Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Martei Korley
Jovi Rockwell is one of the most dynamic and intriguing Jamaican vocalists to emerge in the last decade. Though she’s impressed us with her scene-stealing cameos on an eclectic set of tracks by everyone from Mr. Vegas and Major Lazer to FloRida and Lil Wayne, and her 2009 mixtape, Psycho Therapy, she has yet to release an album of her own. And she has kept a particularly low profile over the last two years, emerging for only for a handful of cameos, Internet loosies and shows.
As we found when we caught up with Jovi at Miami’s Hit Factory studio one early afternoon last fall, the singer and songwriter has been at work becoming a musician and producer, skills which she promises to unveil on an eclectic upcoming mixtape she plans to call Frankenstein. She’s also put together an all-girl band called Jovi and the Rockwells to back her up at live shows.
Besides for being a talented artist, Jovi is capable of switching gears from guitar-toting tomboy to seductive femme fatale in one quick change. We couldn’t resist the opportunity to photograph the Kingston native in some of the most picturesque settings in her adopted hometown of Miami. Read on for the full Jovi Rockwell story, and look out for more Jovi on LargeUp shortly.
LargeUp: Do you normally hit the studio this early?
Jovi Rockwell: No. Bob Marley used to like to record in the morning. So I heard. He liked his voice in the morning and he felt whatever we channel lyrically [in the morning] was really pure. I may have read that, or seen it in a documentary, [but] that was really inspiring to me.
LU: Tell us about what you are working on…
JR: Well, I recently discovered that I am a musician. Last year, I had a revelation. You could say I had a personal low. And I just found comfort in instruments. Every human being goes through this: You try to find the meaning of things, and why they happen. I’m a believer that things happen for a reason. Life is trying to show you something. And I felt it was showing me I needed to push my greatness and become what I felt I wasn’t capable of doing.
When I would work with producers, I would write lyrics without music a lot. I’d always say, “I wish I could play,” and they’d tell me if you can write without music, you can play. I’m always being compared to artists who are out. The comparison doesn’t offend me [but] I wanted to set myself apart. There’s other people who can write, there are beautiful women out there, so I thought what can I do to set myself apart? I decided to become a musician. I started playing the piano. I could always kind of play the bass but I play it better now, and I fell in love with the guitar. [From] doing that, I produced my first track. In a moment of things being unclear, it became clear to me what life was showing me. Ever since then I have found a lot of peace. I don’t need people to make me happy, once I found and built a relationship with music. I taught myself theory as well. I just went down into the rabbit hole, and just kept falling, and I really loved it. While I was teaching myself the practical, I was teaching myself the theory. Now I’m a musician.
LU: Your piano sounds pretty good. Have you played for a while?
JR: I could just stab around on it before, but I really focused in on it. Because I would read about how to play from books or the Internet. I started recognizing chord progressions, then started using those chord progressions, and then I would make my own songs. During that time I started listening to a whole lot of rock and roll and it inspired me to play the guitar. I started researching the history of guitar and what guitars other guitarists used. It’s like I discovered a brand-new me. I’m grateful for it. Being from Jamaica, they put you in a box because you can deejay and singjay and do reggae and dancehall music. You get stuck in that zone. I always wanted to have dimension and add dynamics to sounds. I couldn’t find anyone who knew the sounds I was hearing in my head. Being a musician has really changed my perspective on everything. I can truly define my own sound. Now I’m gonna produce records on this upcoming [project]. I’d like for other artists to call me play the bass on this, or the guitar. That is the idea I have for myself. I want to be appreciated as a musician, and looked at from that perspective, with the other things I’m capable of doing.
LU: You’ve always written your songs, right?
JR: Written and co-written. And for other artists.
LU: Mainly lyrics?
JR: Yeah, but when I work with a producer, I would do a song that came out of my mind and then they would produce it, or I would sit with them and say why don’t you make something that sounds like “awawoaw” and they would encourage, why don’t you learn to play it? You’re hearing sounds in your head…So it was basically writing and doing that kind of interaction.
LU: There are some female artists that I could compare to you, or compare you to, who aren’t making music much more interesting than yours, and they’re household names. Why do you think that your name hasn’t gotten out there as much?
JR: I think everything is about timing. I am a female from Jamaica that is aspiring to be on the world stage. Like my country, I am a melting pot. My music is. When you’re doing something that is pushing borders, and not a set thing, it is more difficult for people to go “Oh…yeah.” Some people get it and some people don’t. That’s the only thing I can think of.
LU: A few years ago you released a mixtape, and were featured on the Major Lazer album with Mr. Vegas. It seemed like you were really going somewhere but, since, you’ve been quiet. Any reason why?
JR: My art to me is a complete reflection of me. I felt like I needed to own my craft. I feel it’s really important to really “become” before you step out there. I felt like I needed to build more. People have their ideas of me but nobody but me really knows. I don’t want to be just doing it for doing it’s sake. I want to do it so it has a meaning to me.
LU: Tell me about working with Snoop on this Snoop Lion project…
JR: I worked with Diplo on an upcoming project, and I recorded [the song that would become Snoop Lion’s “La La La”] And [Diplo] told me a couple months later that Snoop heard the record, loved it, and recorded it. I was like, “No way! Why didn’t you tell me that?” and he said, “I didn’t know if they were going to go through with it.” How I felt when it happened, words can not describe. Snoop is an icon, a very special individual. He doesn’t care about taking risks. He’s a true artist who takes rap to a different level. He adds color and humor and a certain lightness to it. For an artist like that, who I grew up listening to and really respect and rate, [to record one of my songs] at a time when he was inspired to reincarnate himself as an artist, was amazing. When I first got the record and heard it, I was driving, and I downloaded it on my phone, and pulled over to the side and I cried tears of joy. For somebody that inspired me to know I inspired them was very moving.
LU: The vocals on the song were already one there?
JR: Yeah. They left me on there, too, which I thought was respect. I thought that was really, really cool. So it’s a feature. [Snoop] has reached out to me to let me know how much he loves the song. Now I can say I communicate with Snoop on an artist level. That’s just amazing. He’s Snoop Lion now, and I can go down in history as a part of that.
LU: Have you collaborated with him on any further songs?
JR: No, but we’ve spoken about it.
LU: Are people aware that is you on the song? What has been the feedback?
JR: The feedback has been good. Everybody in Jamaica is very excited about him being Snoop Lion now and doing reggae music. If you don’t like Snoop… something wrong with you!
LU: Do you keep up with reggae and dancehall?
JR: I do. I don’t want to sound this way but I got kind of trapped there. I ended up [getting labeled as a dancehall artist. No disrespect to the genre at all but my father was a cabaret artist [at hotels] on [Jamaica’s] North Coast, singing Frank Sinatra to every different genre of music, pop, reggae, soca. So I was introduced to a lot of different styles at a young age. I wanted to reflect that as an artist. I felt a little streotyped in just being one style. And my dream, which is more than a dream because I’m actually doing it, is to really capture all of the elements in my culture. I grew up listening to dancehall and reggae and all different genres. My vision is pulling from these and adding bits and pieces like a Frankenstein to create the sound of Jovi Rockwell.
Cause I am a kid from Kingston. I also went to high school in America and I remember getting into alternative and rock. I realize now, as I mature in my musicianship, exactly what I want. I am excited about blending reggae sounds and a three-part horn section and a dancehall drum pattern and a ska this, and putting that with some electric guitars, and tweaking that with some bagpipes. Music is an unlimited source and I’d like to tap into that.
LU: When did you come from Jamaica to Miami?
JR: I came here in 1999, and I go back and forth. My mom lives in Jamaica so I’m blessed with the privilege to say I’m going home for two weeks and I end up going for two years. I like going back there because it reminds me of who I am. It reminds me of waking up on a Sunday morning and having ackee and saltfish and breadfruit and banana and yam, and knowing that I can possibly drive out to Hellshire and eat fish and festival and bammy and hear reggae all day and listen to the radio out there and hear old time ska, and the radio personalities. Drive by and see shopping centres and malls where I used to hang out when I was 13. It’s important.
LU: And what might someone find Jovi doing in Miami?
JR: I love to go to the beach at night, at sunset, with my guitar, and go into the water. Cause I like the low tide…are you asking me my hobbies [laughs]? I like to go to the beach at night.
LU: Well, what places might people find you besides the beach at night and the Hit Factory?
JR: I don’t have one spot. I’m very unpredictable. Can not be studied. [laughs]. People have an idea of me and I’m the opposite when they meet me. I’m very private. As an artist, an important thing for me is overcoming the fact that I’m an in-the-cut type of girl. I’m not trying to be like hey, everybody look at me. A lot of people dont’ even know the things that I do because I just find it to be a little cheap in a sense when you do that. But maybe you should do that. I’m finding a balance of being myself and then changing in a way where you open yourself up so people can see I’m a raging lunatic, I’m an idiot [laughs], all these things. That’s why I call myself Jovi Rockwell. Jovi is a jovial person.
LU: How so?
JR: I’m very goofy and I like to make my friends laugh a lot. I’ll go to great extents so Jovi is based off of being jovial. I knew from an early stage that I needed to create that. Joelle Clarke is interested in serious issues of the world and serious things. I wanted to create a balance. I think I created Jovi Rockwell subconsciously because I used to like this cartoon Jem and the Holograms. She would put earrings on and turn into Jem. Jerrica cared so much about people, she had the orphanage, and then Jem was the rockstar. I’m naming my band Jovi and the Rockwells. My fans picked that. I asked them what should I name my band and they said Jovi and the Rockwells. I said you know what: I’m Jem. My life and Jem and the Holograms is parallel. Except, with me, it’s not a secret.
LU: So you’re going to put out a mixtape, then an EP and an album?
JR: I want to call the EP, The Longest Shortcut. I have so many records that I’ve cut that have never been compiled. The Longest Shortcut [means] I took really long but there it is. It’s an oxymoron. I wanted to compile all of these songs. The mixtape now I’m debuting myself as a producer. It’s called Frankenstein because I’m taking from different genres of music, from the ‘50s, ‘60s, from different sounds and putting it together, like dead body parts, like Frankenstein. It’s kind of a metaphor for myself, too, because people are wondering what’s going on with me or going “her thing’s dead.” It’s kind of like I’ve come back from the graveyard, and it’s alive. I’m debuting myself as a producer. I’m producing certain tracks. I’m working with REO from The Soundkillers on some of the tracks. I wouldn’t say I’m the only one, but definitely I’m going to be producing on it. I’ve been practicing hard. I have demos, where I do all of the chords and then I may have other musicians come in and overdub and really produce it. On some Quincy Jones swag. I am constantly changing and searching.