THE MULTI-PLATINUM ARTIST TALKS ABOUT WRITING, WORK ETHIC AND STAYING HUNGRY
ALTHOUGH JASON DERULO MAY BE JUST 26 YEARS OLD, THE DYNAMIC FLORIDIAN ALREADY HAS CLOSE TO 20 YEARS OF EXPERIENCE AS A SINGER, DANCER AND SONGWRITER, HAVING WRITTEN HIS FIRST SONG,”CRUSH ON YOU,” AT THE AGE OF 8 TO IMPRESS A GIRL IN HIS CLASS,AND JUS T KEPT GOING.
“I’ve always been singing, since I was about 4 or 5, me wanting to get this girl, just to give her something. I didn’t have any money or anything so I was like, ‘Let me write her a song.’ Songwriting became my outlet. It became something that I turned to either when I was really excited or when I was really down. I guess when things can’t be explained or relayed with just speech you’ve got to take it to song.” Derulo’s aspirations were always reaching beyond
being simply a singer or songwriter, though. Growing up in Miami, his earliest inspirations were artists like Michael Jackson, Bobby Brown and MC Hammer, who moved as much as they grooved, creating performances that rolled song, dance and spectacle all into one package. “I was one of those kids in front of the television for hours and hours on end watching every single music video, trying to mimic every dance move that I’ve ever seen,” he says. The opportunity to start in performing arts school in fourth grade gave him the opportunity he’d been looking for.
“From fourth grade on, all the way to college,” says Derulo, “I was in performing arts schools where I learned how to tap dance. I did jazz. I did ballet. I did hip-hop, of course. Musically, [it was the] same thing. I studied classical music my entire life. I read music. It’s something that I always wanted to be—the consummate performer.”
Another distinct advantage of growing up in Miami is the city’s multicultural foundations. From salsa, soca and Afro-Caribbean influences to jazz, hip-hop and reggae, Miami’s music scene has always been a melting pot, and Derulo soaked it up. “Miami is so multicultural, man. It’s such an international place,” he says. “Growing up in Miami is like growing up in a melting pot. I was just introduced to so many different cultures. So I always studied music that was not just coming from here, but across the waters, too. Because I was exposed to these different cultures, so it interested me. I wanted to just and “Stupid Love,” combined with a desire to grow creatively, led Derulo to expand his horizons to the challenge of life in NYC.
“I went to the American Music and Dramatic Academy in New York,” Derulo says. “It was one of the greatest experiences because it was just so tough. There was very little that I could do outside of school because it was that demanding. But situations like that make you a better person, and it forces you to be a better performer, too. There’s no excuses at the end of the day. When you’re in front of an audience, it doesn’t matter— you can’t fail. Even if you were up all night, it does not matter. You still have to perform. There’s thousands of people out there that paid good money to come see you [sing] ‘Talk Dirty’, so you got to talk dirty to them.”
Success as an artist wasn’t immediate, and it was through his songwriting that Derulo first made a splash, even if it was with a diff erent aim in mind. “I started off as a songwriter, not because I wanted to. It just kind of fell in my lap. I was in Miami shopping a couple of songs that I had done. I remember going to some producers like, ‘You want to work with me? I’m an artist blah blah blah.’ They’re like, ‘Nah, nah, nah.’ But when I started posing as a songwriter, I’m like, ‘Hey, how about we write a song for this person?’ And they’re like, ‘All right, cool. Come on. Come down to the studio. Let’s work on that artist.’ Because [the artist] is famous, so [the producer] is trying to get on just like I was trying to get on. So I got to make a demo from the songs that they thought were being shopped to other people. Oddly enough, those songs that I thought were on my demo started to get placed by different artists.”
It was through these songs that Derulo first came to the attention of producer “J.R.” Rotem [Rihanna, Lil’ Kim, Sean Kingston, Britney Spears]. “So my name started to buzz in the music industry a little bit,” explains Derulo,” and J.R. got wind of me and the songs that I had [written] for people like Birdman, Pitbull and Diddy. They flew me out to New York, and the first night I met J.R. we did about six songs. After that one session he was like, ‘Man, have you ever thought about being an artist?’ I was like, ‘Brah …’ The rest was history. He signed me to his record label [Beluga Heights’] and we made it happen. We did my whole first album together.”
With the release of his debut single, “Whatcha Say,” Derulo climbed quickly to the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, a sudden success for which he wasn’t entirely prepared. “I was 18 and 19 years old and it was rough,” he says. “I was really young and I was kind of thrown out to the wolves. My first single shot to number one, you know what I’m saying? You know [how] people say zero to a hundred? It was like the opposite. It was like zero to one. It was crazy because I didn’t know what to expect. I was doing these interviews [and] I felt like I had to turn Jason Derulo on when I was doing an interview. I was trying to figure out, like, ‘What should I wear?’ It was a very weird transition and I didn’t have very much guidance. It’s not like I knew somebody that could help me. So it was a very interesting situation. I [felt] like I had to be weird and different and artist-like. And I’m not really like a weird guy, you know what I’m saying? That’s not really my thing. I feel like a very normal kind of dude. I felt like I had to be like [adopts dramatically low voice] Jason Derulo – I’m here. [chuckles] But finally, as years progressed, I realized that I could just be myself and people would kind of see through that and connect to me more.” Despite his relative youth, having a number one single made Derulo realize that, if he was going to avoid “one hit-wonder” syndrome, he couldn’t afford to take it easy and bask in success. “It changed everything, man. It took time to change things financially, but my mindset—it changed my mindset. My goals changed. It was not about having a hit song anymore. It was about having a career at that point. Like how do I keep this thing going? As soon as the song hit number one I was in the studio like crazy. Because most artists that come out with a big song don’t have a second song. They don’t have a follow-up. That’s in most cases. But having your song go number one is equivalent to being struck by lightning seven times.”
His debut album, Jason Derulo, ended up spawning multiple Top 10 singles and garnering multiple award nominations and wins. However, while rehearsing a difficult dance step for the tour to support his second studio album, Future History, Derulo broke a vertebra, and was forced to cancel the tour and spent several months in a neck brace. His approach to the forced downtime was to write one of his most upbeat albums, Talk Dirty. “I started to write an album,” he says, “not because it was time to write a new album, but because I broke my neck. Because I was supposed to tour off of the Future History album and after I broke my neck I was like, ‘I’m not just going to sit here. I’m going to write music.’ So there was no due date. It’s not like you have to have music at this time. It was me just writing music because I had to. I needed to get myself out of the crazy mindset that I was in.” Talk Dirty ended up spinning out six Top 10 singles, including the title cut, “Trumpets” and “Marry Me” and cementing Derulo’s reputation as a songwriter and artist with a serious work ethic.
That work ethic applies to not just songwriting, but taking interest and control of his entire professional world. “I’m somebody who is [studying] the charts all the time,” says Derulo. “I know what songs are doing well. I know who’s doing well at what format. I’m a student [of] the music industry. And I think, being a student [of] the music industry, I feel like I know a lot more than a lot of other people do. So I want to make sure that my songs are coming out at the right time. I want to make sure that my package is in line with other countries. My brand is an international brand, so we can’t just think about America. We cannot just think about the U.K.—it’s a whole picture. Just because the U.K. is ready for a new song, America’s not ready. So we have to wait—because it has to be one picture.”
But don’t assume it’s all too calculated. As witnessed by his collaboration with Stevie Wonder and Keith Urban, “Broke” on his latest release Everything Is 4, “I try to keep it fun. I try to keep people guessing,” Derulo says, “as well as myself. So when I go into the studio, there’s no real plan. It’s going off of a feeling, rather than ‘I’m going to do a song that sounds like this today.’ It’s more like I’m just going to go in the booth and whatever comes out is going to come out. Whatever’s on my mind at that particular moment is going to come out.” As he approaches the next step in his career, Derulo is defi nitely taking a fresh look and, in ways, starting again. “I think in this new beginning it’s about living life to the fullest,” he says. “It’s about remembering what’s important in life. And also the new beginning is a fresh new start because it keeps me humble. It keeps me striving for what’s next. I think a lot of people in my position would get comfortable and feel like they’ve accomplished a lot, whereas for me, it just makes me a lot more hungry. Like, ‘What else can I do? How far can I take this?’ Every time I reach to a certain point it becomes the beginning all over again and that keeps me striving to be greater and greater each time.”