Just hours before her concert at New York’s Gramercy Theatre, Jazmine Sullivan admits that she’s nervous. Though she has been performing for audiences since she was a child, a wave of anxiety still hits her before the show. When she begins her set, though, something shifts. Perhaps it is the lights that transport her to the moment, or the audience that hangs on to each word with encouraging head nods. Onstage, Sullivan’s voice belts out, smoky and telling like a church confession. It's obvious that she isn't just singing, but revealing something deep inside of her, something heavy and every shifting. Sullivan’s music has always invited listeners into the most intimate parts of her life and that is more apparent here than ever before.
After a three-year hiatus from the industry, the 27-year-old's ability to reckon with her life through music has not changed. She admits that music has always been her therapy and channel for expression. You can hear those revelations in the way her honeyed voice lingers into fervent octaves that never end. Sullivan will share her story again in her upcoming album Reality Show, which will be released in January 2015. EBONY chatted with the singer about the real reason behind her break from the industry, how she approached her new album and how she has grown.
EBONY: You once said that you took a hiatus from music because you fell out of love with it and needed to figure some things out. In what ways did you grow during that time?
SULLIVAN: At the time when I made that announcement, I was going through a lot personally and really trying to think of something to say to everybody. I was really in an abusive relationship and it kind of took the fun out of everything for me. That’s what was really going on at that time. Since then, I think I’ve just grown period as a normal human being. After you go through what I went through with my relationship, you learn new things about yourself. I’ve definitely matured.
EBONY: Does the music world and performing feel any different to you now that you’re back?
SULLIVAN: Everything feels new to me. Even with doing a show, I actually get nervous now, whereas before I would kind of just do it. I got used to performing so much because I did it when I was younger. After taking some time off, it scares you a bit, but it’s a good scary. It’s that scary you get when you first start learning something. It’s also exciting at the same time. I appreciate that feeling because I appreciate more what I do now.
EBONY: How did you approach this album differently from your past work?
SULLIVAN: A lot of this album I did in Philly with just an engineer in the studio. Sometimes my mom would come. I think I was harder on myself with this album than any other album. I kept going back trying to get verses and know about every little detail, so I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure that it was just the way I wanted it. There’s a lot of storytelling in this album. There’s some sounds sonically I’ve touched on but haven’t performed, like with a song called Mascara. There’s a song called Brand New that has a more current vibe to it. My first album, Fearless is similar because I kind of touch on different sounds and topics.
EBONY: You’ve shared that you were in an abusive relationship for many years. What did that experience teach you about yourself?
SULLIVAN: It taught me what not to accept in the name of love. I did everything and I stayed because I though I was supposed to, because I loved him and wanted to make it work. I actually just realized recently that a lot of my behavior was because I grew up in a two-parent household and my parents loved each other, so that’s all I knew. All I saw was two people making it work, so I realized that I kind of took that into my relationships, but that wasn’t the person that deserved that from me. Sometimes everybody isn’t worth you.
EBONY: Your lyrics are always very personal and offer a glimpse of very raw emotions. Is music a sort of therapy for you?
SULLIVAN: Definitely. I started working on the album because I was like, ‘I might as well use everything I’ve been and start putting it down.’ I’ve been working on this album for two years. It definitely was very therapeutic to put down exactly how I was feeling, like in Forever Don’t Last, but sometimes it was therapeutic to write about something else and take my mind off of my issues.
EBONY: Is there anybody that you’d love to collaborate with?
SULLIVAN: Drake, Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, Stevie Wonder…. the list goes on. Anybody that I just love and like I think is dope I’d love to work with.
EBONY: If you could tell your younger self something, what would it be?
SULLIVAN: To really appreciate my uniqueness, whatever that was at the time. When I was younger, I did not like the fact that my voice was so deep. I just wished that I could hit higher notes. Whatever thing I was going through I would have said, ‘just work with what you got, and appreciate it. ‘