SHE is the former Starbucks barista whose smooth voice and streetwise lyrics have blown away the music industry.
Today, as she turns 21, Jorja Smith has every reason to reach for the bubbly.
Debut album Lost & Found has won rave reviews since its release on Friday, with critics comparing Jorja to the late, great Amy Winehouse.
Leading showbiz mag Variety said it could make Jorja “the breakout star of the year”.
The flurry of praise shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Jorja won the Critics’ Choice Award at this year’s Brits awards, emulating the likes of Adele and Sam Smith.
Already the soul singer, from Walsall, West Mids, has collaborated with rapper Drake and grime star Stormzy. She has a million followers on Instagram, has supported Bruno Mars on tour and played her own sell-out gigs in the US.
Not bad for someone who insists she used to be “chubby” with a “moustache”.
Jorja admitted: “I didn’t look like Rihanna. I was a bit chubby. I had puppy fat. I had a moustache. I didn’t want to have lips, I didn’t want a bum. I grew out of it but I feel like everyone went through that phase of wanting to be skinny.”
It is hard to believe the gorgeous singer was ever unlucky in love.
But she said: “I used to like loads of boys and get rejected all the time. Boys used to be like, ‘Ha! Jorja’s got a ‘tache!’
“It’s OK. I don’t mind. It made me stronger, I guess.”
Her mum Jolene is a jewellery maker, while her Jamaican-born dad Peter worked for Walsall Council.
Jorja remembers growing up wanting “to be pale”.
She said: “I didn’t want to go in the sun because I was in school with a lot of white girls.
“I remember one girl said to me, ‘You look better pale’.
“And I was like, ‘Well, your tan!’ She was like, ‘It’s not the same’.”
Ironically, Jorja has suggested she now gets criticism from some quarters for being too pale-skinned.
She said: “There’s this issue where I’m really doing well and got hate ’cause I’m too light-skinned. I understand why people say that — throughout history, the lighter you are, that’s how it’s been.
“But it’s not my fault. My mom and dad had me! I look how I look. I grew up with my dad telling me, ‘You’re not white, you’re black’.
“I’m mixed-race but I was told, ‘You’re never going to be white’, which is true.
“If it came down to it and we had a race war, white people wouldn’t accept me.”
Her parents played music “non-stop” at home and in the car.
And dad Peter, singer of a neo-soul vocal group called 2nd Naicha, encouraged her talent.
Jorja said: “Sound has always followed me. A lot of reggae when mum was cooking. I’d write songs with my dad or play him anything I’d worked on.
“I wrote my first full song when I was 11, called Life Is A Path Worth Taking, about chasing the right path. They are always showing me new stuff. My dad texts me links to new stuff all the time.”
Peter urged her to learn the piano and has helped her with lyrics, while Jorja wants to sample his songs.
She said: “My mum and dad told me to follow my dreams. They’re super-proud of me.”
At Aldridge School in Walsall, Jorja earned a music scholarship and played the oboe in the orchestra.
She studied classical singing, which can be heard in her song A Prince, which borrows from Henry Purcell’s 1695 composition A Prince Of Glorious Race Descended.
A clip of Jorja, then 15, singing Alex Clare’s 2011 hit Too Close in her front room, uploaded to YouTube by a friend, set her on the road to fame. Older girls at school would stop her in the halls to demand she sing for them.
‘This year’s breakout’
“LOST & Found could make her the breakout star of the year. Smith’s distinctive voice and the album’s mid-tempo beats and spare, simple hooks set it apart.”
“A divine debut. Jorja is sleek and smooth, and her music is where streetwise meets soul.”
“Jorja’s way of being expressive without resorting to vocal gymnastics makes her stand out. A promising start.”
– THE TIMES
“It’s the first full-length album from a young creative brimming with ideas and promise. A brilliant first draft.”
– CLASH MUSIC
Eventually the clip found its way to her current management team, who contacted her from London.
And just like that, Jorja had a manager. By the time she had finished school — which Jorja says she hated — she had written more than 70 songs. Two years ago, instead of following friends to university, Jorja moved in with an aunt and uncle in London. She got a job at Starbucks and recorded lyrics into her phone on breaks, confidently telling customers: “I’m going to be a singer, you know.”
In January 2016, she posted her song Blue Lights on to streaming website SoundCloud.
The track, about preconceptions among young black men, was later nominated for Best Song at that year’s Mobo awards.
Inspired by life in Walsall, it features men at local places including a barber shop, the town court and a park. Birmingham rapper Mike Skinner, aka The Streets, crops up in the video.
Jorja said: “I wanted to capture men and boys of Walsall and Birmingham from all different walks of life doing everyday activities to show the stereotypes we are bombarded with are misleading and ultimately harmful.”
Canadian rapper Drake got in touch on Instagram, asking Jorja to duet with him on a track called Get It Together. He had fallen in love with her sound and said a moody song called Where Did I Go? kept him sane on a long flight.
Incredibly, she turned him down.
“I couldn’t sing it because it didn’t relate to me,” she said of the duet. “I didn’t write it, I didn’t know what I was talking about.”
But after splitting with her then-boyfriend, she reconsidered.
Jorja said: “I messaged him, being like, ‘Hey, is there still space for me to be on that song?’” Fortunately for the ballsy singer, there was — though she recorded her part in London without them meeting. Since then they have performed together in the UK and in his native Toronto.
Jorja even took Drake to her local Co-Op to buy sweets while he was on tour. It led to speculation they were more than friends.
She said: “This happens when he works with any female. People assume things. I saw he’s supposed to be going out with Bella Hadid now. I’m heartbroken!”
The star, who is in a relationship, added: “I have my man. I’m happy I did (the duet) and so grateful. Loads of people found out about me because of that song.”
Her influences include Mos Def, Alicia Keys and Lauryn Hill, while Amy Winehouse is a personal idol.
Jorja calls Amy’s debut album Frank the soundtrack to her life.
She says: “I saw the documentary (Amy) four times. It’s sad. Her music is amazing but you make your own decisions.”
After a whirlwind couple of years, Jorja now gets stopped by fans in the street.
“I always get recognised,” she said. “I’m not even that famous yet.
“I want to be worldwide, in everyone’s ears, everyone listening to what I’m saying, because I think I say some good stuff.
“I want to be someone for young girls to look up to — for fathers to want their daughters to listen to me because I’m not rude and I’m talking some sense.”
- Additional reporting: AMY JONES