For Nick Jonas, things are going well. He’s sold a bajillion Jo Bros records, spent his teen years fending off fans, and dated Miley Cyrus. Now all he wants is the world to take him seriouslyText Jacob Brown
He looks the part—the coif, the confident attitude, the aloof eyes, and most of all, these pictures prove it—but is Nick Jonas a rock star? The 17-year-old has, up till now, been known as the curly-haired, youngest sibling in the Jonas Brothers. He wasn’t the lead singer; that duty fell to the more flamboyant middle brother, Joe. But he was the driving force, the songwriter, the image-maker, the brains.
Conventional wisdom has long held that Disney pulls the Jonas strings, but more often than not, it’s Nick behind the scenes calling the shots. His adult entourage laughs about calling him “the president,” but the deference they show him as he strides into the Soho Grand lobby for this interview makes clear that the nickname is no joke. Now Nick is ready to push things further. With his new band, Nick Jonas and the Administration, and its first album, Who I Am, he plans to show the world that he’s grown up.
Nick Jonas’s family hails from New Jersey, by way of Texas. His father, Kevin Jonas, Sr., a former evangelical preacher and lifelong musician, raised Nick and his brothers on a diet of Jesus and church music—much of which he wrote and sang himself. To this day the Jonas family is devout; Nick and his brothers famously wear purity rings signifying celibacy before marriage (eldest and recently married brother Kevin has presumably removed his). But Jonas, Sr. was always fascinated by the world of secular pop, and early on he exposed the family to the Billboard Top 40. Car rides were spent analyzing melodies, choruses, and hooks. “My real musical discovery started when I was 10 with Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5, and acts that I connected with because they were young when they were doing it, like me,” says Nick. “Then I kind of came into my own a couple of years later, I found new artists that shaped my musical landscape. For instance, Kings of Leon played a big part in that.”
It’s significant that, without prompting, Kings of Leon is the contemporary band that Nick references. In certain ways, it is a band that couldn’t be farther from his peculiar plane of existence. In other ways, it couldn’t be closer.
The whiskey-soaked members of the alt-country and blues inspired Kings of Leon are rock stars in the
subversive mold of the Rolling Stones. Unlike Nick, they notoriously drink, smoke, and screw. Like Nick, they
possess the rare—particularly in light of today’s abysmal recording industry—ability to sell albums. The band’s last release went platinum in the U.S., sextuple-platinum in the U.K., and octuple-platinum in Australia. As a Jonas Brother, Nick can claim similar sales stats (he’s actually sold double or triple that).
But a deeper similarity explains Nick’s affinity. Kings of Leon is three brothers and a cousin: Caleb, Nathan, Jared, and Matthew Fallowill. The brothers Fallowill were raised in an evangelical Christian home. Their father had been a preacher in their youth. Of course, no one has ever accused Kings of Leon of being a Christian band, but lead singer Caleb Fallowill has no problem connecting his music career with his religious upbringing. “Every kid at one point or another looks up to his dad. I knew for a long time that I wanted to do something big, and for a long time I thought it was gonna be to take over preaching from my dad,” he says. “You wanna feel like what you are doing is important. For that reason, when we go onstage, we pour our hearts out.”
And that’s exactly how Nick sees it. “My faith plays a big part in who I am: a Christian guy playing pop-rock music. I’m in a pop-rock band, not a Christian band,” he says. “I admire Kings of Leon. I think their records are amazing. Just from hanging out with them I can say they’re good guys. It’s cool to see that they get to do what they love. But I think they clearly have an appreciation for where they came from, and it has shaped who they are.”
Nick Jonas wants, and perhaps deserves, to be seen as a rocker cut from the same cloth as the Fallowills, but he struggles to explain why he is a Disney band and they are not, why he has never rebelled like they and so many of his heroes have. “Maybe it’s about preference,” he says. “I just prefer to make people happy with my music. I prefer to see a smile on someone’s face after I sing a song.”
That may be true, but the lyrics on Who I Am suggest something more is going on. In the song “Rose Garden,” he sings the words: “She was young but not naïve/always wise beyond her years/hoping that no one would see/ every time she dried her tears.” In “Vesper’s Goodbye,” he sings: “Like a bullet through the chest/lay me down to rest/It’s a lover’s final breaths/Now I die, kiss your tender lips goodbye.” None of these lines are making anyone smile; they hint at something that, if not subversive, is at least brooding.
When that’s pointed out to Nick, it’s almost as if he hadn’t before realized that his music was no longer as innocuous as it had been with the Jonas Brothers. He admits, “Yeah, there are songs that aren’t necessarily happy songs. They more make you think. That’s intriguing to me, just as a beautiful but sad movie might be.”
So then, is it really preference like he claims, or does his religion, or Disney, or anything else constrain him to a clean image? “Constrained is the wrong word,” he says carefully. “The best way to describe it would be thoughtful, just thinking everything through. Okay, so, it’s not all uplifting on the record, but when I do a meet and greet with the fans, or any interaction with them, I’m smiling; I’m happy; I’m trying to make them happy. With the record, with the art, I do want to express myself fully; express the thoughts and stories and ideas that I have. And I think on this record I did the best job I could with that.”
At the end of the day, the ones who really matter—Nick Jonas’s fans—don’t care about any of this. They will line up for tickets, scream their heads off at shows, and go buy an album afterward. It’s a near certainty. The critics will whine and moan about his success. But they will likely look back and see this album as Nick’s Justin Timberlake moment, the moment he transitioned out of his former boy-band plasticity into a newly independent identity. It may be tough medicine to swallow, but they’ll be forced to admit that, yes, Nick Jonas is a rock star