British R&B singer/songwriter Jay Sean is notable for being one of the first British-Asian crossover stars and for his international popularity partly the result of five consecutive Top 40 singles in America. Born Kamaljit Singh Jhooti on March 26, 1981, in the London borough of Hounslow, he began rapping at age 11 and eventually switched to R&B music, in part because of his Indian heritage, which made it difficult for him to break into the British rap scene. Sean was signed in 2003 by 2Point9, an all-in-one entertainment company whose roster is comprised of British-Asian artists such as Rishi Rich, and he made his recording debut late in the year with “Dance with You (Nachna Tere Naal).” Produced by Rishi Rich and featuring fellow 2Point9 artist Juggy D, “Dance with You (Nachna Tere Naal)” became a major hit in the United Kingdom, reaching number 12 on the singles chart. In the wake of his debut single’s success, Sean was offered a lucrative major-label recording contract with Virgin Records. He accepted the offer and opted to drop out of Queen Mary’s School of Medicine and Dentistry, where he was studying to become a doctor. Me Against Myself (2004), his debut album, became a Top 30 hit in the U.K., spawning a pair of Top Ten hit singles (“Eyes on You,” “Stolen”); plus, the album became an even bigger hit in India, where it was a chart-topping success and went multi-platinum, thanks in part to Sean’s appearance in the Bollywood film Kya Kool Hain Hum (2005). Despite his international success, Sean left Virgin and released his second album, My Own Way (2008), independently via 2Point9 Records. Though its release date was pushed back repeatedly, My Own Way debuted at number six on the U.K. albums chart, a significant improvement over his last album, which had been released by a major label. The album spawned a couple U.K. Top 20 hits, “Ride It” and “Maybe,” the former of which also charted internationally in countries including Poland, Portugal, Romania, and Bulgaria. The focus would turn toward America in 2009 when Sean signed with the Cash Money label. The relationship kicked off with the single “Down,” featuring special guest and labelmate Lil Wayne. The track would land on Sean’s album All or Nothing released in November of that year. The single “2012 (It Ain’t the End),” featuring Nicki Minaj, was released in late 2010 and was followed a year later by his mixtape The Mistress. His sophomore release for Cash Money, Neon, was released in July of 2013 and included guest spots from Rick Ross, Ace Hood, and Busta Rhymes. After leaving Cash Money in 2014, Sean released The Mistress II mixtape in November, and followed it with the Mistress II EP, which included acoustic versions of some of the mixtape’s songs. Two years later, he returned with “Make My Love Go,” his debut single for Sony and a reunion with All or Nothing collaborator Sean Paul; it became his first charting single in the U.K. since 2011. October 2016 saw the release of “Thinking About You,” a collaboration with Hardwell. Early in 2017, the single “Do You Love Me,” which featured co-production by Rock Mafia, arrived.
What was it about music & songwriting that secured your desire to enter this industry?
When you’re young, you’re drawn to certain things — some people like football, some people like karate. For me, music was more than just something I enjoyed listening to. I was fascinated by it. I’d watch some of my favourite artists and emulate everything they did. I wanted to learn how to sing like them, rap like them – I wanted to learn how to rap as fast as them. I learned how to beatbox and that study of music at a young age is what led to me continuing in the process of music throughout my teenage years.
Who were your role models at this time and why did you look up to them?
People like Jay-Z, Big L, Das EFX. These were all the rappers that I used to study. Boyz II Men big time. I remember vividly that me and my brother would sit there and I’d pretend to be Shawn and he’d pretend to be Wanya and we’d record ourselves singing Boyz II Men (laughs). There was also Brian McKnight and a lot of other soul singers.
What did you feel you needed to learn in order to get yourself ready for the very competitive world of entertainment, where only a very small percentage of individuals actually make it, let alone make it to the level that you have?
Well, first and foremost, and more than anything, you need to know if you can write or sing a great song because a great song will resonate with anybody at any time, anywhere in the world. There are some songs that I’ve heard that I know word for word, and I might not even know who sang it or who wrote it. Like Christmas songs — we know all of them. We don’t know who wrote them or who sang them, but the fact of the matter is that they resonate with anybody, so I think it comes down to that really; it’s always about the music.
How did you actually get started? It’s one thing to say “I love music” because everybody does. How did you actually take that love affair and turn it into something that you felt you could make a living out of?
I think it’s about taking a passion to the next level. That requires a number of things: a lot of perseverance and a lot of knowledge of the field you’re going into. It’s not just by chance that I’ve learned how to write good songs. You have to study it. You get actors who watch other actors’ films to study how their method of acting resonates so well with the audience. You need to look at and recognize what it was within their delivery that made that possible. I study my craft meticulously. That’s something that I learned is very important because there are a lot of artists that might want to put music out but don’t realize the importance of all the variables that make a song successful or reachable to an audience. For example, a great video can go a long way. Styling can go a long way. The cost of your image can go a long way. The cost of your voice goes a long way. Don’t be smoking and drinking and doing all this mad stuff. You’ve got to really be serious about it and I’m very serious about what I do. Everything that I do, I try to do a great job of it so that whenever somebody sees me doing it, they’re like “you know, there’s a reason why this guy is succeeding because he’s clearly trying to be as great as he can at what he’s doing.” That coupled with a consistent reminder to yourself of how lucky and how blessed you are to be given an opportunity to do something good, so do it to the best of your ability.
What has been your most memorable musical highlight so far?
Oh gosh! One of them would be performing on “Top of the Pops.” They’ve had the best of the best, from Michael Jackson to Stevie Wonder to Mondona. I’ve performed on there three times, so it’s one of the most memorable. Another would have to be in Japan, when I opened up for Ne-Yo with Thara.
It’s no secret that this knowledge has made you a commercially successful songwriter. What songwriting process do you go through to write a good song?
I follow my instincts and my heart. I know that sounds crazy. It really depends on the vibe that you’re in. Everything has to come together at the right time in order for a great song to come out. I can go into the studio today and try to sing “Down” or “Do You Remember” or “Ride It” and it will sound completely different from the day that I recorded it because there’s something about that day, that was the day you were meant to record it.
What comes first for you: music or lyrics?
Usually, it’s always the melody of the song. I’ll hear the music and then I’ll start humming out melodies and then I’ll fill in lyrics to those melodies. That’s pretty much how I do it.
Where do you derive your inspiration from in order to encapsulate the emotions and the vibe of each song that you write?
You know, a surgeon can read and study books and know exactly what nerves to operate, what muscles to cut open, etc. He knows there’s a method, there’s a particular way to do what he wants to do. But with songwriting, there is no method. You just have to be in the zone. For me, I don’t look anywhere particular for inspiration. I just ask myself, “does it feel right, does it feel good, I like it?” If “yes,” then that probably means that some of my friends will like it and if my friends like it, hopefully that means that some of the people who spin on radio will like it and people will get to hear it. That’s the kind of thing you have to go on. The moment you start overthinking it, it’s over for you.
Is there a certain time of day or mood that comes about that tells you that this is the time for you to shut off the world and nail a song recording?
Yeah . . . it can happen anytime. I mean, for example, yesterday I recorded a ballad. A real heartfelt ballad but it was daytime, there was a big open window in the studio and it wasn’t happening. I was just like “bro, I’m not feeling that kind of vibe.” Honestly I’m looking out of the window, it’s a nice day, it’s not the kind of day where I feel sad and wanna sing a sad song. I know it sounds very airy fairy and artsy fartsy, and other people might be able to do it, but I personally can’t do that. I say, “crap bro, can we record this in a couple of hours if the vibe is right?” And he’s like “ya man”, and of course, in a couple of hours, the vibe happens to be right and I go behind the mic, and I do it and I nail it.
And it’s clear that you are. I mean, you’ve since collaborated with some of the biggest names in music today. I mean, the kind of artists who generally only collaborate with mainstream, globally-known artists, which you’re one of today. That’s got to be a really insane feeling — when all these people you’ve looked up to for all these years are now knocking on your door and saying, “Look, let’s do a song together.” How does that feel?
Great. I hope that feeling doesn’t ever go away. I mean, I know where I’m at and I understand and get it, but I don’t want to stop being a fan of those people. They may be peers now and some of them are even friends but it’s weird because I grew up listening to them. Somebody like Shawn Stockman, who I now joke with, saying, “dude, you don’t understand how many times I used to rewind your songs and do the little run that you’d do!” He’d just laugh. For him, it’s amazing because I’m one of the new boys who looked up to him so much. I guess he probably feels quite flattered about it. But for me, I’m like “you’re my icon, you’re my musical idol!” And now you’re a friend. You know, it’s just a blessing and it’s something that’s just very strange, like when I met Jay-Z and Beyonce and they turned around and said “Yeah man, I really enjoyed your album and I’ve got it at home. Keep doing your thing.” I’m like “Boy, I’m talking to—you’re Beyonce! Do you know me?” (Laughs) It’s just an amazing thing.