If you’ve been on TikTok in the last year, chances are you’ve heard Jeffrey Eli’s viral vocal range. The 22-year-old singer-songwriter has been consistently putting out impressive vocal vignettes — and now he's ready to share his original music.
In one of his most ubiquitous TikTok videos, which has more than 2.5 million likes, Eli is perched against a plain white wall, dressed in an elegant pink babydoll dress. The pedestrian backdrop of his dorm room is juxtaposed with jaw-dropping high notes and a labyrinth of riffs sung into twisted wired headphones. Eli belts on top of Bruno Mars' "Talking to the Moon," remixing the classic track into a lullabye.
While his TikToks often see him remixing other people’s songs, his original music reveals an artist with something to add to the conversation. In his latest single, "LADYBUG," Eli rewrites the history of his heartbreaks by rejecting shame for the things he liked growing up.
"So never mind, I like Katy Perry and Halloween/ Drinking iced coffee and watching TV,” he declares in a verse. Over an arpeggiated guitar loop by pop producer Brandon Shoop (GAYLE, Maude Latour), Eli doubles down on authenticity before flipping a classic trope in the chorus: “No butterflies in your gut/ but could there be a little ladybug?”
this is called ladybug 🥲 #singersongwriter
Like TikTok itself, Eli’s music often exists in a highly referential space, where old songs can find new meanings, even acting as catharsis for things he’s had to hide in the past. On the cover art of “LADYBUG,” for example, he references Katy Perry’s 2008 album One of the Boys, recontextualizing the shame he felt when listening to it growing up. “It’s so funny to think about how I used to hide that CD under my bed when my friends from soccer would come over," Eli says. "Even though it may seem trivial... little shameful moments like that really add up and hurt a queer child.”
With this new era of music, though, Eli confesses “it’s really about being the pop girl I always wanted to be deep down and for a long time felt unnecessarily shameful for. It’s about not only proving it to others — but to myself — that I can be that girl.” PAPER spoke with Jeffrey Eli about growing up in the music industry, the making of his iconic TikToks, the Berghain origins of “LADYBUG,” and how he’s writing his own queer fairytale.
Photography: Juliet Ivy
You got your start posting covers on Vine in 2013 and now, almost a decade later, you're going viral for your original music on TikTok. What has that journey been like?
I have a lot of confusing trauma from growing up online and being the butt of the joke at times. Vine brought a small town boy like me to New York and LA to write with amazing songwriters and see the music [industry] first hand while finishing school. Being somewhat in the industry at a young age has been a blessing in disguise. I feel like I got through all the ugly and embarrassing shit, and now I’m ready to introduce my true self to the music world.
The artwork for your latest single, "LADYBUG," is a clear reference to Katy Perry’s One of the Boys. What does that reference mean in the greater context of your artistry?
I was told in the industry at a young age to be masculine, to be like Justin Bieber. I felt the pressures of toxic masculinity and homophobia online and in meetings, so I basically hated all the pictures taken of me as a kid — except this one image from a photoshoot at 15 that I was obsessed with. It was me whipping my hair back and forth. I felt like a pop girl, like Ariana Grande. It was probably giving me gender euphoria, I just didn’t know it at the time, but my team shut it down immediately and said I looked like a woman. It crushed me, I didn’t get why it was wrong to look like a woman.
One of the Boys was the first album I ever bought for myself. The euphoria I felt when I saw the cover on the Barnes & Noble rack... to an eight-year-old, sheltered, gay boy from the suburbs, it was exactly what I needed to see. The idea was to recreate [it] with a more ugly 2000s look — to mirror her '60s nostalgia with my 2000s nostalgia. It also just felt really fucking great to pose in a bikini. Misogyny discredits the art of pop music and that is something I hated growing up. All the women were treated so unfairly and never respected for the art they made. I still see that now in pop music and it infuriates me. The narrative is so backwards.
In all your singles so far — "ZOOM," "CASPER" and "LADYBUG" — you’ve referenced music and culture from the 2000s, 2010s and 2020s. What is your songwriting process like in that regard? What do you think about the current state of pop music and what is your vision for its future?
Nostalgia is huge, of course, but I am really trying to reach past it. I am dying for sonics that I have never heard before. New artists like Underscores, Ayleen Valentine, PinkPantheress really excite me. I definitely threw myself into the hyperpop world with "ZOOM" and "CASPER." Genre is overrated in my opinion, another symptom of the binary. This generation has had access to everything and for that I think our minds and ears are open to it all. I never want to have to choose or commit to a sound, I just want to write what I feel. We all contain multitudes and I am not sure why sometimes the industry pretends like we don’t.
Photography: Ethan Ayer
What music did you listen to growing up and how does this inform your art now?
All the pop girls have inspired me in some way. Mariah Carey and Ariana Grande are huge vocal and aesthetic inspirations for me. They make vocals feel like flying. They radiate divine femininity and that’s what I hope to do too. Imogen Heap, The 1975, Yebba, SZA, Jazmine Sullivan, Phoebe Bridgers and Julia Michaels... the list goes on. I am inspired by SZA’s ability to be free-flowing and somewhat formless at times, and yet so compelling and filled with hooks. The 1975 feels pretty transcendental to me, they’re always making use of the entire spectrum of music while keeping it pop.
How do you position yourself in today’s musical landscape, and what do you hope people take away from your music and this project in particular?
I am giving the prologue to Jeffrey Eli, right now — setting the scene with singles that are little glimpses of what I have said and have to say. There’s a world coming. For better or worse, I’m a bit of a Disney adult. Therefore, I am dreaming up a sort of princess figure and meditating on it a lot. It's more complicated than that, but I’m not ready to spill. There will be a queer fairytale and everyone is invited to the ball.
How did your first single, "CASPER," come about and how does that reference fit into the narrative of the song?
Halloween is everything to me and was sort of the connecting aura for the first two singles. Casper is my name for all the boys who ghosted me and inspired the song. The song was really special because I sort of created it with listeners on TikTok. I fleshed out the demo with my friend and collaborator Benchwarmer. We spent about three months working on it over Zoom, while I was studying abroad in Berlin. I kept sharing new versions of it on TikTok until we finally got it right.
Photography: Ethan Ayer
"LADYBUG" was recently premiered on Beats 1 by Zane Lowe. How did that one come about?
I made "LADYBUG" with my friends Stevie Bill and Brandon Shoop. I had the lyric idea after feeling super pathetic for being head over heels for someone who wanted nothing to do with me. I eventually told him I had feelings and got rejected. Then I went abroad and still couldn’t get over it. I was clubbing in Berghain and I should’ve been having the time of my life, but instead I was sitting in the corner obsessing over this boy who wanted nothing to do with me. I just kept thinking maybe there was a chance he liked me a little. It really ate at me to think that maybe he considered it, but I just didn’t quite do it for him. My friend went back to the club the next day, and I decided to stay in my dorm and flesh the song out. It became very much a friends only project, getting friends to sing on the end of the song and starting a group chat with listeners to await the release.
You’ve also been teasing a track, called "SLEEPING BEAUTY," on TikTok. What inspired that song?
I brought this pink babydoll dress with me to Berlin and I never got to wear it out, so one night I just decided to turn my fan on in my dorm and film a TikTok to the "SLEEPING BEAUTY" demo I had been sitting on for a year or two. The song is about growing up queer. It was the most spiritual songwriting experience I have ever had to this day. The lyrics flew out of me, and had so many metaphors and layers that I didn’t consciously make. It’s kind of a cliché, but for the first time ever it felt like I was this vessel for something bigger. I’m eagerly awaiting its release and I am lucky to get messages asking for it too. It should be coming early 2023. It’s the introduction, or rather the initial inspiration, to the fairytale I’m writing.
What is the process behind your TikToks and what are your thoughts on how it's changing the music industry?
I watched Vine die and I probably will do the same with TikTok. I don’t know if it will always have the hold on music that it does, but it really is an incredible place and algorithm for independent artists to tap into and connect with music lovers. I’ve found some of my favorite new artists through it and I’m very grateful for that. TikTok has been a great outlet for me to express my femininity and still understand how much work we need to do to open and heal the minds of the people. When I sing in a dress, my comments are flooded with hate and disgust at my gender expression. Sometimes I get so caught up in my bubble of support that I forget there are millions, if not billions, of people who think that what I am doing is wrong. I just want to make as much noise as possible and I am so inspired by all the nonbinary, transgender and LGBTQ+ creators making noise, showcasing our beauty every day in the metaverse.
Photography: Ethan Ayer
Photos courtesy of Jeffrey Eli
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