It takes just a few seconds of listening to Jain to know that you’ve stumbled on someone special. Pick a song – any song – from the Parisian’s glorious, globe-trotting debut album, Zanaka, and the effect is the same. Instantly, you’ll be startled, smitten and smiling.
It took about a minute for the audience at this year’s French Grammys, Les Victoires de la Musique, to anoint Jain pop’s most compelling new star. Performing her song Come at the televised ceremony, surrounded by dancing doppelgangers, backed by masked drummers and blaring brass, Jain stole the show as the crowd leapt from their seats in disbelief. The following day, Come was at No.1, helping to propel Zanaka to platinum sales in France within a couple of months of its release.
Come has since spread across Europe, going gold in Poland, Top 10 in Belgium and storming up the charts in Germany and Italy. Its wacky video has more than 20 million views on YouTube. Jain has received rave reviews for every stop on her tour with Christine and the Queens. That the 24 year old hadn’t released any music until last summer attests to her ability to ambush listeners. Quite simply, she sounds like no one else in pop.
Success may have arrived overnight, but Jain’s joyous, sun-soaked, rhythm-driven sound had been brewing for years, collecting influences from multiple countries and a myriad of musical genres – Arabic percussion, African rhythms, electro, reggae, soul and hip hop among them. As the petite singer succinctly puts it: “It happened fast, very fast. But it took seven years.”
Zanaka means childhood in Malagasy, Jain’s mother’s native tongue and is a telling title. The album’s ten songs are a diary that documents the singer’s life from 16 to 23, although some influences date back even further – to the Manu Chao, Youssou N’Dour and Miriam Makeba records her French father and half-Madagascan mother played at home in Toulouse, to the drums Jain took up aged seven and the family’s first big move, to Dubai, when she was nine.
In Dubai, Jain’s love of percussion became an obsession when she discovered the darbuka, a traditional Arabic drum. Aged 14, her father’s job took the family to the Republic of Congo. “It’s strange when you move to different countries, particularly when you’re young,” says Jain. “You’re struck by all these new sounds. I was fascinated by the different rhythms in the music. In Congo, it’s not binary, but three time.”
The upheaval of moving home and starting new schools sent the shyest, youngest of three sisters further in to music. Living in the Congo city of Pointe-Noire, she met a producer known as Mr Flash who taught her how to programme. “I’m not sure if Mr Flash was his real name,” laughs Jain. “He gave me software so I could record myself and I started writing songs. Sitting alone in my room making music was the only place I felt truly at home. The songs became my house, and they moved with me.”
The first song she wrote, aged 16, was Come, although it didn’t turn out as planned. “I tried to make a classical guitar and voice song, in a reggae mood,” Jain recalls. “But I was using this software called Fruityloops and started messing about with beats. It was just for fun. And then Come arrived, in one afternoon. I knew it was weird, but I liked it. I liked the idea that mistakes can lead to great things.” The lyrics, about the friends she’d left behind in Dubai, came later, as always with her songs. “I like to be spontaneous when I make music,” says Jain. “I begin with beats or drums, because that’s what moves me and if I find a sound that reminds me of traditional music I’ll use it, whether it’s Arabic, Indian, African or European. I like to mix styles and cultures, to get lost in a big mess of music. Then I add lyrics about whatever’s in my mind at the time.”
Aged 17, Jain moved again, to Abu Dhabi, where in her graduation year she formed a band performing covers of Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga songs. She saw out her teens in Paris at art school, discovering electro and hip hop in clubs, performing her songs solo in any venue that would have her and wondering whether her future lay in music or graphic art. She wrote the jazz and blues-infused, faintly Amy-like All My Days while trying to make a decision and it swayed her, as did meeting her reggae idols Sly & Robbie, who were so bewitched by her dub-drenched break-up song You Can Blame Me that they agreed to guest on it. Every track on ZANAKA captures a chapter in Jain’s youthful years. The dreamy, lilting HOB (think early Lily Allen with a great groove) was written in Abu Dhabi, about her best friend back in Pointe-Noire. The clubby Hope – the lead track on Jain’s debut EP – was written when she arrived in Paris and fell for electro and Kendrick Lamar. The tropical hip hop genius of Mr Johnson was inspired by seeing suits trudging to work in an overcast Paris and imagining the artist inside them that sunnier climes might coax out.
Heads Up is a percussion-driven, continent-crossing, arms-aloft party starter that piles on sounds and strips them down at a furious, fiesta pace. “It’s one of a couple of political songs on the album,” explains Jain. “I wrote it to give people hope in these strange, scary times we live in, particularly in France. We have to keep our heads up, keep moving on and be proud of the clash of cultures in our country.”
The other track that touches on politics is Makeba, an ode to the South African singer and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba, which caused a stir when Jaden Smith (son of Will) played the song on his Beats radio show. “Her voice is part of my childhood,” says Jain. “In Paris I discovered that a lot of my friends knew nothing about her. I found that sad so I wrote the song. The idea was to modernise Miriam Makeba so people my age might search her out. It was the last song I wrote for the album. It’s now the second single in France, so it’s on the radio. But Come is still played a lot too. It’s so funny to hear the song that started this album and the one that finished it, written seven years apart, on the radio at the same time.”
ZANAKA was recorded in Paris with producer Yodelice, a former French Grammy Award winner, whom Jain met after he’d heard her songs on MySpace. The sole exception is Lil Mama, recorded in Kingston, Jamaica with veteran producer Donovan Bennett aka Don Corleon. As no record label was as yet involved, Jain simply sent him some music, having loved the songs he’d produced for Rihanna and Sean Paul. As instantly smitten as everyone else who hears Jain, he immediately invited her over.
A carefree sprit and sense of adventure is at ZANAKA’s core. Fresh, fun, life-affirming songs capture the wide-eyed wonder of discovering music’s power to both express emotions and incite them. As endearingly innocent as they are riotously rule-breaking, Jain’s tales of travel and adolescence are the sound of the summer, wherever you reside.