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JoJo previews new album: 'I just want to represent a young woman who’s finding herself'

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JoJo almost went to Northeastern University to study anthropology. Instead, the singer — who’s best-known as the 14-year-old who broke through with hit single “Leave (Get Out)” back in 2004 — decided to pursue music in Los Angeles. And that’s worked out well for her: She released a trio of well-received singles this past August, just announced a 23-date tour this fall, and is set to debut her first new studio album since 2006’s The High Road in early 2016.

“I had been held back in a very binding contract [with Blackground Music], so I didn’t want to let my 20s go by, or my early 20s, without really giving it a fight and giving it a shot,” JoJo, now 24, tells EW of choosing music over college. “Because there’s nothing I love more than music.”

That contract, which JoJo signed as a 12-year-old, ended up forcing the singer into a state of limbo and legal troubles, preventing her from releasing new music. She filed a lawsuit against the label in 2013, was released from her contract, and went on to sign with Atlantic Records, where she is now.

“People don’t know where I’ve been the past few years, and they might think that I just, you know, fell off the face of the earth,” JoJo says. “So it is nice to be able to get that out that I was going through something and now I’m ready to come back and really start the rest of my life.”

Below, JoJo talks more about that decision to keep pursuing music, whether or not she thinks her return to the spotlight should be dubbed a comeback, and how she’s come to embrace the song that made her into a star.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How do you feel when people say you’re making a comeback? Do you agree?

I guess I agree, yeah. But it’s kind of weird. It puts a lot of pressure on it, you know what I mean? I just feel like, this is the next chapter of my career that I’ve been waiting for, you know, just to be able to put out music. But, yeah, it kind of makes me feel, like, heavy. [Laughs]. And I’m also 24, so I feel like I’m just starting.

What’s your relationship with “Leave (Get Out)” at this point? Some musicians shun their earlier work, but it seems like you’ve embraced it.

I embraced it because I feel like a lot of the audience that I perform for tends to be my age, early 20s. It’s like taking a walk down memory lane. Everybody remembers where they were in middle school or high school, and so it’s something that I’ve embraced I think even more than when the song came out, because I wasn’t a massive fan of that song. Or “Too Little Too Late.” Actually, no, I really liked “Too Little Too Late.” That’s a lie. I’ve embraced it, because at this point, I don’t want to be the kind of artist that doesn’t want to perform what people want to hear. So as long as they’re also singing the words to the new sh–, it’s all good.

Are your career goals different from when when you were a teenager just starting out in the industry?

I don’t know if I had career goals — clear, defined career goals — as a young teenager. I knew I wanted to do what I saw my favorite singers doing, I wanted to be on TV, I wanted to go on tour and see the world. And that is an incredible thing, but I think my goals are a little bit more… grounded in the long-term at this point. I just want to do this for the rest of my life. I want to connect with people and I want to make songs that touch people and that make them want to dance. I definitely think about it differently, but that’s just an age thing.

You enrolled in Northeastern before deciding to move to L.A. What happened there?

I was going to go for anthropology, sociology, and I met with the heads of the department over there, and it seems like a great school, and I was excited about going — either going part-time and doing an online thing — but then I really had to get honest with myself and think, could I hold off for four years, knowing that this is my decision? I just felt like I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t get it a shot, go to L.A., continue to record. So I stayed true to that.

You were in label purgatory for quite some time, but you were still in the studio and recording. Was that an anxious time for you?

Definitely an anxious time. I was almost embarrassed sometimes to be around other artists and creative people because I felt like they felt bad for me because of the situation I was in if they knew it. And there’s so much goodwill out there and so many people that were supportive of me, but yeah, it was an anxious time. I felt lonely, I felt scared, it was very frustrating. Singing brings me so life that it was good to stay in that space even when I felt really low.

You said you were embarrassed. Were you scared of getting people’s pity?

I tend to take on responsibilities, I tend to take things on that are not mine. But, yeah, I didn’t want people to feel bad for me or worry about me. I wanted people to know that I was going to be fine, I was going to come out on the other side of this. I was not going to give up. So kind of thinking about it like that, and just internalizing a lot. Thinking a lot.

You’ve said the album is about “love and other drugs.” Why that?

Love is my favorite thing. [Laughs] I think I’m definitely not alone in that. And I tend to be like a serial monogamist, so since I was 15, I’ve been in and out of love. And I have especially struggled, gone up and down with self-love, so I wanted to touch on that too. I have a song called “I Am” that really is directly about that. And I wanted to make an eclectic album that would satisfy me and challenge me as a singer and that also would reach a wide range of people. That’s what I love about pop music. But I knew that I couldn’t, that I wanted to incorporate the other things that inspire me. So not just straightforward stuff. I wanted there to be live musicians playing on the album in certain areas, and then mixed in with computer production and things like that. There’s a mix of hip hop and R&B and dance sounds, so I’m just finding my way and what feels good to me.

On that note, I want to talk about “Save My Soul.” It’s emotional but still upbeat, and you’ve said that it’s about addiction you’ve witnessed in your life. Can you talk a bit about writing that song and the inspiration behind it?

The inspiration was a dysfunctional relationship that you feel like you can’t get out of. And I’ve been there, personally with a guy, and then with the situation I was in professionally for a while. And you just feel like you don’t know how you’re going to ever be free again. But then, as I continued to live with it, as you do once you’ve written or recorded a song, and you kind of just listen over and over again, I started to think about how this reminded me of an addict singing to whatever it is that has a hold on them. I’ve seen that with my dad very closely. When you start abusing something, you really do lose your power. It can take over your entire life. So, that’s what it means to me today.

Is your dad going to hear it?

He’s heard it. He cried. Yeah, he’s an emotional guy. And I am too. I’m an emotional girl.

On a lighter note, what’s the soundtrack to your life these days?

I’m always listening to Kendrick Lamar. I love his social commentary, him talking about the state of how things are. Drake said in an interview recently that he wants to be a “time-marker” for our generation and I really think he is. There’s a lot of songs that talk about quick hook-ups and living in the moment and things like that and I do believe in living in the moment and having fun, but love is something that really inspires me, so that’s where I wanted to go. And you can be sexy and have fun and get your freak on and all that stuff, so there’s room for everything. But, yeah, I just want to represent a young woman who’s finding herself and falling in and out of s— and finding her way.

Speaking of Drake, your “Marvin’s Room” cover was super well-received. Any other covers you’re cooking up or would like to do?

Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that lately. It was such a random and organic thing when it happened that I don’t want to overthink it. I just want to let it happen naturally, the next one I do.

How did you choose to cover that song?

My best guy friend called me one morning and was like, “Yo, Drake dropped a new song, you need to hear it, it reminds me of you and the situation you’re going through.” So I listened to it and I was like, “Oooooh!” And then I was feeling like I had something to say to the person I was dating at the time. So I just literally opened up my heart and word vomited on my Notes section in my phone and then I got in the studio that night and had the track recreated and one of my good friends did that and then we put it out. We didn’t even really think about it.