Exclusive: Trevor Jackson on New Album ‘Rough Drafts Pt. 1’ and Role in Film ‘Superfly’
Trevor Jackson is an open book. The entertainer just released his new album Rough Drafts Pt. 1 via Born Art/EMPIRE. The 15-track project, which Jackson wrote and recorded in his living room, is a raw look at his process of becoming a better person both professionally and personally.
“Rough Drafts represents the beauty in imperfection,” Jackson explains to Rated R&B. “I feel like this day in age so many people want to be something they’re not or be something they’re not ready to be yet.”
The 21-year-old realizes all his past mistakes were necessary in his growth. “I feel like every step is essential to becoming who you’re supposed to be in this world,” he shares. “I’ve embraced that and realized all the times I made mistakes or that I’ve made wrong turns or I’ve been confused, those have always been necessary things in order to get to a better version of me.”
On top of his music, Jackson is also making major moves in film and television. The Indianapolis native currently stars in Freeform’s hit sitcom Grown-ish, a spinoff of Black-ish, which was picked up for a second season just four days its premiere. This summer he will star in the remake of Superfly as Youngblood Priest, directed by Director X.
Rated R&B caught up with Jackson at his tour stop in Washington, D.C. In our interview, he dishes on Rough Drafts, his role in the upcoming film Superfly, touring with his colleague Justine Skye and more. Watch the interview above.
Singer-songwriter Elese Russell, better known as Sia Amun, had a free ride in the music industry. Shortly after moving in with her dad, at 16, the daughter of Steve Russell Hart of R&B group Troop and original member of The Underdogs was performing at The Staples Center for The Los Angeles Sparks game. Then, they began working on her album, which seemed all too fast for Amun.
“I grew up watching [MTV’s] Making the Band, thinking I have to go through artist development,” she tells Rated R&B. “I guess when you’re signed to a label but in real life, it’s like, ‘Game time.’”
Amun’s ride into the music business, though, came to a stretching halt when her father learned she was involved in a relationship. “It was all she wrote when he found out,” she says. “He’s like, ‘I’m trying to build a career and you want to focus on having a boyfriend?’ So, my project got put on on hold.”
After getting a pep talk from her grandmother, who Amun considers her best friend, she took charge of her music career. She started working behind the scenes, hosting showcases for local artists who proved themselves in front of top A&R’s. She even performed songs recorded during her sessions with her dad. Soon, she was following in her father’s footsteps as a songwriter after one of her demo tapes landed in the hands of legendary musician Teddy Riley.
As a result, AMUN provided background vocals on Lady Gaga’s song “Teeth,” which was featured on her 2009 album The Fame Monster. She went on to co-pen hits for major artists such as Trey Songz (“All We Do”) and Mary J. Blige (“Indestructible”).
In 2017, AMUN released an EP The Blue Dream Project. The 6-track project, which includes her funky single “Flowers,” is laced with feel-good vibes about love, life and marijuana.
As she gets adjusted to her new home (and the culture) in Atlanta, AMUN puts her feelings on wax with her latest track “Single AF,” which is based on her current love life.
“I’ve been single for almost two years,” she reveals. “Before that I was in a relationship for like six years. So it’s really new to me.”
Rated R&B caught up with Amun at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen in Atlanta. We chatted about her new single “Single AF,” her forthcoming project, ingredients on writing a successful song and more.
How’s your experience been in Atlanta so far?
I love it here. I’ve been here for like two months, and today is my first day moving around and really being able to experience the culture. When I first got here I was really just focusing more on my personal self … getting my mind right. This is like my first time really moving away and feeling like, “I don’t know when I’m coming back.” So, since I’m going to be here, let me take my time. I didn’t hop back into working. I just got to a point where I am trusting more. I know that God sent me here so I’m going to take it day by day. I used to be like, “I have to plan this out. I have to write this down. This has to happen.” I don’t do that anymore. I’m really at a place where I’m more spiritually driven in my career more than ever. But overall, they really support each other here. I love the music. They have their own sound.
Growing up on the West Coast, how did it help mold your overall sound as a songwriter and an artist?
If I could be 100 percent honest, I never focused on the sound of the West Coast per se. I think that my influences, like, Brandy, India.Arie, Beyonce and Fleetwood Mac, who my grandma introduced me to very young, is what helped shaped my sound.
Before transitioning into your stage name Sia Amun, the artist, you were Elese Russell, the songwriter. If you could do it all over again, what would you choose to do first? Or would you keep it the same?
I understand that I am on a journey and it’s already mapped out. So, I definitely wouldn’t change anything or do anything different. I think we are where we’re supposed to be at this exact moment because if it wasn’t meant to be, then why are we here? Why does it happen if it wasn’t meant to happen? You know….
Besides your father, who else in the songwriting industry inspired you to write music?
James Fauntleroy was a big inspiration. Just watching him from the beginning stages of his career – writing songs for Tyrese and a couple of other [artists] – to where he’s at now is more fuel for me. Stevie Wonder is one of my favorite songwriters in the world. Stacy Barthe is amazing. And a lot of my friends too …. like Candice Wakefield.
If you had to create a recipe for writing a successful song, what would be the three main ingredients?
Melody … concept … and … relevant.
Why do you say relevant?
Music is about connecting. If I can connect to you, then we have a connection. You’re going to love this song. So, whatever I’m talking about has to have some relevance to you … and the next person … and the next person. It has to have relevance to your target … who you’re selling this song to and who you’re trying to reach. And just relevance of what’s going on in R&B today.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
The first song I ever wrote was with my little brother. We were sitting outside of the studio in my dad’s car and it was a remix to “‘I’m ‘N Luv (with a Stripper)” by T-Pain and another song. It was the very first time where I had my Mac computer and we recorded a song that I personally wrote. Of course, growing up, I was writing songs in my diary when I was like 9. I’ve been keeping a diary since I could write (laughs) and I still do.
Is that where you write most of your songs at today? Or do you write them in your phone?
Umm .. both but everything ends up in my diary. All my thoughts. Whatever I’m feeling. Whatever happened in my day, everything is in there. So, I’ll remember if I’m at the studio, like, “Oh, this is what I was feeling.” And pull from there for sure. But I write my notes in my phone too (laughs).
You recently released “Single AF,” your first single since 2017’s The Blue Dream Project. What’s the story behind the record? Is it inspired by your life or someone else’s?
It’s definitely a true story. I was in the studio with my guys Ryan Toby and Ali [Prawl]. And Ryan’s like, “So, wassup? Where are you? What we talking about? What’s going on?” And the first thing that came out of my mouth was, “Well I’m single as fuck.” And I held it out like really long and everybody started laughing. And it was right away we were like, “That’s a song.” It was like writing in my diary, this is how I feel right now. Life is great. I’m not single and having a pity party. I’m single and happy but I don’t want to be. It’s not what I’m used to but I’m not about to settle just because. So it’s just really where I am in life.
Is there a full-length project attached to the new single?
I’m working on it. I’m excited about it. No date, no name. I’m honestly just taking it day by day.
Is there anyone you want to work with on this project? And is there anyone you’ve been working with on this project consistently?
Right now, as far as writing, I’m doing it solely just myself. With “Single AF,” I co-wrote it with Ryan Toby, who’s one of my inspirations as a writer. I’ve admired him as a writer for a longtime. I talked to him all the time, like, “Bro, we gotta finish this project.” So, he’s someone I plan to finish this project with. But right now, I’m just getting my ideas out. I’m still feeling out for the vibe so that it makes sense and that I got it right.
Your previous EP The Blue Dream Project was filled with positive vibes on life and love that sometimes marijuana helped create. What is the driving theme behind this upcoming project?
Life is the driving force. This project is more personal. It’s more of this is who I am. My experiences … where I’m at … I’m maturing. My wants are changing. My interests are changing. My conversation is changing. My taste in foods are changing. I’m really a woman now. So, this project is definitely where I’m at today. It’s still a vibe for sure (laughs).
Your style is unique and different. Who are some of your style influences?
I really love Rihanna. I love Louis Vuitton. I love the brand Gucci. It’s more than just the clothes for Gucci. I like to get deep, going past the surface. I’m looking at the movement. Their business strategies. My brother PUTYAHEARTINIT is one of my style influences too. He’s always been a fashion guy growing up. His opinion is one I definitely respect. I go to him and be like, “Is this fly or nah?” (laughs). But for the most part, I just do my own thing. I don’t really care what no one thinks. It’s whatever I feel like today.
You’ve been in plenty recording sessions with major artists including Lady Gaga and Trey Songz. Is there any session in particular that stands out or means the most?
I’ve been in a lot of sessions. As a songwriter, the session that changed my life was with Mary J. Blige. I was at a crossroad in my life. I learned so much from her in those sessions. From her sureness and knowing exactly who she was to what her fans wanted and what she wanted to talk about, like, it was what it was. A lot of the questions that we were asking her to be able to write these songs, I couldn’t answer those questions. Like, “What’s up with me? Why don’t I feel the same way about this? Why does it feel like work?” Then, I was in the studio like two weeks after with Brandy. Two days after, I just stopped going. I couldn’t write for anybody else. I needed to figure things out. I took a break and went to London and put [The Blue Dream Project] out. And things have been what they’ve been since then. Now I know that I’m good now.
So, you restored yourself?
Yes, definitely. That’s what “Private Reserve” was about … the whole concept of that video was like a snake shedding its skin and being reborn. Being renewed.
Priscilla Renea is telling the truth about everything; not because it’s a moral rule but because it’s part of her artistry. “People [in the industry] don’t tell the truth,” she candidly tells Rated R&B. “They’re scared. And if they do say something, they get edited. I am so done with the way that people operate in this industry. I have no interest in messing with any of these fake, unappreciative, ungrateful, rude people.”
It’s just three minutes before 11 a.m. on a Tuesday and the gifted singer-songwriter has at last gotten her dial-in information to work successfully for our hour conversation.“That is so annoying. I promise it wasn’t letting me do it,” she laughs. “Don’t you hate that when you be telling somebody [something isn’t working] and as soon as they looking at you, it works?”
Renea sets a relaxed tone for our chat. Her speaking voice, though, is rather raspy after a recent performance in Los Angeles. She attributes her unexpected aliment with the venue’s most used stage prop.“I think I might have picked up something from that microphone,” she believes. “Sometimes when I sing my mouth touches the microphone. I’m going to have to start bringing my own microphone everywhere I go.”
The show was connected to her new album Coloured, a genre-blending collection of records that comes nearly a decade after the release of her debut LP, Jukebox. During her 10-year break, Renea was penning hits for artists like Rihanna, Miranda Lambert and Chris Brown. However, she didn’t anticipate being a songwriter full-time. Renea charges her previous label executives with “sabotage.” She says they wanted to her invest more time in writing songs for others artists rather than being an artist herself.
“Well, don’t think I wasn’t trying to put out albums before,” she says. “It’s just the industry man. It’s not what people think it is. It’s such drama .. and like power trip and control.” Renea was sold dead leads, too. “They say, ‘If I get a number one, I’ll be able to make my own album.’ I got a number one in the UK but that doesn’t count. They say, ‘If I get a number one on the Billboard [Hot]100, I’ll be able to make my own album.’ I got a number one with “Timber” [by Pitbull] but ‘That’s not a whole song. That’s just a hook.’ It was never enough.”
She continues, “I didn’t realize when I came to L.A. everybody was looking at me like, ‘She’s going to make us rich.’ Growing up, I didn’t realize that everybody couldn’t [write songs]. I thought everybody could do that.”
Renea shortly realized her innate songwriting abilities was something other artists and songwriters admired through envious eyes.“I didn’t even do anything. I just wanted to make music,” she says innocently. “I’m up here cooking for them, being friends with them, writing songs with them and secretly they hate me. And for a very long time I was just out here giving my gift away.”
But she had to make use of her songwriting abilities to get out of debt she acquired shortly after moving to L.A. “I had to just grind. So for like two years, every day, I would do five sessions. I would start at 11 a.m. and wouldn’t get home until like 7 a.m. sometimes,” she remembers. “I would at least write two songs in every session. It was one point where I had [sessions] on one street. It had two studios. Each studio had five rooms. I had every room at both studios in one day. I don’t even know how I did that. I don’t even remember half of the songs. [But] when you really want something, you’ll do whatever it takes.”
Four years after releasing Jukebox and after a full-length project was scrapped, Renea was hyped to release what was expected to be her long-awaited second album. Yet, her lead single became a popular hit for another rising artist. “I had a song called ‘V.S.O.P.’ that was supposed to be the first single,” she says. “My publisher took the song and played it for K. Michelle because they did not want me to put my album out. They wanted me to stay writing songs for other people. So, the second album ended up shelved because I didn’t have a first single. I was like, ‘What the fuck? I don’t owe anybody anything. Why won’t they write their own songs? Why do I have to keep doing this?’ I was devastated.”
Renea says after “everybody counted me out and everybody left me for dead,” she knew she had to “learn how to survive” on her own while the spotlight wasn’t on her. From there, she went back to the drawing board to record an album deeply rooted in a genre that she grew accustomed to listening to as a child — country. Recorded in Nashville, the heart of country music, Renea bridged together producers from the world of hip-hop and R&B (Honorable C.N.O.T.E, Curtis “Sauce” Wilson, Theron Feemster, Brett James) with hit country songwriters (Ashley Gorley, Kevin Kadish) to create the unsettling stories that are told on Coloured.
What inspired you to record an album rooted in country and soul?
Growing up, my uncle Kenny’s sons were my best friends. We used to do everything together. We were trying to listen to Eminem, Juvenile and Lil Bow Bow but he would make us watch CMT and would have country music blasting out of his truck. My mom would play country music as well. You know Billy Gilman and the more storytelling [songs]. Then MTV started playing like Faith Hill and Shania Twain. So, as I was growing up, I started actually liking country music. When it was time for me to make my album, I really sat and thought like, “Okay, what is the most natural for me?” Then I thought,“You know what? Every song that I have ever written has been a country song if you think about it.” Rihanna got on the CMAs singing “California King Bed” with Jennifer Nettles from Sugarland. “Don’t Wake Me Up” [by Chris Brown] is a country song. Freaking “Timber” [by Pitbull] is a country song. It might have been produced in a pop way but they’re all country songs.
The album’s opening track “Family Tree,” which gives hints of Nina Simone, is a personal story about you being unsupported by family in your teenage years. Have you attempted to go water this tree and restore those broken relationships? Or have you let the leaves fall and the roots die?
I love my family. I can’t even say nothing bad about my family. My childhood was incredible up until I was 14. It was rough. I think maybe because my mom thought I was going be this bad teenager [because] my older brother was a terror. I didn’t do anything until I got tired of her beating me, whopping me and punishing me for nothing. She just doesn’t want to talk about it. I tried a couple of times and she would be like, “I did the best I could.” And I’m like, “Nobody said you didn’t. I’m just trying to tell you how it affected me. In the grand scheme of things, was that necessary?” But now, we’re good. As she’s getting older, we talk every day. My biological father lives in Malaysia. I haven’t seen him since I was like 14. It might seem mean but I don’t really care to see him. He’s literally all about himself. I called him one time on Christmas when I was like 17-18. I was like, “Hey, how are you?” And he’s like, “I’m good, how’s the weather.” I’m like, “Really, that’s what you say to me?” I’m just going to let you have it because clearly you don’t want to remember us. One thing I never wanted to do was be somewhere where I’m not wanted. I realize that I don’t judge people and I don’t condemn people. I just choose not to let you be in my spear. I’m going to just give it to Jesus.
On “Gentle Hands,” you’re casually talking to God about your ideal man. What inspired this record? Did God fulfill any of those wishes for you?
I took a Cruella de Vil notebook that one of my fans brought for me and I filled the page up from top to bottom with “I want him to be a leader like Obama. I want him to be good at building things like my father.” The only thing that I did not put was what he would look like. I really wasn’t focused on that. I wanted him to be a good person. I forgot about [the notebook] and put it in my cabinet. And I met my husband. We started talking because he started training me and then I actually started liking him. After we started spending time together, we got married within a year. I think I was already married when I was cleaning out the cabinet and I found the book. I started looking at it and I was like, “Oh my God. That’s crazy. He has everything on this list.” So, I feel like anybody can [make a list]. It’s not limited to one person. God is going to give you what you want. He’s not going to interfere with your will. Ever.
It’s clear that you have grown musically and vocally since your 2009 album Jukebox. Was there ever a time you were nervous or doubted yourself about evolving as an artist during your hiatus?
No, I just knew I have fans out there. I had so many fans from YouTube and I didn’t realize the power of that. I didn’t realize what Instagram would become or what direct-to-consumer access would mean in the years to come. I was one of the first YouTube singing superstars. I didn’t know what that meant back then. To me, it was like an escape — a double life. I had my regular life and then I had my internet life. It didn’t occur to me that one day they would become the same thing. I kick myself sometimes that I didn’t maintain that relationship with my YouTube fan base. Honestly, my record label and guys I was signed to made me feel like it was stupid. “Don’t nobody care about that YouTube shit.” I listened to them like a dummy. So, I stop and deleted all my videos. People be like, “Where are the videos?” And I just cringe every time they ask me because I’m like, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I deleted them.” I have some of them still there. I think I might make them un-private so people can find me again. Some of them are gone forever [though].
Did you learn anything from that experience?
It taught me that you can never allow somebody else to dictate what is dope or what works for you. I used to listen to the people who were around me because I just thought, “because they’re in charge of my situation, they must know what they’re talking about or what’s going on.” Nobody knows more of what’s better for you than you. Your job as an artist is to tell your truth and make it sound good. That’s it.
Many female artists of color like – K.Michelle, Keke Wyatt and Fantasia – have expressed their love for genres outside of R&B such as country. Yet, the industry expects them to stick to one format. How does it feel to be a black woman, living in these times, owning your existence in a genre not politically meant for you?
I don’t care about what anyone thinks about what I’m doing. Country music comes from gospel music. And it’s no secret that we — blacks, African Americans, negros or colors — created a lot of things that white people are benefiting off from today; and they’re allowed to enjoy. There’s a lot of things that over the history of our existence that Europeans, white people tried to erase from history because they don’t want people to know how evil they have been. Like that lady who called the police on an eight-year-old, trying to duck behind a wall. She is the perfect example of how they do. They do something foul and they don’t want anybody to know what they did. I’ve walked into all-white places and got on the stage and say, “I’m a country singer.” And they look at me like, “Who the hell is this n****r?” I can see it and I can feel that they are not feeling it. I will point to a poster and say, “See that girl, Carrie Underwood? I wrote her last number one.” And they are like, “What?” Then I start singing and see the sparkle in their eyes. Then they come up to me like, “Oh my God.” So I know it’s not about my gift. It’s about the prejudice and the pre-judgment. You prejudged me but when I open my mouth I broke down all the barriers in your mind. So because I know that my voice has the ability to do that to people, all I need is the opportunity to sing. And if anybody ever tries to shut me up, I know what’s up. I am fiercely perfecting my art. I have to make sure that nobody ever has access to me enough to where they can shut my mouth. I’m going to keep singing and keep being vocal and keep telling my story for as long as I can.
Mariah Carey recently showed love to you and your project on Twitter. How did that make you feel?
Mariah is like my big sister. We’ve known each other for a couple years. Our relationship has started to deepen recently. She is incredible. She is a beast. Vocally, she is amazing. She’s such a sweet person. It’s almost unbelievable how nice she is. She’s very much still a real person and she said she was going to [shout me and my album out]. I was like, “Okay, yeah that would be great.” But that’s Mariah Carey, though. It would be dope if she did but if she doesn’t, it’s whatever. And she actually did it. I was like, “Oh my God. Yes, that is so awesome.” I think she understands this that [people] won’t wrap their arms around you and embrace you until someone else does. It’s like,“I can’t get a job because I don’t have a resume. And I can’t get a resume until I have a job.”
Trevor Jackson keeps the visuals coming. The singer/actor takes a page out of Michael Jackson’s book for his stellar video “Good Enough.”
In the self-directed video, Jackson and his female partner are tasked to locate a new target who they spot at a spiffy nightclub. Surrounded by a gang of men in black, Jackson sends his accomplice over as a diversion while he comes up with an action plan to get the woman out of hostage. Jackson and other male club-goers break into dance, which gives hints of the King of Pop’s “You Rock My World” video.
Recently, Jackson starred in the remake of Superfly as Youngblood Priest. The film opened at the box office at No. 6, grossing $6.8 million in sales.