Rhymes and reasons

English pop star Jay Sean tells Oliver Clasper how his heritage has kept him grounded

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 October, 2013, 5:41pm

It's been a long road for Jay Sean. The London-born R&B singer released his debut album, Me Against Myself, in 2004, and then all but disappeared for four years - with only a brief resurgence to set up his own label, Jayded.

But since 2008, he has released three hit albums and signed with a major US label (Cash Money), resulting in his astronomical rise and his maturation into a much sought-after pop star. In the pantheon of Western commercial music, this success has been highly significant, especially given his Indian heritage. But Sean (born Kamaljit Singh Jhooti) says that despite the No 1 hits and the big-name collaborations, he hasn't forgotten his Punjabi roots back in West London.

"I'm proud to represent my people and to hopefully inspire those who will come after me. But I haven't come too far, to be honest. I think my sound has evolved. You can't keep making the exact same type of music with the same track behind you all the time. That gets boring. My roots are what ground me every day. You can't ever take that away from me, no matter where I work or where I live," Sean says.

As a teenager, he mostly listened to Bhangra (traditional Punjabi music), R&B, soul, and hip hop - in particular the artists of the so-called golden era. But it was specifically the likes of Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Missy Elliott who inspired him the most as they sang as well as rapped, something he has tried to incorporate into his own music.

His style also led him to being labelled, however fleetingly, as the "Asian Craig David", a tag that he has struggled with over the years. "It's not easy being the first to do something, and I've had to bang my head against many a brick wall to make moves in this industry. There's no guidebook that you can read to navigate through it. I'm not white, black or Spanish," he says.

Sean is the first to admit that with more money and airplay came more pressure and expectations to fit a certain mould. "I sometimes wish I could rewind back to those days when ignorance was truly bliss, when I was making music purely for myself, never even knowing if anyone was going to hear it. I was just doing it because I loved it. Fame, radio play and label opinions leak into your brain over time, and as an artist you have to fight against it and just keep doing what you love. That's not always easy, but I try."

For now, Sean is happy promoting his latest album, Neon, which boasts some high-calibre guest artists (Ace Hood, Rick Ross and Busta Rhymes) and all seems well. There was a period in the late 2000s when his sound began to veer away from the traditional R&B rhythms he had grown up with and more towards bland, populist electro-house, but the music seems to have returned to its roots - for the better. "It was definitely a deliberate choice [to return]," he says. "I had played enough with that, and was ready to go back to what made me fall in love with music."

Jay Sean, October 10, 10pm, Show Club, 29 Wyndham Street, Central. For a chance to win one of two double passes to the invitation-only event, e-mail info@showclub.com.hk