By Oussama Zahr | February 20, 2017 | People Feature
Joe Jonas, the soft-spoken frontman of pop music’s zaniest band of misfits, talks about new music, finding his voice, and why the typical post-boy-band career path just isn’t for him.
Joe Jonas can trace the turning point of his career to a single piece of advice that led to the creation of DNCE, the funk-infused dance-rock band that seemed to emerge, fully formed, from an explosion at a disco-dust factory in 2015. “I’ll never forget the conversation I had with my manager,” says Jonas. “He was like, ‘You need to get this band together, do what you want to do, and just go have fun.’”
Judging by DNCE’s first single, the freewheeling dance-pop confection “Cake by the Ocean,” Jonas and his bandmates—bassist and keyboardist Cole Whittle, guitarist JinJoo Lee, and drummer Jack Lawless—took that decree dead seriously. The music video, directed by the creative team Black Coffee and Jonas’s then-girlfriend, supermodel Gigi Hadid, takes the song at its word. There is a massive, 12-foot-tall slice of cake—based on the strawberry-topped emoji cake, naturally—set up on a beach for a cake-fighting competition that seems to take its rules from dodgeball. A crowd of pretty young things in swimsuits gathers on makeshift risers. Social-media influencer Josh Ostrovsky, aka the Fat Jew, makes a slow-mo, Baywatch-style entrance looking like a gonzo sumo wrestler in tiny swim trunks, his ponytail sticking up from his head like an antenna. He faces off against a bevy of models and proceeds to clobber one after the other with cake and frosting as he dodges their volleys, graceful as a dancer. Someone in the crowd swipes through the dating app Bumble. Ostrovsky pours White Girl rosé all over himself. The members of DNCE bounce around antically on a bandstand.
The entire enterprise is so self-aware and fluent in millennial culture that it practically defies criticism—it’s too in on the joke. Even the name of the song is a goof: Swedish producers Mattman & Robin kept confusing “sex on the beach” with “cake by the ocean” in the studio, and the band ran with it all the way to the top of Billboard’s Adult Pop charts and a win at the MTV Video Music Awards for Best New Artist.
With a fun and fresh new album, the self-titled DNCE, and a 2017 calendar filling up with headlining tour dates, the 27-year-old Jonas is coming into his own, but it took some time for him and his eventual bandmates to arrive at DNCE’s impetuous, carefree style. Joe and his brothers Nick and Kevin found fame as the Disney Channel-assisted boy band the Jonas Brothers, and tapped into that unstoppable force known as preteen- and teen-girl fandom, which rises like a wave every 10 years or so to carry bands of young men to stardom. The story of the group’s breakup, in 2013, is well known, with Nick, the youngest brother in the group, initiating it. “It was startling at first,” recalls Jonas. “I needed a week or two to process it. It was such an important changeover for me. I felt like it was time for us to hang up the hat, but we were holding on to it for so long.”
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For his part, Nick seemed very ready to move on, and he swiftly found success as a solo artist. “I’m envious at times, watching his artistry and how he went so quickly into creating music and an album,” Jonas admits. “But I also knew that it was important to take time for myself to be able to figure out what exactly I wanted to do next. It’s so easy to just jump right into something and release more music, and it might not be the right fit. Now we’re able to support each other from afar.”
Jonas is speaking from experience: He had already tried out the solo thing himself with the album Fastlife (2011) while the Jonas Brothers were on hiatus in 2010/2011. While it was a respectable pop/R&B effort, the album didn’t exactly break new ground, and it passed under the pop radar. “I’m very proud of the music that I was able to create,” Jonas says, “but I think at the time it was a lot of cooks in the kitchen when it came to making the music. I look back now, and I’m glad I went through that, because I would be in the same position [now] that I was then, where I’d be trying to go the Justin Timberlake route. It wasn’t what I felt most comfortable doing. I always loved being in a band surrounded by great musicians and people that love it as much as me, and being able to perform onstage with a group of friends and have a blast. That’s at the core of what DNCE has been for the last two years—just pure fun for us.”
It’s an approach that has largely worked, with a crucial tweak: For all the band’s youthful energy—best embodied by mohawked bassist Whittle, who ricochets around the stage like a punk-rock pinball—the music they make feels compellingly adult. “Toothbrush,” the second single, is an easy-breezy track, in which Jonas croons, “Baby, you don’t have to rush/You can leave a toothbrush/At my place.” It’s a plotline that would have required a three-episode arc on Sex and the City and sent Carrie into a tailspin, but the song is effortless, upbeat, and even offhand. It’s not exactly teenaged stuff—and that was the point. “We were encouraged, especially with ‘Cake by the Ocean,’ to write a song that has this funk-influenced pop, but lyrically to put a spin on it that’s not the norm. It does feel freeing to be able to write songs about things that people our age are really going through,” says Jonas.
He seems to be following the artist’s edict that if one is honest with his art, the fans will follow. “We were playing a show,” he recalls, “and the song [‘Almost’] was one I wrote about getting over a relationship, and it was a difficult song to put on the album, because it’s very personal. In the crowd, this girl was just crying her eyes out, and she’s by herself, and you could just tell that it’s her breakup song. If I could help that person or somebody else get through a certain situation, then it’s all worth it.”
As with “Cake by the Ocean,” the music video for “Toothbrush,” which stars model Ashley Graham as Jonas’s gorgeous girlfriend, adds another layer of appeal to the song and burnishes the band’s casual-cool image. “It was quite funny on set,” says Jonas. “Cole was pretty mad at me—he didn’t even want to be around the filming process— because he was pretty jealous. [Ashley] was great and so much fun to work with. Of course, there’s like 10 camera guys in a room with you when you’re lying on a bed, but she made it really funny and kept me laughing, which made it really comfortable.”
“I’M ENVIOUS AT TIMES, WATCHING HOW [NICK] WENT SO QUICKLY INTO CREATING MUSIC. BUT I ALSO KNEW IT WAS IMPORTANT TO TAKE TIME FOR MYSELF TO FIGURE OUT WHAT I WANTED TO DO NEXT.”—JOE JONAS
While having big-name models in music videos is nothing new (see also Zayn, Taylor Swift, et al.), Graham, the first plus-size model to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated’s annual Swimsuit Issue, also happens to be the very beautiful face of the body positivity movement. “We didn’t really think it would be as big of a talking point as it was,” says Jonas. “I think she is definitely changing the game for that profession, and it’s really incredible to see. I didn’t realize until the video came out afterwards why it was such a big deal. Hopefully through this music video—and, obviously, through Ashley’s career—she’s definitely making a difference. For us, we were happy to have her in the video, and that was the key thing. Maybe people will stop making a big deal about certain things like that. She’s awesome. She’s incredibly intelligent. She’s done amazing TED Talks, and anytime we get to hang with her and her husband, it’s a great time.”
Of course, there are elements of his Jonas Brothers days that he just can’t shake—namely, the celebrity gossip that seems to cling with particular fervor to former kid stars and Disney Channel alums. A few days before our interview, as DNCE’s tour was starting up, Jonas’s personal life was once again making headlines. In one news item, he was photographed out and about with Game of Thrones actress Sophie Turner, and in another, Instagram lurkers were analyzing his decision to double tap an image of ex-girlfriend and fellow rocker Demi Lovato with her new boyfriend, MMA fighter Guilherme “Bomba” Vasconcelos. Both items mentioned the band’s tour, of course. It was hard to tell where the tabloid fodder ended and the music news began.
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“It kind of comes with what you do,” says Jonas with good-natured resignation. “I think you never get used to it. You get a little better at it when there’s rumors or you have to deal with random drama—[like] old exes that are dating somebody new. I try to just focus on the good stuff and not obsess over it. It’s not as bad as it used to be. On the Demi thing, I see she’s happy and I’m happy for her. I met Bomba. He’s a good guy.”
Still, Jonas has no regrets about his boy band days—even the Disney musical Camp Rock, which got him teased on Twitter by Tyler, The Creator. “There’s moments where I look back and I have to laugh,” he says with a chuckle. “I don’t really want to hide anything from my past, but I easily could have done with a few less hairstyles back in the day. Other than that, I’m really proud of everything. I grew so much from it. We actually have a plan as a band—because I don’t think Cole has seen it yet—to get pretty drunk and watch Camp Rock and see what it’s like now.
“For all of us, it’s like a new life in a way. The music industry moves so quickly and everyone is listening to the next thing that’s coming out, and it’s always the goal to find the next song or next band, and so we feel very lucky to be able to have a life in the music industry again and have fans out there. We really appreciate it, and we know it’s not easy. We’re just having a blast and enjoying every minute.”
Photography by DENNIS LEUPOLD. Styling and creative direction by Paris Libby. Grooming by Marissa Machado at ART DEPT