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Back from the brink

Jessy Rose told David Hennessy how he had to leave Hare Squead to be happy in himself, what it was like to grow up being the first black kid his primary school had seen and what he thought of Rory Stewart branding his former bandmates ‘minor gangsters’.

Jessy Rose was just 18 when he first came to attention as frontman of Hare Squead. They soon became Ireland’s hottest emerging band, signing to Columbia Records, going on to amass over 50 million streams, collaborate with Goldlink, support Dua Lipa on her European tour and perform at festivals across Europe.

However, In 2017, a mental health crisis prompted Rose’s departure from the group.

Now, following treatment, and a period of self-reflection, the young Dubliner has made his return with his new single Set Free.

Jessy has admitted in the past that leaving Hare Squead was a dark time but this is just one thing he references in his story of redemption and rebirth.

Jessy told The Irish World: “It was the leaving of Hare Squead, it was the leaving of my label, it was leaving certain people behind that were just I felt holding me down. It’s a lot of stuff.

“It’s just me kind of saying, ‘I’m not going to conform anymore or compromise myself. I’m going to give my fullest self and be the fullest version of myself’. It’s not really just leaving Hare Squad, that’s one little part of it.

“This EP is me being unapologetically myself and being very vulnerably myself and I’ve never been this real before.

This song, Set Free, I’ve never been this open and honest and kind of forward but that’s it.”

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In fact, Set Free is so personal Jessy wrote it for himself and wasn’t sure he wanted other ears to hear it.

“It’s more therapeutic to write than to share in my opinion.

“When I was writing these songs, it wasn’t for the world to hear them initially.

“When I left Hare Squead, I didn’t really want to be a part of the music industry anymore so I was just kinda focusing on working on my mental state and working on getting myself to a place where I was happy.

“I remember when I wrote that song I wrote it as a poem first and then two weeks later I picked my guitar and I was flicking through my poetry book and that stood out to me, I started playing chords to it and then I wrote it as a song.

“Then I remember Ben Esser, the producer who produced that song and the whole EP, reached out to me and he was saying, ‘Do you have any tracks? I’d love to produce some music’.

“I was like, ‘I’ve got some demos on my phone if you want to hear them’. He heard that and he sent back a version with an instrumental over it and I was like, ‘Woah, this is pretty moving’.

“Then I was like, ‘Maybe I’m ready to re-enter the industry with the kind of story that I’m more close to’. At first it was jarring because I thought it was a really, really dark song and really vulnerable. I wasn’t sure if I wanted the world to hear this version of me because it was too personal. When people heard it, everyone was saying that it’s really positive and it moved them in a positive way. I thought that was really shocking.

“I think it was just the emotion that I had making the song was quite dark and then it just manifested into this happier redemption. It was therapeutic to write it but when it comes to releasing it, it’s really scary but once it’s in the world it’s already there, people can relate to it and take good from it.”

From his debut EP Are You Home? which comes out next month, Set Free can be described as a confessional.

Jessy acknowledges that there was something special about Hare Squead’s rise together, but also the admittance that the pressure that came with that success was more than he could handle.

“I feel like I got a little bit lost in the character that was Jessy Rose. I’m Jessy. I’m a person and I’ve got a family and I have friends but then I had a bit of an identity crisis in a sense because my surroundings and then all the pressure as well. No one in my community or around me had ever gotten a major label deal but then everyone’s banking on you and I was the frontman of the band.

“I remember everyone in my mum’s community thought that I had sold my soul or something. They were all spreading all these rumours about me and sh*t.

“It was just a lot to deal with, it was a lot to deal with and I was going through spriitual warfare as well. I was trying to find myself with all these people looking at me the whole time. It was pretty intense.

“Going my own way I just felt like it was the right thing for me to do. I was at a point where I was just like, ‘It’s either I do this or I just be unhappy for the next five, ten years of my life’.

“I wasn’t really happy with the message and stuff that we were giving. There was a lot of stuff that I wanted to say and get off my chest but it didn’t fit in with what Hare Squead were doing. It was just like we were going in separate paths and I just thought it was the most logical thing for me to do, to walk away and focus on myself.

“I’m way happier now. I’m getting to say the message that I want to say the way I want to say it so it’s very free. I’ve got full creative control and I’m able to do everything in my way so I’m very happy with that.”

While he got to the end of the road with Hare Squead, that is not to say Jessy did not enjoy the ride while he was on it.

“Those were the best times of my life. I got to travel the world with them. I got to see North America for the first time with them, I got to go all over Europe and all the memories we got to share, all the stages we got to play, all the artists we got to meet, we did a lot and I learned a lot about the music industry with them.

“It was a great experience and I’ll always cherish those memories. We’re still very good friends and they’re very understanding of the whole shift and we still talk pretty much every week. We keep in touch. They’re not too far from me.”

Jessy moved to the UK three years ago and describes that move as the best decision he ever made for his career. He resides in East London.

His former bandmates Lilo Blues and Tony Konstone of Hare Squead have also made the move and made headlines when they were branded ‘minor gangsters’ by Rory Stewart in 2019.

Bidding to become the capital’s mayor, Stewart approached Blues and Konstone in Brick Lane and while they were happy to engage initially, they were less interested when Stewart revealed himself to be a politician saying they didn’t ‘f**k with politics” and left, calling for world peace as they did. It was an embarrassing video for Stewart.

Referring to the event later, Stewart said: “One thing about social media is that it allows people to see politicians listening … I can go to Brick Lane and three sort of minor gangsters can come up to me and spend a minute telling me I’m an idiot.”

Stewart was accused of being racist by Diane Abbott among others while Konstone said: “He judged us off about 15 seconds. He didn’t even have a decent conversation with us.”

The band rose about it with a parody of Stewart called Minor Gangster’s Paradise.

“I thought the video was so funny,” Jessy says of it. “They were just being themselves. Then his comments were blatantly racist. I didn’t find that good. Maybe he didn’t think that they had a name or whatever but the video went viral on Twitter because of who they were. His statements were very rude in my opinion but I really respected the fact they were able to make good out of it, make a song out of it and kind of make a mockery of the fact that he was calling them ‘minor gangsters’ and they acted like ‘minor gangsters’ in the video.

“They saw the opportunity in the situation and they made the most of it. I thought they got back really well. What he said was very rude obviously. In my opinion it was just very, very rude but whatever.”

Jessy was born in Ireland to Congolese parents and grew up in Blanchardstown.

“I was the first black person in my primary school so there was a lot of racism that I didn’t really understand was racism because I was a kid. But then when I grew up, my little brother would be telling me stories. Kids would say stuff like, ‘You can’t play with our toys because you’re black’. That was a statement that I didn’t realise was not okay to say but it wasn’t the worst though.

“I can’t really bash it(Ireland). There is racism. There’s racism everywhere obviously but I’ve always been a very understanding person and I personally just choose to try and focus on the buzz that comes with coming from a country like Ireland than to try and bash it any opportunity I get because that’s the place I want to represent.

“That’s where I’m from so I wouldn’t want to put a bad light on Ireland because there are people that are backwards in Ireland but there are people that are backwards in every society and in every country.

“You can focus on that or you can look at the buzz that people bring.

“It was different but I still had a very good upbringing. I’m very happy that I’m Irish and I’m very happy with everything that I went through growing up as a black Irish person. It’s a part of my identity and it made me the person that I am and it made me work ten times harder because it’s so much harder.

“I love that I came from Ireland. I loved growing up in Ireland.

“I’ve made an Irish folk song which is the last song on the project called Selah and it’s like an ode to Spancil Hill.

“I started it off, ‘I had a dream, of a wonder scene, to show me things I never seen..’ And then I sort of wrote it based off my lucid dreams and stuff but it’s like a new age Irish folk tale that I wrote.

“It’s quite folky. I’m very excited for that song to come out.

“I am a fan of trad. I love the Dubliners specifically, I love sean-nós as well. They tell really great stories and the melodies are so intricate, there’s a lot of really nice stuff in there.

“I spent a lot of time listening to that when I was writing my project, a lot of different stuff but I really like Irish trad music.”

Did Jessy play GAA growing up? “I played hurling. I was really good at hurling. I played for St. Brigid’s when I was eleven but then when I went to secondary school, my older brother was like, ‘You can’t play hurling because it’s not cool, you have to play basketball’. Then I just dropped the stick and the sliotar and moved to basketball.

“Hurling’s a great sport. I loved it so much. I was real fast.”

Some may not know it but Ireland has had an urban music scene that has been bubbling away for decades. Jessy has been pleased to see how far it has come in recent years with the emergence of certain acts. He just wishes some of the assets it has now were there when he was breaking through.

“It’s great. It’s developed so much. I wish that it was bubbling this much when I was coming up because it would have helped me a lot. There’s actual producers in Ireland now. Whenever I was coming up, we had to do everything ourselves because there wasn’t that many people who were producing. You would have to try and go on Twitter and find Americans and stuff.

“Now there’s actual producers and black-owned record labels and there’s a lot of stuff that started to pick up in the country and the scene is a lot more accepting. Now you see black people on prime time or a roster for a festival and opening up for artists. It’s a more diverse scene. There’s a lot that’s happening in Ireland that’s really amazing and inspiring.”

Jessy finds people he works with can be surprised to find he is Irish.

“When I go to a studio most of the time they just think I’m American or they’ll think I’m Scottish maybe and then other people will catch the accent but they always catch that last.

“For some reason they just never really get that I’m from Ireland and when they do they’re like, ‘Woah, that’s very shocking’.

“It’s cool though. It’s a part of my identity and it’s what makes me so different to a lot of the other artists that are coming out. There isn’t that many successful black Irish artists. More and more are starting to come onto the scene but it’s still a very new cool thing.”

Jessy could say that the health crisis and lockdown came at the worst time for him but he has made the best of the time to work on his music even if he has struggled with depression and social anxiety.

“I feel like it was a bit of a blessing in disguise because I had time to focus on my production. I got to learn a lot about mixing my own tracks and producing my own tracks. I’ve been doing a lot of that and I’m getting a lot more confident in that world.

“When the lockdown first started, I had access to a bunch of really, really hot producers over here that I usually work with when it comes to writing for other artists or doing my own project. I was really comfortable in that world of studios but then I was just in my room and back then I didn’t have a studio in my house.

“I got really depressed. I forgot how to just strip everything back and just write on my guitar.

“After about a month of it, I started to learn how to use GarageBand on my phone, I was demoing on my phone and stuff again and then after a while I got my studio but I feel like I’m more comfortable now working at home than I was working in the studio because I’m working in my own space, in my own time.

“It’s been good for that but then when it comes to socialising, I feel like I probably developed a bit of social anxiety because of not seeing anybody for so long so that’s a bit sh*t but overall I kinda liked it a little bit.”

Like all performers and musicians, Jessy is desperate to return back to a live environment.

“That’s killing me so much. I really, really want to get back onstage. I only performed one show as Jessy Rose and after that I took a bit of a break to get my music ready.

“That’s where I shine the most. There’s where my best comes out. I get to tell the stories. I feel my most accepted when I am onstage because there are people who relate to what I am saying and I can feel them and I can touch them. There’s nothing better than performing.”

Set Free is out now.

Are You Home? is out on 5 March.

For more information, you can find Jessy Rose on Spotify, instagram and Twitter.

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