We interviewed singer Jay Sean at his record offices in Manhattan recently.
Why did you choose Jay Sean as your stage name?
My friends as I was growing up just called me Jay, anyway. When I was real young I was in this rap group with my cousin. We were like 11, and my name was MC Nicky J. Jay I took from there, and Sean is actually means Shining Star in my language. So that’s why I put the two together: Jay Sean.
Do you have any siblings? If so, are they also musicians?
I only have one brother, and he’s younger than me. He’s is a video music director. It’s handy when your brother can make your videos. Although he hasn’t made one for me yet — but I’m sure he will. He’s very talented.
What brought you to America from England?
I actually got signed to Cash Money Records. Lil Wayne, Drake and those guys are all signed with Cash Money Records. When I got a deal with them, I had to really make that decision — America’s huge. The amount of interviews you have to do, TV stations you have to appear on, and radios you have to go on. I would be going crazy flying back and forth from London. So I tried it for a couple of weeks, and I thought, ‘this is crazy. My base needs to be here.’ And so that’s why I made this move.
Do you write your own music; if so, what inspired you to write “Down”?
I do write my own music. That’s actually one of my favorite parts of doing what I do. It’s a funny thing when you’re singing your own song — you feel more attached to it. If someone else has written it for you, you can interpret it well, but it’s not yours. You don’t feel like you own it. For me, I like writing my own songs. And “Down” was actually inspired. We were in the studio, it must have been 1 in the morning; I just finished recording another song. I was chilling out after we finished recording, and I was flicking through the channels, and the news was coming on. Everything was so depressing. I’m a very positive person. I’m a happy person, and it’s not possible to always be happy, of course. But then when you see that kind of stuff . . . it was really miserable. If I’m feeling like that, I’m sure a lot of people are feeling like that. So let’s write a positive song. Let’s right something fun, let’s write something that when it comes on, you’ll forget about your worries for three minutes and be stupid. You could move people with your music. That’s what I try to do.
How do you prepare to perform on the stage before the show?
Good question. I like that. My thing is this. I begin in the green room, and I’ll do my vocal exercises. There’s loads of different things you have to do in order to warm up your voice so you don’t lose it while you’re onstage. After I do that, we just have fun. That’s the main thing — me and my DJ, and my guy who’s onstage with me. We just have fun, we’re stupid, we joke around with each other. Usually I end up going onstage after having just a really good laugh and feeling good rather than nervous. Imagine being in a room, and everybody’s silent, and it’s just awkward, and then you have to go onstage and a couple of thousand people, you make their night, and you’re just feeling so nervous.
Would you rather perform in front of a small crowd or a large crowd?
That is also a very good question. A large crowd. The hardest crowd to sing to is a small crowd because you’re aware of the five or six people that are in the room, and they’ve got nothing else to look at, nothing else to hear but you. It’s really like — it’s pretty weird. Like if my mom and dad would just say like if I’ve written song, go and sing it for us. No. Wait until I’m doing a concert. Because when you’re doing a concert, you become somebody else. You go onstage, and you’re larger than life. You’re going to a zone where you become somebody else. You’re not just a normal person. You need to be so larger than life in order to think that these couple of thousands of people paid money to see you, are then going to listen to you and watch you for the next hour. Just you. And that’s a really crazy thing to think about. That people paid money so you can entertain them. That’s when it’s a lot easier to put on a show. Because like you just want to deliver it.
You sing pop and R&B. Did you always want to sing that style?
Yes, because I grew up listening to R&B and soul. That was the main thing I grew up listening to. But growing up in England, pop music is the biggest music culture in England. Pop music is huge, like Spice Girls and all those guys came out of England. So I guess having that sort of pop angle and this R&B influence, I guess I realize ‘let me try to put the two together and come up with some R&B style and R&B sort of backbone to the music, but make it digestible enough that most people in this world can sing along.’
What is your favorite song out of all the songs you’ve written?
I love them all for different reasons. But if there’s one which I find myself more drawn to for some reason — I don’t know why — it’s a song called “All of Nothing,” which is the name of the album. The title of the album is named after it. I don’t know why I love that song so much. Maybe it’s the sentiment of the song and maybe because it’s actually true for me as well. A lot of songs I write are actually based on true life. Probably that one.
When you were our age, did you love school?
I loved school. And trust me, believe me, right now if I tell you guys that you’re going to one day miss going. You’ll go, yeah right. When you get out of school, hit real life, you do anything to go back and have fun with your friends at lunchtime and be silly and play football or whatever you guys want to do. You got hundreds of friends there, and when you leave school, you have to make friends all over again. And sometimes, you might not even find people you like. . . just enjoy it while you can. Enjoy it. Really, really make the most of it, work hard and play hard.
Are you part of any organization that deals with charity?
Yes. Right now, I’m involved with an organization for heart disease and for cancer. Because those two diseases have affected my family, too. Quite heavily. . . I used to come from a medical background. I was going to be a doctor. I was half way through my medical degree, and for me I’m just heavily into that side of the world; helping people, I think, is a beautiful thing.
Did anyone inspire you to become a musician?
Definitely. I grew up listening to Michael Jackson, like everybody else did. And he’s the coolest person you can ever imagine. When I was young, he was the ultimate. So I think I wanted to be him or be someone like him. I don’t know whether you guys do this: Have you ever sung in front of the mirror or danced around and were silly? We all like to do that for a laugh. I used to do that Michael Jackson, and then I started to get more into real song music. People like Stevie Wonder. I’d listen to Boyz to Men. That’s when I really wanted to become a singer.
Did your family ever encourage you to sing?
Yes, all the time. When I was like maybe 8 years old; I always used to like singing. When we used to have a party or someone’s birthday . . . after we eat, I was like the after-dinner entertainment. It was like, ‘go on, sing us a song.’ I was like, ‘Oh, God do I have to?’ And the thing is, even though I’m confident, and I always was confident when I was younger, it gets embarrassing because you have cousins who are laughing, and I’m like, ‘OK, I don’t want to do it in front of them. Can they leave?’ ‘No, you have to do it in front of everybody.’ So I’d go, and sometimes I would hide behind the sofa, and I’d hide behind there, and I’d sing. But I would do it from a very young age.
Who do you respect most as a musician?
People like for example, Madonna and Michael Jackson, Sting, people who lasted the test of time. Isn’t it an incredible thing. They’ve been doing music their whole life, and there’s some people who come in, they maybe have one song, and you never hear them again. And when you have someone nice like that who’s grown with the times, I think it’s incredible. For example, Eminem and Jay Z. Jay Z especially, because I knew Jay Z back even before he went solo, when he was in a group called Original Flavor, and that’s like most people don’t remember that. I was a fan of him back then. He’s lasted all these years and is still on top of the game. Eminem, he came against loads of different prejudices]; he was a white guy doing black music. That was difficult at that time. He’d get these kinds of questions to answer, and it can be hard as an artist to do that. But it didn’t matter because his skills mattered, and that’s what people paid attention to.
Out of all the cities that you visited, which one was your favorite?
See I’ve been to places like Thailand, to like a tiny little place in the Far East, a little island — I went off the coast of Thailand, to Bangkok and then you catch a boat to this other remote island which is so tiny, and you get there and I perform in front of maybe 10,000 people, and I remember thinking ‘this is amazing. I come in the middle of the ocean right now. This tiny little island somewhere in the world, and these people are here to hear me sing.’ And that was incredible. Then, there’s another place; there’s loads of beautiful places, Far East, really incredible. America, this side of the world, like Puerto Rice is beautiful, Antigua is beautiful. I like places like this. And in America, I would have to say I love N.Y., California, Miami and Vegas, of course. So there’s four obvious ones, but they are amazing places.
What was your favorite part of making your album “All or Nothing?”
Again, it was just the experience of being in the studio and having fun. I can’t stress how important that is to me. I was the kind of person when I was in school and I had exams, I wouldn’t be the person like five minutes before the exam, like (showing nervous), I don’t want to stress out, right now. If I don’t know it now, I probably won’t know it, and I’ll just freak myself out, and when the exam paper is in front of me, I’ll forget everything. Because I’m just too panicky. So I used to put my music on, I used to chill out like about a half-hour before, and I’m like, ‘you know it’s cool. I know what I know now, and it’s in my head, I’m sure it will be fine,’ and that’s how I work best. That’s how I work best. Everybody works differently. So when I’m in the studio, I just have fun, the producer, the person I’m writing the song with, we’ll be silly, we’ll have fun with it, and usually something magic comes out.
Where was your first performance, and were you calm, and relaxed or nervous and anxious?
My first performance, I’ll never forget this, was — actually it depends on what you mean by first performance — in terms of Jay Sean, my first performance was 7 years ago in a park. Around the corner from my house. That’s what it was, and it was a big community event, like a festival, and I literally just picked my name and I had this song, which people just heard. It was like an underground buzz record. People heard it in schools and colleges. I didn’t even realize I had any fans until I stepped onstage. Because I didn’t know anybody knew me. I just knew that some of them had known the song. So I went onstage, and I sang. I wasn’t nervous for some reason. I don’t know why. I wasn’t nervous; I was excited. I came off, and I remember signing my first- ever autograph. I had to just make one up because I hadn’t — I didn’t know autograph. So I was like, ‘yeah, there you go.’ I better remember that one. And then I remember I had actually 10 more people, and I went home and told my Mom: ‘Mom, I signed 11 autographs today.’ It’s amazing. But that for me was just such an incredible — I was like, ‘why would anyone want my autograph?’ That’s pretty special. And now, of course, I don’t know how many hundred, thousand, millions I’ve signed. At that time I remember feeling like Wow! I wouldn’t forget I did that.