After 2,000 gigs, Hounslow singer tops the US charts
Jay Sean becomes an overnight sensation – after seven years of trying
For seven years, Kamaljit Singh Jhooti, a young singer-songwriter from Hounslow on the western outskirts of London, worked the Asian festival and club scene, trying gig after gig to make a name for himself.
It was hardly glamorous, turning up at community events where the microphones were cheap and the carpets sticky, and at nightclubs where the audiences threw bottles at him.
But – and the young wannabes who want to waltz into superstardom after singing a couple of cover versions on The X Factor could probably learn from this – he kept up the hard work.
Seven years and 2,000 gigs later, slowly and steadily building up a fan base, Singh Jhooti is now Jay Sean, the pop star who knocked the Black Eyed Peas off the top of the American Billboard chart and is number two in Britain, second to X Factor judge Cheryl Cole.
His song "Down", also featuring the rapper Lil Wayne, dislodged Fergie and co's "I Gotta Feeling" from the Hot 100 top slot after 14 weeks. It was released as Jay Sean's debut single in America.
It has been a steady slog since he started writing music in the bedroom of his parents' house where he lived along with his younger brother. In an interview with The Independent, he said: "I wrote a song for my girlfriend. We'd just broken up and the song was bittersweet. It was just a case of venting."
Back then, after studying at the private Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, Sean was a student at Queen Mary's School of Medicine. But he dropped out in his early twenties to pursue his music ambitions.
He said: "I started off in the Asian community, doing all the Indian festivals, performing at very local community events and cable TV with no mainstream support. I did club shows, which are grimy things: the microphones didn't work or had feedback, you'd have bottles thrown at you because people didn't know who you were." He has played more than 2,000 gigs abroad, in 100 countries, as far afield as Australia.
Success seemed to be within his grasp in 2003, as one of the first British Asians to make it big in the urban scene when he signed with Virgin Records and released his debut album, Me Against Myself, a year later. But it did not do well and he was dropped. He released his second album, My Own Way, under his own independent label, Jayded. Via YouTube, the album last year came to the attention of Ronald "Slim" Williams, the executive producer of Cash Money Records in the US, who signed him.
Fast-forward to 2009 and Sean, now 28, was given the news that he was number one in the US.
"I was at Capital FM and I was about to do an interview, when a woman who I'd travelled to America with came in, looking ridiculously excited, and said, 'Congratulations, you've got a number one record in America!' I was ecstatic. I started jumping up and down, I was so happy. I have been working for seven long, hard years," he said.
Now his name is mentioned in the same sentences as Justin Timberlake and the double-Grammy-winning Soul II Soul. Few British artists have broken through in quite the same way: the last UK pop act to have a stateside number one hit was Coldplay in 2008. Sean concedes that one of the things holding him back may have been his sound, which was urban back then, rather than pop.
"I think there's a problem with radio formatting and British music consumption," he said. "We are so heavily pop driven; other music is only played on special music slots," he said. "Radio airplay is directly connected to sales. If you hear a song enough times, you generally tend to buy it. It's fair to say I've had a pretty niche fan base within the urban community... This record is a lot more pop, so it's radio friendly."
"Down" has sold 2 million copies in the US and is on track to break the 100,000 barrier in the UK this week. An album, All Or Nothing, is out in the UK next month, released through Cash Money and Point9, in conjunction with Sean's own label Jayded. He and his fans – both old, from his days of 2,000 gigs, and new – wait to see if that proves as successful on both sides of the Atlantic.
Big in America: Brits who got to No 1
Coldplay, 'Viva la Vida', 28 June–5 July 2008
Leona Lewis, 'Bleeding Love', 10–24 May 2008
James Blunt, 'You're Beautiful', 11–18 March 2006
Elton John, 'Candle in the Wind', 3–17 January 1998
Spice Girls, 'Wannabe', 22 February–22 March 1997
UB40, 'Can't Help Falling in Love With You', 24 July–11 September 1993
Right Said Fred, 'I'm Too Sexy', 8–29 February 1992
George Michael, 'Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me', 1–8 February 1992
Phil Collins, 'Another Day in Paradise', 6–20 January 1990
Mike and the Mechanics, 'The Living Years', 25 March 1989–1 April 1989
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Review: Cilla, ITV TV
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