Loss is a powerful force in artistic inspiration, a fact that Jhené Aiko has now learned firsthand. She is fresh from releasing Trip, an immersive double album years in the making, that was very much informed by the tragic death of her brother, Miyagi, to brain cancer in 2012, and her subsequent experimentation with hallucinogens to process her grief - the latter providing the album with its title.
In addition to the record, Aiko created an accompanying short film, her first proper foray in the medium. In both, she details her experience with the loss of her brother, substance abuse, and relationship woes. By no means is it an easy subject matter, but the music she produced reflects the full spectrum of her healing process, enlisting collaborators such as Big Sean, Brandy, Rae Sremmurd's Swae Lee and members of her family to help bring her vision to life.
The singer/songwriter sat down with Highsnobiety Music to speak about the surprise release of Trip, the short film and the years of work that went into both.
You’ve been working on Trip for over four years now. Tell us a bit about its evolution.
I’ve technically been writing this album since I was a preteen. The more I started going through my life, the more I turned to writing and the more serious the writing became. It was my form of therapy.
After my brother [Miyagi] passed, it was how I dealt with the grief. I was taking trips alone and experimenting with substances to take myself out of my own head and writing about those experiences. I wasn't looking at it as if I was putting out a project. I didn’t want it to be contrived or hyped up. I just wanted to share the songs because there are a lot of people that can relate to my story.
With the subject matter so personal, what was it like collaborating with your family on the album?
My daughter [Namiko Love Browner] is what wakes me up in the morning. In the album, and in real life, she's the one that brings me back down to earth. We did a little freestyle one night, and it was just so cute to me. That was a really cool moment because when I’m usually recording, there’s a lot of time apart. It was a great bonding experience for us. With my dad [Dr.Chill], I was just talking about him one day with my producer Amaire Johnson and he told me I should see if he could come and in and work with us. He was available and we recorded over an hour of us just jamming. That's what you hear on the album.
My dad and I weren’t really close when I was growing up. He and my mom were separated by the time I was two years old. I grew up in a household where I was the youngest of five kids, so even when we went somewhere with him, it would be more like me interacting with my siblings. We never had a personal relationship, but the older I’ve become, the more he has become a big part of my life. I definitely had a little verge towards him when I was a young adult, but now that I'm a parent, I can see how hard it is. I see so many similarities between he and I. Having my dad there and contributing to this album meant a lot because he really has this wisdom that I aspire to have. I definitely feel like he added some magic to Trip.
The short film you co-wrote, co-directed, and starred in accompanies the album. What was it like making a film for the first time and why did you decide to include it with the release of Trip?
The short film is really what I started working on right after I finished [first album] Souled Out. It was just always something that I wanted to do. Everything about the whole process of directing and acting interests me. I got together with writer Tracy Oliver [of Girls Trip fame] and we started writing a screenplay. We went through my notebooks and poems and she helped me translate them into a script. During that process, I was also recording new songs and thought that they would be a perfect accompaniment to the film. That turned into the album.
It sounds like your poetry is really the driving force behind the album and short film. Have you always written poetry?
Yes, I have poems that go as far back as 2013. I write poetry pretty much every day and will be publishing the ones that inspired Trip and Map this fall. It’s a dream come true. Since I was little and learned how to read, I've always wanted to write and publish my own poems.
For someone who is experiencing grief and listens to Trip, what is one message you’d like them take away from the album?
Talk about it. Express what you're feeling, even if it’s to a notebook. Just release it. Ideally you have a person that's around to listen. Everyone needs someone to listen. It's all about expressing it. If you hold it in, that's when it can turn into something ugly. If you don’t have anyone to talk to, get a journal and write it out. Write out your deepest, darkest feelings and it will help.
When I was alone with my thoughts, I don't know where my head went sometimes. I’d turn to drugs and feel horrible, physically and mentally. It started showing up on my skin, my hair... I started to gain weight and stuff like that. That's where the writing comes in. Expressing every single part of my story has helped me heal and get better. I have been sober since the release of my album and I had to be healthy in order to make that happen.
Congratulations, that’s amazing. What is next for you?
I'm opening for Lana Del Rey on five stops of her tour, but I'm also looking forward to exploring more with film and acting. I’d love to have some sort of role in a large production, not even a lead role per se, but a supporting role, even if it’s a few lines. Acting is so exciting and I’d love to do more of it.
In ten years though, once everything has settled down, I definitely want to be back in school and studying astrophysics. I'm so interested in the universe on a spiritual level, but I would love to know more about the math and science behind it. When I can have time to myself, I’m going to dive into that.
For more of our interviews, read our chat with legendary DJ Richie Hawtin from the most recent issue of 'Highsnobiety' Magazine right here.