We Speak One-on-One with Jhene Aiko on Freeing the Mind
While sippin’ on Martell cognac.
There’s a certain “Jhene” sais quoi with R&B/Soul artist Jhene Aiko that places her apart from her contemporaries. While she unequivocally has the chops for singing, her sultry and honest-sounding vocals having been fined tuned since her inception into the music game back in 2002, it’s her ability to compose refreshingly candid lyrics that resonates deeply with her listeners. Any Aiko fan will tell you just how much her music speaks to their level, and how her straight forward yet poetic messages shine a very personal light on Aiko’s own life and experiences, which in turn offers insight to help better your own self. It’s a powerful tool to have, and Jhene certainly knows how to wield it.
Following her latest trifecta effort that sees the release of a movie, album, and poetry book — which she’s dubbed MAP — all of which revolve around the same theme of self exploration, us fans are made privy to the topic of Jhene’s relationship with drugs. We’re not talking about the typical boasting of endless blunts, but rather the real-life ups and downs of exploring mind-altering substances, how that influences your approach to life, and the effects it can have with personal relationships. Aptly entitled Trip, the new album is a journey lead by Jhene’s alias Penny, with the accompanying poetry book 2fish, furthering the heartfelt expression of her anecdotal confessions. To visually represent all that, we have her short film — also entitled Trip — that offers a window into Jhene’s personality, how she gets creative, and most importantly the sole inspiration behind her music: her brother.
During an intimate event in collaboration with storied french cognac house Martell, we were lucky enough to secure some exclusive time with the singer/songwriter to ask her about her latest project, to further explain her thoughts on psychoactive substances — that takes us on a rather philosophical turn — the reasoning behind bearing herself so honestly in her work, and more. It’s safe to say that our short time with Jhene proves her beauty both in and out, which is why we can’t urge you enough to take this trip with us in discovering a little more about Jhene that you may not probably haven’t read elsewhere.
Starting things off with the new project and its theme, could you bring us back to that ‘aha’ moment when you realized that your psychedelic journey was the right theme for it all?
Well I’ve always been going on mental and physical trips, and I’ve been writing in notebooks since I was elementary school, but as I‘ve been having more crazy experiences it’s become an even more important form of expression. I write everything down. After Souled Out I wasn’t really interested in, or needed to put out an album, but I did want to explore more of my writing ability, so I made this movie Trip. But then I was like, I want to score this with original music too, and then it kind of just became an album. It was song after song after song, and I was referring to these notebooks that i’d been writing during my solo trips. Then the poetry I’ve been writing for the past five to six years which is more than enough to have a poetry book — I just had to type up the poems — it was already all there. I wanted to release it all together as one entity and I really like acronyms. Hence MAP — Movie, Album, Poetry — it fits perfectly because I feel the whole process has been about me navigating through my suffering, my pain, even my joy in my love life. Just trying to find my way back to my true self. That’s who Penny is — who I talk a lot about in the whole journey — that’s a childhood nickname my granddad gave me when I was born. So I felt like it all came to me recently and I was like, “oh so this is what it’s all about.” It wasn’t about the movie, the poetry book or the music, it was about expressing what was in my mind because I couldn’t keep it in anymore, otherwise I’d go crazy. I was more concerned about what others thought about me so I felt like I was holding back and not being true to myself . This time around I was like I don’t care, like I’m going to share but it’s literally for me. I’ve not even been listening to other music during the time of making this. I’ve just been focused on myself.
Talking about psychedelics, a lot of people use them to explore parts of themselves that they aren’t aware of. So in Trip, you go through a moment in which you express your need to let go of the loss of your brother. Do you feel like you’ve fully found yourself? Do we even ever fully find ourselves while trying to explore what our life means? Is there an end? Should there even be an end, or can you just enjoy the journey of finding yourself?
I think the journey is the reward, I think that it’s about being on the right path, the path for you. That’s what I felt I had to get back to because I was being nudged here and there by not really listening to myself and not being in tune. Throughout the movie, the poetry book and the album, I’m experimenting with different things — this was happening in real life. Certain methods and substances were taking me further away and things like Psilocybin actually opened my mind to the point where today I’m not even smoking weed — I just love to have a clear mind. That scene where my brother told me let go is actually a dream I had, where he came to me and was telling me these things. He was a firm believer in natural, if it’s not a plant then you know… I know a lot of the things I did he wouldn’t approve of, but it was my way of getting closer to him. I definitely think that people confuse their ego with their spirit. Your ego is always there telling you to “be better and work harder,” not telling you that you’re already enough. You need to silence your ego to hear your spirit and that’s what I had to do. I definitely feel like I went through an ego death on mushrooms, I wanted to go to Peru and do Ayahuasca but I didn’t, and now I don’t really feel like I need to. I wanted that awakening but I drove myself up to Big Sur, drank some mushroom tea and met with a shaman where we had a ceremony. Basically the ayahuasca ceremony but with mushrooms. Since then I feel like I’ve shifted my whole being. I’ve been pushed onto the path I’m supposed to be on — I now see everything more clearly. I know there’s still more work to do, I’m only 29, but at least now I’m headed in the right direction and I’m going to keep getting there.
In that same vein, do you feel your dream and the urge to open your mind is actually your self-conscious trying to telling you something?
I always say even if it’s just taking yourself out of your environment, or your mind with some sort of substance, it’s the moment when you come down — coming back to yourself — that’s when you realise all things. It’s not when you’re high. So actually it’s like “oh I already knew these things, I just had to go out and come back to myself to see it!” One thing I found with the Psilocybin was that in nature, I was so much more receptive, I’ve always been a nature girl, I love to be outside — a tree hugger and all that — and it’s something that stuck with me. I no longer have to be on something to notice the beauty and the messages that the natural world give us. I love to hike and I love to go to the beach, and I’m always inspired and feel like I’m getting this energy that is opening my mind and teaching me that’s beamed down to me. It’s all within me but certain things help trigger it. Like even the sunshine that is giving you vitamin D and that’s helping me think and feel better.
Have you heard about the Celestine prophecy?
Yes, from my father, but I haven’t read it yet.
You should! But going back to your music, a lot of your lyrics have always been relatable to people, helping them with their own issues — it’s always been honest and candid. Where does that honestly and kindness come from?
I’ve always been an over-sharer to the point where I’ll meet someone and just start talking and telling them everything about my life. Then after I’m always like “oh I talked a lot,” but whatever — I’m not ashamed about my story. So when it comes to writing, it’s my way of dealing with things. I never looked at it as kindness — it’s just second nature to me — and when a person comes up to me and says “your song really helped me get through this,” or “how did you know you’re saying all the things I wish I could say?,” it’s honestly just a coincidence. When I’m writing, I’m not trying to save the world, I’m just trying to help myself, but it’s a plus that people can relate to it. Especially with Trip, I just completely dug deep and said what I had to say, expressed all my pain, my doubts, all of it. I did it for myself though — I just naturally share because I’m from a big family.
Is Trip significantly more personal than other albums?
For sure, the first EP is pretty easy listening, then Souled Out was about me getting my foot in the door and being vulnerable, but like I said, I was being a bit more tip-toey. I’ve got a studio in my house now so when I wake up from a dream I can just go record and it remains raw. Now I’m just more excited to keep going and going. I’m getting older and have no shame in expressing my true self.
You worked with the talented writer Tracy Oliver on the movie. How was that?
We met way before I had the idea to write this movie. She’s represented by ICM, so am I, and they were aware I was interested in acting and writing, so they told me get in touch with her. We hit it off, we went to a coffee place and talked for hours and hours, and I got really personal with her. I told her all my problems off the top of my head. Then with Trip the movie, I had the story but I didn’t know how to write a script, I don’t know the whole process, and so I was like I should call Tracy. She came over for a few weeks where she looked through all my notebooks and my poetry, and we put together the storyboard. She’s like my sister, we hit it off right away and we’re still close, and I’m looking forward to working with her more on future projects.
Lastly, talking about experiences, you and Martell put together this event that promoted the theme of “home.” what do you want people to take away from it all?
I’m a homebody for sure, I love to stay at home. I’ve always said that if I could, I would just have people come over to my house. If there’s a show or a shoot I’m just like, “can we do it at my house? You guys should just come over to mine….” That’s what I appreciated about tonight, it’s at a home, and it’s in LA — which is where I’m from. So it’s super comfortable and I always want people to have an experience. That’s where “MAP” came from, it’s an offering more than a project, it’s something for you to really dive into and become a part of. I feel that people enjoy things like that when we live in a VR world. I feel like something like this is really important to connect on a real level.
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