Nick Jonas drops brother act for grown-up moves with album, TV show
It was close to midnight, and Nick Jonas was between cocktails.
The 22-year-old’s team had transformed a tiny, chic West Hollywood art gallery into a rehearsal space. He had just run through his fifth set of the day and appeared to be growing more comfortable as the hours — and the drinks — went by.
Jonas was on this recent night previewing tracks from his self-titled debut album in front of a small audience. In the crowd were tastemakers and industry types all wondering what the former Jonas Brother planned for a resurrection.
No doubt, the preening teen from Disney’s last golden age of young camp rockers was gone. For his new solo album, released Monday, Jonas has stepped into adulthood with an edgier, soul-pop sound. More than even some grown-up tunes, he has a mature new look as well, at least if one equates bare skin with manhood.
And then there’s the matter of the lyrics.
“With her wine-stained lips, yeah, she’s nothing but trouble,” Jonas sang on this late summer night, tearing through sexy, R&B-steeped lead single “Chains.” It is nothing like the innocuous pop rock he churned out as a teen during his Jonas Brothers days.
Nor is the way he’s selling it.
Take, for instance, the fashion magazine spread in which he re-created Mark Wahlberg’s iconic Calvin Klein underwear ad, complete with crotch-grabbing and a glimpse of his bare bottom. Then there was a recent sex scene on his new DirecTV series “Kingdom,” a gritty family drama set in the world of mixed martial arts fighting.
Don’t be distracted by all the skin and violence, he pleads. It makes the man uncomfortable.
“There’s an element of it that I think I won’t ever get used to,” Jonas said of the newfound body-focused attention during an interview at a downtown hotel. “For me, it’s about showing people what I’m comfortable with now, as opposed to things in the past. As far as the sex symbol thing goes, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that or acknowledge it. I think that immediately makes it unsexy.”
The teen star who has graduated to adulthood by baring skin and embracing one’s sexuality is a well-worn narrative. Beyonce, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez have all been there. And though Jonas has proved game, even offering the occasional striptease at a gay club or, yes, an interview, as he did when he visited Ryan Seacrest’s radio show in September, he insists he’d rather people listen to the music.
Sexiness, however, just happens to be good for business.
“Jealous,” the second single from the album, recently reached No. 27 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart, a fact Jonas attributes in part to the saucy magazine spread.
“Sales for ‘Jealous’ went up 100% after that shoot, so I can’t be mad at the vehicle that drove people to the music,” he says. “It’s all good — and maybe a necessity to the transition to adulthood.”
Radio success is still relatively new to Jonas. His eponymous pre-Jonas Brothers offering, issued in 2005 when he was just 13, was a limited release, and while his bluesy side project, Nick Jonas & the Administration, yielded a top-five album in 2010’s “Who I Am,” many believed that was off the strength of JoBros fandom. It ultimately went hit-less.
Also, despite selling millions of records and anchoring Disney Channel series and movies, the boy band was never a radio mainstay — or taken very seriously outside the tween set.
As recent as last year, however, the focus was still on the Jonas Brothers. Nick and his brothers Joe, 25, and Kevin, 27, were plotting a comeback album and tour after exploring solo paths. The group’s 2009 album, “Lines, Vines and Trying Times,” was its last for Hollywood Records.
The trio previewed new music during the first leg of the tour, including “What Do I Mean to You,” a moody rock-electro mid-tempo that easily could have fit on Nick’s new album. But the act pulled the plug on its attempt at a resurgence just two days before a second round of dates was set to launch in November 2013.
The reason? “Creative differences on the music.”
“It was tough,” Jonas said.
“There was a lot of focus on what was a really personal moment,” he says of the split. “It was nice for us as family to address some things, and to bring those things to the surface which had built up over time and call a spade a spade and lay it out. At the core, we all felt it was the right time to close that chapter. Although it was sad and heavy, it was the right thing.”
The first call Jonas received after the breakup was publicized was from Island Records President David Massey, who initially signed then 11-year-old Jonas as a solo artist to his Daylight imprint through Sony.
“We had a conversation about musical direction, and it was an immediate decision that we wanted to do it together,” said Massey. “Musically, visually, the image, the performance, everything aligned. I was very excited.”
The push for more soul was an easy decision. Beyond the synth-driven sounds of “Jealous,” the album includes a flurry of sultry pop tunes.
FOR THE RECORD
9:52 a.m.: An earlier version of this post stated that Nick Jonas’ new album contains covers of performers such as Frank Ocean and Jhene Aiko. The covers are part of Jonas’ live performances but are not on the album.
“Even when he was 10, the music was soulful,” Massey said. “His album with the Administration? That was soulful. He’s always had an inclination toward an element of R&B and soul in his music.”
As for the attention to Jonas’ body? Yes, the label head, too, acknowledges it’s played a role, but a small one.
“There wouldn’t be anything like this interest were it not for a fact that the music is strong,” he insisted.
Third single “Teacher” shows off Jonas’ penchant for retro-funk, and the album includes some unexpected turns, such as the slow-dripping “Numb” and the heavy “Push.” If more evidence were needed, “Push” proves that Jonas has matured past syrupy love songs into ones that probe sex and more realistic heartbreak.
Respected producers and songwriters Jason Evigan, Nolan Lambroza, Simon Wilcox and Mike Posner all helped him craft material, and the album features collaborations with Angel Haze and Demi Lovato.
With “Kingdom” getting picked up for two more seasons, Jonas is hoping to tour the record in the spring. But he’s committed to taking it one step at a time.
“What I try to be most patient about — and maybe my peers weren’t as patient — is that people need time to be educated on any transition,” he says. “I’m allowing for the education to happen and for people to go on the journey with me. I’m trying to play the long game.”
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