Kennedy’s story is like something from a coming-of-age movie: In 2015, she packed up her life into a car, dropped out of college in Florida and drove west to LA, where she began street performing and working as a session vocalist for other artists. Over the next three years, Jackii Kennedy would be homeless, crashing on a friend’s sofa, work as a waitress and for the city of Santa Monica, before reconnecting with old friend Ryan Raines - who has produced the likes of Dominic Fike and Peach Tree Rascals - to release the ‘Word to the Universe pt. II’ EP in 2018.
“Then COVID happened,” Kennedy jokes when she chats to us from a recording session, “the momentum died down again because my main thing is live performing - that’s my favourite thing to do and what I’ve designed my original music around - not being able to play for the past year has been a damper”. Despite the pandemic putting in-person live events on hold, Jackii Kennedy managed to release six singles in 2020, telling the story of a relationship when played in chronological order.
We caught up with Kennedy as part of our Pride Month celebrations, discussing her history as an artist, what Pride means to her, and how she hopes to broaden the definition of queer music by bringing in unlikely influences.
Hi Jackii, thank you for speaking to us! It would be great if you could introduce yourself and explain how and when you started making music.
My name is Jackii Kennedy, I’m from a small island in Florida called Key Largo. That’s where I grew up and learned to play instruments and fell in love with music in general. My mom threw me in piano lessons when I was like five and I hated it, so I stopped playing instruments because I didn’t like going to lessons. In middle school I joined concert band and learnt how to play a few concert instruments, but I didn’t start singing or making pop music until high school.
You mentioned in our conversation before about not believing music was a viable career option when you were in college. Was there a moment where you realised that it could be, or is an ongoing process?
I don’t really talk about this moment a lot, but I should more often because I owe this person a lot. In college I dropped an EP, you can’t find it anywhere because I took it down. I dropped that EP and I was feeling depressed and discouraged because it wasn’t getting the attention that it deserved. As humbly as possible, I felt that it was a good piece of work and it needed more recognition than it got. I was talking to my friend Kaden about this and he was like, ‘you’re in Tallahassee, this isn’t a music town. Florida isn’t a place for musicians.’ He gave me a reality check, saying I needed to move to New York or Atlanta, somewhere more music oriented. Him saying that made me realise that the only thing making music an unfathomable career is me thinking that. If he thought I could go somewhere and make it a career, then why can’t I think that. I made the decision two weeks after that.
Let’s talk about your Avakin life listening party - I think there were around 200,000 total visits over the weekend, that must be a cool opportunity as an independent artist. What made you want to get involved with that and did you check it out?
I thought it was really cool. My producer/friend/roommate Ryan [Raines] works with Dominic Fike who just played in Fortnite and I was like ‘dang, frtyfve just threw that out there like it was no big deal’. I’ve never played that type of game, but I downloaded the app for the listening party and tuned in. I’m not going to lie, it was kind of weird because there was a bunch of people there, but they weren’t actually there, it was really surreal and dope.
You recently re-released your single ‘Nice Try’ with a bonus live version. What was the creative process behind that track and why are you now re-releasing it?
The six singles that I released in 2020 were all made in March, and we released the first one in July. We went on a writing camp in March and I had decided they were all going to be singles, but I wanted them to flow so if you put them together in chronological order, it tells a story. ‘Honey Water’ is about meeting somebody, having an experience with them, thinking about it all the time, that fresh crush type feeling. ‘Fiona’ is more of the development, and then ‘The Zone’ is like ‘I really like you. I love you’.
‘Nice Try’, the fourth song out of the six, is when the whole tone changes. The lyrics are “I can see when you lie, nice try”. It’s about seeing that person physically and knowing they’re exactly the same, but their personality is different. The first time I saw my ex after we broke up, it felt like she was a completely different person.
We went to Big Bear and had a writing camp, and that one kind of wrote itself. Ryan - my producer - made the beat and then it just kind of happened. Sometimes I black out and the song writes itself.
You mentioned planning the singles out in sequence, are you a very big picture artist in general or do you make more decisions on the fly?
It varies. For the stuff that is out, I had a plan for the most part. In 2019, I released two singles with no reason, I just really liked those songs and wanted people to listen to them. I did the six singles last year with the expectation of an EP or album at the top of this year, but that didn’t work out. The six singles combined, that’s enough of a project for me I feel. Next month, I’m releasing a song called ‘Castaway’ that has nothing to do with anything.
We’re running this piece as part of our Pride month coverage, during which time we want to center LGBTQ+ artists rather than our own voice. What does Pride mean to you?
So my mom is a lesbian. She and my dad split up when I was two, and since then she has been with women exclusively. She’s always carried herself as confident to the point of almost cocky, and not just about her sexuality. She knows what’s up and she’s not afraid of other people’s opinions of her. If she wants anything, she’s going to get it. That’s like ‘Pride’ as a broad definition, not just sexuality.
I find that sexuality is such a defining topic right now, and it doesn’t need to be. If you describe somebody it’s, ‘Tall, white, gay’. You can be proud of your sexuality, but don’t let other people who need that detail make you feel like it needs to be your whole self. People are so much more than their sexuality, people are so much more than the things they can’t control.
Pride to me is being that comfortable to where you’re so confident in your sexuality that you don’t feel like it’s defining you.
Your Spotify bio claims you want to make the definition of queer music as fluid as your sexuality. How would you define the current state of ‘queer music’, and what do you want to do differently with it?
Every interview asks me about this. [Laughs]
In the past two years, I’ve been very impressed - elated almost - at how fluid queer music has become. It’s still not there yet. When I first released stuff in 2018, I felt like queer music - to me personally - was either super bubblegum pop, Drag Queens and their singles, or Tegan and Sara. All the lesbians had the same aesthetic, all the gay men had the same aesthetic. Sam Smith was a standout because they were more mainstream, but they battled not being gay enough. People made them feel like they needed to be more gay.
Musically, I didn’t find a lot of styles I could pull inspiration from. I like to listen to top 40 pop, hardcore rap, old jazz, I’m all over the place. If I want to listen to old school jazz music, it’s literally all misogynistic, about being straight and how a lady should act. Obviously, it was written in a different time. In the hip hop world, it’s still not cool to talk about being gay. I listen to hip hop for the metaphors and the artistry of the poems, but I don’t want to listen to people calling me slurs. That makes me uncomfortable.
If I wanted to listen to queer artists, the only thing I could listen to was bubblegum pop and singer-songwriter stuff, which gets boring after a while. It’s not ‘in your face’ because that’s an overused term, but I wanted to create music that was about girls. I don’t want to overly gay myself to have people know that I’m gay. Dudes feel like they can sing the song, girls feel like they can sing the song, non-binary people feel like they can sing the song and not feel that they have to change the pronouns. I want them to be able to listen to my songs and be like “This gives me Stevie Wonder vibes but it’s gay as hell”.
Finally, what is up next for you?
The only thing that is set in stone right now is a single called ‘Castaway’ - inspired by the TikTok trend. The guitar part sounds similar, it’s like bosanova-y, that comes out on July 20th. I have a livestream with Studio on Sunset, that’s coming out. I have a music video for ‘Nice Try’ coming out in a few days. I’m working on an EP, but right now I’m in a session with an artist that I’m writing for.