We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
As soon as you think you have JMSN figured out, he’s on to something else. The Detroit-bred singer, songwriter, and producer has taken his career through several iterations. His current experimental R&B sound makes his days as a member of the alt-pop band Love Arcade seem like a faint afterthought. It’s where he’s the most comfortable—for the moment.
In 2012, JMSN released †Priscilla†, a brooding post-breakup album named after his ex-girlfriend. It drew high praise for JMSN’s ability to expertly capture feelings of loneliness and betrayal through breathy vocals and spooky production.
But just before critics could paint him into a corner, he changed course again. Released in December, JMSN’s self-titled follow-up (also known as the Blue Album) is noticeably lighter. Although the sorrow of †Priscilla† is gone, JMSN takes the same unorthodox approach to R&B to equal success while displaying considerable musical growth.
In advance of his concert at U Street Music Hall this Friday, JMSN spoke with Arts Desk about the catharsis of writing about heartbreak, the notion of “blue-eyed soul,” and more.
Arts Desk: You have a very diverse musical background, and you were kind of all over the place sonically earlier in your career. How did you land at the sound you’re at now?
Well, I wasn’t really putting it in a box like that. It was a long time of experimenting and just came with the perfect mix of what I like, and it’s also not like I’m done shaping [my sound].
You even added a degree of soul to Nirvana’s “Rape Me.” How did that cover come to be?
Somebody from [the music blog] Pigeons & Planes hit me up and asked if I wanted to do it, and I was like, “Yeah, I’d love to it.”
Your first album, †Priscilla†, is very personal. A few years removed from the situation, do you regret putting so much of your personal life—-including your ex-girlfriend’s voicemails—-into your music?
No, I never regret that. That’s what making music is: putting your personal life [out there], and music is my personal life. My favorite artists, that’s all they did and that’s all I do. There’s no other way to do it in my opinion.
Are you wary of the line between art and real life? For example, Marvin Gaye created Here, My Dear after getting divorced, and Nas made Life Is Good after divorcing Kelis. But then there’s Robin Thicke’s Paula, which was, for lack of a better word, pathetic. Are you cautious about trying not to go too far?
No, I don’t think about that. Whatever’s going on in my life, I try to use it as an influence and go with it. I don’t think about the repercussions of things, because I just want freedom with making music.
Why do you think break-ups trigger creative peaks?
Probably because it puts a sense of urgency into your life. It makes you question a lot of things, not just that relationship. I think it goes back to your other question about why †Priscilla† is a little different than just calling your album your ex-girlfriend’s name. It goes deeper than that; that was just the surface of the problem, and it just made me confront the other issues.
Do you think writing about love gone sour and failed relationships is therapeutic, or does creating something from it serve as a constant reminder of the pain?
Yeah, it definitely helps you get past it. Once you get it off your chest, you can work it out and move on.
†Priscilla†, the “red” album, is colder than JMSN, the “blue” album. Is there a significance to the color schemes?
Yeah—-red is like a hazardous color. An urgent color. An emergency color, and everything felt that way. Blue is very wavy and calm. So it definitely has to do with what’s going on [in my life at the time].
Your most recent album is more conventional R&B and less moody than †Priscilla†. How did your musical evolution bring you here?
Life brought me to that point. My music will always match what I’m going through as a person. If that’s how I feel, then that’s what I create. I just go with it.
What made you decide to do these low-fi, VHS-esque videos? The video for “Score,” one of my favorite songs on the album, just came out last week, and the visuals give the song a new layer of normalcy.
I was just at a point where I was like, “Why not just try something completely different where an idea, a moment, or a personality can drive the whole video rather than making it this big thing?” I just wanted to focus on the personality of the video as opposed to how clean it looks and whether or not it looks like a movie. It’s just a different personality I wanted to go with for these videos, because I don’t want to be in a box for making the same kind of videos, just like I don’t want to be in a box for making the same type of music.
How do you feel about the phrase “blue-eyed soul”? Why is there still this degree of surprise that white folks can successfully pull off R&B music?
Yeah, I don’t know. I guess the pioneers of R&B weren’t white, and there are people who have pulled it off over the years like the Bee Gees or Michael McDonald, but the core artists were never white. I still think that stigma is attached, and race is still an issue in the world right now, but that’s an entirely different conversation.
You’re performing at U Street Music Hall this coming Friday the 13th. How many sad, anti-Valentine’s Day songs do you plan on performing?
[Laughs]. I don’t know, that’s a good question. I feel like any one of my songs can be considered a Valentine’s Day song, you know? So you can kind of take your pick.
Will Unit 6, that collaborative album that you did with TDE rapper Ab-Soul, ever see the light of day?
I think it will, just probably not right this second. There will be something that will come out at some point, just not right now.
Photograph by Sebastian Maldonado