Jason Derulo on his new album, Cats and why he's so happy
Jason Derulo's laugh is contagious. He lets out a ha-ha-ha in a silky baritone and it’s almost impossible not to join in. On this occasion we’re chuckling about desserts — specifically chocolate lava cake — as he admits that it’s his guilty pleasure.
“You can’t not like dessert, man!” he says. “And that chocolate lava cake, well that makes me very happy. Ha-ha-ha.”
Why, you might ask, are we discussing dessert with the A-list R&B artist? Well, life is going pretty well for Jason Derulo at the moment — he’s essentially having his cake, and eating it, too. Still only 29 years old, Derulo has sold more than 50 million records worldwide, with 11 singles having reached platinum status. Online his songs have racked up more than two billion views on YouTube and a further billion on Spotify streams.
In fact, the mere mention of his songs “Ridin’ Solo”, “Wiggle”, “Talk Dirty” and “Marry Me” will have them endlessly circling in your head for the rest of the day.
Tell us we’re wrong… “I am happier now than I have ever been,” he says as the barber freshens up his fade ahead of our photoshoot at the Esquire Middle East studio — for those curious, Derulo gets his hair touched up every couple of days.
“It just feels like I have a lot of things figured out right now. I know that comes with age and growing older. I’m only 29 years old and I’ve already been able to accomplish a lot of my dreams, and now I am starting on new ones.”
As if evidence of his maturity was needed, he has even ‘retired’ singing his name in the beginning of all his songs. Of those ‘new dreams’ he mentions how excited he is to be making his motion picture debut later this year in Tom Hooper’s live action remake of the musical Cats, alongside an all-star cast including Idris Elba, Dame Judi Dench, Taylor Swift and Sir Ian McKellen. Swaggering into our Dubai studio wearing a mustard yellow bomber jacket, sleeveless black t-shirt, tight black jeans with rips in the knees and shiny gold Dolce&Gabbana shoes, Derulo has the aura of a superstar, but the manners of a gent.
He is an evening-removed from a history-making concert in Saudi Arabia, where for the first time in the country’s history a mixed crowd of men and women attended a series of gigs as part of the three-day FIA Formula E motorsports race weekend.
“That was a huge honour and quite an emotional experience,” he says. “To be honest, I am just a vessel in a situation that is a lot bigger than me, and will have a longer lasting impact on millions of people. It’s actually an honour to be used in a way to help be part of something like that.”
With several of his more famous tracks being on the, ahem, more risqué side of things we asked whether he had to dial them down.
“Oh definitely!” he says cracking a toothy smile. “They gave me some guidelines of what I could and couldn’t do, and I wanted to be respectful of the culture. That is just common courtesy. You can’t be so arrogant to think that your way is the only way. That’s how I was brought up.”
Born in Florida to Haitian parents, Jason Joel Desrouleaux began dancing as a pre-schooler, inspired by Michael Jackson and MC Hammer. He started singing at an early age, attending performing arts schools and took some early stabs at music composition, writing his first song at the age of eight. His writing skills began attracting attention, and by his teenage years, he had begun composing tracks for artists like Lil Wayne, Pitbull and Pleasure P.
He also co-wrote “Bossy” for New Orleans-based rapper Birdman, and made a guest appearance on the song, highlighting his ability as a vocalist.
Suddenly, Derulo was an in-demand writer, penning tracks for Sean Kingston, Lil Wayne and Sean “Diddy” Combs, among others. He soon signed to Warner Bros. subsidiary Beluga Heights, and began making the transition from behind-the-scenes songwriter to mainstream performer. His first hit arrived during the summer of 2009, when he wrapped a sample of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” and it was picked up on airwaves around the world. A self-titled, full-length debut album arrived in early 2010.
Factor in a further three albums, 11 platinum singles, three world tours (including a near-tragic accident — while attempting an acrobatic dance move — where he fractured a vertebra), and a stint as a judge on the TV show So You Think You Can Dance?, the past decade has been relentless.
In a notoriously difficult industry, how does a 20-something cope? “I surround myself with my family,” he tells us later when we chat on the phone the next day. He’s at the airport having performed a gig to tens of thousands at Dubai’s Global Village.
“I am very close to my family, and actually have about seven of them that I work with on a daily basis. It’s a big part of what helps keeps me sane.”
With the tragedies of Mac Miller and Avicii in 2018, that need for young musical artists to ‘keep sane’ is more pressing that ever. “The music industry is really tough. There is a lot of pressure, and a lot of negativity. I think as human beings we always notice the negatives more than the positives, even though the positives outweigh the negatives,” says Derulo.
“I look around at other artists and see them falling apart and it always boggles my mind how it happens. Having my people around me helps keep me grounded and therefore in a positive place. I grew up with these guys, they are my boys, and it helps to have them always there with me.”
Much of the music industry still struggles to shake off dated stereotypes of masculinity, however — the current school of emotional intelligence dictates that the ‘strongest’ people tend to be those who are able to openly discuss their feelings and have real conversations about themselves. As someone whose song writing comes from a very personal place we’re curious to see if Derulo attributes that process as a way of helping keep a positive outlook on life.
“Most people seem to think showing emotion is a sign of weakness, that the best way to be ‘strong’ is to put up walls,” he says. “For me it’s the opposite, the strongest men are those who are able to emote, and can have real conversations about themselves and the paths that they go to. I don’t think I have any walls, but then I’ve been writing songs since I was eight years old, so maybe I’m an extreme case!”
Derulo has a serious resting face, but in a second he can flash you a million dollar smile. “That’s his TV smile!” laughs his manager, Harry.
Derulo is at ease on set. He is keen to be involved, but cautious of overstepping his mark. “Anything by Drake is good,” he answers when asked what music he wants on. Although, later as the playlist rolls over to a collection of Michael Jackson’s greatest hits, you can see him drop in the occasional dance moves familiar to those performed at his gigs the world over.
Strutting out of the changing room wearing a long black coat over a midnight-blue tuxedo blazer, you can tell he is in his element. “Oh, I like this,” he says to no one in particular as he inspects it in the mirror. Yes, he’s shirtless, but there are few people who would argue that he could easily get away with going to a gala in this outfit, and still look the part.
“I love fashion. It is the only form of exterior expression that we have. When you walk into a room, you can say who you are without even saying anything,” he explains. “If you look good, then you feel good, and people can read that on you just by looking at you.”
Is there anything he wouldn’t wear? “Crocs! Ha-ha-ha.”
As Derulo swaps between looks we have a quick swipe through his Instagram account — with its healthy four million-strong following – and stop at a post thanking his fans for the statistics Spotify have sent him for 2018. One billion streams; 92 million fans; 62 million hours played in 65 countries.
We show Derulo, and simply ask: happy with that? “I am ecstatic!” he says. “You know, I didn’t even release an album this year, so it’s pretty incredible that people listened to my music more than a billion times! That is crazy. I look at some of the top artists in the world and they don’t even have those kind of numbers, I just feel super blessed by it all. You know in 2019, when I release a new album, I’m hoping that all those numbers multiply by a whole bunch.”
So, we can expect a new album this year? “Yeah, it’ll be the first in about three years. I am very excited. I have a lot of impatient fans who have been on at me about that. It’s not that I didn’t want to put it out before, it was just timing. Timing is everything, and this year will be the right time for that.”
What’s our New Year’s resolution for 2019? To be as happy as Jason Derulo, ha-ha-ha.