Photo by Lucienne Nghiem
On “U,” the first single from his upcoming EP Sweet, Jason Jamal invokes the language of classical music to describe the ecstatic rush of attraction. “Sorry if I’m buggin’, but your face is really tugging on my heart strings / symphony orchestra, and I’m making music for ya,” he sings between yearning horns and tambourines. It’s an appropriately grandiose lyric, but it also describes a sound Jamal knows intimately–before his turn as an R&B singer/songwriter, he was a classical trombonist.
That may sound like a drastic swerve, but to hear the Richmond-based artist tell it, symphonic music was the departure, not the other way around. “I’ve always wanted to sing and perform,” he says, “but I rerouted from chorus to band in the fifth grade because I was horrified of singing, and as a young closeted queer youth, I wanted to hide as much as possible. I decided to play in band, as if that was going to stop the inevitable queer awakening that was sure to come literally, like, the next day.”
His artistic awakening, on the other hand, was still years away. In 2018, Jamal–fresh out of college and burnt out on the classical grind–finally started stretching his vocal cords. That year marked the release of his debut single “Sweatin’,” a collab with singer McKenzie Morgan that dabbles in the sounds that would end up making Sweet so–well, sweet. “The EP came together when my songwriting partner/producer Cameron Smith and I really honed in on the styles of music that we gelled with at the time,” explains Jamal. “I was really vibing with old school R&B and current indie pop. I was flipping back and forth between artists like Troye Sivan and Anita Baker for a couple of months, and that’s where the vibe came from.”
“U” was written a couple years ago, before the EP concept was settled. It couldn’t have started any simpler; Jamal remembers sitting down with the intention of writing a pop song, and sure enough, one emerged. Recording in 2020 took it to the next level, though; working with Smith, he was able to bring out the R&B and pop influences with a sense of self-isolated longing. “Because we were mid-pandemmy, all I could do at the time was imagine all the things we could’ve been doing and also obsessively wondering whether or not my trip to the grocery store gave me COVID and if I needed to wipe my watermelons off with lysol wipes or not.”
Pandemic anxiety was top of mind when Jamal assembled the Sweet tracklist, combining two lockdown-born tracks (“2gether” and “Memories”) and two pre-existing songs (“U” and “All the Things”). “It was suggested to me that we try and put together something, and it immediately sent my brain into an excitable manic state of concepts,” says Jamal. “All of the songs reference the love that I have for the people in my life or love that I wished I had and just how ‘sweet’ they are to me. ‘U’ is about a dreamy lust that I couldn’t have because of social isolation and the others are all about me remembering my most favorite relationships at a time where I couldn’t physically access them.”
One of those relationships, Jamal’s creative partnership with fellow artist and horn player Benét Nutall, stands out in the story of Sweet. The two originally met through a gig at the Virginia amusement park Kings Dominon: “We were performing together in what is shockingly not the most lucrative job in the world called the Clown Band, RIP,” says Jamal. “We were playing in the most magical trombone section ever with our other best friend and often collaborator Stephanie Young, where we truly bonded as friends and musicians so much so we had a truly spiritual musical connection.”
You can hear the rapport on the smooth grooving double single they put out together earlier this year, featuring the songs “XY” and “Twizzlers.” As for the Sweet EP release, Jamal teamed up with Grimalkin Records, and as with all Gr releases, tape proceeds will go to a good cause–in this case, supporting Benét’s recovery from gender-affirming surgery. “Benét and I both have always had a love for pop/contemporary music, and shortly after I released ‘Sweatin’,’ Benét decided to finally pursue their passion and write music,” says Jamal. “We’ve always been creating side by side keeping up with each other’s every move. Any and all support I can give to them as a black trans person, the better.”
Jamal says those are the kind of friendships Sweet was made for, and particularly “U”–a song to enjoy with your besties on a blessed day off from your own not-so-lucrative seasonal job. “We really wanted to create that old school summer bop vibe, giving you some Luther Vandross, Bill Withers, Teddy Pendergrass, but new and current. I also really love music festivals and would love to perform at one of my long time favs, Bonnaroo. We wanted that dance-in-the-field-with-your-best-friends vibe, which I think we created!”
“U” is available to stream and download now, and you can preorder Sweet ahead of the release on July 16.