Patience is a luxury not every artist is afforded. In today’s digital age, where content is king and being the first to get it out is queen, the pressure to churn out new music has never been as high. Throw in a global pandemic, where millions of people stuck at home craved non-stop entertainment options, and the line between fast food content and meticulously crafted art gets thinner.
But for Rochelle Jordan, the Toronto-raised, L.A. based singer-songwriter, whose last project was 2014’s 1021, she prefers to take her time and create at her own pace, especially being an independent artist. “Having creative freedom is a beautiful thing,” she says. Her seven year hiatus from releasing music wasn’t due to a lack of material, instead she was busy living life, on a journey of self-discovery, embracing new experiences and exploring her spirituality – all of which are sewn into the fabric of new album Play With The Changes.
Heavily influenced by Rochelle’s British-Jamaican roots – she was born in High Wycombe – Play With The Changes is without doubt her most experimental. Sonically mixing house and drum’n’bass tempos with the dirty rhythms of garage and grime, her trademark pitch perfect R&B vocal runs are never too far from the action, peppered throughout the lively, neon coloured soundscapes. Subject matters range from euphoric, unwavering love and universal affirmations to the daily dangers faced by young Black men, who continue to be gunned down at an alarming rate in America often at the hands of police; it’s some of Rochelle’s boldest songwriting.
The album – which is produced by longtime collaborator KLSH alongside Machinedrum and Jimmy Edgar – could be construed as a reintroduction for Rochelle given the amount of time she’s been away from the spotlight, but she doesn’t see it that way. “I genuinely don’t care about that,” she says. “I get it. In a way it’s like, ok, you’re coming back and you’ve gotta figure things out, but really it’s everyone else that needs to figure things out. I know who I am and I know what I wanna do. This is me so take it or leave it. That’s how I see the reintroduction.”
In a two-part interview – the first being a face-to-face sit-down at a tea room in L.A. last year, and the second a catch up over the phone this month – Rochelle swears she’s not a talker. “I’m like an extroverted introvert,” she assures. “I’m always battling inside myself but on the outside I’m able to talk, but I don’t often want to” Our almost three-hour conversation says otherwise.
BEST FIT: Your last album was 2014’s 1021. Where have you been these past seven years?
ROCHELLE JORDAN: That’s an interesting question; it’s a deep question. I’m an artist who creates in her own timeframe and her own space. I’m in my own head most of the time and I think taking that space was important because I was running into a place where I started to feel pressure on myself. But I’m independent so I shouldn’t need to feel any kind of pressure because It’s all on me. So I took that time to make sure I was living life, just having different experiences with myself, with the environments around me, and just settling into myself in order to feel like I was in a place to create. Within that you have to go on a journey, you know what I mean? A musical journey.
What did that journey involve?
So I was creating things that sounded just like 1021 and I was like, no, I wanna move into this new direction, explore a new genre, something more fun, something more dance, and I created so many songs. There’s hundreds, maybe a thousand. I don’t know how many there are exactly but I was just bursting. There was just this crazy journey that happened and I wanted to be more comfortable as time went on, but I also didn’t want anyone to think that I stopped.
Do you think that’s what your fans thought?
Some of them, yeah. I get a lot of DMs and messages from people saying things like, “Don’t ever stop, please. We’re rooting for you.” And I’m like, “Y’all don’t have to worry. I’m always creating and at some point I’ll put my music out.” Here we are, 2021, and I’ve put something new out.
Your new album is quite experimental and a slight departure from the traditional R&B sound we’re used to hearing from you. What inspired the change?
I was born in England so I grew up with these British-Jamaican roots. Because of that I’m stemming from a lot of multi-cultural type of vibes everywhere. But also I have a brother who is autistic – he’s ten years older than me – and he bought so many tapes from England of house, deep house, drum’n’bass, jungle, all these crazy records. He would play them over and over because of his obsessive compulsiveness and this is what I was hearing my whole life. And up until this point I don’t think I’ve ever really expressed that side of myself, that muso side of myself that’s very prominent to me.
Do you remember what was on your brother’s tapes?
None of them were named so I didn’t know the names of the artists. But I remember the chord progressions over these fast, jungle-ish beats that were just so attractive to me. So that was always in my subconscious but then I had a lot of other influences too, from Aaliyah to Amerie, all these people that I looked up to. So I led with that early on in my career but I always wanted to experiment with uptempo records that felt like what I was playing when I was younger.
You’ve always championed Amerie in a big way. How much of an influence has she been on you?
She’s amazing. I listened to her All I Have album from the age of 15, by itself, non-stop, until I was 20. At that point I knew every detail and every nuance to it. Every once in a while I go back to it and I’m jarred once again. The way Amerie and Rich Harrison work together is incredible; the vocal arrangements are just outstanding. I’ve studied them and that’s what I always want to reflect in my own music.
Who else would you say has been a big influence?
Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and then you have some of the girls from The Neptunes: Latrelle, Natasha Ramos and Vanessa Marquez. I listened to those girls for a little while and their vocals are perfect; their harmonies and ad-libs are all perfect.
With all these different influences, how would you best class your music?
It’s always hard to do that so I don’t usually do it. I have so many different sides to myself, a lot of dynamics within my music and my range. I guess the easiest way to classify myself would be as an alternative R&B artist because that could mean anything. It can move in many different directions, from folk R&B to house R&B to just, well, R&B is R&B.
A bit like The Weeknd?
I would say reflective of that but a very different sound. When I look at myself and hear myself I think of The Weeknd and Solange, and just people that are bringing these different sides of R&B into the fold and making it something of their own, something that they’ve conceptualised that doesn’t fall into a very specific bracket of R&B.
An R&B artist you’ve always been compared to is Aaliyah. That is quite a compliment.
It’s crazy. When those comparisons came to me they were really out of left field because I was really trying to sound like Kelis, literally. It was Kelis and Amerie. I was like, this is what my vibe is and I’m gonna mix it up and be me. Then the Aaliyah comparisons came up and then it just kept happening again and again, and after a while I could hear it. Some of it was maybe to do with the production because we were giving an ode to the nostalgia; we were going back to the ‘90s feel and trying to bring it to a modern light.
How do you feel about the comparisons?
It’s fine to have comparisons. I think the important thing for me is to just make sure I’m finding my voice and sticking to my voice because it can be a little distracting when fans want Aaliyah – and they really do. They literally tell me that Aaliyah is inside of me. They leave me messages saying that her soul is in my soul.
Weren’t you asked at one point to sing vocals on an Aaliyah project that her producer Eric Seats and Drake were involved in but you turned the opportunity down?
That’s right. It was too much and too close though. And I think [the creative team behind it] came to that conclusion after a while too. Her legacy is so special and so unique, and she was so young and it would have hurt a lot of people. There are lines that you just don’t want to cross and certain things that need to be left alone. It’s like all these Disney movies that keep getting remade, just leave them alone.
Play With The Changes was originally supposed to arrive last year but was pushed back due to the pandemic. Did the album change much in that time?
The album didn’t change much at all. It was already 85 per cent done. It was just a matter of mixing and mastering and just refining some of the production. It’s more or less the same but there were a few additional songs that were added kinda last minute, like “Already” and “Broken Steel”. These were songs that just kinda came out of nowhere in the pandemic. Sonically, lyrically, feeling-wise they made 110 per cent sense to me and completed the project in a way that I didn’t realise it needed to be completed.
Did the album benefit from lockdown in any way?
Usually with every project I’ve done in the past I always end up having one or two regrets with something that could have been tweaked. Like a lyric that maybe could have been changed or it evolved in my mind and I’m just like, “Why didn’t I just say that?” or “Why didn’t I say this?” I’ve had those moments with my other albums but not with this one because of lockdown. It gave me time to just sit with the music and listen to it over and over again. I had time to reflect on it lyrically and vocally and correct anything that needed to be fixed. This is the first time I’ve ever had a project that is perfect in my mind, which is insane and I’m really, really thankful.
That’s hard to believe considering how good 1021 is.
I just judge myself way too much as an artist. I think we’re the most critical or ourselves. It’s ridiculous. Sometimes we go way overboard and perhaps that’s what it was. But now looking back at that album I understand its value and I’m just glad people are still messing with it. It’s crazy to go into my DMs and see people still saying, “Yo, I just discovered 1021.”
Would you say you’re becoming more forgiving when it comes to your art?
Definitely. I’m very forgiving at this point in my life, as an artist especially, just because I do everything myself. I’m starting to have this forgiveness when I’m listening to other artists because they have to go through these certain rides with themselves and it’s not always the easiest thing to make what other people would instantly recognise as a cohesive album, or a perfect body of work. I just feel like as long as you’re putting out work that you’re proud of all you can do is leave it at the door.
What else have you learnt about yourself as your career has progressed?
There’s been so many things. I think knowing that patience is ok is an important one. Patience is very important. I didn’t have it at the beginning. I was like, “I’m gonna be famous at 20 and if I’m not then fuck it.” The mindset I had was very different.
Would you say you were looking at the success of other artists and comparing it to your own?
That’s exactly where my eyes were. Luckily I was able to focus because I had a partner in crime in KLSH, who was able to keep me in a place where the music was the first and most important thing. But that’s where your head goes and it causes all this anxiety. It causes all these inner issues and these battles that start to come within yourself and I had to learn to punch that off and understand my value as an artist and human being. I had to learn that in a specific space of time and I’m carrying that throughout, even now through the silence and the pause, through the creation and everything I go through as a human, just having patience with myself and understanding their story is not my story. We all have a story and it’s ok to just settle in that and stay in the creative fold that you want to be in.
It can’t be easy to do that with social media constantly projecting the wins of others onto your phone screen.
I went through a period where I wasn’t on Instagram at all, like I wasn’t posting. I was completely separated from it. I think it’s important for us artists especially to manage how we feel when we’re tapping into Instagram and we’re looking at all these other people. If you’re feeling that sense of depression or anxiety, or just fear in general, then it’s time for you to log out – and it’s ok. People will still be there when you post again.
For me, I just try to maintain myself in that way and have a balance because the problem with all the anxiety and all these pressures is that it does seep into the music, and it can tarnish you and tire you. That’s when your passions start to leave. Passion is like a relationship: sometimes you hate it, you’re fighting with it and fighting with yourself, then you love it again. But what you don’t want to do is just break because now you’re attaching this anxiety to it. So that’s something I’ve held on to and it’s important to me.
What would you say is the best way to combat creative anxiety?
You have to find a way to quiet your mind. When you look at Buddhists and whatnot, and how they’re able to be in such a deep place of meditation, some of them are levitating. We might not believe it because we haven’t seen it but they are able to tap into different frequencies of the mind. Why? Because it’s quiet. That alone will connect you to whatever’s far beyond us, spiritually, our soul and where it’s connected to. This is why I think we’re now hearing more about affirmations, meditation, manifestation and this spiritual side of the universe.
Is that what motivated you to write one of your new tracks, “Got Em”?
Absolutely. It’s a song of affirmations. Around the time I created it I was just tapping into self affirmations and stuff like that because I was in a dark space with myself. I wanted to put it out first because I feel like people need to feel this light within what I’m saying and just repeat some of the things I was repeating to myself: “You don’t fake/ You don’t wait/ You don’t waste it all away.” Just keep saying it to yourself and keep yourself on this focused path of believing in yourself.
Elsewhere on Play With The Changes, you explore the dangers Black men face daily – including police brutality – on the powerful “Lay”. Was there a particular moment or tragedy that inspired its creation?
That song was written right after Nipsey Hussle passed away. It really hit home for me along with all these police brutality stories. There are so many people around me that are just perishing, whether artists or just people that we know. With Nipsey’s situation, when that happened it definitely inspired me to take a look at the loved ones around me; it scared me. I know we’re not immortal and this is what’s gonna happen in life but it’s always a shocking experience. So I kinda put myself in the shoes of [Nipsey’s fiancé] Lauren London and I thought to myself that it’s just way too much. Now I’m looking at the person I love and I’m saying, “Just stay here. Just sleep so I know you’re safe.” It’s been such a mix of emotions and I can honestly say that when I wrote it I don’t really know where the words came from.
What do you mean?
It was just a truly overwhelming experience. I had kinda locked the music in my mind when I was recording the chorus and then the words just flowed out of me. I was actually writing and recording the song at the same time. It was in those moments that I really got to reflect on Nipsey and Lauren London and the tragedy that sparked the idea – but there’s a lot more to it than that.
The track was recorded before the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the many others who have died at the hands of the police. How did those deaths affect you?
I’ve never felt this kind of anxiety before. I’ve never felt like this in my life ever, which is a privilege. But to now be here and really feeling the energy of the country, the issues within society and how damaging it is to the Black psyche is tough to deal with. When my significant other walks out the door or goes for a drive to the gas station and I’m not with him I can’t explain that feeling where you’re then reflecting upon the others that were brutally killed for no good reason. It doesn’t even make any sense. That’s what the justice system is for, so that people can be tried if they are a criminal or have done something. These people are not even getting a chance to be tried. Our people are just straight up getting murdered for whatever reason. It’s almost like we’re looked at as animals and it’s one of the most dehumanising sensations that one could ever feel walking this earth.
How do you look at “Lay” now since those deaths?
I just felt it important to expand and express my anxiety and the anxiety of my people in the hope that some empathy can be felt. How can you be human and not empathise with someone you love being brutally murdered for no reason, and by the same people that are supposed to be protecting you? So this song was in hope that I could shed light on that feeling and the mental anguish and fearfulness that comes with that.
Looking ahead, do you have any idea what you’re going to do next or are you someone who prefers to just go with the flow?
I’m a Libra so I do like to plan things but I’m definitely pushing myself to stay present because that’s all I have. I don’t know what tomorrow is gonna bring. Musically though, I’m going to push myself and keep on bending genres. I’m going to get deeper into some shit although I don’t know exactly what that looks like or sounds like. I have an idea but the experimentation will continue; the search is going to continue and I think it’s going to continue forever.
So no more seven year breaks?
There will be some pauses [laughs], but I don’t know if they’re going to be seven years.