"A hummingbird shit on me. I was like, 'Yo, this year's about to be amazing,'" JoJo said with a sly smile.
We were cozied up in the corner of a barely lit booth at Schapiro's on New York's Lower East Side, just two 25-year-olds sipping on white wine and piercing macaroni and cheese with the shiny tines of our forks. Her wavy, chestnut hair parted down the middle, she was wearing what I’m sure was a cool, designer top. When she's speaking really passionately, her furrowed eyebrows -- one of which has a tiny, gold hoop -- move animatedly. And on this evening, even after a day of interviews, you need only look at JoJo's brows to see she has a story to tell.
JoJo (born Joanna Levesque) is in the middle of staging a comeback. After being discovered in a singing competition, she was signed to Blackground Records at 12. You may remember that when she was 13, she had a massive hit, “Leave (Get Out).” She was “TRL” huge -- starring in movies with Robin Williams and Emma Roberts and dropping two albums. Her second was released a decade ago, in 2006, and we haven’t seen a full-length LP from her since. In 2009, JoJo sued her record label for preventing her from putting out music. She reached a deal in the same year, but things only got bad again.
She released mixtape after mixtape, took stage and acting gigs along the way. By 2013, she was exasperated, filing another lawsuit against her label, this time for "irreparable damages to her professional career." In 2014, she was freed from Blackground and signed to Atlantic. Finally, there could be JoJo music again.
The hummingbird poo incident happened during her week of silent solitude in Malibu at the beginning of 2016. After releasing three singles last August, touring her new music in the fall, JoJo's dad died unexpectedly. That November, JoJo rented a room in a California woman's house and spent most of her time out on the balcony, reading four books in six days, soaking in Miles Davis' Kind of Blue and confronting the terrifying vastness of the ocean ... and her own feelings.
"My dad was trying to come to California," she explained to me. "I thought, 'He would've loved seeing this sunset. He would've loved seeing all these hummingbirds that are on this balcony that I'm on,' and I was just crying there, talking to God, talking to him, and being like, 'Please, let [my dad's] eyes be my eyes now. I want him to breathe this fresh air. I want him to see.'"
In the years during her label troubles, JoJo was not only struggling to make a career, she was also struggling to maintain a relationship with her mother. Her parents split when she was 4, and the singer was raised and managed by her mom. But amid all the record company drama, their relationship began to fall apart, and JoJo moved out as soon as she turned 18. In the past year, JoJo had been building back trust with her family, including her father, who lived in Boston. They began meeting up as a trio, reconnecting whenever their schedules allowed and remembering why they loved each other.
Joel Levesque died in his sleep in November at age 60. His heart, weak from surgery and years of drug abuse, eventually gave up, at a time when he and his daughter were at their closest. Levesque had saved every newspaper clipping of JoJo since the earliest days of her career. More recently, he'd comforted her over the phone during her breakup with her boyfriend ("He was like, 'Fuck him, he sucks,'" JoJo recalled with a smirk). Whenever she and her mom were in Boston, he would meet the pair for dinner. In his apartment, JoJo's aunts later found letters written to his daughter to be read upon his passing -- one from 2006, one from 2012.
"I don't know if he knew that he was ailing, I don't know," she said, sharing that they'd been talking more and more in the past few months. "But I can always feel good because our last conversations, we were so connected. I was so excited to talk to him."
A few weeks before we met for dinner this past Spring, JoJo had released the video for “Save My Soul,” dedicated to her dad. The song itself deals with addiction, inner demons, anger and acceptance. Selfishly, I wanted to tell her how it affected me. My own father, who suffered from alcoholism, had softened up too in the months before his death two years ago. Like JoJo, I connected with my dad more than ever during his last phone calls. He seemed more chill and more at ease, as if he had come to terms with the fact that life is short. JoJo calls it God, I call it the universe -- either way we could agree that there are forces larger than us beyond our understanding.
The tough thing about talking about your parents' addiction is that you don't feel like it's your struggle to talk about. So, when you're a kid, you hide it -- first, because you realize that it's not normal; then, because you don't want to be embarrassed by your parents; and ultimately, because you feel like you need to protect them.
But all of that protecting ages you. So although JoJo had barely hit her teens when she kicked off her music career, the music industry was no match for her parents' addictions when it came to forcing the young singer to grow up fast.
"We look to [our parents] as they're supposed to be actualized and we're supposed to look up to them and they're supposed to be stronger than us, but that's not always the case," she said. "They're not equipped with the tools. They're not whole because when you're feeding your problems with alcohol or drugs or whatever, it's to fill something."
When JoJo was 17, she fired her mom as her manager, which plunged mom into a depression. For 10 days, she didn't know where her mom was. "I think she felt that I was ungrateful that I wanted her to be my mom, not my manager, anymore," she said. "It kind of sent her into a dark place. I felt like it was my fault."
She moved out of her mom's house to L.A. as soon as she turned 18, and until recently, they didn't have much of a relationship. "I felt abandoned. She felt abandoned. We were both sad, angry, misunderstood. It took us a few years to get back to a good place. And she's stronger than ever. I think we needed time apart."
And now, for the first time since JoJo found fame, her mom is back singing in church. She's taking care of families, nannying and cleaning. She's been sober for one year. "I feel conflicted talking about this, but it was my truth, it was my reality," she said. "And it changed me forever."
When I tell JoJo that I grew up feeling like I was the adult, that I'd tell my parents when to leave parties and help them to bed, she responds with conviction: "You gotta take their keys, their phone. I understand."
A few boyfriends knew about her mother's addictions and the interventions they'd hold for her father, but mostly, she kept everything to herself -- until January 8. Her father would've been 61 on the day she released the video for "Save My Soul," a song about addiction. To her, the lyrics spoke to a toxic relationship she had:
"A moth to a candle, that's me to you
I was never this fragile, or consumed
I'm covered in shrapnel, through and through
And I wish I knew how to hate you
I try to wash the scars and marks from under my skin
But you're etched in me like stone."
But when her parents heard the song, it struck a different chord.
"They both were like, 'Wow, this song is about addiction. This song makes me think of my own struggle with it,'" she remembered. "My dad got to hear almost my whole album while it was taking shape, and he cried listening to particularly 'Save My Soul.'"
She enlisted the help of her friend Zelda Williams (daughter of late comic Robin) to direct the video, and they trucked out to Joshua Tree National Park to shoot at sunset. Interspersed with the desert footage, Williams cut in shots of various people crying and battling their inner demons on a therapist's couch. They released the video on her dad's birthday, during her week of silence in Malibu.
"Save My Soul" -- the song, the video, her written dedication -- felt universal. It made me want to reach out to JoJo so we could swap childhood war stories. I wasn't alone. The response from her fans was loud and clear and comforting.
"While he was alive, I thought of the disappointments, but now that he's gone I don't think of them," JoJo reflected about her father. "It's not important."
One of her earliest memories of her dad makes her smile. JoJo swirled her wine as her grin grew. "He would have boxing pads and we would watch boxing together," she said. "I would hit the boxing pads and he would be like, 'Oh, wow, you're so strong. That hurts!' He would always make me feel so strong."
And he continues to give her the strength. Her dad lives in her music, including the album she intends to put out this summer. She took his guitar from his place in Boston and crated it across the country with her, holding it, feeling it, using his pick.
"I love it. It makes me feel good. I feel really close to him."
Those green emerald hummingbirds are probably a very good sign.