In 2004, 13-year-old Joanna “JoJo” Levesque hit the charts with her breakout smash “Leave (Get Out).” Two well-received albums followed, and she was poised for a promising career in pop — until a seven-year lawsuit with her former label halted her from releasing new music.
Save for appearances in movies like RV (with Robin Williams) and G.B.F., the young starlet seemed to have disappeared from the public eye as she and her legal team fought to reinstate her artistic freedom, which culminated last week when JoJo, now 25, finally released Mad Love, her first full-length album in a decade, under a new label.
But the lawsuit with her label wasn’t the only personal battle JoJo was fighting. Behind the scenes, the talented vocalist was struggling with a lifetime of pain within her family. As JoJo told PEOPLE earlier this year, both her parents battled addiction, and she grew up learning the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.
In recent years, JoJo found herself depending on similar escapes as her parents. In her new song “I Am,” she addresses insecurities she’s faced.
“Sometimes I feel inadequate; sometimes I feel like I can fall back into depression,” the singer says in the new issue of PEOPLE. “For a while, I coped by drinking too much. I wanted to get out of my mind. I wanted to stop picking myself apart. I just wanted to feel good, to chase that high. I wanted to stop worrying about my career. And when you get out of your mind, when you get to that point when you black out, you don’t give a s— about anything.”
Recognizing her insecurities and how she dealt with them in potentially destructive ways, JoJo says she sought therapy and medication to work on her depression and drinking.
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“I can’t do it alone. I believe in being on an antidepressant if you need it. I believe in talking to a therapist. I believe in working out for your mental health and your endorphins,” she says. “And I do all those things.”
Today, the singer is living with her struggles and working on herself.
“I wouldn’t say that I’ve moved past them; I’m just finding ways to deal with them more constructively than try and suppress them. Calling them out, owning them and acknowledging that I feel this way — and talking to friends, talking to a therapist and in having outlets though my music — I’m able to cope,” she says. “It makes me feel not so alone.
Indeed, JoJo pours her heart and soul into all 15 tracks of the deeply personal Mad Love.
“Sometimes we can feel overwhelmed by caring too much. I stopped looking at that as a bad thing and instead channel it into letting my sensitivity be a strength,” she says. “It’s really about changing your perspective and seizing opportunities instead of being a victim, claiming it as something that you can testify about. I will not be a victim. I will not say, ‘This is in my DNA’ or ‘This is my family origin’ or ‘This is what I’ve seen around me.’ I have to be stronger than that.
As for the heavy events that inspired the songs on her new album? JoJo sings of them with empowerment and poignancy in her voice and lyrics rather than seeking pity.
“I broke up with a boyfriend who was cheating on me, that I was kind of blindsided by. And two weeks later my father passed away,” she says of her dad, Joel, who died last November. “Those events really shifted how I felt, and I wanted to go into the studio and write.”
Her father’s death directly informed “Music,” Mad Love‘s tearjerking ballad opener.
“It was the most difficult song I’ve ever tried to sing because when I think about my dad — if I really let my walls down when I think about him and how much I miss him and how much our connection was so much through music — it makes me really emotional,” she says. “My collaborators, my cowriters really gave me the strength and the patience and the grace to get through it. I don’t have a problem opening up, being vulnerable; but it is hard for me to sing through my tears and to put my ego aside and not sound perfect on the record and to try and let the emotion carry me.”
Having returned triumphant in both her personal and professional lives, JoJo is ready to get back to business.
“This is who I am: I’ve always identified as a singer, an artist, a creative person,” she says, adding releasing the album is “such a weight off me to be able to move on. I am a fighter. I am a survivor. It’s the cloth I’m cut from.”