Mixing genres and producers, chart-topper Jason Derulo conjures up his own brand of pop
By Russell Hall
Jason Derulo’s songs are fixtures on the pop charts, but he’s hesitant to label his music as simply pop. He’s proud of his many influences, and his latest album, Everything Is 4, features an array of musical styles. For some artists, that could spell a lack of cohesion, but Derulo’s collection gels through the sheer force of his personality. “That’s the one thing that’s constant,” he says. “The whole album is my reality. It’s not contrived. Everything, lyrically, has to do with my life. And the music I’m making is music I know well.”
He’s not the only one who knows his music well. Since releasing his self-titled debut in 2010, the R&B/pop artist has sold more than 45 million singles worldwide. His 2014 album, Talk Dirty,
spawned five platinum hits—including the title track, “Wiggle” and “Trumpets”—an achievement that catapulted him into elite company with the likes of Katy Perry, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. A slew of industry honors has also come his way: Five BMI Pop Awards—including a 2011 “Songwriter of the Year” trophy—as well as three Teen Choice Awards.
“I’m the kind of person who lives my art,” says Derulo, 25. “It’s not necessarily that I want to do that, it’s that I have to. That’s how I write songs—it’s always been that way.”
Born in Miami to Haitian parents, Jason Joel Desrouleaux began dancing as a preschooler, inspired by Michael Jackson and MC Hammer. By age 8 he had written his first song, and at 13, he was spending time in a recording studio. “I told myself that if I wasn’t making music for the world by the time I was 16, I was going to give up. Then 16 came and I was like, ‘Wait, I’m going to extend it a couple of years,’” he says with a laugh.
By his mid-teens Derulo was majoring in musical theater at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Manhattan. The grueling studies further forged his personal foundation of discipline and determination, and by 17, he won the Apollo Theater’s coveted Grand Championship. That same year Derulo wrote and sang the chorus to “Bossy,” a key track on southern rapper Birdman’s 2007 album, 5 * Stunna. Suddenly, Derulo was an in-demand writer, penning tracks for Sean Kingston,
Lil Wayne and Sean “Diddy” Combs, among others.
“I was singing, dancing and having the time of my life,” he recalls. Soon success forced him to make a career decision. “I landed a role in Rent on Broadway,” he says. “It could have been a secure job, but I would have been locked into theater forever.”
Derulo turned down the offer to focus on his music. With the exception of a near-tragic accident in 2012—while attempting an acrobatic dance move he fractured a vertebra, necessitating a lengthy stint in a neck brace—Derulo’s career trajectory has since moved steadily forward. The rapid evolution from behind-the-scenes writer to platinum-selling recording artist may have surprised some, but not Derulo. This summer, he shared his experience and wisdom as a panel judge on the TV reality show, So You Think You Can Dance. “People love music that moves them,” he offers. “To be lasting in this industry, you have to set trends. Otherwise, you’re one step behind the curve.”
Everything Is 4 further consolidates the multigenre, ebullient spirit that’s fueled his previous albums. Writing and recording in his tour-bus studio, the singer accumulated more than 100 songs. Those featured on the album blend urban sensibilities with silky R&B, often punctuated with sensual dance beats and ’80s synth-pop flavors. “I made a lot of ’80s-style songs,” he says. “Some made the album and some didn’t. But about half have that strong ’80s backbone.”
A team of producers—Ian Kirkpatrick, Johan Carlsson and Ricky “Wallpaper” Reed among them—helped accentuate the crazy-quilt approach. Guest players figured heavily as well: Rock guitar sensation Orianthi features prominently on one track; country star Keith Urban and R&B legend Stevie Wonder share the guest spotlight on another. “He’s one of the most influential musicians of all time,” says Derulo of Wonder. “It was definitely a pleasure to make that happen.”
But the glue that holds these disparate elements together is Derulo himself. For all his ambition, the artist sums up his goals succinctly. “I was blessed with a desire to succeed at this,” he says. “That’s the bottom line. What drives me is my desire to achieve great things that are based on helping cheer up someone’s day and making them forget their problems.”
Did you start with a goal for the record?
I wanted it to be big—larger than life—and I wanted it to exemplify who I am as a man and as an artist. That was my mindset, rather than focusing on a particular sound. It was all about experimentation. I never know, going into making an album, what it’s going to sound like. What’s in my heart on a particular day is what I run with. I let my heart lead me first.
You wrote and recorded on your tour bus.
Writing on the road is something I had never done before. We had a couple of rooms on the bus decked out with state-of-the-art equipment, along with couches and so forth. It was really special—comfortable and different. I would go directly to the studio after the show. Sometimes it served as my quiet time, other times it served as party time. The fans give off a special energy that I was able to carry into the booth. We also created a room specifically for after-show parties—decorated and everything—and that played a part as well. That party energy, along with being single and living life free, played a part in how the album turned out.
Recall any magic moments?
“Get Ugly.” Wallpaper came up with this amazing, crazy beat, and we were having a great time coming up with verses and melodies. But we didn’t have a title. I thought about that facial expression people make sometimes when they hear a song they love—kind of an ugly face. That phrase became the hook, but the way I was saying it wasn’t quite right. My security guard, Big Marv, was at the front of the bus. “Hey, Big Marv,” I shouted. “Can you go into the studio booth and say ‘Get ugly’ for me?” So he says it to the music, but it sounds like he’s trying to sing it. I said, “This time don’t sing it”—but he sang it again. (laughs) I turned off the music and said, “OK, we don’t need the music at all. I just need you to say, ‘Get ugly.’” He said it—and it was perfect. I yelled, “Crew, we’ve got ourselves a smash hit!”
You wrote more than a hundred songs. How did you whittle them down?
That’s the hardest thing. I’m attached to all of them, but with time some fall by the wayside. It’s like listening to a favorite album—after a while certain songs aren’t favorites any more. It’s the same way when you’re making an album. The songs sort themselves out and fall away of their own accord, especially when you’re working over the course of a year. Still, at one point I had like 40 songs I really loved. That’s when things become tricky—and that’s when I start seeking other people’s opinions.
What did you want to convey with the title?
Four—and “for”—represent several things to me, things that are relevant to my life. Four legs of a chair represent a strong foundation. Four seasons represent change, being able to accept change. Everything happens for a reason. Everything is for the standing ovation. Everything is for the big ending. Everything is for my family. Everything is for my mom. Everything is for my fans.
When did you choose music as a career?
I’ve always known I wanted to be an entertainer. When I was a kid I wanted to be just like Michael Jackson. Along the way I got a bit lost, because I was exposed to so much—musical theater, gospel, jazz. As a teenager I was trying to find myself. I went through a variety of phases, including singing neo-soul music, which at one point I thought I wanted to do. Eventually I realized I didn’t have to choose at all, that I could just make music from the heart and be myself.
Recall writing your first song?
Definitely. I had a crush on a girl in my class. Her name was Amy and I wanted to give her something, but I didn’t have any money or anything. So I decided to create something. I was already singing, so I thought, “Why not try to write a song?” It was called “Crush on You.” I never sang it for her, but it started me on my songwriting journey. The second song I wrote was called “True Love”—I was 8. It was love songs right away, although I had no idea what love was.
What was the takeaway during those years studying musical theater?
Work ethic. It was the hardest time of my life. Musical theater school is all about memory. I had to go home and study Shakespeare, and come back the next day and act out a particular section. I would study all night long, but then go to class and be unable to recall what I had memorized. The teacher would tell the class, “See, when you don’t work, when you don’t put the time in, this is what happens.” It was heartbreaking, because I put every waking moment into studying. But in the end it was a case of breaking me down to build me back up. All I could do was pick myself up and continue to work hard, in hopes things would take a turn. Eventually they did, but I had never experienced that sort of intense work. I had always danced and sung on my own time, but it’s very different when it’s structured.
What do you feel is your greatest strength as a composer?
Melody is so important—I think that’s my strong suit. Guys don’t listen to lyrics, so you have to tell the story with the melody. Women do listen to lyrics, so you can’t just have a great melody—but I do feel a strong melody can carry just about any song. If it’s a good song, you should be able to play it with just an acoustic guitar.
Where do you write lyrics?
Usually the vocal you hear is me coming up with the lyrics in the booth, kind of freestyling. I’m not a sit-at-a-desk sort of writer. I write from the heart. I get into the booth, and go with whatever’s on my mind.
Consider yourself R&B or pop?
If I had to categorize the songs, I suppose I would put them in the pop category. But I really think my music crosses genres. In what category would you put a song like “Broke”? There’s a strong country vibe. I also think the songs are more vivid now, more mature. I speak differently at 25 than I did when I was 19. The songs are coming from a different voice.
Know a hit when you hear it?
I didn’t hear it in the case of “Want to Want Me,” the album’s first single. I thought it was a good song, but it was the first song I recorded so I wasn’t able to judge it right away. It was only when I began playing it for people that I realized how special it was. But I do like to think I know when a song’s a hit. There’s no criteria—it’s just a feeling it gives me.
Describe watching Steve Wonder work.
He was really on point about getting the perfect sound. He went through 15 or 20 harmonicas, making sure he chose the right one for the song. Then he went into the studio booth and let it rip, really came alive. It was amazing. I filmed him with my phone, just like the fan that I am.
Any pre-show rituals?
My dancers and I do a song and dance we’ve created. It takes about a minute. Actually it involves dancing and kind of chanting at the same time. There’s no name for it, but it gets us keyed up, warms us up. We also gather in a circle and pray.
What’s surprised you most about fame?
You hear stories—more money, more problems—but you never really believe them. It sounds crazy. But the things I’ve seen happen in my life have been shocking. I’ve seen many things fall by the wayside. Family relationships have broken and friendships have been lost, just because of who I am. I haven’t changed, but a lot of people around me have. It’s the strangest thing.
Was your neck injury
It had a huge impact. You don’t know what you have until it’s gone, or nearly gone. On one level, I became much more active at the gym, a real gym nut. But on another level, getting a second chance made me want to enjoy every waking moment. Since then I’ve been living life to the fullest. M