At the age of 5, Jason Derülo wrote his first song, “Crush on You.” Fifteen years later, his resume boasts songwriting credits that include the following artists: Birdman, Cassie, Danity Kane, Diddy, Lil’ Wayne, Pitbull, and Sean Kingston. By the sheer diversity of his portfolio, it is evident that this emerging talent has versatile songwriting skills.
Focusing his sights on a solo career, Jason Derülo has become one of the major breakout stars of 2009. His debut single, “Whatcha Say,” quietly stormed up Billboard’s Hot 100 chart—resting comfortably, for the past few weeks, in the #2 spot. While promoting “Whatcha Say” on a promotional tour, Jason Derülo managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry—reflecting on Imogen Heap, “Around the World,” and his formal music training.
You have a long history of being engaged in art and music performance. In fact, you are a graduate of New York’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy. What elements from your early classical training have prepared you for the pop life?
Well, one of the things I pulled from classical training is discipline, and the fact that in classical music you have to do everything exactly as it is written. There's no flexibility. You have to do everything exactly how it's written. And it's particularly hard work, also. I mean, there were times where I had to learn an entire song and present it the next day in class from memory. So that really taught me discipline. And Shakespeare – just to go to the acting side – every word is perfectly placed and no word is put there for no reason. Every word is strategically placed and holds a purpose. In my songwriting, I try to match that as closely as I can and try not to have any filler lines or lines that don't mean anything. Bringing the musical theatre part of it into it, you have to explain the story line and song. There is hardly any dialogue, so that forces the writer to have to be vivid in the writing, so I'm definitely focused on that also. It's always more fun to listen to something when you can actually see what the person is saying.
Even with all your classical training, your music is definitely genre-defying—incorporating elements of pop and R&B. What impact do you hope your records have on the contemporary music landscape?
I feel that there's a lot of music out there that is very gimmicky. I really want to be one of the people to try to bring good music back. You can have fun and dance to good music, and you don't need a gimmicky sound to have a good time. Also, on my album, there's inspirational stuff on there, too. Every song doesn't have to be about love. That's not all we deal with. So I definitely want to bring that out because I'm a very charitable guy – and I want people to know that, also.
As a new emerging talent, it is important to surround yourself not only with competent management, but also with people who also have your best interests at heart. What led you to sign with Beluga Heights?
When I went to L.A. to meet J.R. Rotem, he wanted to sign me as a writer. That night we recorded six songs, and the energy in the room was incredible – unlike things I've ever felt, unlike anything he's ever felt. It was just a crazy chemistry. Musical soul mates, if you would. And we recorded six songs. I just felt like “I don't want to lose this.” Music is most important. Everything has its place. I didn't leave there without signing a deal with those guys. Once he found out that I was an artist, it was a wrap. We got right to it and started recording my album. There was no long wait for me. I was never sitting on the label, waiting to come out. It was a direct, “Okay, you want to do this? All right, let's go.” And then it was in the first two weeks we recorded “Whatcha Say.”
A couple of days ago, you posted the following message on your Twitter account: "The final test of greatness is 2 endure criticism without holding onto resentment." Would you mind giving some insight on the life events that inspired the post?
A lot of times people say things on the computer just for the hell of it. You read those things and they're very hurtful. A lot of experts say, “Don't read your comments because there's always hurtful things.” But personally, I'm okay with them. I still do read my comments. I want to hear what everybody has to say, no matter positive or negative. I really do believe that the final test of greatness is to be able to endure the pain that words can cause. At the beginning, it may have been difficult, but now I take it with a grain of salt and realize there are people out there who just have hate in their heart. You have to realize that and you have to keep yourself grounded as an artist and go with it because it's part of it. It's part of this whole thing.
You once mentioned that the driving mantra of your life is no sleep. When you’re on the road and promoting your music, how do you take care of physical and spiritual well-being, when sleep isn’t always an option?
I don't think it's that difficult for me since this has always been my life. I felt like I was in boot camp for my entire life preparing for it. It's like preparing for a championship game. If you're well-prepared, you're not going to get tired. You're not going to fatigue. So at this point, I'm totally fine. Every day is a grind, but I don't have to do anything extra to make myself feel better. I stay straight up. I pray every single day and that keeps me grounded in everything that I do.
Your music video for “Whatcha Say” recently premiered on MTV. What lessons did you learn from the director, Bernard Gourley?
Throughout the whole shoot he was just telling me to be myself. “Don't try to be anybody else.” We set up first the story line, obviously, and then he just wanted me to go. He didn't want to give me too much direction because he wanted it to be me. And I feel like the video captured that. It captured me. It captured my personality, and it captured me, Jason Derülo as a human being and not Jason Derülo, the pop star.
I was really impressed with your dancing, especially the MJ-inspired spins toward the end! [laughing]
I like that, too! [laughing] Thanks a lot, man.
To date, you have written songs for Lil’ Wayne, Sean Kingston, Pitbull, Diddy and Danity Kane. Once you have the final product, how do you know (and determine) if a song is better fit for your or another artist?
When I'm writing for myself, the sky is the limit. I'll go there and I'll try to do different things and experiment. Just because I'm African-American doesn't mean that I have to do a certain kind of music. Yes, so I really just try to go there when I'm writing for myself. When I'm writing for other people, I really try to cater to that person and have that person shine as who they are. I don't try to change them at all. And that works for me.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure to attend a listening session for your forthcoming debut. During the presentation, you mentioned that you wrote all of the songs on your album, with one exception, and that J.R. Rotem handled all of the production work. You also briefly mentioned a brainstorming process called “Idea Time.” Would you mind giving me some insight about that process?
Well, J.R. and I will gather different sample ideas, different concepts, and we'll bring it to the session. And for two hours we'll go through and decide which are strongest. If he can build on my ideas and I can build on his, we’ll decide which are the strongest, and we'll start with the strongest first and start the session. He'll start with the beat and I'll be humming melodies. That's basically how our recording session is. It started with idea time.
Of the songs presented, my favorite track is “Around the World.” What’s the backstory behind that particular song?
Everybody needs somebody. I don't want to say that I've been searching for someone, but I'm definitely leaving myself open to find that right person. Basically, “Around the World” is about the pursuit of finding the right one, and “Around the World” is as if I found the right one. It's like a happy ending for me to what's going on right now. So I'm in the search right now, but “Around the World” will be the happy ending.
At the end of the session, I remember that all of the attendants had to cast a vote for the song that we thought would be a great second single. Have you made the final decision yet?
No, we haven't decided yet [laughing]. It’s hard to pick! But we changed the lyrics for “In My Bed” to “In My Head.”
Ah, so it wouldn't be so sexual?
Yes, so it wouldn't be so sexual. My audience is very young and I'm thinking very long-term. I want to be able to go on Oprah. I don't want to have this bad-boy rap. So we changed it to “In My Head,” and it's basically like all this stuff is going on in my head, rather than you know…
Good decision. Considering your audience, I think that was probably the best move. Now that people are slowly getting to know you as an artist, tell me about the man behind the music. “Who is Jason Derülo?”
Jason Derülo is the hardest-working man in show business. Jason Derülo is future history.
Why is musical eclecticism important for you?
I never, ever wanted to be boxed in – unless it's my personality. I want to reach the world and not just a niche audience. I want to change the world. As long there are things to change the world, I have to be able to appeal to the world. And basically, me wanting to make the music that I want to make — it was not a conscious decision, like, “Okay, I'm going to do this kind of music.” I just go into the studio and make music that I like. J.R. makes beats, and certain beats I'm drawn to more than others. He'll be playing these hardcore urban hip-hop beats, and I just didn't connect to them. So that's the bottom line. I just make music that I want to make. Now J.R. and I, we know each other so well, musically, so there's minimal words that have to be said in the studio. We know our musical language very well. People are receiving the acoustic version of “Whatcha Say” really, really well. It's really stripped down – just me and J.R. Rotem on the piano.
Have you received any feedback from Imogen Heap? Has she said anything about your version?
Jason Derülo: Yes, it's actually her favorite record. It's her favorite. “Hide and Seek” was a baby of hers, so she's so glad to see it's still living on and it's spreading it's wings. And I'm honored to take it to new heights.
For more information on Jason Derülo, visit his official MySpace page.
"Whatcha Say" [Music Video]