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JoJo's Mad Love: Interview

How a teen pop star overcame a bitter legal battle and family tragedy for a comeback album that’s been a decade in the making

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Randy Shropshire/Getty Images for MTV

Earlier this year, Joanna “JoJo” Levesque was frustrated with some fair-weather friends and de-stressing the best way she knows how: with 35 minutes of interval sprints at her local Equinox gym in Los Angeles. The 25-year-old pop star admits that exercise doesn’t come naturally—”not like music does,” she says—but she pushed herself through that punishing session by thinking about her art. And so it was on this afternoon that she had a revelation and came up with the idea for a killer new song. “I was just thinking about the fake people that come in and out of your life,” she says. “I was like, ‘Yeah! Fake-ass bitches: F-A-B!'” That phrase nagged at her in the shower, in the car, and upon her arrival to the studio, where she was working on new music with partner Hayley Warner. “I was like, ‘I promise you, I think there’s something here,'” she recalls with a huge smile. “I just had to sell it. I was beaming. I love that—working toward something you believe in.”

The sentiment is cliché, but it’s gospel for JoJo: She wouldn’t have a career today if she hated hard work. The proof? Her new album, Mad Love., has been a decade in the making—most of that time spent locked in a bitter and painful seven-year legal battle with her first label, Blackground Records. Yet with her millennial tenacity and social-media savvy (and a team of ferocious lawyers, naturally), JoJo is finally ready for her comeback—just don’t call it that. “To some people it’ll be a comeback, but for me it’s just the next chapter,” JoJo says. “I’ve been here the whole time.”

JoJo’s rise is an unlikely one. The Foxborough, Mass.-raised artist signed a recording contract at 12 years old. Within a year, she had a massive Top 40 hit with her 2004 single “Leave (Get Out)”—an undeniable earworm that became an empowerment anthem to the TRL generation. She spun that success into movie roles, acting alongside Robin Williams in 2006’s RV and Emma Roberts in Aquamarine—no small feat considering this child star did it without the propulsion of the Disney or Nickelodeon machines. Reflecting on her rise over a glass of sauvignon blanc in New York City recently, JoJo says coolly, “I didn’t feel that young when I was doing it. And I wasn’t pushed to do anything—my mom was not a stage mother or anything. I was a precocious kid.”

Her precociousness was challenged when she was about to release her third record, in 2007. The saga goes like this: Her label, Blackground, lost its distribution deal with Universal Motown in 2008, and her album was repeatedly delayed. In 2009 she filed a lawsuit to get out of the contract, but dropped it when Blackground struck a deal with Interscope, which, like Motown, is owned by Universal Music Group. Then Interscope’s deal with Blackground crumbled in 2012. JoJo remained optimistic that Blackground would score yet another distribution deal, but when the company shelved the 2012 single “Demonstrate,” she realized she was stuck. “I was like, Where is my future with them?” she says. “I’ve turned in several incarnations of an album; there’s no plan. They don’t even have an office anymore. I thought these people were my family—they were my brothers, my uncles, my father figures.” (Blackground founder Barry Hankerson declined to comment on the dispute, only telling EW, “We love JoJo. We wish her the best.”)

 

Despite the ordeal, JoJo continued to create music. And she found a way to release mixtapes and one-off tracks to stoke her devoted fans. “Thank God for social media,” says JoJo, who has a combined 4.3 million followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. “Being able to connect with [my fans] kept me afloat and also kept me from sinking too far into my own depression when I was going through the lawsuit.”

JoJo came out of her funk in 2013, when her attorneys found a loophole that liberated her from her Blackground agreement: A label can’t hold an artist to a contract for more than seven years if the musician entered into it as a minor. “I couldn’t believe it,” JoJo says. “I called my mom immediately, and we cried.” Within 24 hours she signed with Atlantic Records, which had been courting her for years. “I’m not looking to make this new relationship into a family,” she says firmly. “I’m looking for a business partnership now.” It was exactly this business savvy that appealed to Atlantic. “We had seen what she was doing on her own, keeping her flame going,” says COO and chairman Julie Greenwald. “She’s interested in having a long-term career. She wasn’t trading on her cuteness, on being this young, really gifted singer…. She’s one of those artists who has purpose.”

Just when JoJo’s musical career had a clear direction once again, she suffered a personal tragedy. Last November her father, Joel Levesque, passed away after a long struggle with addiction. JoJo had a complicated relationship with her dad: After he split from her mom, Diana Blagden, when JoJo was 4, the two barely communicated. But recently they had reconnected over dinners and phone calls. Shortly before his passing, she even played him some of her new music, including the self-empowerment ballad “I Am.” The song brought him to tears. Thinking about that heartbreaking moment now, JoJo is surprisingly Zen. “I think through his life he struggled with feeling worthy, and then made decisions that resulted in him losing his life,” she says. “I think we’re searching for things to fill us up, to make us feel worthy of love.”

In fact, her late father’s mark is all over the album. JoJo punctuates the title of each track with a period—a reference to a tattoo she got with him. And on “Music.,” she opens up about her dad with some of her most confessional and gut-wrenching lyrics ever. “Went on the road to make my daddy proud,” she sings, “but I lost him and so I sang to the crowd/My only hope is he’s looking down/Thinking, ‘Oh my God, my daughter’s doing it now.'” Not surprisingly, that track was the hardest one for JoJo to write. “I felt like if I didn’t try to approach what I came from and what has shaped me into the person I am so far, the album wouldn’t be complete,” she says. “I wanted to start off where I came from and then get to where I’m going.”

So what is next for JoJo—will it be another decade before she releases more music? Not likely: She has a multi-album deal with Atlantic. She recently logged session time with Pharrell Williams, one of her heroes. “His creative force is so full,” she says. “He’s able to do some left-of-center s— and also make pop hits. I want that.” And despite her personal and career struggles, JoJo says those ordeals have only made her stronger. “Some child stars can be really, really f—ed up—I certainly have issues I need to work through,” she admits. “But I think for the most part I’ve had an array of experiences that have shaped me into a human being that I can look at in the face…. And here I am.”

To read more on JoJo, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands now, or buy it here now – and subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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