“Wait, can I write my own profile?” asks Jesse Jo Stark. We’re sitting on a giant fuzzy blanket—black, like our coffee—in Manhattan’s West Village, and she snatches my pen.
“Okay, Jesse Jo is…one, Cher’s goddaughter. Two, Bella Hadid’s best friend. Three, [the Chrome Hearts designers’] kid. Four, a musician. And doesn’t that sound fucking awful?! If I read that,” she laughs, “I’d be like, ‘This bitch is annoying.’ Right?”
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Ehhh. Sorry, twitter trolls, but this 26-year-old is (honestly) pretty great. Soft-spoken and sharply observant, the LA native calls her little brother and sister “my kids, but really.” (Another kid: “My guitar.”) She freely mentions obsessions with darkness and decay, then grins and sings Moana. She holds your hand when she talks to you.
There’s also the small matter of talent. Stark’s songs are—for lack of a better phrase—sick. Her full-throttle voice growls through spooky lyrics about zombies, spiders, and the terrors of love. American Songwriter magazine compares her to Mazzy Star, and even the cynics at Vice admit she’s on the rise.
“I don’t take any shortcuts,” Stark says. “I know I need to have people love and trust my music. I’m not talking about liking my Instagram. Double-tapping on my photograph doesn’t mean you’ll buy my music, and I understand that. Nobody gives you the key to success no matter what kind of a musician you are. You have to work for it.”
Stark began writing songs at age ten, then fought extreme shyness to start performing original material in her teens. “I knew I was never going to be a pop star like Britney [Spears],” Stark says. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been obsessed with Britney. She’s amazing. But it’s been really interesting to watch new female artists come out in the past couple of years, because there seems like this overwhelming push from artists—but even from labels—to make good shit. Sure, there are dudes who just want a hot girl to perform onstage, but I feel a real shift. I think people take more time to get to know an artist. I’m not sure it’s about having a full fashion moment right now—it’s like, listen to my voice.”
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Potential fans will have that chance all summer as Stark continues to release new singles produced with The Sex Pistols’ Steven Jones. “It’s hard not to put out a whole album as a body of work together,” she admits, “But the music industry is different now. So releasing singles one at a time makes a lot more sense.” So far, there’s “Down Your Drain,” “April Flowers,” and “Driftwood,” a trinity of folk rock howlers that grind broken hearts into a pulp.
Is this a move from the Taylor Swift School of Songwriting? “I mean, I’m not saying any dude’s names!” Stark exclaims. “No way! But it’s good to write about people, because it prevents you from texting them. But I want to write about things that are the truth, in a smart, romantic way. What’s weird is having my little brother and sister always watching me. It makes you realize what an impact you can have. Anyone who says, ‘It’s all about the next generation,’ and then acts like an asshole? They’re a fraud. You’ve got to be a good, smart girl to look up to for them. You can’t say ‘It’s all about the kids’ and be a shitty example.”
She continues, “I’ll have to think about whether or not to put cigarettes in a video. I love the way smoke looks, but I don’t want them to smoke. And I want to let them know it’s good to love, and being in love is so cool, and it makes you who you are… but also, it’s really fucking hard. It’s cliché but love hurts.”
I look at Stark’s many tattoos—eyes, lyrics, and flowers make an Etch-a-Sketch-like trail across her arms. “Oh those didn’t hurt at all,” she shrugs. “I got a ton when I turned 18. Then I took a break, but slowly, they’re coming back.” The latest addition: three dots on her middle finger, a show of solidarity with Bella Hadid. “We were in the St. Barth’s and she wanted her first tattoo [just under her right breast]. I said I’d get one too, but, that we were going to start very small.”
The same, it seems, goes for songwriting. “I made her record a song with me once,” she says. “It happened five years ago. It was a duet and it’s never been released. But we didn’t really sing, we talked. It was very ’50s girl group, like the [Grease] song that goes, “Tell me about it, stud!” I have to find it because it’s hilarious. We wrote a little skit to go before it, like it was Leader of the Pack. We got so into it, and it was so dumb.” She giggles. “I need to find it.”
But don’t get too excited or (gasp) annoyed: Stark’s list of dream collaborators is low on Hadids, and high on Jack White. “Or Bruno Mars. Anyone totally different from me. Someone asked if I would open for Lana Del Rey. I’m like, no, a punk band should open for Lana Del Rey! Music now is all about contrasts and collaborations. Not two female singer-songwriters with long hair and moody themes.”
I can’t stop laughing but ask her anyway: Does that mean Cher’s out of the question?
“Do I believe in Cher? After love? Absolutely!” she exclaims. “Am I gonna do a giant concert with her? Come on. All I want right now is to open for an act that I really respect. I want to go on tour in a van, and meet people all over the country who love music. Hopefully my music. In a perfect world, anyway.”