me. And they are there for me 100%.

I just want to be happy, that's all. That might sound really cringy, but I've gone through so much hurt and pain and trauma that I just want to live a peaceful and happy life now. I've got a good team around me. I've got amazing friends and family. I think I'm on the right path.

What do you think you would be doing now had you never gone on X Factor? Do you ever think about where you would have been?

Yeah. Oh my God. All the time. I actually do not know. I'd still probably be a barmaid. I'd still probably just be auditioning for things. I loved acting, [and I also] danced before I even started singing. So I would've been trying to do all three of them, I think. And just cracking on as a barmaid.

I know you've said before that your mum would've probably preferred you to have stayed a barmaid...

Yeah. Bless her little heart. She's obviously seen a lot of my heartache and that’s never nice to see. She's seen a big change in me, though, in this new chapter [as a solo artist]. So, I don't know. She might have a change of heart now.

What can you tell us about the album? What can fans expect?

The album isn't finished, I'm still working on it. But there are a good, solid eight tracks so far. And it's very R&B influenced. I feel like I wanted to create music with, like, a ’90s and ’00s [sound], brought into this era now. It's very honest. Obviously I was going through so much when I wrote it. I’d left the band, I had gone through a break-up. There are just so many stories on there that I think everyone can relate to.

The above conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Editor’s note: For more information on Blackfishing and cultural appropriation, we would suggest reading this piece from writer Natasha Mulenga and this commentary from Raven Smith.

Words and interview by Alice Griffin, editor-in-chief of MTV Australia. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @_alicegriffin.

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