I’ve heard one particular sentence about 10 times from friends this week: “I just wanna hear ‘Birthday Sex.’” This is said in an entirely earnest, unironic way, without the derisive smack of the “guilty pleasure.” A song that started in Chicago as a regional cut has turned into a national hit, and forced its creator, young singer Jeremih, into the spotlight as Def Jam’s newest prospect. Here, he talks about getting chased around malls, inspiration, the future, and the past (read: high school).
Where’d you get the idea for “Birthday Sex”?
You know, that was just really writing, and writing a lot, I wasn’t really looking for a single. There’s really no incentive, no inspiration besides the fact that it was just art; I just wanted to paint the idea that it was a woman’s birthday. We produced the track first, and the idea came after.
Is that how you wrote the whole album? Beat first and vocals later?
Yeah, that’s pretty much how we constructed the whole album.
Why do you think the song became so popular so quickly?
Well, it’s a known fact that sex sells. But also, I’ve heard a lot of people call in to the radio in Chicago and say “It’s my birthday.” A lot of people listen to the song for its lyrics and its composition, but like I said, I didn’t even know it was going to be my first single. It’s not even my favorite off the album.
When did you first decide that music was what you wanted to do with your life?
My entire life is just music. I felt that I could do it, that I could really do it 24/7. Music was even in my dreams, I’d wake up and start coming up with melodies and harmonies; it got to the point where I’d have to get up and record or else I wouldn’t be able to sleep.
It was about ’07 or ’08 when people started telling me that my voice matured, that “I sounded great.” OK, maybe I could possibly sing “Birthday Sex.” I couldn’t really think of an artist out right now that could put the swag on it, so my first intentions were to just make it.
So you originally didn’t see yourself as a performer? You wanted to be a songwriter?
Originally, I just wanted to be a musician, or a producer. Even to this day, I still feel like I’m a producer. Writing came from being in classes and writing poetry, not even listening to the teacher. Just clever little rhymes over a tight beat. That’s what made songs, and that’s what hit even in church while growing up. Instead of being in a choir or singing solo, I’d be in the pulpit, I’d be on the drumset or the piano. I’d rather not be chased around the mall.
Have you been chased around any malls yet?
I haven’t been chased yet, but with me on 106th and Park the other day, I don’t know.
When you transferred from one of the best engineering schools in the country to art school, did you ever think, “This is a huge mistake”?
No. I’ve always had a strong belief in my passion, and that was music. I was really going to University of Illinois because my mother wanted me to, in order to make sure that I was making a stable living, in engineering, and to be wealthy. I was in classes and I understood it, but I’d be in classes writing songs, and I’d be on campus on stage. I didn’t go to Columbia [College Chicago] to learn how to write songs, or to learn how to sing: I felt like I already knew how to do that. I went for the business aspect of it.
So do you have plans to be a music mogul?
Yeah, I feel like my music is only going to get me to a certain point. Hopefully, people will look at me as more of an artist. I’m curious to see how people are going to react to the artist. I own my own production company, which is called My Music. It’s just me right now. No one’s on the roster yet.
How long did it take you all to cut the album? What should fans expect?
The album was just recorded in the year of ’08. Not even on a set schedule, just whenever I and Mick — ’cause he went to Columbia, too — had free time. It wasn’t even like we were “recording that album” or “looking for that single.” We were the album. It’s just me. It’s just a variety of all different types of genres. I wouldn’t want people to think that “Birthday Sex” is the album. I think they’ll learn to appreciate some of the other songs as well. We got some R&B, some old soul like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and some pop songs on there, which should appeal to another crowd.
I know that producer Mick Schultz is clearly a huge part of your success, but are there any other producers with whom you’d like to work?
I’m open, man. Without knowing, we just constructed this first album together, and I’m sure that we’ve got more to come. But I plan on working with a lot of producers, big and small. I’d like to work with Kanye West, Swizz Beazs, Dr. Dre, smaller producers from around Chicago that have monster tracks.
It seems like you’re the biggest thing to come out of Morgan Park High School — from where, incidentially, I graduated as well — since the astronaut Mae Jemison. What does that feel like? Are you going to go back and speak at career day?
Yeah I will. I’m a southsider all day still. I stay five minutes from my high school, and I wanted to go out there the week of the release and spread the album. The young people have really embraced the material. But I know what you’re talking about with Mae Jemison. They got that picture on the wall when you walk in.