December 20, 1990 • Foxboro, Massachusetts
Singer, songwriter, actress
In the mid-2000s a bevy of young, female singers, including Ashlee Simpson (1984–) and Hilary Duff (1987–), comfortably dominated the music charts. The youngest member of the growing pack was a supreme talent out of Massachusetts named Joanna Levesque, better known to fans as JoJo. Belting out tunes since she was two years old, JoJo caught the attention of industry executives and celebrities with her unusual vocal range and mature song-stylings. Her self-titled debut album, which included a unique blend of soulful ballads and catchy dance tunes, zoomed up the charts throughout 2004. Her hit singles, "Leave (Get Out)" and "Baby, It's You," received constant airplay on the radio and MTV. Both the album and JoJo received a slew of award nominations, and the singer broke a number of records, including becoming the youngest solo artist after Stevie Wonder (c. 1950–) to have a number-one hit in the United States.
Musical mom and dad
Joanna Noelle Levesque (pronounced luh-VEK), better known as JoJo, was born on December 20, 1990, in Foxboro, Massachusetts, a tiny town with a population of less than fifteen thousand, located in the outskirts of Boston. The Levesque home was filled with music: JoJo's father was a blues singer, and her mother, Diane, had a background in musical theater and was a church soloist. One of the teen's earliest memories is watching her mother perform in the choir and practice hymns at home. As she told Know Your World Extra, "I just listened and learned."
At the age of two JoJo was already imitating her mother's incredible range; she also imitated the singers she heard on her parents' stereo, an eclectic mix that included the rock group the Beatles, the "Queen of Soul" Aretha Franklin (1940–), and legendary jazz artist Ella Fitzgerald (1918–1996). As a result, JoJo sang nursery rhymes, but with a very different twist. "I would do riffs on them," she explained to Know Your World Extra, "and make them jazzy."
JoJo's life changed when she was four years old and her parents divorced. She went to live with her mother in a one-bedroom apartment and the pair often struggled to make ends meet. Diane Levesque took on cleaning jobs to make sure that her daughter would not go without, but the young singer always felt different from her friends, who seemed to have so much more. In just a few years, however, she would use those early memories to pen one of the songs on her first album.
" Age is just a number."
One of America's most talented
By the time she was six, JoJo had outgrown performing in her living room and she auditioned for the CBS television program Kids Say the Darndest Things, which was broadcasting on the road from Boston. She wowed the show's producers, who immediately gave her a spot. The tiny six-year-old faced a packed studio audience and fearlessly belted out an astonishing rendition of Aretha Franklin's "Respect." The show's host Bill Cosby (1937–) was practically speechless and members of the audience gave JoJo a thunderous round of applause. Not long after, the little girl with the powerful voice received a phone call from executives of The Oprah Winfrey Show, asking JoJo to appear on an upcoming episode.
Thanks to the endorsement by talk show host Oprah Winfrey (1954–), offers began to pour in for JoJo to appear on various television programs and to perform at an assortment of live venues, including a Boston Celtics basketball game and the Republican National Convention. Her big break, however, came in 2003 while performing on America's Most Talented Kids, a televised talent program that showcased entertainers under the age of fifteen. A member of the audience introduced her to Vincent Herbert, producer and owner of Da Family Entertainment, who signed the teen songstress to a recording contract with Blackground Records.
Just a few months after her thirteenth birthday, JoJo traveled with her mother between New York, Miami, and Los Angeles to record tracks for her first album. She had the opportunity to work closely with well-known Blackground producers as Soulshock & Karlin, Mike City, and The Underdogs, who had been previously associated with established performers including Whitney Houston (1963–), Ruben Studdard (1978–), and Aaliyah (1979–2001). "Everyone had such an incredible vibe," JoJo explained on her Web site, "and that comes through in the songs." When discussing her studio experience, however, JoJo's less serious side also tended to creep into interviews. As she told Danielle Oberdier of Time for Kids, "It's fun working with producers because we have secret handshakes and we eat junk food and it's like family."
Keeps on keepin' on
In addition to singing on the album, JoJo wrote three of the tracks: "Yes or No," "Sunshine," and "Keep On Keepin' On," which the young singer claims is her favorite. "Keep On" may be her favorite because it deals with growing up poor but still knowing there is hope. In her interview with Oberdier, JoJo opened up and explained how she came to write the song: "I was sitting by the pool where I live now, thinking 'Well, I didn't always have a pool to sit by. It wasn't always good like this.' So I was thinking that it can't be bad for so long, because I grew up poor. Things will get better soon so you have to Keep On Keepin' On."
The remaining songs on the album are an eclectic mix of soulful ballads, such as "Use My Shoulder," which show off JoJo's five-octave range; party jams like "City Lights"; and catchy pop numbers like "The Happy Song." JoJo insisted that the variety was intentional and that the CD would appeal to listeners of all ages. In interviews she bristled at being labeled a pop princess and adamantly denied that her album was intended just for teenagers. "I am not doing bubblegum pop," she told Know Your World Extra. "This is real music that is not just for young kids or for older people. It is for everybody."
When JoJo's self-titled album was released on June 24, 2004, it received mixed reviews, with most critics commenting understandably on the tender age of the singer. Chuck Arnold of People observed that the thirteen-year-old "has yet to really grow into her big voice," and that "she may still be a little young to play with the big girls." But, he also noted that "she's no average JoJo," and that the first single released from the album, "Leave (Get Out)," with its "sassy girl-power lyrics" was truly a guilty pleasure. Raymond Fiore of Entertainment Weekly offered up a similar review. While he criticized JoJo for her over-the-top deliveries, he also commented that her CD was "brimming with sizzling hooks" and that the songstress "exhibited remarkable promise."
JoJo's prediction that her CD would appeal to a wide audience proved true. Fans snapped up her CD, which quickly cracked the Billboard Top 20 and remained there through the end of 2004, ultimately peaking at number four. The single "Leave (Get Out)" reached number-one on the charts, and the video was a staple on MTV's Total Request Live during the summer and fall of 2004 and was the most requested video for months. As a result, JoJo was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award for best new artist—she was the youngest performer ever to receive a nomination.
The JoJo whirlwind
Following her album's release, JoJo was off and running on a whirlwind of interviews, concert dates, and television appearances. She was the opening act for Usher (1979–) during his summer 2004 European tour, and later in the year she performed with Bow Wow (1987–) on Steve Harvey's Big Time, schmoozed with guests on Live with Regis and Kelly, and sang before a presidential audience on TNT's "Christmas in Washington." JoJo also made a brief appearance on the NBC drama American Dreams, portraying a young Linda Ronstadt (1946–). In addition she made time to record the song "Secret Love" for the soundtrack to the animated feature Shark Tale.
Norwegian Teen Songstress: Maria Mena
When JoJo released her self-titled debut CD in June 2004, another teen singer-songwriter named Maria Mena hit the music charts with her first U.S. album. Although Mena was Norwegian and five years older than JoJo, the two shared a number of similarities.
Maria Viktoria Mena was born on February 19, 1986, in Oslo, Norway. Like JoJo, both her parents were musically inclined. Her father, Charles, was a drummer in a band and her mother was a playwright. Music was such a part of the Mena household that Maria and her brother Tony were named after the main characters in the musical West Side Story. Mena's parents split up when she was very young, which had a very traumatic effect on the nine-year-old. She developed an eating disorder and became severely depressed, turning to her diary to write down her feelings.
When Mena was thirteen years old she went to live with her father and, as part of her therapy, he helped turn some of her diary entries into lyrics. One of them ended up being a song called "My Lullaby," which captures the pain the young girl experienced as her parents were divorcing. Mena begged her father to let her record. Seeing that his young daughter exhibited an amazing maturity and talent, Charles called some of his contacts in the music industry to make a demo (a sample recording). He then shopped the demo around, and the sixteen-year-old Mena was signed by Sony Music, who felt that her powerful vocal stylings were similar to Canadian pop singer Alanis Morissette (1974–).
Mena's first album, titled Another Phase, was released in 2002 in Great Britain, where it rose to number nine on the U.K. charts. "My Lullaby," which appeared on the album, became a number-one hit. In June 2004 Mena landed on the American charts when her second album, White Turns Blue, debuted in the United States. With her "bare-it-all" lyrics and teenage-angst appeal, critics called her a combination of Morissette, Fiona Apple (1978–), and Tori Amos (1964–). According to Raymond Fiore of Entertainment Weekly, Mena was a new force to be reckoned with, claiming "she's got hooks you could hum for days."
Although she admitted that her schedule was more than hectic and that she missed some "normal" kid things like hanging out with her friends, JoJo also acknowledged that she loves what she is doing. As she explained in a Kidzworld interview, "That passion and that drive just keep me going. If I didn't want to do this, it would be a different story." One big change is that instead of attending regular school JoJo is homeschooled by a tutor supplied by the School for Young Performers. Her favorite subjects are social studies (because she likes learning about different cultures) and some science, but she lamented to Danielle Oberdier, "math is just my enemy."
Like many young female singers, JoJo made the leap from music to movies in February 2005 when shooting began on her first feature film, Aquamarine. The movie is based on the novel of the same name written in 2001 by American writer Alice Hoffman (1952–), and centers on two teenage girls who find a mermaid in their beach club's swimming pool. Before filming had completed, JoJo had already signed on for a second movie, this time a comedy called R.V. starring veteran actors Robin Williams (1941–) and Jeff Daniels (1955–).
Music, however, remained JoJo's first love, introduced to her by her family and fostered by her mother, Diane. JoJo remains very close to her mother, who is also her manager. "Even though you feel like you can do anything when you're a teenager," she told Kidzworld, "you still need your parents." JoJo remains humble and realistic when it comes to her age and admits that she has a long way to go. As she wisely remarked to Know Your World Extra, "I think that as you grow and your audience grows, you have to change and evolve."
For More Information
Arnold, Chuck. "Review of JoJo." People (July 19, 2004): p. 41.
Fiore, Raymond. "Review of JoJo." Entertainment Weekly (June 25, 2004): p. 162.
"JoJo: At Thirteen Years Old, the Singer Is Making a Name for Herself." Know Your World Extra (November 5, 2004): pp. 12–15.
"Interview: JoJo" Kidzworld.com. http://www.kidzworld.com/site/ p4436.htm (accessed on August 23, 2005).
"JoJo Debut CD Is Bling Bling." TeenMusic.com (November 13, 2004). http://www.teenmusic.com/d.asp?r=84065&cat=1020£ (accessed on August 23, 2005).
"JoJo: Don't Call Me Baby." BBC Radio News: Chart News (November 3, 2004). http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio1/news/chartnews/ 041103_jojo.shtml (accessed on August 23, 2005).
Oberdier, Danielle. "Get to Know JoJo." TimeforKids.com (July 2, 2004). http://www.timeforkids.com/TFK/kidscoops/story/0,14989, 660897,00.html (accessed on August 23, 2005).
Official JoJo Web Site.http://www.jojoonline.com/main.html (accessed on August 23, 2005).
At 13 years old, pop singer JoJo became the youngest solo artist ever to have a number one Billboard single. "Leave (Get Out)," taken from the teen singer's first album, JoJo, struck a chord with like-minded teenagers who enjoyed hip-hop and R&B music as much as they did mainstream pop. A pop singer with an R&B soul, JoJo released The High Road in 2006, a successful and mature follow-up to her platinum debut. In addition to singing and songwriting, JoJo has acted in two major motion pictures, with more on the way. "She's got Ashanti's penchant for hip-hop soul, a dash of Pink's attitude, and Christina Aguilera's knack for oversinging," wrote Chuck Arnold in People.
Born Joanna Levesque on December 20, 1990, in Boston, Massachusetts, JoJo was raised in Foxborough, Massachusetts by her mother, Diana, after her parents divorced. A member of her church choir, Diana noticed JoJo's natural singing talent early on. By the time most children are just beginning to master the English language, JoJo was singing her heart out and appearing in local theater productions. Her mature vocal range was so impressive that in 1998 she appeared on Bill Cosby's Kids Say the Darndest Things, where she wowed the audience with a wise-beyond-her-years rendition of Aretha Franklin's "Respect." To keep her daughter's momentum going, Diana packed up and the pair moved to California to test the waters.
JoJo was a natural to appear as a contestant on the television show America's Most Talented Kid. Although she did not win, JoJo was introduced to music producer Vincent Herbert, who would soon change her life. The relationship with Herbert landed the then-12-year-old singer a record deal with Blackground Records/Universal. In addition allowing JoJo to have a hand in co-writing some of her debut album's songs, Herbert enlisted a handful of top-notch producers and songwriters for the young girl's first foray into the music business. JoJo hit the streets in the summer of 2004, prefaced by the sassy first single "Leave (Get Out)." The candid song won an instant top spot on MTV's TRL show, causing Arnold to call "Leave (Get Out)" the "breakup anthem of the summer." When "Leave (Get Out)" hit the top of the charts, JoJo became the youngest artist ever to have a number one Billboard hit.
With a voice that reached the sweetest of R&B notes, JoJo also had a love of pop music. At times her style and song subjects appeared to be too mature for a 13-year old, but as JoJo told Time for Kids, she is careful that her album sends the right messages to her young fans. "You can be young and still have views and opinions … I think we should all come together, and that race and color or social demographics don't really matter. That's what I'm trying to say." "Leave (Get Out)" was followed by the single "Baby It's You," a playful track that featured teenager rapper Bow Wow. JoJo went on to sell over 1.3 million copies.
For much of the year following her album's release, JoJo appeared on television and toured the world to promote the record. She also dipped her toes in the movie world with two film roles in 2006. Filmed almost back-to-back, JoJo appeared as Robin Williams's daughter in the family comedy RV and had a supporting role in the tween mermaid flick Aquamarine. In her rare down time, at 15, JoJo found time to begin a romantic relationship with 16-year-old soccer star Freddy Adu, an African-American teenager from Ghana who lived in Maryland.
That summer JoJo returned to the west coast to start work on her sophomore album. "I want the world to see I'm here for the long run, and not some flash in the pan," JoJo stated on her website. Hip-hop producers Scott Storch and Swizz Beats, and Grammy-winning composer Diana Warren joined JoJo to create a collection of songs that spanned different styles and flavors. "I don't think teenagers listen to one genre of music," she said on her website, "so I wanted to do something people could groove to, chill to, connect to, and listen to again and again." The album that began to take shape included straight up ballads, party jams and hyper pop tracks. Known for his work with Christina Aguilera and Mariah Carey, Storch produced the sizzling "This Time," while Warren offered the emotional ballads "Exceptional" and "Note to God." After nine months of work, in October of 2006 JoJo introduced her second full-length album, The High Road.
With its number three Billboard debut, The High Road was set for success. Entertainment Weekly's Michael Endleman noted JoJo's ability on The High Road, when he wrote that she is "a vocal phenom, capable of Mariah Carey-style upper-register flourishes." The High Road's initial single, "Too Little Too Late," was quickly followed up with "How to Touch a Girl," a track JoJo co-wrote with Billy Steinberg. "How to Touch a Girl" was penned about a real-life crush JoJo had on a boy who had no idea how to win over her heart. Though the song's title touches on the provocative, it was meant to be metaphoric. "I would never be graphic," JoJo expressed to CosmoGirl! about the song. "It's subtle, playful, and sexy. But it's not 21-year-old sexy-it's sexy how you would naturally be at 15." On December 20, 2006, JoJo turned 16 years old. "I want to maintain a (good) image," she admitted to CosmoGirl!, "but I'm not going to say pure because no one is perfect. I just want to be normal."
JoJo, Universal/Blackground Records, 2004.
The High Road, Universal/Blackground Records, 2006.
For the Record …
Born Joanna Levesque on December 20, 1990, in Boston, Massachusetts; daughter of Diana Levesque.
Appeared on Kids Say the Darndest Things, 1998; signed record deal with Blackground Records/Universal, 2003; released solo album debut JoJo, 2004; starred in films RV and Aquamarine, 2006; released sophomore album, The High Road, 2006.
Addresses: Record company—Universal/Blackground Records, 2220 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404. Website—JoJo Official Website: http://www.jojoonline.com.
CosmoGirl!, April, 2006.
Entertainment Weekly, October 27, 2006, p. 72.
People, July 19, 2004, p. 41.
Sun, January 19, 2007.
Time for Kids, July 2, 2004.
"JoJo," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com/ (February 10, 2007).
JoJo Official Website, http://www.jojoonline.com/, http://www.umusic.ca/jojo/ (February 10, 2007).
"JoJo Works Her Mojo, Nabs Jermaine Dupri, Timbaland for New LP," MTV.com, http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1536492/20060717/jojo_pop_.jhtml (February 10, 2007).