With sky-high sales accelerating his first two singles to #1 in four countries, Jason Derulo’s down-to-earth approach to his music and everyday life is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly vanity-obsessed music industry. A mere 20 years old, his story is far from a typical one of overnight success and fame. From a young age, the Florida native’s concentrated and constant study of musical theater, dance, and songwriting have driven him to learn firsthand the ins and outs of a business he hopes to stay in “for as long as I can continue to grow.”
JK: Tell me how you are feeling right now. Your first album has just been released, and you’ve already had one #1 hit song with ‘Whatcha Say’, that has also reached the Top 10 in nine other countries and the follow-up is doing just as well, already hitting the Top 10 in a number of countries.
JD: It’s #1 in several countries right now. It’s an amazing feeling. It’s incredible. I’ve been working towards this my whole life, but to finally see everything come to fruition is definitely unparalleled. I’ve never experienced such fulfillment and joy in my life.
JK: Is there any aspect that has taken you most by surprise about the experience, or just different from what you were used to when you were planning for all of this?
JD: Oh, definitely. My life is totally different, in terms of being noticed and the way when I go into a room, well the room is kind of different when I step into that room. Everyone kind of stops what they’re doing and says, “Who’s that? Who’s that?”
JK: The reactions?
JD: Yeah, and all the interviews back-to-back-to-back, it’s totally different from what I’m used to. I’m used to being in the studio, being in the dance studio rehearsing and stuff like that, so it’s a total flip-around; it’s not all artistic anymore.
JK: You’ve got to do the business side.
JD: As well, yeah.
JK: I remember seeing one of your posts on your Facebook fan page, which I am on, and you said that after a day full of interviews, you were relieved to be able to perform again.
JD: Yes, I did say that.
JK: So, tell me about the making of the album, because obviously you’ve had some songs out online over the last few years, and you’ve already hit it big with your singles, but the album is just coming out now, so how long did it take to produce it, and in what period of time were the songs written over?
JD: Throughout eight months, I recorded 300 songs. I wanted to have the perfect album, so I worked very hard, sometimes 20-hour days. I was literally locked in the studio. I went through JR Rotem’s whole archive of beats, you know beats he has been making for years, and I went through his whole archive. I really put my heart and soul into this record. I wanted something that was special. I wanted something that someone could just pop in and just let it ride, without having to search for good songs.
JK: How did you narrow it down to the final nine that you chose?
JD: Basically, with the team of professionals that I trust. We sat down and, song by song, we just skimmed it down, and figured why some songs should make it and some shouldn’t. We got it down to a final 20 that I really liked, and you narrow it down from there. You’ve got 20 spine-tinglers, and after you narrow it down to 20, then you figure out what songs will work best on the album. I wanted to have it be really diverse and really different -- no song like the other, That was an easier way to try to narrow it down, to have songs that didn’t really resemble each other too much.
JK: How would you describe the overall sound of the final product?
JD: I think my album is a music-lover’s album. There are so many different influences, whether it’s rock, electro, R&B, Hip Hop of course. It’s so diverse, and has so many different influences, that I consider this a music lover’s album, because I'm a music lover. I love all those styles. I've written for so many different kinds of artists in different genres. That’s a product of who I am, so that’s why it’s self-titled.
JK: Take me through a few songs on the album. These were a few favorites of mine: tell me about your inspiration behind them, and what personal significance they might have. Let’s start with ‘Ridin’ Solo’. Was it a personal experience that inspired it, or how did that come about?
JD: Oh, ‘Ridin’ Solo’, I never heard of that one. (Laughs)
JK: Oh really?
JD: There’s quite a ruckus going on about ‘Ridin’ Solo’, because it’s really high on iTunes right now, and it’s not even a single, which is really crazy. ‘Ridin’ Solo’ was inspired by a past relationship that I had. It was basically celebrating being single and getting over the relationship. It’s a celebration about being single. It’s not a bad thing to be single. After a breakup, people need to feel okay again, they need that support system, so I feel like ‘Ridin’ Solo’ is that support system, like, ' I’m good by myself, I can make it by myself. It’s alright.'
JK: Having that breathing time.
JD: Exactly. It’s a breath of fresh air."
JK: You said, “I’m finally doing me and it feels so right.
JD: Yeah, “You told me to get my shit together and now I got my shit together.”
JK: Right. Doing it in your own way, though. On ‘The Sky’s The Limit’, you start off saying “It’s like a dream come alive for the very first time, and I wish I could freeze you and me in this moment of time” and you’ve got kind of an interpolation of the 'Flashdance' theme as well. What brought that song and production together?
JD: Like I spoke of the different types of music,, and doing musical theatre was really cool. JR was a fan of it, and when he played it for me, I was obviously all for it. I immediately grabbed the microphone and went into the booth. The words really came easy for this one. I don’t know why, but they just came out.
JK: So, it was a spontaneous creation, it wasn’t like you sat down and said, “Okay, I’m going to say x, y and z,” but you just went off the idea of his feel and his beats and you came in with your melodies on the spot?
JD: Yeah, basically what I did was I went back to the fact that I wanted to make a love song about not something that’s so deep, but a love that’s right in the beginning; it’s still in the honeymoon stage. There are no problems yet, it’s just all good, so I went back to that moment that I felt before, and I came up with this track.
JK: You tapped into an everyday situation that we can get caught in, with the song ‘Love Hangover’ where you sing, “I like a challenge, so I proceeded to speak. One drink turned into two drinks. When I woke up, I saw her lying next to me.” Where were you at when you came up with that song?
JD: Yeah, that happens all the time. It’s more the college life kind of thing, so I just went back to experiences that I’ve had, and pulled out of a few of them. It’s not one time that it happened, it’s not like I pulled it from one specific situation. I pulled from several situations to write this song.
JK: One song that stood out to me as well is ‘Fallen’ in which you sing, “To rule this world like Michelle and Barack” and then you sing, “You’re the one that makes it worth getting up in the morning,” so was there a particular situation that inspired that, or was that from someone you knew, or how did that come into fruition?
JD: That one was definitely something that I pulled from real life, and I go back to a lot because when I was creating the album, there wasn’t much of anything going on in my life, it was literally just recording, so there was a lot of going back to thoughts that I had prior. There are a lot of things that I went through right before the album came out, so I went back to the feeling of “I’m being in love” and what it feels like, so it was like right before, getting her to believe that this could be something real. Comparing us to the fairy tales, comparing us to Obama and Michelle, we could be like that, you know?
JK: Who and what would you cite as some of your standout musical influences in crafting your style, and even in putting together the album?
JD: Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Justin Timberlake, Usher.
JK: Were there any particular aspects, and let’s take two of them for example, you mentioned Usher and Madonna, were there any particular aspects of their work that you found ideas from?
JD: Madonna - it's the reinvention. I watched Madonna for a long time and saw her reinvent herself time and time again, and you can always tell it’s Madonna’s voice on a track, but the track is always so different. The voice is always the same, but the feel of the song is always so different, and I wanted to do the same thing, so I took that from Madonna. My sound is not purposely Michael Jackson-esque, but he’s one of my biggest influences growing up, and Justin Timberlake: I’m 20 years old, so obviously, you have no choice but to watch Justin Timberlake. He was the “it” factor ever since the Mickey Mouse Club.
JK: He was starting out very young as well. You mentioned your time studying musical theatre. How was that influential in developing your style?
JD: It’s influential in my songwriting a lot, because in musical theatre, everything has to be explained. You’re doing an awesome job, by the way. In musical theatre, you have to explain the storyline through song. You can’t really have too much dialogue; everything has to be really vivid and I kept that with my songwriting. My songs are pretty vivid. You can almost see what’s happening as you are listening to it. I really try to bring that aspect into it. Also, with performing, you want your audience to be able to feel the music, and you want to act out the song as you’re singing it.
JK: What about your writing for other artists, because you’ve contributed songs to a lot of artists like Cassie, Pleasure P. and Pitbull to name a few? Did that prepare you in any way, as far as putting together your own album?
JD: Absolutely, and diversity is the key for me. I got a chance to work with people like Lil Wayne, and going to write a pop track for Iyaz - 'Replay,' and then I’ll go and do a hard Hip Hop song for Birdman, so it was definitely a learning process and I’ve gotten a lot of experience from working with those artists. You can see what works and what doesn’t work through trial and error.
JK: Was there one song that you wrote for another artist that let you know, “I’m on to a really good thing here with songwriting”. Was there any one that stood out when you had success with it?
JD: ‘Replay’ is a big song that I’ve written for another artist. It went to #1 in so many different countries.
JK: Absolutely. I work at an elementary school by day, and one of the students was asking me about that song. You know it’s far-reaching when you’ve got the really young kids talking about it. Tell me about the impact that touring with Lady Gaga had on your music and performance, because I imagine that was a unique experience for you.
JD: It was really cool, being on tour with her. I’ve always had my plan set in what I’m going to do for a show, and my show is in my head right now. I just can’t wait to get it out with my own tour. It’s imperative that you go on tour with somebody first, so you can get the feel for touring before you start your own. It's definitely a learning experience, and she’s an incredible performer, and she’s as awesome offstage as she is onstage. She said some really cool words to me. She looked me in the eyes and said, “Jason, I’ve seen a lot of talented people in my day, and I just want to let you know that you are special. You’re a star.” That means a lot coming from her.
JK: When do you plan to tour on your own, and on what scale can we expect to see that?
JD: Maybe late June? It’s gonna be bigger and bigger, as time progresses.
JK: Do you perceive it being a tour of big stadiums, or do you think it will be starting with smaller clubs?
JD: If I had to guess, I would say small theatres starting in late June.
JK: To wrap it up, you’ve obviously been doing this and working towards this your whole life, and obviously you know as well as I do, that you’ve chosen a very fickle and ever-changing business when you go into the music business. How long do you hope to be in this business, and tell me a few of your short- and long-term goals for being in this business?
JD: First off, I’d like to be in the business as long as I continue to grow. When my growth stops and I’m at a standstill, I think that will be when I retire. In terms of what I want to accomplish, music really heals the world, and I get messages like, “My younger brother is deathly ill, and whenever we listen to your music, we forget that he’s sick” and stuff like that. That’s what I do it for. Music heals the world, and I would really just like to be in the forefront of that healing process. That’s my main goal. All the numbers, all the glitz and the glam is so secondary to me.
JK: It’s just the power of the music itself that’s so amazing when you think about it.
About the Writer
Justin Kantor is a freelance music journalist with published works in Wax Poetics and the All-Music Guide. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Business and Management program, he regularly writes liner notes for reissue labels.