Jay Sean is quite the story. Not only has he been a global touring artist for most of his life, he was the first British Asian ever to sign to a US label, and then top the Billboard Charts. His mega-single, Down, made serious waves, shifting six million copies stateside in 2008 (plus three million downloads), and New York City soon became home. Today, 'the whole game has changed', Jay tells us; he's referring to the consumption of music, and what the modern audience expects (and will put up with!) Rather than spend a year making an album, he prefers to go down the Drake route, and deliver his loyal fanbase individual song after song after song. His whole musical ethos is business-oriented, and that's undoubtedly why Jay is still the global artist some decade after those salad days. We chat to this engaging singer, songwriter, occasional beatboxer, and hip hop fanatic, about that fascinating musical journey, and how it's made him the family man he is today.
After exchanging pleasantries, Jay tells me he is on his way to the South of France to collaborate with Sean Paul at the massive NRJ festival (about 80,000 people). His life really is a busy one: yes, it's less of the hotel rooms and touring lifestyle, as he is married now, with a little girl and a home in Manhattan; but his musical life still involves all the key elements: the studio stuff, the songwriting, cutting the tracks, and being on the road. How does he manage it all?
“The key is a loyal fanbase, and social media is a huge part of that,” Jay smiles. “And I treat the music business as a business, because that's what it is; it's completely naïve to think it's anything but that, because you have to understand as an artist that it's not all about you. I can't do music that I only appreciate, as the fans will be all, 'alright mate, I don't know what you're doing now, but I'm not really into it, so..' [smiles] That's why you have to do it for your fans. So many pepole forget that, and it's easy to do; as an artist, you want to change this, tweak that, and that's OK, but you have to remember to keep your fans happy, and why they liked you in the first place, so they can come with you on the journey.”
Jay speaks very frankly, and already makes plenty of sense. As a consumer of music, “I listen to Drake for a reason,” he explains. Basically, because he knows what to expect. “But then I listen to Coldplay for another reason...” I think what he's getting at is, it's about keeping an identity.
“Exactly, because if Coldplay started doing what Drake's doing just because Drake is in fashion, then... [pauses, then laughs] Well, they'd lose that identity, right?” Jay says, with a hint of reflection. “So people have the tendency to follow trends, but I really try not to do that.”
Collaboration has always been huge for Jay, and it's something he loves. It's not always about picking a superstar though; it's about two musical forces meeting in the middle to create a little magic.
“Yeah, I have done a shed load of collabs in my time, mainly because I thought of myself as a global artist, as for the last 15 years I've been touring the world,” Jay explains. “There is talent everywhere, from all types of places: Antonia, for example, is huge in Romania; and DJ Antoine is massive in Europe. I've collaborated with both. It shouldn't be a case of working with the people that are hot right now; I just love and appreciate music, and you never know what can come when you put two creative minds together.”
Conversation turns back to Drake, and how his mix tapes have been a real trend setter. Jay likes the concept, and has made mix tapes himself throughout his career; in fact, he sees it as a way more sensible path than committing to a whole album in one sitting:
“For me, the mix tape thing is more of a theraputic process. It's interesting, as it's no secret that things were rocky for me at [my label] Cash Money towards the end; it's frustrating as an artist, as I wasn't working. I was writing my songs, doing my bit, but needed my whole team to work, and it got to a point where all the parts weren't moving, and it just wasn't happening, but I thought, 'well I'm not going to stop', so I put out two mix tapes for my fans just to give them music while I could get myself into a better situation.”
Another clear-cut sign of Jay's fans-first attitude. He's a New Yorker these days, and the city feels like home to him, despite his London origins. I ask Jay if he misses the UK, and how much of an impact that whole period in 2007-8 was when he had his mega-hit with the Down record, and became the first British Asian to sign to a US label. We smile at how some of the UK broadsheets labelled him as 'the lad from Hounslow who topped the Billboard Charts'. Because British artists just didn't break America back then, right?
“Man, that part of my life was incredible for my career, and I think a lot of people were like, 'wow, no-one ever thought we could break America, but Jay Sean has done it, so maybe we can?' And I know this for sure, as I used to be signed to Virgin before I was signed to Cash Money, and even my Virgin deal didn't include America as a territory,” Jay says, as I come to realise just how pivotal a point this was for British music, let alone Jay Sean. “A lot of UK deals wouldn't touch the US due to effort, money, and so on, But now it's huge, and now it seems to be no big deal at all when an English act breaks America: you've got Adele, Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, all going great out there.”
One thing Jay does miss is being part of the UK scene. He came up from the UK urban scene some 15 years ago through the same channels, networks, shows, and circuits as the likes of Skepta, Krept and Konan, and Stormzy.
“That scene has evolved into such a movement now,” Jay enthuses. “I still keep in touch with it, of course; you can't get it out of your system, as it's your roots.”
Another moment of clarity: Jay Sean was essentially the pioneer of all of this. And he's not a half bad rapper, I understand?
“[smiles] Well, maybe. I'm so proud to see where it's come, that's for sure,” Jay says, modestly. “And yeah, I used to rap at 14 years old – and it's still a part of my thing - but I wanted to be a rapper way before I was a singer, and I was told by my friends in the industry – you know, DJs or radio presenters – that UK rap was not even a thing, and there was no chance I was going to make it. But now look! It's just incredible. And I love beatboxing! Hip hop culture has been a massive part of me, whether it's DJing or beatboxing; I fell in love with hip hop at 12 years old, and it always will be that way.”
We chat a little about Jay's stage setup, and it brings us onto music technology. His 'stage evolution', if you like, is all down to switching from stage wedges to in-ear monitors.
“Right now, I use in-ears at every show: an arena, club, festival, wherever,” he explains. “I am super anal about my vocals, and them being in tune and in key [smiles]. Sometimes you hear people sing a whole song in a different key and it's because they can't hear themselves, so pitching is key; and then tonality is the other thing.
“With monitors alone, which I did for eight years - over half my touring career - I realised I ended up shouting over the music, even when I didn't think I was. If that stem was recorded into a mixer, you would hear it, but in a crowd, it gets disguised with reverb and noise everywhere. I learned the hard way: I did a show like that, listened back, then was shocked. That's when I ealised I couldn't hear myself, and I had to fix it. So I went onto JH Audio JH16 in-ears. Yes, with any in-ears you lose a bit of vibe, as the whole stage mix is direct into your headphones and way less loud, but all I do is just take one of my ears out a touch just to leak a little sound bleed in, and that gives me my ambient noise, and allows my monitors to come through into my ear direct. It works perfectly for me.”
It's a relationship that Jay has built with JH Audio since 2011, and one he cites as absolutely essential in his day to day workflow:
“Aside from the quality of product – the sound quality, the comfort, the tonality which I mentioned earlier - it's the relationship. Recently, I lost my in-ear case, which has all the cleaning solutions inside, but I got one sent out within a couple of days. And that is so important. I literally can't perform without them; that is my everything... So your experience as a consumer, and as a concert goer, depends on our experience with those two headphones. That's it! If we don't have the right balance between music and vocals and high end and low end, it's not going to be fun or exciting up on stage. It's seriously that crucial to us.”
Before I leave Jay to travel into Europe, I ask him what we might expect from him next and, as he seems to have such a smart music business brain, what might happen next in the industry... Too big a question..?
“[laughs] Well, the whole concept of an album has changed, that's a fact; it's a little old school, and dated, and the concept is a little old. I don't mean I don't want to do a body of work, I just don't look at it as an album anymore. The conventional route we used to take – spend a year or two on an album – is gone. A lot of people don't even write their albums anymore, and that's because even if they're songwriters, people's patience has changed; their attention span is so minimal.
"As an example, when we'd just finished the last album, I was on the road promoting it and the fans were already waiting for the next one! So it's become a case of, 'OK, let's get something done in a week.' I write my own material, and I think of it as gradual releases; I don't have an abum right now, I am just releasing singles, so for me, I'm just going to hit them with this one and then boom, another song in my collection that I love, then boom, hit them with that one. I don't think anyone is going to complain if they don't have a release date for an album, as long as they're getting music. That's how I look at it.”
It's modern thinking for today's industry, isn't it?
“Yeah, and Drake is pivotal; he is at the top of the game,” Jay concludes. “No one knows what album [Drake's single] One Dance was from before, as they didn't know it was even coming [when it was released], but he kept hitting us with song after song after song, and we lapped it up. And that's the way we've got to go.”
Big thanks for talking to us, Jay - and best of luck with your next project, whatever that may be..!