As rites of passage go, popstar evolution comes with a high casualty rate. Joe Jonas was born in 1989, yet he’s sashaying past “the 27 club” with a litany of chart-tracking hits, a supermodel ex-girlfriend, and a jet-set lifestyle. But it’s the omissions that stand out – no arrests, no drug overdoses, weapons charges, near-fatal accidents involving swimming pools… Yet if you’ve been paying attention there’s a liberation taking place for Joe Jonas – an emergence of a real person behind all the layers of expectation and managed identity. After years of faithful service as Disney’s golden child – the purity ring-clad proponent of abstinence and youthful faith – it’s not surprising that somewhere along the way the real Joe Jonas was a bit obscured, his identity folded in to all the things he was expected to be. But there was more to Jonas than he was encouraged to reveal: a character with edges that didn’t quite fit into the center of the Venn diagram where Christian, lead singer in a family boy band, and Disney-star overlap.
Jonas’ metamorphosis is a more down-to-earth one. It hasn’t been a completely smooth transition – comfort, stability, and routine are powerful motivators, and the breakup of the Jonas Brothers left him reeling. For the first time it was up to him and him alone to decide what was next. He traveled, opened a restaurant, sampled the joys of hedonism, embarked on a brief solo career. He began speaking openly about his sex life, about his past, and about who he wants to be as a musician.
This is the Joe Jonas that meets me at a taco joint in Hollywood. There’s a giddiness about him – the wide-eyed excitement of newfound freedom. He’s stoked about his new band, DNCE – a funk-pop/dance-rock four-piece whose sugary, shiny, and undeniably infectious debut single “Cake By the Ocean” became a surprise global smash-hit. DNCE is all Joe, and he’s savoring his newfound creative freedom. “I was trying to figure out for myself what I wanted it to sound like,” Jonas tells me, “and I was actually allowing myself to be kind of selfish about that. For so many years I had a lot of cooks in the kitchen and other members of bands that I was working with. This was the first time that I was really able to say, ‘I want to create something on my own and see what this could be.’”
Jonas is trying everything. It’s not just within the realm of music that he has been exploring the limits of his unlocked potential. He recently made his underwear-modeling debut for Guess, a task he took seriously. “A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to do their underwear on a different campaign. I was like, ‘how long until we shoot?’ And they said, ‘Oh, two weeks.’ Two weeks!” He laughs. “This was just when the band was taking off and we were celebrating every night, which means drinking and partying, staying up until four, waking up at six, jumping on a flight and then performing a show – living the rockstar lifestyle I guess,” he tells me, as if it’s a question.
“And I was like, no way. I wasn’t ready. But it kind of ate me up inside. This time I decided to do it, and it was during our insane summer tour with Selena Gomez – the toughest time I could have done it,” he tells me. “But I was in the gym every day at nine AM, learning how to box. And that became a new art form for me. It wasn’t just lifting weights and bro-ing out. It was about learning something new and putting myself through that challenge, seeing what I could do if I put in the effort.”
Playing full-time with a woman – lead guitarist of DNCE JinJoo Lee – has been another first in a season of new experiences for Joe Jonas. He first encountered her when his dad was auditioning players for Jordin Sparks’ band. She had just arrived in L.A. from South Korea and barely spoke English, and when she showed up for the audition she didn’t even know the song that she was going to be playing. “But she could hear people in the rehearsal room playing the same song over and over again, so she taught it to herself and then walked in, played it perfectly, and ripped a solo off the top of it,” Joe tells me, a bit of lingering awe in his voice. “I’ve known for a while that if I was ever going to put together a band that I’d want her to be a part of it.”
Jonas politely orders an iced-coffee from a waitress who is likely wondering about the two dudes sitting in a dark corner of the restaurant, eating their free chips and talking intently. “JinJoo brings this girl-power element, and I wanted her to be in front, killing it on the guitar, being the rockstar that she is. On tour we spend so much time together in a confined space, so I’ve really been able to get to know her. She’s basically our little sister, our mom, our big sister, and occasionally our drunken, crazy, evil little stepsister all rolled into one. I think it’s a really important thing for us as a band to have her in the mix because she offers a female view on a lot of different things, whether it’s music or just life in general. I had three brothers, and living with a girl day-in and day-out for the first time was different. I’ve learned quite a bit about the female perspective.” He takes a sip of his iced coffee. “We’re very protective of her. We joke about guys in a big-brother way or whatever, but there’s also these instincts that come out, where someone pushes her on accident or something and we puff out our chests and that ‘Guido’ side of me from Jersey comes out and my fists start clenching,” he says, laughing.
Jonas seems relaxed here, away from his instruments, from the studio, the cameras, away from expectations. I ask him if it’s difficult to regain creative momentum after releasing a huge hit. “‘Cake by the Ocean’ is definitely – even including the Jonas Brothers years – my most successful song.” Jonas tells me thoughtfully. “And it can be tough when you’re holding yourself to that level of success, because it is kind of one of those rare occasions. You have to realize that and understand that these are once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and that you might not relive them. My manager kind of slapped me around a bit mentally, because I was starting to over-obsess about writing new music. He said ‘remember why you do this: it’s because you love music and it’s fun.’ And that is what ‘Cake By The Ocean’ is – it was kind of a joke song and we were sitting back laughing and we didn’t overthink it, and I think that is when the best music is written.”
It is in part this lack of self-seriousness and a commitment to fun that makes Joe Jonas popular with his fans, but that also makes him a target for those cliché criticisms leveled at pop-music generally – that the subject matter is frivolous, that it consists of nothing but recycled musical tropes, that it cynically exploits the human brain’s inborn hunger for pattern and resolution to sell records. But Joe is convinced of the value of keeping a light heart in a heavy world. “I wrote a song recently, and it was kind of a therapeutic, dark, breakup song. I was kind of on the fence about whether or not to put it online, and I decided not to,” he says, referring to his recent high-profile breakup with supermodel Gigi Hadid. “Partly because I was over the relationship and I got over it by writing about it, but I also thought it was too dark to showcase to our audience. I feel like especially in this day-and-age with where we are politically, there’s so much hate and sadness. To take people away from all that for a second and to offer a place to escape to is nice. Not to distract them, but to help them through this era, to give them a moment to not look at CNN and say, oh shit, what’s going on now?” To Joe Jonas, the levity of pop-music offers freedom and respite. Joe is free, and he wants you to be free too.