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POP MUSIC

Cutting a Sharp Figure

Jai blends his affection for pop's masters with sleek techno nuances and a stylish manner that suits him well.

January 11, 1998|Elysa Gardner

NEW YORK — As the sun sets over midtown Manhattan, a gaggle of well-groomed, distinguished-looking businessmen is filing into a swank hotel bar. In the midst is a young man some are calling one of the freshest voices in pop music right now--though you'd be hard-pressed to point him out.

The 24-year-old English singer-songwriter who calls himself Jai sits unobtrusively at a table beside the bar. Like the others in the room, he is dressed for success, wearing an impeccably tailored three-piece suit. Jai has always preferred suits, he says, even when he was a teenager.

"I was just always into the idea of everything being perfect," he explains, sipping his beer. "I'm a complete traditionalist, and a complete purist."

Jai isn't just referring to his taste in clothes. On his critically praised debut album, "Heaven," released in October, the singer reveals a soulful, keening countertenor voice and a bluesy, jazz-kissed sensibility that are the product of years spent studying the masters of classic pop and R&B, from Frank Sinatra to the Beatles, from Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield to Prince. The album even includes a version of the pre-rock standard "Cry Me a River."

As evidenced by the haunting first single "I Believe"--a fast-rising track on contemporary urban radio, with a video in steady rotation on VH1--Jai mixes these influences with modern techno-pop nuances. The result is a smooth, sultry sound that's difficult to pigeonhole, though industry insiders feel it has the potential to seduce a wide range of listeners.

"The single is different--that's part of [Jai's appeal]," says Wayne Isaak, VH1's senior vice president of music and talent. "It has its own unique edge, but it's a sophisticated edge. I think our audience can relate to it musically."

Says Jai, "I've done some TV shows in the U.K. where there have been a lot of older people watching, and they've really seemed to like my music. And then I've done shows with young people watching, and they've really liked it.

"But here [in the United States]," Jai adds, grinning distinctly, "my audience seems to be girls between the ages of 20 and 30. Seems to be."

Like many of his heroes, Jai endured a youth tinged with loneliness and ennui before blossoming into pop-idol material. He was born Jason Rowe in Yeovil, a working-class town in southwest England, the only son of a salesman and a commercial artist who both instilled in him a love of popular music from the '60s and '70s. Around the age of 10, Jai began teaching himself guitar and piano and writing songs by copying the chord structures on Stevie Wonder records.

A few years later, as a socially awkward adolescent, Jai--who took his name from the "jai guru deva om" chorus of the Beatles' "Across the Universe"--became obsessed with the early-'60s Mod movement in England, and took to dressing in the sharp suits he still favors. But like his peers, the self-styled outsider also enjoyed '80s hip-hop stars such as the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy.

By his mid-teens, Jai was playing drums in school bands and hanging out at dance clubs in neighboring Bristol. In 1990, he landed a singing gig with an alternative-leaning funk-rock outfit called Up, whose rhythm section was swiped by another Yeovil native, Polly Jean Harvey, two years later. Jai then moved to London and met guitarist Joel Bogen, with whom he started collaborating on songs that would appear on "Heaven," which Bogen produced. In 1996, a demo made by the pair helped secure Jai a contract with the now-defunct U.K. indie label M&G Records, which through a distribution deal with BMG Entertainment landed the singer on RCA Records in the U.S. last year.

"The first thing that drew me to Jai was this fantastic voice," says Dave Novik, senior vice president of international artists & repertoire at RCA. "He has a style that is uniquely his, hearkening back to the era of a Marvin Gaye or an Al Green, but with contemporary clothing around it. . . . I think he has a tremendous future on every level."

Jai, whose first U.S. tour will include a Los Angeles date in late February, is relatively modest about his own vocal abilities, insisting, "I don't consider myself a great singer. I think the reason people are saying that I am is because there isn't that much out there right now. . . . I think people's expectations have become lower."

Though Jai has many influences, he bristles whenever the name of one particular crooner comes up: '80s pop icon George Michael, to whom his high-pitched voice and blue-eyed soul approach have drawn comparisons.

"Don't even mention him," Jai warns, half-teasingly. "I never listened to his music. I think [Michael] and I were probably brought up listening to the same music, but his writing tends to be more about surface. He's gotten deeper as he's gotten older, but I've tried straight away to write about things that are inside me."

In fact, Jai says that new songs he's working on at the moment delve even more deeply into emotional turmoil from his past than the often melancholy material on "Heaven."

"I don't think I've ever written a happy song," he muses. "If you look at soul music, real soul music, the lyrics are usually quite dark--or they're about sex. It's either, 'She's left me' or it's sexual."

Still, the singer stresses he's basically a contented fellow these days, with a girlfriend in New York and a career that has already extended beyond anything he dreamed of as a disaffected lad.

"I have the only job in the world where you can smoke and drink whenever you want to," Jai says. "And you can wear whatever you want to."

Hear the Music

* Excerpts from Jai's album "Heaven" are available on The Times' World Wide Web site. Point your browser to: http://www.latimes.com/soundclips

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