When Timucin Lam — Timz to his mates — chose the pseudonym Jax Jones, it was supposed to be a rhyming-slang inspired celebration of independence: his old band had just imploded, and he wanted to see if he could make it on his Jack Jones.
Things didn’t go according to plan, but in the very best way possible. The first Number One he wrote and produced, I Got U, was a collaboration with Duke Dumont, while his recent chart-dominating cuts have seen him working with a plethora of diverse talents including Raye, Stefflon Don, Demi Lovato, Mabel and MNEK, with countless others waiting in the wings on tracks so spicy they’ll blow your head off. So now Jax Jones realises that celebrating independence wasn’t ever really about shutting himself away; it was about embracing his own vision, and having the confidence to invite others along for the ride. As he puts it: “It was never about being a one-man show. I know now that it was about putting my balls on the line and having a go.”
‘Having a go’ has panned out quite well. Flashforward to summer 2018 and Jax is an international multi-platinum-selling artist with singles like You Don’t Know Me, Instruction, Breathe and Ring Ring becoming bonafide chart, radio and streaming hits — and there are more to come. The last four years have seen Jax quietly becoming one of the British music scene’s most creative writers and producers, writing or producing for artists as diverse as Tinie Tempah and Clare Maguire and sprinkling a bit of the old JJ magic on remixes for the likes of Charli XCX, Years & Years and Missy Elliott. Add that all together and it’s clear that we’ve got a legitimate genre-hopping pop genius in our midst. “I basically want to make big pop records and perform the shit out of them,” is Jax’s agreeably frank assessment of the creative process. “I hope people will love me and my music as much as they loved Fatboy Slim back in the day, and I’m doing everything I can to make that happen.”
It all started at the back end of 90s in south London where Jax — then just 11 — started Saturday morning guitar lessons; he’d go to the local community centre in Brockley for government-funded sessions. Jax found himself subjected to a lot of Stairway To Heaven, but within a few years his ears had drifted in the direction of Craig David’s earliest releases. Later he’d take songwriting classes a couple of bus rides away in Camberwell, where he met gospel singers whose influence mixed well with the music Jax had grown up hearing around the house: bashment, Fela Kuti, BB King, R&B and dancehall. By his late teens Jax found himself being offered the chance of a place at Oxford (“it wasn’t me — when I went for my interview I felt like the Fresh Prince when he visits Princeton”), and opted instead for a uni in north London. At night he’d make the journey down to Brixton, where he had a job making beats for local artists into the early hours with Ms Dynamite producer Ripperman. “I learned to be disciplined and focused,” is how he remembers that period, but that focus was in the direction of his music — he didn’t attend a single uni lecture and got kicked out.
Meanwhile, in Brixton, things were kicking off. Jax’s production crew ended up being caught in the middle of gang wars, and he was robbed at gunpoint more than once; another time Big Narstie had to step in and close a particularly aggressive beef. To this day Jax reckons he owes Narstie his life. But slowly, Jax’s musical career was starting to take shape. He’d make beats late at night, and in the days and evenings he’d work as a session guitarist for acts like Duffy and N-Dubz. At weekends, you’d even find him performing at churches. Slowly he was also assembling his own music equipment: everything was a hand-me-down, he says, apart from some old second-hand stuff, like the G3 Mac he picked up on Gumtree for ninety quid. It’s worth noting that at this point he was also living in a mate’s garage — “it was a box, but it was my box” — along with an uninvited rat whom Jax named Ben.
Then one day in the late 2000s, Jax had a breakthrough: he’d formed a duo, Domino Go, with another musician, and they were signed to Atlantic Records. The big-time was within reach. “Got dropped, sad times,” is Jax’s summary of that band’s demise, but he’d written the best part of a hundred songs as part of that band, and he’d done so alongside some of the industry’s biggest names. “Looking back on it now, my time in that band was basically a songwriting masterclass,” Jax realises. “Writing at that level, I learned you’re nothing without the chorus; that it’s melody over everything.”
Many years earlier Jax Jones’ grandad, who happened to be a palm reader, told his grandson what life had in store. There would be a few down years in his twenties, he said, but after that Jax would come out fighting. And so it came to pass: Jax stepped from the wreckage of Domino Go and into sessions writing for acts like The Vamps — learning plenty more about the discipline of pop songwriting along the way — before a fateful meeting with Duke Dumont, whose passion for house proved infectious. “Our second session was on my birthday,” Jax recalls. “And that’s when I wrote I Got U.”
Jax’s recent chart success has given him access to an extraordinary and far-reaching range of talent, including the likes of Jess Glynne, Ellie Goulding, Selena Gomez, Tove Lo and George Ezra. Where and how those collaborations will one day land remains to be seen — Jax says that the success of the slower, less housey Mabel collaboration Ring Ring has shown him he can move far beyond the hits that first propelled him to stardom, reflecting an unsecond-guessable spirit that’s now making itself felt in his live shows. “I avoided live to start with and just spent all the cash on lighting and video screens,” Jax laughs. But inspired by the likes of Basement Jaxx, his live performances are now morphing into more of a production, where every event really is an event with all the bells and whistles or, in this case, explosions and inflatables. “The ideal reaction from my audience is ‘OH SHIT, WHAT’S GOING ON’,” Jax adds. “I’m feeling for the first time that I’m finally ready to headline festivals — it’s all about creating moments, adding the same sense of spectacle that I aim for in each of my records.”
It all adds up to a compellingly idiosyncratic approach to pop music, underpinned by a belief that pop — and house, and every other sort of music — is at its best when the rules are bent slightly out of shape. Jax adds that it was only when he went to LA on a songwriting mission that he realised just how distinctive his songwriting had become: peppered with London slang and pop culture references that didn’t always make sense to other writers who just wanted their songs to hit as many demographics as possible, but whose uncommonness seems to have been resonating well with Jax’s own fans.
“I try to make everything super real,” Jax says. “When you make it colloquial and conversational it doesn’t sound like traditional writing.” And that, he says, is where the magic comes from. “I used to rein myself in,” he acknowledges. “When I was starting out in the music industry I’d be ashamed of how I spoke — this Chinese Turkish boy from south east London who could solve the mysteries of quantum mechanics, but nobody would listen because of how he spoke. It felt like a real boys’ club for privately-educated people talking about Chelsea.” And now? “Now it feels like the music industry’s gone rogue,” he grins. “One of my favourite things about success is that I can finally act like the person I truly am.”