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Jordan Stephens: "You need to have a little bit of death"

From musician to author, poet to painter, Jordan Stephens has spent the past decade proving that he can do pretty much everything. He opens up about music, mental health and managing the time

Jordan Stephens is in LA. Jordan Stephens is wearing a lovely, lovely yellow cardigan. Though we’re both based in the UK, for this interview we’re on either side of America, his head inside one Zoom box, my head inside the other. In every other way it’s a normal interview, the polite hello, the quick catch-up before we get stuck in, the readjusting for comfort on sofa (him) and armchair (me). Notebook open, dictaphone on. It’s almost like we’re sitting opposite one another in a café, and the entire United States is just one very big coffee table in between us. 

I ask him what LA is like. Wonderful and wacky, he tells me. “There’s so many different vibes and energies all about half an hour away from each other. It’s really trippy. And it’s sunny.” He’s there to visit, but also to do some work. He’s writing, and also not writing, taking Zoom meetings, painting, spending time with his girlfriend (who he tells me is currently “zipping around town doing other shit”.) He’s there enjoying life, though he misses his dogs.

I know from some light Instagram sleuthing that he recently completed an escape room with Mae Martin (brilliant comedian/writer/ creator of hit Channel 4/Netflix series Feel Good, in which Jordan appears in series two) and Jordan’s own girlfriend Jade Thirlwall (singer, songwriter, one third of wildly successful pop group Little Mix, very funny on TikTok). The whole thing sounds like the top prize at some celebrity charity auction, honestly. I ask if he and Mae became friends on set. 

“I was friends with Mae before that. We were talking on Twitter maybe ten years ago, and I went to Edinburgh – one of the first Fringes I ever went to – and I saw them do a pre-Fringe show, and was like, ‘They’re amazing.’ So I stayed after the show and said I really enjoyed that and they said they really loved the music, and we just kept in touch.

“And they just got bigger and bigger and bigger and then when they told me they were writing a show… they were like, ‘You should audition for it.’ And then I got the part. Now I’m in LA and they hosted a show and it was packed out. It was at the Largo theatre and it was full. People were coming up to Mae and asking for a photo and I’m like, ‘Man, they’re doing really good.’ It’s exciting to see someone grow like that. Just really good.”

It’s at this moment I realise that I’ve accidentally started doing an interview about a person who is not the person I am supposed to be interviewing. Jordan either doesn’t mind or hasn’t noticed this. In fact, he seems genuinely buzzing to be talking about a friend, about someone else’s good work and success. 

Jordan Stephens

I ask him about The Ex-Wife, a stylish four-part TV show based on Jess Ryder’s psychological thriller of the same name that will stream exclusively on Paramount+ in October. Jordan plays Sam, the friend and former flame of Tasha, who is mother to Emily and wife to Jack, who used to be married to Jen, who keeps bloody showing up everywhere they do. What does she want? What will she do to get it? Where does she get her hair done? 

Tasha and Jack live in the kind of brutalist, rich-people house that always goes wildly over budget on Grand Designs and causes Kevin McCloud huge amounts of undisguised glee. It’s all chrome, smooth pine, shiny surfaces, rich fabric, soft moody lighting, radiators disguised not to look like radiators and leather chairs that are JUST for looking at. Everyone in the show is exceptionally good-looking, great at being passive aggressive and often completely full of shit. It’s hard to tell precisely where Sam falls on the scale of duplicity. In our first glimpse of him he’s gaming in his boxers, and he seems largely removed from the absurd, sauna-in-the-house decadence of the world that Tasha newly inhabits. 

In the show Jordan is styled in soft knitwear, experimental pastel patterns, which lends him an air of benevolence. Is this a creative trick? A bit of sartorial misdirection? Is he actually very, very evil? Jordan doesn’t tell me, though he seems confident that viewers will be into the show however it does end up shaking out.

“When I was sent the scripts, I remember saying to my girlfriend, ‘This is a really addictive story.’ There’s a real art to that, to keeping an audience guessing. And we all love it. Let’s be honest, we all love a bit of mystery. We love solving puzzles. And if we’re going to kick back on a sofa and just enjoy a ride, this is often the kind of show we’re drawn to.”

Could he elaborate? Why exactly do we like these kind of television programmes – where the lives of gorgeous, rich people unravel like the threads of a beautiful yellow cardigan?

“We’re all rubberneckers,” he says. “We’ve got this bias towards trauma and misery. Like awful videos on Twitter, you have to consciously force yourself to stop. And we’re constantly living in conflict where we have this idea of a hyper moralistic, well-lived life where one listens to rules, but each of us has a shadow side. Whenever we see that on television we’re drawn to it because we’re like – that’s that dark shit.” 

Do he and his girlfriend ever get to binge watch TV in the way most normal people do? “We’re kind of too busy to be able to binge properly. There’s one series – one old-school series that we’re watching and it’s a real slog. It’s taking us a long, long time because we only get a couple hours [and] I’ll fall asleep quite early. If I start watching something at ten then I’m gone. I’m a grandad, mate. Look at my cardie.” I, of course, already am. 

Jordan Stephens

Jordan and I have met once before this, way back in 2019. It was pre-Covid, so instead of heads in boxes we were whole bodies in a trendy co-working space in South East London. I was there to record an episode of his podcast Whole Truth, a show he described as his ‘pursuit of a good conversation about mental health’. 

The show ran for around a year, and guests included Greg James from radio, Professor Green from music, Zawe Ashton from TV and film and Beth McColl from writing this sentence. When we met then he was incredibly fun to talk to, dynamic and wise and as quick with a cracking one-liner as he was with something truly vulnerable and real. Today he’s the same, generous with his time and more than willing to discuss what is difficult, what is painful, what is still taking shape in the landscape of his mental health, his work, his sobriety, his relationship to masculinity and ego. 

He’s undeniably very gifted, a modern multi-disciplinarian, a man of many mediums and miles more than medium talent. “I think it’s bordering on a bit ridiculous,’’ he says of his crossings from one artistic discipline to the next. In the decade plus since his entry into the industry and the public eye as 50% of hip-hop act Rizzle Kicks he’s established himself as a successful solo artist, a songwriter, a poet, an actor, a mental health campaigner, a podcaster, a presenter, and (just this past June) the author of an illustrated children’s book.

His album Let Me Die Inside You came out at the start of this year. I rack my brain for something he hasn’t done. Directing? He tells me it’s on the cards. “I’ve had a significant part to play in my music videos in the past – but when I’m writing now, I really really visualise the script to the point where I’m like, I could direct this. It’s definitely something I’d want to build into. That’s in my blood. My grandpa [John Boulting] was a really successful director who directed the original Brighton Rock. 

“My friend Kayla, who’s an incredible director – when we’re talking about shows I find I’m really zoning into how it’s directed… I’ll fall in love with a particular style or shot or know how I’d want something to play out.”

What about live comedy? He gives it some thought. “I think that would be fucking hard. Fucking hard. I would definitely do a one man show – just delivering to an audience. These comedians aren’t a joke – in terms of their skill level, it’s palpable.” Expect a sold-out stand-up tour in the not-too-distant future, then. 

Jordan Stephens

Talking about his children’s book The Missing Piece, he comes alive. It’s obviously something he’s very proud of, and with good reason. This book (one of several due for release over the next few years) follows Sunny in her journey to find the last piece of a jigsaw gifted to her by her grandma. When announcing the release date on Instagram, Jordan dedicated the book to his own grandmothers.

“I honestly wrote the book for the parents, that’s the funny thing. It’s an adventure about a child feeling whole, but also it’s an exploration of addiction. 

“Of all the feelings I’ve collected I think watching a child respond to something I’d written is definitely up there with the purest. I did a workshop in Edinburgh at a literature festival and mate, these little five-year-olds are so pure. The energy is so pure. I remember I watched a video of a mum reading my book to her daughter and I just sobbed, man. A lot of the time I can over-intellectualise stuff, but my face just started melting.” 

I ask him how we can, in this age of social media, Covid, all kinds of immense pressures for young people, set them up for better mental health. “Holistic schooling. I’ve always believed in that. I think it’s so weird that we don’t have holistic schooling. I don’t understand why we don’t teach young people to understand themselves and others.”

What about his own relationship with social media? “I’m sparing… I get that I should post more. Because I can do good posts. And I do understand how those things work thematically and naturally I’m an attention seeker. I have been since I was a little boy. So I get how to do it, but I don’t really have the desire to. Maybe I’d be richer if I did.” 

He’s got a good attitude, though he’s not totally immune to the lure of social media fame, hearts and likes and views and numbers that go up and up and up. “I did that with Tik Tok. I put up one the other day that went viral. And because of the nature of Tik Tok – it’s [he mimes the rapid firing of content]… and I had a whole week where I made like six and didn’t really post any of them because I was now in this battle with expectation and dopamine. It’s so ridiculous. I got to the point where I was like it doesn’t matter, I’ll just post another one when I want to.” 

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Jordan has ADHD, which can make sustained focus on certain tasks difficult. Conversely, it can lend a person a unique perspective and allow for hours and hours of deep concentration and creativity. I ask where he’s at in his own journey with understanding his ADHD brain.

“I think for me the thing I find most fascinating is, I don’t medicate myself for it anymore. And I’m kind of proud of myself that I’ve done that and that I’m able to write sober. I’m very sensitive to space, to sound, to the energy of the people I’m around so I’ve got to be clear that I’ll do that right. Hilariously I took some of my old ADHD medication to beat jet lag and that was fascinating.” He spent the whole flight to LA writing in a state of hyper focus. “Whether or not it’s any good is another question.” 

What does he do with this kind of writing? Does he have a network of creatives and collaborators he can send drafts or ideas to? “I actually need that. Those people are starting to manifest in my life. There’s one music producer who I sent some poetry to and his feedback was great. I’ve been very sensitive in the past to critique. I haven’t been very good at dealing with it.” 

He recently uploaded one of his oil paintings to Instagram, and if there was critique I couldn’t see it. Most of the comments beneath are from friends and creative peers expressing loving exasperation at his apparently endless talent. 

@Professorgreen: ‘But bro, can’t you do something you aren’t good at or wait, is there anything you aren’t good at?’

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He tells me that the painting began as a mental health exercise, instead of any kind of proper career move. “It’s one of the spaces where I didn’t put any pressure on myself… Like I won’t look at my phone, I won’t look at anything – there’s no thoughts, there’s no words, there’s no tangible distractions outside of it. I’m thinking almost entirely ‘what colour do I want here?’ and then I’m painting the colour… and I look like I’m lost in it, in a good way. I think that’s what I love about painting.”

I ask if he thinks he’d find as much joy in painting if he had absolutely no talent in it? “For me the answer would be yes. On my life, I didn’t think I was good at painting, until people responded. The real joy for me is just seeing something come to life on the canvas. But yeah I’m a big big big big big encourager of people just fucking doing it anyway, especially with something that’s subjective like that. Like, do whatever the fuck you want. I love it, I actually love it. It’s what I love when I see it with kids, with like a ten-year-old’s painting or a six-year-old’s drawing – that’s real as shit. I love that because you’re not concerning yourself with anything other than how you see something.” 

Time is short so I start firing questions. If you could do a sit down portrait of anyone – who would it be?

“Jesus. [This isn’t his answer to the painting question, he’s just taking a moment to digest.] Probably my girlfriend.”

What else does he find restorative besides painting? “Walks in nature for sure. That’s another way to recharge is get out, be around trees, be around water. I also had a bed day the other day which was insane. I guess I might have negatively attributed that as a signification of feeling depressed – but actually I just did it and I felt amazing the next day. 

“I suppose there’s a difference between feeling like you can’t get out of bed and choosing to stay in bed. So having a horizontal day was life-changing for me. Maybe that’s the second time in my fucking life where I’ve done that and I couldn’t believe it. Rest is something that I need to get better at, because I have an obsessive mind. 

“I can’t drink coffee anymore. One coffee in the morning is probably fine but with me when I’ve got the addict’s mind and ADHD – it’s suddenly two coffees and the next thing I know I’m drinking five coffees up until 7pm. I think everything in moderation. I want to be able to dabble in coffee like I dabble in smoking. I quit smoking, but I will have a cigarette because I think there’s something more powerful in doing the moderation thing. I’ve been sober for four and a half years, but smoking – I’m going to have a cigarette now and again. You need to have a little bit of death.” Indeed. 

I want to end on something light: I ask him what his current favourite item of clothing is. 

“This yellow cardigan I just bought yesterday. I really wanted a cardigan and I walked into a shop and then I saw a cardigan. Sometimes it happens like that. You have to appreciate the miracles in life.” 

Watch The Ex-Wife now on Paramount+

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