Nick Jonas: "I'm Not a Piece of Meat"

Photography Andreas Laszlo Konrath
Styling Christopher Kim
Grooming Mari Shten

There’s a moment that catches the eye not 20 seconds into “Jealous,” Nick Jonas’s breezy latest music video — a clip packed with playful but telling self-confidence mantras like “Don’t Panic” and “No Whining,” plastered on urban walls and billboards. As our young hero is tooling down the highway on a motorcycle, he vrooms past a road sign that reads: “Leaving Childhood.”

Fair enough. In the mercurial world of pop music, negotiating the transition from childhood and tween-based fame to respectable, durable success as an adult is seldom easy. In fact, for all the attention paid to young women making that evolution, it’s arguably even tougher for the guys. Go ahead, name five who’ve done it creditably in the last 15 years. You get past Justin Timberlake and Drake, and you’re kind of stumped.

But you have to like Nick Jonas’s chances. God knows he’s giving it his all. A year after announcing — along with siblings Kevin and Joe—the end of the Jonas Brothers, the fresh-scrubbed pop-rock outfit that had been Disney standard bearers for much of the latter aughts, Nick is taking a double-barreled shot at a restart. On the music front there’s his eponymous album, Nick Jonas, out today. Island Records is calling it his “debut” solo album, though depending on who’s counting, it could be considered his third. It’s a Nick we haven’t heard before, steeped in soulful pop and R&B, and featuring highlights like the sensual lead single, “Chains,” a smoky trap jam with Angel Haze called “Numb,” the Michael Jackson-channeling “Teacher,” and, of course, “Jealous,” as immediate and infectious a track as Jonas has ever been involved with.

Yet another side of Nick (ahem, several sides, in fact) is on display in Kingdom, the gritty, acclaimed new drama on DirecTV’s Audience Network that casts him in his most challenging acting role to date, as a promising young MMA fighter with secrets. Half a dozen episodes in, his performance is as sensitive and affecting as his oft-shirtless body is jacked. That body has been on display a lot this fall, including a crotch-grabbing spread for Flaunt and a rather gratuitous shirt-changing scheme cooked up by Ryan Seacrest’s radio show On Air. When Yahoo Style caught up with Nick last week in New York, he kept covered, though he did bare his thoughts on this rejuvenated—and challenging—time.

John Norris: Nick, you’ve been out there working it for the past couple of months in advance of this record. I know promo is nothing new for you, but before, you had the brothers there with you to help shoulder the load. How different is this?
Nick Jonas: It’s very exciting! It does feel like a bit more pressure at times on me, but I think I put that on myself. I am the kind of person that sits down with the team before and says, “If there are holes, I’m gonna be frustrated.” I like to keep it all very busy. I like to know that I did all I could to make people aware of the music I’m making and the projects I’ve got going on. So I don’t mind it being busy. There are seasons when it’s slower, so in these moments you go harder.

JN: It was almost exactly a year ago, October 2013, that the Jonas Brothers announced on GMA that you were calling it quits, and you said at the time that you were the one who first brought up the idea of splitting. Was that because you had these other projects in the works that we’re seeing now?
NJ: I didn’t have them in motion yet. That kind of happened after the fact. But it did start with me, the conversation about the group reaching its time, and closing that chapter of our lives — for many reasons, the biggest one being that we were no longer jelling in the way that we used to as a group. And I think we all had different things in our hearts. I definitely did, and I felt a lot of freedom when I was able to go and just create, and sort of start over again.

JN: The record is quite a departure for you, in a refreshing way. Hearing your voice doing stuff that is more soulful, more R&B-rooted, really sounds natural.
NJ: Soul and R&B was always a big part of my life, and it’s what I was inspired by. But over the course of about three years, while I was writing and producing for other people, while Joe made a solo record and we were on a little bit of a hiatus, I worked with a lot of people who opened that part of me up to who I was, on the R&B/soul side.

JN: When “Chains” first came out, I saw one interpretation of the lyric “Trying to break the chains…” that suggested that line was a metaphor for what you’re going through career-wise, the things that were keeping you from doing what you wanted. Is there anything to that?
NJ: I don’t know that it was so much to do with the Brothers as with the surrounding elements of our career, you know, preexisting ideas of who we were or what we were doing, or our early exposure, and the bias that can come with that sometimes. And like anything in life, when you step out on your own, separate from other people and surroundings, you do feel a sense of freedom.

JN: I feel like a lot has been written about young women who transition into an adult career, the pressures on them, the expectations, the renewed ongoing conversation about “feminism.” But not so much has been written about the challenges that young men face.
NJ: No, it’s very true, I completely agree. I think it is very different for men and women. And I can only speak for my journey, because it’s the only one I know very well. I think the challenge that I faced was in just giving people a reason to give me a second look.

JN: And not dismiss you?
NJ: Yeah, not dismiss it because they may not have been a fan of something that came before. The bias toward Disney in particular, and younger acts there, you can’t ignore it. You can try, but it only leaves you frustrated because you don’t understand why some people won’t accept it. But I found that letting it happen in a really organic way, over time, not stressing that it has to happen overnight, is important. The right hits at the right time, to continue to evolve the whole thing. I think the music plays the biggest part in that, but then on top of that, the visuals were all important, and then the TV show was a big piece as well. So I’m trying to keep it focused on the work and the craft and less about shock and other ways of letting people know who you are or what you’re comfortable with.

JN: I’ve noticed parallels drawn between you and Mark Wahlberg, between your Kingdom and his movie The Fighter in term of the worlds that they depict. But he started out very humbly as a dramatic actor. You have to be there to learn and grow and do the work and hopefully over time people notice and take you seriously.
NJ: Absolutely. The thing about Kingdom and acting in general is — my approach was to be a sponge. And to recognize that I’m around incredible actors every day in this world that we created, learn that the work is so much about what is happening here, in your face and your eyes, and embrace that. And the thing about my character, Nate — which is challenging at times, but I think as the season progresses it’s the biggest win for me — is that there is so much under the surface, so much that he deals with internally. I’m thrilled to have a role like this, I feel like it’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime role.

JN: The byproduct of an MMA-style series is that you’re shirtless and scantily clad for a lot of the show. Media outlets like Flaunt have made the most of this shirtlessness. As did Mr. Seacrest on his show…
NJ: [Laughs] That was not planned. I brought him doughnuts! I wasn’t expecting that.

JN: I saw that. So at what point do you go, “You know, guys, c'mon, enough…?” Can you imagine if you put a young woman in that situation? You seem to be a good sport about it.
NJ: What’s interesting to me is how it relates to the physicality of Kingdom, and the transformation that I went through to look the part for the show. For me, it’s OK because the emphasis was on getting ready for a role. If it was just my everyday life, and I thought, “Yeah, I’m gonna do a shirtless photo shoot,” I think it would be different if there were no reason. But there was a goal in mind, and I think it kind of made sense to show the progress, to be proud of the hard work that went into it.

JN: So you never feel like people are treating you…
NJ: Like a piece of meat? I tread those waters carefully. After doing a few hits that were that, I said, “OK, let’s shut down that side of it for a little while and put the focus on other areas.” And if the argument is that there’s too much focus on that, well, I say the week that the Flaunt shoot came out, “Jealous” shot up the iTunes chart, and that was our biggest sales week so far. There are things that are driving people to the music and the TV show, and you’ve got to be thankful for that.

JN: So finally, late last year your brother Joe wrote an open letter about the Disney days. And he seemed kind of bitter, reflecting on those times and the famous control over young artists. Do you share those feelings?
NJ: I can’t be mad at the launching pad it gave me, although the transition in moments has been tough to navigate. It’s been good training in terms of discipline and a work ethic. Yeah, I probably was more intense and more reserved and concerned about interviews and about not being perfect while I was with Disney. And now I’m kind of like, “F— it. I do what I love, I love what I do.” And that’s a freeing thing.

JN: As it says on a sign in the “Jealous” video, “No Whining.”
NJ: Exactly! Like today, when we sat down and I said, “I love working hard.” That work ethic I think is there from my Disney days. So I’m not bitter about it.