She Owns the Night: Interview with Jessie and the Toy Boys!

You can’t put Jessie Malakouti in a box, and if anybody tries to put me in a box, I will punch the roof out and I will climb out faster than you can chase me.

Fact: I have never had more fun talking with an artist than I did with Jessie Malakouti, the frontwoman, mastermind, and sole animate member of mannequin-backed dance-pop outfit Jessie and the Toy Boys.

The blonde bombshell has already been through a few artistic incarnations — first as a pop princess making waves with cuts like “Trash Me,” then as a dancefloor diva with dazzling single “Standing Up for the Lonely,” written with legendary global hit factory Xenomania (who counted Jessie as a valued member).

But her latest vehicle, Jessie and the Toy Boys, is more sophisticated than those earlier efforts: It’s gritter, grimier, sexier, and — as she explained to me — a more authentic representation of who she is as an artist.

And her new image has paid off, as Jessie has been snagged to open for none other than the iconic Britney Spears on her upcoming Femme Fatale tour. It’s a hugely high-profile platform for Jessie, and one that should convert countless listeners into unapologetic Fannequins.

Jessie’s music is imbued with a goofy exuberance that distinguishes her from her counterparts. Amid a sea of undifferentiated pop tarts, her genuine enthusiasm, quick wit, and ferocious passion for her music and her fans comes through loud and clear, as she dished to me about spending QT with the Queen B, shooting her first major video, and what happens when people try and put Jessie Malakouti in a box. (Hint: It’s not recommended.)

With debut single “Push It” rapidly ascending to the top of the dance charts and anticipation running high for the Femme Fatale tour, it’s clear that Jessie’s global takeover is just beginning.

Big news: You’re going on tour with Britney. This is a BFD. How did it come about? What’s going on? Have you spent any time with Britney? Or Nicki? Or Nervo? Tell me every last detail.

[laughs] Okay. Yes, it’s goin’ down. It’s a big. Fucking. Deal. I’m so excited! I’ve actually met all of the girls now. Well, I’ve met Mim from Nervo — I haven’t met Liv yet — and then I met Britney and Nicki the other night. Nicki Minaj was in town, playing with Lil’ Wayne, and she had an after party at The Factory, which is a club that I’ve played at several times, so I went to the party and Britney showed up too. It was crazy! It was like, me, Nicki, and Britney sitting V.I.Pizzle, looking out at everybody, and I was just like, “Is this my fucking life? Is this my life right now?” [laughs]

Did you die? Did you just die?

I really did, you know, because I’m a huge Britney Spears fan. I mean, who isn’t? Especially for me — like, I performed in my fifth grade talent show to “…Baby One More Time.” I was obsessed, and I still am obsessed. And let me tell you honestly, Sam, she’s so beautiful in person. I don’t know if you’ve met her before or not, but she’s fucking gorgeous.

I haven’t, and I’m so jealous.

Okay. She’s so gorgeous, and sweet, and lovely. And Nicki Minaj? Same thing. Stunning, stunning, stunning. Beautiful girl, so charismatic and energetic. They were both amazing. I just really can’t wait to be on this tour with them and the Nervo girls. I think it’s going to be an amazing show for everyone, so we’re all very excited.

Tell me what it was like to find out you were going on tour with Britney.

I was in the studio, and I got a call from one of my managers. She was like, “Um, are you alone?” and I said, “No?” and she’s like, “Step outside.” I had no idea what was going on. I was like, “What is happening?” So I walked outside and she gave me the news and I literally started crying. I just cried tears of joy. Well, first I screamed, and then I cried, and then she was like, “You can’t tell anyone until they make their official announcement!” So I knew for a week and couldn’t say anything, and it was like waiting for Santa Claus or something. I was just dying. And I had to go back into the studio with makeup all over my face, smeared everywhere, and everyone was like “What’s wrong with that girl?” [laughs] And I’m like, “I’m fine! I promise! I can’t talk about it!”

I’m so excited for you, and there’s nobody who deserves it more. It’s such an incredible platform for you.

Thank you! You guys almost broke the news first, too! I saw that you were on it. Everyone was tweeting me, asking if it was true, and I couldn’t say anything, even though I was dying to respond.

So how are you going about prepping for the tour? Has that started yet?

It’s starting today. When we hang up, I’m headed to my first Toy Boy dancer auditions. I don’t think they know that I’m coming, so I’m going to surprise everyone, and hand-select the next crop of Toy Boys that I’m taking on the tour with me. And then the next step — I’ve got some shows on the East Coast and I’m going to play around with some different songs live to see what works, and what I want to do on the Femme Fatale tour. But I have a pretty good idea of what set I’m going to be performing.

What are the criteria for Toy Boys? They’ve got a hard act to follow, given the company you’ve been keeping so far, right? How can anyone compete with perfection?

[laughs] Yeah, you know, there are standards! There are definitely standards. They need to be classic and fantastic, and they need to be killer dancers. Choreography and dance are a huge part of what that I do, and so I’m really looking for people with mad swag. Basically, Toyboys need to have mad swag when they’re in the club.

Mad. Swag. Stringent criteria, but I think you’re gonna find somebody good. So, briefly, I want to talk about “Trash Me” — when “If U Seek Amy” was released, there was some controversy that it sounded quite similar to your song. Did that cross your mind at all when touring with Britney?

First and foremost, I am a major Britney Spears fan. Always have been, always will be — I’ve always loved her. In terms of what happened with “Trash Me” and “If U Seek Amy,” that’s between myself and the songwriters — it has nothing to do with Britney. It was an unfortunate situation that went down between myself and some people who I had been working with, but I’m so beyond that at this point. Everything that I’ve been writing with Jessie and the Toyboys is so much better than “Trash Me,” so it’s just like — I’ve moved on from that. It was a great experience though, because I came out of it stronger, learning more, and I’m a better writer now. And the songwriters and I have since resolved everything, so it’s all good.

After that initial era, you were in the UK working with Xenomania. What was your experience like with them, and why did you choose to go in a different direction with this project? How did you evolve to this point in your career?

You can’t put Jessie Malakouti in a box, and if anybody tries to put me in a box, I will punch the roof out and I will climb out faster than you can chase me. That’s pretty much what’s happened throughout my career up until now, until I’ve been able to take full creative control with Jessie and the Toy Boys. It was another great experience — I grew tremendously as a songwriter, and I owe so much to Xenomania and my time there in terms of my evolution as an artist. But you just can’t stick me in a box. I’m nobody’s puppet — I’m nobody’s mouthpiece — and I had to do my own thing.

A friend of mine uses this acronym, “AFGO,” which stands for “Another Fucking Growth Opportunity,” and it springs to mind hearing you talk about these things. They’re really hard, but with retrospect, you can also see how valuable they are — although that doesn’t make it any easier when you’re in the moment.

Oh my God, I love that! [laughs] No, totally, I completely know what you mean — and I write about that on the record. There’s a song called “Long Way From Home,” and it’s about my time there and all the — everyone has those moments where you’re literally crying on the bathroom floor wondering, “What the hell am I doing?” It’s funny, one of my biggest mentors, she always tells me, “Cry!” — I mean, not always, because I’m not always crying — but when something goes down she says, “Cry it out, and then wake up tomorrow full of piss and vinegar and fix it.” And that’s what I always try to do. When I got back to LA, one of the first songs I wrote was “Like You Better,” and I say in it, “I’m a cherry bomb-bomb, knocking on your tongue-tongue” — and then I say, “I’m a crash kick torn, full of piss and bubble gum,” and that’s literally about coming back, you know what I mean? Like, what’s on? Let’s go.

So if we can’t put you in a box and we’re not even going to try, what’s the difference between your earlier solo work and Jessie and the Toy Boys? What’s your vision?

I just finally figured out who I am as an artist. That’s probably the big difference. I don’t overthink things anymore. A lot of the time when you write a song, especially when you collaborate with a lot of people, you get in the studio for hours and everyone is scratching their heads going, “Is this part strong enough? Does this lyric make sense?” I used to be that way too, especially being a part of a songwriting hit factory and the pressures of having people like Kylie Minogue coming in and I’m wondering, “Is Kylie going to like this?” And then one day I was just like, “I don’t even fucking care anymore. I’m just going to write what I feel.” And that’s when I started Jessie and the Toy Boys, and I began saying whatever I wanted to say. It’s much freer now. I love my record label and my management team so much — they get who I am as an artist and let me be exactly who I want to be, and it’s encouraging in terms of music because I just go in and bang it out. Whatever I feel, I sit at a piano or get on a mic and spit it out. I think that’s how the best pop songs are written, truthfully.

That makes sense. Then — who would you say your musical influences are, or who are you listening to right now?

My biggest influences are definitely Madonna, especially early Madonna records. I love Missing Persons, I love Dale Bozzio, I love Lene Lovich, I love Cyndi Lauper. I love a band from the 90s called Letters to Cleo — I listen to them all the time. Currently, I’m obsessed with the new Adele record — I think it’s so good. I also love the Black Keys. I rotate between Adele, Skrillex, and the Black Keys nonstop.

What has the fan response been like to “Push It”? Have you been happy about how it’s performed so far?

I couldn’t be happier. It’s #7 on the Billboard Dance Club Chart, which is crazy! It’s amazing. I hear it everywhere. I hear it on the radio. It’s really starting to take off, and it’s just the beginning, so I can’t wait to see where it goes next. The fans love it, and it’s one of my favorites to do live because it really gets everyone on the dancefloor. So let’s keep pushing it! Let’s get that bitch to #1!

I loved the video for “Push It” — which was your first real music video as an artist, right?

Well, it was the first one where I wasn’t convincing my friends to come make a video with me. [laughs] Every other video I’d made previously was, like, me and my friends from film school — a little DIY. So it was cool to work with a crew and extras — I was like, “Wow! All these people are here for me!” And professional makeup! And hair! I’ve done all those things myself in the past, so it was awesome — but also, I came up with the concept of the video, so I was really happy with how it turned out.

So that was your vision? How did you begin to conceptualize the whole thing and put it together?

Well, I got the idea because that’s my laundromat, believe it or not. It’s on Sunset — it doesn’t even have a name, it’s just like, “Laundry.” [laughs] And I was doing my laundry and listening to “Push It” on my iPhone and looking around, and I noticed that there were so many interesting graphics and shapes and patterns in the laundromat, like the tile and the circular dryers and everything. In terms of fashion, right now, I’m obsessed with graphic prints and patterns — it’s like, all I’ve been wearing lately. So I started thinking, “God, this would be a really interesting backdrop for a music video,” and I had my notebook with me — it’s my lucky notebook — and so I opened it up and started coming up with this concept. And I thought, like, “Ooh, what if the bubbles overflow and it’s a foam party!” My team is so great, because I went to them saying “This is my idea,” and they’re like “Great! Okay! Let’s do it!” I love them. I have the best team ever, and they help to make everything become a reality.

Wasn’t it weird for you to go from just being a girl in a laundromat doing her laundry to being a recording artist shooting a video there? I mean, what did the owners of the laundromat think?

[laughs] Well, I’m still the girl doing her laundry in the laundromat. That’s the funny part. I think I’ll always be the girl doing her laundry in the laundromat. That’s what makes me so real.

Many thanks to RJ Kozain for providing the transcription of this interview.

“Push It” was released on February 14. (iTunes)

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