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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Joe Jonas Goes at it Alone

Joe Jonas is going grocery shopping, walking along a busy commercial section of Hollywood. No one notices him, no tween girls shriek, as he weaves through the sidewalk traffic. Joe doesn't much look like a Jonas Brother anymore. Gone is his telltale luxurious sweep of black hair. Now it's cropped in a look one of his handlers likes to call "Top Gun-Tom Cruise," and he's wearing a rakish beard and mustache, along with skinny jeans that hang low enough to reveal the pattern on his boxers. These signs of testosterone seem to defy the boy band's squeaky-clean image—the three brothers wore "purity rings," pledging chastity until marriage. Joe, 21, looks all grown up. And there isn't a purity ring in sight.

"'Does anyone ever tell you you look like Joe Jonas?' I get that a lot," Joe says in his mild, soft-spoken way. "Or they'll say, 'You're so much cuter in person.' Or 'Where are your brothers?'" He laughs. "It's not like we wake up in the same bed."

Joe moved out of the home he shared with his parents and his brothers, Kevin, 23, and Nick, 18, a year and a half ago, to rent a house with some buddies in Los Feliz. But it was haunted, he says—"We'd hear footsteps"—and he often thought about getting his own place. Then, about nine months ago, he started dating Twilight star Ashley Greene, and the idea of a little privacy became more appealing. So last November, he found a bachelor pad in this part of town, which he likes because "it's like my mini New York. I got my gym a few blocks away"—where he's been working out five days a week with his trainer.

"I like to watch all the crazy characters in the neighborhood," he says. "I saw this gay homeless guy that got arrested. When the cops said, 'Spread 'em,' he was like, 'You'd like that, wouldn't you?'" Joe grins; he likes a good comeback.

In addition to hitting the gym regularly, Joe is also a fan of bars in the area, like the Bowery on Sunset, because it's "really laid-back." Wait a minute—didn't the Jonas Brothers, who provided the voices of cherubs in 2009's Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, swear off alcoholic beverages?

Yes, but that was back when Joe was living with his mom, Denise, and his dad, Kevin Sr., a former evangelical preacher who now comanages the band. It was also before Joe decided to do a solo album, the first single from which will be released next month.

"I'm growing up, the fans are growing up," Joe says. "I've gone through a lot of stuff in my life so far. There are stories I haven't really been able to tell. When you're writing with three people, you wind up with a sound that might be—not average—but, you know, expected."

The moment he walks into Trader Joe's, the sound system starts playing "Year 3000," a Jonas Brothers hit from their first album, 2006's It's About Time. The boys' cheerful guitar riffs and boisterous voices fill the giant store. "I didn't call and arrange this," Joe says, amused, as he grabs a cart.

• • •
Joe's apartment, a loft studio in a brand-new high-rise, is sizable, but it's modest for a young man who, with his brothers, made $35.5 million last year, putting them at No. 40 on the Forbes "Celebrity 100." There's a stunning 180-degree view of Los Angeles. There's a vintage Pac Man game, a Batman pinball machine, a Baldwin piano, and an 8-month-old English-bulldog puppy named Winston. There's a Warholesque painting of Mick Jagger by a local artist. Joe—who is known for his on-stage brio, his jumps and kicks and orgasmic facial contortions—has said that he idolizes the performance styles of Jagger and Freddie Mercury, "the big frontmen."

There's also a framed photograph of Joe and his brothers at the White House with President Obama and Paul McCartney—on the wall right by the front door, so you can't miss it. "I didn't know who to be more excited about," Joe says of the meeting, which took place last year when McCartney received the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. The Jonas Brothers performed a cover of "Drive My Car" at the event.

"I heard [McCartney] told somebody, 'I want the new Beatles to come and play for me,'" Joe says, his chocolate-brown eyes growing wider.

Joe will tell you stories about famous rockers giving props to a band that the New York Times has called "among the most culturally important American rock bands of the last decade."

"Pat [Patrick Carney], the drummer for the Black Keys, I met him at a Kings of Leon concert in London"—coincidentally, it was at that same concert that Joe met Greene—"and he was like, 'I used to shit on you guys, but then I actually listened to your stuff, and you're so rad.'"

A Black Keys record is playing on Joe's turntable as he makes taco filling, simmering chicken in olive oil and lemonade. He's into cooking. After he got his own place, he says, "I fell in love with it. I became friends with a lot of chefs. I was a judge on Top Chef last year. It was a dream come true."

Then he pauses a moment; his thick, dark eyebrows knit together. He looks like a teenager again. "You know what? I forgot to get tortillas."

The taco filling winds up being wrapped into big pieces of lettuce—a fine, healthy, Asian-inspired solution. Joe stands at the counter as he tucks into his new culinary invention and starts talking excitedly about his solo album (which is as yet unnamed). He has been recording in L.A. for the past couple of months but says the idea came to him in the summer of 2009 when the JoBros were in Rome. "We were sitting in this beautiful Colosseum-looking hotel. And I was starting to think, 'I really wanna do a solo project.' My brother Nick did one. It wasn't really as big as..." Here he catches himself. Nick's solo album, Who I Am, released last year, received mixed reviews and sold fewer than 200,000 copies in the U.S.

"He wasn't really hoping for it to be huge," says Joe, who calls Nick "my best friend." "It was more for himself. He wanted to do a record that he really believed in. And so I was like, 'I would really like to make music that inspires me,' 'cause with the Jonas Brothers stuff, we can be constricted in what we can and cannot do.

"I wanted to do something you could hear in a club or something you could dance to, something that's fun—something that's me. I think it was definitely because I was getting older. But it was also a kind of a scary thought. 'Cause you go, 'I don't want to offend my brothers.' You know?"

But when he approached Nick and Kevin, they were all for it. He also got the blessing of Hollywood Records, the Jonas Brothers' label, which is owned by Disney and which sold 8.5 million copies of the band's last three albums—Jonas Brothers, A Little Bit Longer, and Lines, Vines and Trying Times.

But the boys in the band aren't really boys anymore, and the sales of their recent albums have slipped slightly. Their 2009 Disney Channel sitcom, Jonas L.A., didn't catch on with viewers and was canceled after two seasons. Their debut film, Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience, was a disappointment, earning just over $19 million.

The thinking at Disney HQ seems to be that a solo turn by Joe might be a way for the Brothers to recapture their maturing fan base and possibly develop a new one. "We're not breaking up, we're just taking a break," Joe says. "I really have a hope for the fans that got older and went, 'You know what, I'm really not into the Jonas Brothers anymore,' that I'm able to catch their ear again with my project and they're able to go, like, 'Hey, this is cool stuff, I'm happy listening to this, I'm not embarrassed listening to this.'"

"I'm wildly supportive," says Rich Ross, chairman of Walt Disney Studios. "Going solo is a very good idea for Joe at this age. It's like graduating from college."

But will Joe Jonas be believable as a real rock star? Can the fans ever forget that they loved him in fourth grade?

"I look at Joe's scenario as kind of like when Justin Timberlake broke out of 'N Sync," says Rob Knox, a producer working on Joe's solo project who previously teamed up with Rihanna and Jamie Foxx. "Justin was 21 when he came out as a solo artist. Joe is coming to producers who know how to create that edgier pop feeling. We're not doing any boy-band songs."

What they are doing, Joe says, is an eclectic mixture of "electro indie pop rock." "It's Joe's album, it's not just something put together for him," says Danja, another veteran producer on the project, whose past work includes Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds. "He's collaborating with the writing. He's very different from what you'd expect. All I can say is he's an adult man. He has a rock-star edge about him."

• • •
If Nick was always the cute Jonas, and Kevin the other Jonas, then Joe was the sexy one. The shrieks of the Brothers' 10,000-plus crowds are usually induced by his hip-swiveling-and-mic-twirling routine.

"Being on stage makes me come to life," Joe says. "When all eyes are on you, they're watching every move you make."

His gyrations have apparently caught the eyes of a number of fetching young female entertainers. He's dated the troubled Disney star Demi Lovato ("I wish her the best") and the actress Camilla Belle. Taylor Swift was so bitter after their breakup that she wrote a song about it ("Forever & Always") and went on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, in 2008, to complain that Joe had dumped her in a phone call that lasted 27 seconds.

Joe countered by saying that it was Swift who had hung up on him. Now he says, "I think all artists have a right to write about what happens to them. But," he adds with a smile, "I have a right to write about things too."

He won't say whether his album will contain a Swift rebuttal—just that there will be songs about "different love scenarios that I've been through, breakups, hurts. Me hurting somebody and feeling bad about it. I think there's a lot of scenarios where people might wanna hear my side of the story."

But who would break up with Joe?

"Some guy," he says with a laugh.

It's a nod to the gay rumors he's been fending off ever since he got into a verbal altercation with some taunting paparazzi earlier this year. "There's nothing wrong with being gay," he says now, "but I'm not." Adding to the buzz, he dressed up in a leotard and heels and danced to "Single Ladies"—to comic effect—to square a sports bet with some buddies. He got the idea from his fans. The video of his performance got more than 25 million hits on YouTube.

But he really did have his heart broken; it was about two years ago, and the young woman was someone in the entertainment world. "I won't say her name," Joe says. "But I was in a relationship, and we tried to work things out, and she, you know—I was really upset because she—she broke up with me." A sadness lingers in his voice.

By contrast, his relationship with Ashley Greene, who's 24, "feels good," he says. "I think what works about it is she really puts my feelings first. She understands my busy schedule. She'll fly out to my shows—she's been to places in South America that I can't even pronounce." And in January, he visited her in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, while she was shooting the next two installments of the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn: Part I and Part II (Greene plays the psychic vampire Alice Cullen). He also flew to Jacksonville, Florida, to meet her parents. "Her dad can drink me to shame," Joe says. "He's awesome."

Times are changing for the Jonas Brothers, with Joe going solo (for now) and Kevin marrying Danielle Deleasa, a former hairdresser, in 2009. "Actually, I hit on her first," Joe says of meeting his future sister-in-law when the band of brothers were on vacation in the Bahamas. "And after that she and Kevin hit it off, of course. Now we have a fourth person traveling with us everywhere, so that's a different thing completely."

• • •
It's afternoon. Joe's driving his big black Mercedes G-Class down Sunset to the studio to work on his album. He's thinking about the days when he and his brothers and his dad toured the country with a trailer full of instruments, performing wherever they could. Success did not come easily, he says, and it got to the point where "we were about to say, 'This sucks—we don't want to do this anymore,' but then it all sort of started to happen for us."

And happen it did. "We've seen every state in America besides Alaska and Hawaii, been all over Europe. It's been so much fun." Sure, there have been times when it's gotten a little weird, rocking out for little girls. "We did some things that were like, 'Really? We're gonna do this? Like, go and play for an elementary school, are you serious?' At the time I was like, 'I'm 17, I wanna go meet girls at high schools.'

"And now I'm 21," Joe adds. "I wanna go play my music in a club."

Joe draws inspiration from one of his heroes—Bono—in moving forward with his dream: "I just want to believe that people are gonna really accept me for who I am and the music that I'm making now."

Joe went to see U2 play in Toronto last year. "After the show we got an e-mail saying Bono wants to invite you to the after-party. He comes waltzing in with his jean jacket buttoned down to here, pointing his finger at everybody. We hung out with him till three in the morning. He told me, 'The songs you write, really be honest, don't hold anything back. The reason for being an artist is you gotta be honest.' And I was like, 'Wow.'

"He said, 'I have countries that hate me, but I don't care. I have dictators that wanna put my head on a stick. So the next time you write a song, write from the heart, and really be honest, and don't be afraid of it.'"

Joe arrives at Henson Recording Studios—Charlie Chaplin's old studio. He parks the car. "When I was younger," he says, getting out, "I was always trying to make people satisfied with the way they thought I was supposed to be. And finally understanding that, in music, you can really be yourself and people accept you for who you are, that was a big thing to me." Work awaits, and as he heads inside, he adds: "I'm really excited to get the ball rolling and write some more stories in the book of craziness."

**Please note that interview was given before Joe and Ashley broke up.