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Jessie Reyez on healing after heartbreak – CBC News

The Toronto singer talks her new record Yessie, the pain of cutting songs and how the city made her appreciate her culture

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Jessie Reyez is pictured at the Toronto music venue History ahead of her second homecoming show on Nov. 30.Evan Mitsui/CBC

She’s famous for her dark lyricism and moody sound. But Jessie Reyez is on a journey of spiritual growth — and she’s trying to leave behind the anger that made her a star in the first place.

“What I’ve understood is that sometimes you need to use that anger as a lily pad to keep it moving,” said Reyez in an interview with CBC News last month. The 31-year-old singer-songwriter had just finished a soundcheck for the second of two homecoming shows in Toronto.

“There are people who live their [whole] lives and they’ve held onto anger for years, and the only person that that harms is the person holding it.”

Sitting in a small dressing room at History, a concert club co-founded by Drake last year, Reyez discussed her 2022 album Yessie — a record that fixates on the healing that comes after the heartbreak.

It’s another product of the Canadian music scene’s fruitful, long overdue R&B renaissance, to which Reyez has been an important contributor.

“Right now I could say I’m better, I’m moving past things,” Reyez added. “Obviously healing isn’t linear.”

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Reyez performed two homecoming shows in Toronto last month. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

‘It’s usually feeling-driven first’

After breaking out with the 2016 single Figures and her subsequent debut album Kiddo, Reyez made a name for herself as a bold, brooding R&B songstress with a dark sense of humour.

Her 2018 release Being Human in Public and 2020’s Before Love Came To Kill Us further established the singer as an intense talent. But after years of non-stop creating, Yessie — which takes its title from a family-given nickname — was a welcome change of pace.

“I used to be more inclined to do quantity over quality and then decide what it was that I liked and wanted to keep,” she said.

“But that ended up resulting in 200 songs on the cutting room floor, which is painful for multiple reasons. … These things are my babies, and now there’s blood on the walls because there are so many songs that will never see the light of day.”

So many of the people here watched me struggle and watched me fight for the life I’m living now.

Jessie Reyez

Yessie finds Reyez leaping away from a tormented history of fake friends and non-committal partners. Healing isn’t linear, as she says — standout tracks like Mutual Friend and Queen St. W are scathing farewells to no-good lovers. But she finds closure in these goodbyes, aptly ending the record with a Spanish pop track called Adiós Amor.

Her pen can be sharp and biting: when a friend asks her how she sleeps with so much hate in her heart, she says she sleeps like a baby.

But just as convincing is the heartbreak driving all of that hate — we hear the vulnerability in her voice as she laments a man who’s moved on in Emotional Detachment Demo.

“Very few and far in between are the times where it’s lyric-driven first. It’s usually feeling-driven first,” she said.

WATCH | How Reyez’s songwriting approach has changed:

‘It’s nerves and it’s joy’

With so many of her songs set in Toronto, Reyez’s two homecoming shows made the usually nervy singer into, well, a bundle of nerves.

“So many of the people here watched me struggle and watched me fight for the life I’m living now,” she explained. “The energy of triumph and the energy of happiness and being in the moment is very much shared … so it’s both. It’s nerves and it’s joy.”

The singer is especially close to her family. Born to parents who immigrated from Colombia, she credits Toronto’s distinct blend of voices and cultures with the global success of its music industry. She says it’s a city where “you’re encouraged to wave both flags.”

“There are a lot of immigrants and a lot of kids of immigrants that have made this place so unique,” she said. “Had I been born somewhere else that was more exclusive with their nationalism, I don’t think I would have been granted the luxury to be as connected to my parents’ culture as I have been.”

Reyez says that Toronto’s immigrant population is what makes it so unique. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

But she doesn’t want to sugarcoat the challenges of being an artist in the music industry. Reyez is both critical of the machine-like pace at which artists must create, release and market their music — “it’s not sustainable to release and release and release” — as well as outspoken about the sexism and misogyny that women face in the industry, having recounted her own experiences in the 2017 song Gatekeeper.

“I don’t want to paint this picture of this utopian place, because it insinuates that there’s no room for growth and there still is,” she says.

“There’s still privilege that can be addressed and there’s still equality that can be addressed and there’s still things that can grow and move forward.”

WATCH | Reyez says the music industry has room to grow:

That’s what Reyez is all about — onwards and upwards, personally and professionally. As she raps on Yessie’s opening track, Mood: “I needed that hate, ‘cause those ingredients make the underdog great.”

During the pandemic, “I feel like we went through a communal experience and everybody found their version of a lifeline,” she said. She relied on self-help books, meditation and yoga.

Reyez’s candid, no-holds-barred songwriting has found legions of fans across the globe, many of whom see themselves in its confrontational yet vulnerable spirit. But she hopes that her fans can move on, as she does with Yessie.

“I respect it and I’m not mad at it and I’m happy that people resonate with it, but I hope that no one stays there,” she says. Reyez found catharsis while making the record — finally, at her own pace — and in the process she learned something that she hadn’t considered since childhood.

“Potential is just abundant, you know? So just getting in contact with that feeling again is nice. I think that’s where I’m at.”

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Reyez has found scores of fans from around the world who see themselves reflected in her songs. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

With files from CBC’s Laura Thompson