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21 October 2014

Nick Jonas

Like a Bull in a Chin Shop

I’m ten seconds away from asking Nick Jonas if he wants people to have sex to his music. Suddenly, he tells me that he wants people to have sex to his music.

“I think it’s amazing! It’s great,” he says, referring to the possibility of this sex. “It’s two beautiful things colliding.”

It’s good that we’re on the same page.

We’re sitting at La Poubelle Bistro in Franklin Village, a little café that’s a textured weave of French and American influences. Example: the man bringing our drinks looks like Christopher McDonald (American), but he’s got a veteran waiter’s fuck-you-itude (French). Nick Jonas has just enjoyed a post-shirtless-photoshoot hamburger (American), but has left untouched on his plate the delicate frites (French) that accompanied it. But then, he’s diabetic—he’s saving (French) his blood sugar (American) for the Stella Artois (Flemish?) that he sips as we speak.

“I really try,” Nick says, “to be aware of the purpose of each song. There are songs on my record that I want people to have sex to, and songs people can listen to when they’re pissed off. And I think that’s the beautiful thing about music: that in those moments, you hear it and it elevates the scenario. Like, there’s something for every feeling and every emotion in life.”

Jonas has recently finished filming the first season of the upcoming DirecTV MMA drama Kingdom. The singer-songwriter’s new album drops in November, which has him on a saturation tour of talk shows, charity events, photoshoots, radio interviews, and press junkets. To Nick, these can’t-stop-won’t-stop days are both the most thrilling aspect of his life right now and the most frightening. “I don’t want a day off,” he says. “I want to keep pushing through. There are moments when there are things happening around you that you’re missing, but that’s life! It comes in seasons, and in waves, and you just gotta ride each one.”

Nick Jonas keeps referring to his life in terms of “seasons,” which, when you think about it, is a pretty bushido thing for a 22-year-old to say. We’re seated on the patio and Nick’s gaze flits over the passersby, his eyes like those of a Kurosawa samurai—calm but alert, narrowed, never at rest. He’s sitting across the table from me in a posture both cursory and considered, bent forward, one elbow on the table. If he had a sword on him, his hand would be resting on the hilt.

His new album, titled Nick Jonas (there is Buddha-nature in this essentialism), does seem to be a return to self in a number of ways. Last year, Nick broke from his brothers and set out as a solo artist. This is not so strange. It’s easy to forget that Nick was the Ur-Jonas, the Proto-Jonas, the Jonas around which the Brothers, capital B, were built. Nick was raised on acts like Stevie Wonder, the Bee Gees, and Prince. The album is steeped in soul with a tasteful filigree of disco, and one imagines Jonas crossing back from the dominion of pop-rock into his musical homeland, having seen the landscape on both sides and now knowing where he’d like to build his monastery.

Nick’s new singles have a stripped-down, zen-y quality to them, so austere as to demand that one hold them up, rotate them, ponder them. “Chains,” the first single, tells the story of a love that the speaker can’t escape from, the hook a Yakov Smirnoff-ian antimetabole that reads as a koan: Try’na break the chains but the chains only break me. The images in the accompanying music video, co-directed by Jonas, destabilize the lyrics, allowing them to mean almost anything. There are riot police, a skydiving motif, and at least one man swinging slow-motion dreadlocks. Jonas says, “The first thing I think about when I work on a song is: What’s it going to look like? What’s it going to feel like? There are a lot of elements that draw someone towards something, and I think of music and colors and scenery, so making the visual a priority is important.”

“The riot police were kind of a depiction of chaos,” he says.

As if to underscore this move away from what people might expect of him, the music video for the second single from the album, “Jealous,” opens with Nick on a motorcycle, riding down a desert highway. He passes a road sign that proclaims: “Leaving Childhood.”

This is not to put too fine a point on things. In fact, the video plays out sort of like a childhood sex dream. Cartoonish word-textures greenscreen-swim around women with the proportions of mudflap silhouettes. A grandmother-figure gives Nick’s girlfriend venom-face, conveying soundlessly the invitation to try it, bitch. A row of muscled weightlifters perform bicep curls in perfect sync, Busby Berkeleying around Nick’s girlfriend, who sits on a beach in a director’s chair. In each scene there is that type of dream logic that, when we wake, leaves us troubled by the oblique possibilities of its symbolism. Perhaps appropriately, it’s a song you can totally imagine someone losing their virginity to.

“Jealous” is more self-consciously catchy than “Chains,” laced with a falsetto that, measured on the international falsetto scale, comes to rest next to a picture of a smiling Justin Timberlake, or perhaps a beatific Prince. The beat is spare, disco-ish. It all works very well. Jonas wants the song to be “Something people can get behind as a statement, and kind of a movement of saying, yeah, this is a very human emotion. Our imperfections are the things that draw us closer together and kind of make us more human.”

The song started a conversation, certainly. Within hours of the “Jealous” music video’s arrival on YouTube, the comments section (always an elegant expression of humanity’s highest sentiments) was set alight with his fans’ ire that he would be so brash as to include his girlfriend in the video for a song that was inspired by her. One gets the sense that these longtime fans—mostly female, it must be admitted—could be… what’s the word? Envious?

In Jonas’ parlance, one might say these fans were giving him chin music, a Nick-ism from “Jealous” that I had to ask him to explain. (One does get the sense, very strongly, that Jonas is the type of man who is eager about his capacity for invention, unable to keep stoic when it comes to the things he’s been responsible for birthing into the world. This question absolutely lights him up.)

“Prince’s drummer—name drop there—his name is Michael Bland. He was talking to me one time on tour, and I was telling him a story about something, and he was like: ‘Oh, he was giving you chin music?’ It’s like, what? What are you talking about? And he was like, ‘It’s when someone gives you attitude. They give you that chin music.’” At this point Jonas stretches his chin to the sky and pantomimes strumming his neck vertically with his fingers, chest to jaw, like an esoteric guitar. “I went online and there are like 50 different definitions. The most popular one is baseball: someone throws something high inside—it’s chin music. Kind of telling the batter to back up. I loved that as the best representation of the feeling in the song. You’re sorta like, hey, back up a little bit, when someone’s being too, you know, excited about your girlfriend.”

As I point out to Jonas, Spotify hasn’t invented an algorithm yet for what he’s doing—an automatically populated playlist using “Jealous” as the seed isn’t sure whether to feed the listener pop acts like Demi Lovato, R&B songs from Lil Mama, or (in a clear gesture of capitulation) old tracks from the Jonas Brothers themselves. When I ask him what he thinks about the fact that some the world’s wealthiest computers can’t quantify his music yet, he says, “That’s awesome. If I had to make my own list, it would be a little bit of Lionel Richie, a little bit of Frank Ocean, and a little ’80s vibe in there somewhere. Even ‘Hold On, We’re Going Home,’ the Drake song, that kind of vibe.”

On people looking back at his work in a couple of decades, he says, “I think the thing I would like most is that they say that I’ve made an impact on their life and that what I was saying and doing and the sounds I was making were, at that time, different and exciting.”

Our conversation is winding down, and all that’s left are the drinks on the table. Jonas is finishing his second beer. The first disappeared gradually into Jonas, though I never saw him raise the glass—a trick of the evening light, perhaps. I’ve heard he’s a gin man, and I ask why he’s not drinking that tonight. “I do like gin!” he says, brightening. “I don’t drink it much anymore because it’s not the most low-carb thing. There’s a really nice drink that I actually thought up in South America a couple years ago. Gin, club soda, splash of pineapple and two limes.” Here, again, is chin music Jonas, first-date talkative about the thrill of invention. This is perhaps the most animated he’s been all evening. “It’s very refreshing,” he says, and his eyes are so piercingly eager, the conviction in his voice so certain, that I would drink anything he put in front of me right now, just so I could tell him what I believe: This Invention Of Yours, It Is A Type Of Heaven, Made Not Of Clouds But Of Swords.

Photographer: Yu Tsai for

Stylist: Joseph Episcopo for, L.A.

Talent: Nick Jonas for, L.A.

Groomer: Marissa Machado for

Producer: Trever Swearingen.

Photography Assistant: Fredrik Marklund.

Production Assistant: Todd Touron.

Written by Tagert Ellis

Photographed by Yu Tsai