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Joe Jonas: My Life As a Jonas Brother

Joe Jonas, photographed by Andreas Laszlo Konrath.

As told to Jennifer Vineyard.

To some extent, I was used to growing up in public. I was a pastor’s kid, so eyes were always on me, even then. I sat in the first pew of the church, and I had to wear a suit every Sunday, because my parents wanted me to be this role model that I didn’t always want to be. I preferred going to punk-rock shows in small venues in New Jersey, where we grew up, wearing my jean jacket and all my band pins. That’s how I fell in love with music, how I became obsessed with it. I’d stand there, watching the singer running around the stage, owning the crowd. I didn’t even notice whatever else was happening onstage. All I could see was the singer.

But I had certain obligations at that age. If I ever didn’t want to go to church on Sunday, or when I was trying to figure out what religion I wanted to be, or trying to understand spirituality, I would always have to deal with knowing that people were looking up to me. We eventually left our church, Assembly of God, when I was 14. A scandal had erupted involving stolen money, and it caused a big rift in the church. After that the concept of church really upset me for a long time. I mean, I believe in God, and that’s a personal relationship that I have, but I’m not religious in any way.

I went to school until about seventh grade, before my parents decided to homeschool us. I sucked at math. Was pretty good with science, and I was great at music class. Big surprise. Music was always in the house. Our dad could play just about anything, and we started picking up instruments ourselves. When Nick was 7, he began singing everywhere—in the house, in the hair salon even, which is where he was discovered.

We never really had an idea of making music together, but years later when Nick was working on his debut album, Nicholas Jonas, Kevin and I genuinely wanted to write with him. So we wrote a song together in the living room called “Please Be Mine,” which we thought would just be for Nick. But when our dad heard us, he said we should play it for David Massey, who was A&R-ing Nick’s project at the time. He had signed a lot of brother bands—Oasis, Good Charlotte—and when we went in and sang the song for him, he told us he wanted to sign us as a group.

We weren’t put together by some Svengali but were definitely thrown into it. Especially Nick, who was only 12 (I was 15 and Kevin was 17), and he had to make all these big decisions about whether he wanted to be in a band or work solo or work with his brothers. Luckily, he was cool with working with us.

It took about two years before we released our first record, It’s About Time, in 2006. We were working on it for so long, and our dad had to drive us to the recording studio in the city every day. I’ll never forget our first concert: We were named J3—and we hated the name. It felt like something a boy band would be called. I remember turning to my brothers before that show and saying, “Do you want our name to be J3 for the rest of our lives?” When we got onstage, I was the one to announce to the crowd, “Hey, we’re the Jonas Brothers.” Nice and simple.

For a few years, my two brothers, our father, our backup band, and I drove around in a van from city to city, playing any venue that would have us—schools, churches, bat mitzvahs—while our mother stayed at home to take care of our youngest brother, Frankie. Those early touring years were rough. We opened up for the Veronicas, who had a club crowd, and we had to prove to those crowds that we could really play. Show them that we’re real musicians. It was always a struggle because every single night we were walking into hate. Sometimes people flipped us off, threw water bottles at us.

Everything completely changed when Disney entered the picture. They were geared toward a younger market, and we had a younger audience, so we started doing some Disney concerts, Disney Christmas concerts, and Disney roller-coaster openings. Then we made a music video for a cover song that we initially didn’t want to do because we hadn’t written it, called “Year 3000,” exclusively for Disney, which led them to start playing the song on Radio Disney and the video on the Disney Channel. Before we knew it, our fan base had exploded.

We went from an opening act to headliners, first in half-theaters, then full theaters, then half-arenas to full arenas, all within a span of around six weeks. Playing the Texas state fair in 2007 was a turning point. There were 40,000 people, and we needed to get a helicopter in order to make it to the show because the traffic was so bad. I remember sitting in that helicopter, flying over all those cars, and thinking, This is really happening.

Disney is great at creating fame. They’ve done it with so many pop stars and young actors, from Hilary Duff to the High School Musical crew. Miley Cyrus played an already-famous pop star on a Disney show, Hannah Montana, and as we were starting to blow up, we got a boost by playing ourselves, as her favorite band on her own show. That was definitely our first major love shown by Disney, and I think it might have been a trial to see whether they should give us a show of our own, and they did. We got a sitcom called Jonas in which we played characters named Kevin, Joe, and Nick Lucas, members of an already-famous band.

But the thing about the show was that some of the writing on it was terrible. It just ended up being some weird slapstick humor that only a 10-year-old would laugh at. They took out the kissing scene that Nick had. I had to shave every day because they wanted me to pretend like I was 16 when I was 20 (when the show was done, I cut my hair off and grew as much of a beard as I could). We went along with it at the time, because we thought Disney was our only real shot, and we were terrified that it could all be taken away from us at any moment.

Being a part of a company like that comes with certain expectations. Not overtly, but there was a subtle vibe. We were working with Disney in 2007 when the Vanessa Hudgens nude-photo scandal happened. We heard that she had to be in the Disney offices for a whole day because they were trying to figure out how to keep her on lockdown. We’d hear execs talking about it, and they would tell us that they were so proud of us for not making the same mistakes, which made us feel like we couldn’t ever mess up. We didn’t want to disappoint anyone—our parents, our fans, our employers—so we put incredible pressure on ourselves, the kind of pressure that no teenager should be under.

We were just kids. That’s the reality. We were frightened little kids. So you got all this responsibility that’s foisted upon you and you’re expected to be perfect. I went through media training, and I hated it. They’d teach you how to change the subject, whenever you were asked an uncomfortable question, by saying something like, “Oh, that reminds me of my dog! I have a great story about my dog!” Playing dumb is the best way of getting out of anything. We also had a strategy for who would take which kinds of questions. If it was a serious question, Nick would answer it. If it was lighthearted, Kevin would. Nick and I took questions related to our music and explaining what certain songs meant. We even did a Good Housekeeping story with our mom where we were wearing these horrible pastels. It makes me cringe just to think about it.

Jonas with fans in London at the premiere of Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience in 2009.

Disney made us more famous than we ever knew we could be. During concerts, when we’d want to play a new song or have an intimate moment, the screaming could be so overwhelming that we’d have to tell the crowd to calm down and enjoy the moment. It could get scary, too: We did a meet-and-greet in Spain, and like 100,000 people showed up and we ended up being chased through a shopping mall. It felt like a zombie apocalypse.

There were the moments when I’d walk into my hotel room only to find a girl I didn’t know standing there. For the record, we didn’t have the traditional rock-and-roll experience. We were kids working with Disney, so finding a girl in our hotel room didn’t feel like an open invitation. This isn’t 1986, and I’m not in a hair-metal band. It felt like a problem we had to solve without it getting us into trouble. There was this time in South America where a hotel staff member snuck his kid into my room. I don’t know what they were hoping would happen, but security showed her out.

People like to imagine what it would be like on a tour bus, and they’d ask us, “It must just be a party all the time!” And definitely whenever we were on-camera, we were perceived as smiling and happy and upbeat, but there were times when all I wanted to do was lie in bed.

The hard thing about dealing with out-of-control fans is that you don’t want to be the bad guy and you don’t want to disappoint them, but sometimes that ends up happening. There used to be this group of fans who liked to camp outside our apartments in New York, and about a year ago, one of them asked us for a photo in the morning, and I said hi to him, and later that night, he was outside a restaurant that we had gone to with some friends. That was not cool. It felt like he was following us. So we all got in the car and he runs up, yelling through the window, “Can I get your picture? Please please please?” I said, “Look, man, I’m usually nice to you about this, but we’re just having a night to ourselves, and if you can respect that, I’d really appreciate it.” He started bawling and ran off to his friends. Two days later, it’s in the tabloids that I was rude to a fan and made him cry and laughed in his face. It’s funny, because I greet a ton of fans, but the one I said no to ended up making news.

The topic that dominated news coverage of us for a long time was the whole promise-ring thing. We couldn’t escape it. It started when I was really young—I must have been 10 or 11. There’s a program people do in some churches called True Love Waits, where you wait for marriage to have sex. Kevin and I decided to join—Nick tried it later. Fast-forward a few years, we’ve started playing music and we’re working with Disney and we have these rings.

I remember this interview with this guy whose entire agenda was to focus on the rings. He kept pushing the subject, and when we insisted that we didn’t want to talk about it, he told us, “I can write whatever I want,” which terrified us. That’s the thing: We didn’t know any better, and we just wanted to make people happy. Now I know that I don’t have to answer any questions I don’t want to. Like, why do you even care about my 15-year-old brother’s sex life?

But back then, we explained that we had made these promises to ourselves when we were younger. A few months later, it comes out that we’re in some cult and that we’re these little staged Mickey Mouse kids. People were coming up to us, saying, “Thank you so much, I’m waiting because you guys are, too!” And we just thought, No! That’s not what we’re about.

Because of our age, because of Disney, because of those rings, there were so many things throughout our career that we had to sugarcoat. If a lyric was slightly sexual, someone at the record company would tell us we had to change it. It could be the most innocent reference, like “I’m alone in a room with you,” and it would have to go. It felt like we couldn’t be creative, so we stopped listening to them and just started handing shit in.

We decided to take the rings off a few years ago. I lost my virginity when I was 20. I did other stuff before then, but I was sexually active at 20. I’m glad I waited for the right person, because you look back and you go, “That girl was batshit crazy. I’m glad I didn’t go there.”

The brothers in 2008.

What was that couple that was pretty famous from The Hills? Heidi and Spencer? I didn’t want to become Heidi and Spencer, so I kept relationships quiet. I lived in a bubble of just me, my brothers, my band, and the people I went on tour with. That’s how I ended up dating a lot of people in the business, because you relate to them, you’re on the same schedule, and honestly, it was exciting. In the back of my mind, it felt special to date someone who was also famous. But I wanted to keep things quiet out of respect for my fans, because we had a large female audience, and I didn’t want to rub my relationships in their faces. Some of the girls I dated just didn’t get that.

I genuinely don’t have any resentment against any of my exes. So I’m not going to disparage anyone I was in a relationship with—only I might put it in my music a little bit, and hint at it, and tease it here and there, just enough for the fans and the people who really know the story. But I’m not going to openly say, “Yeah, actually, this person is a bitch, and she did this to me.” I don’t feel the need to do that to sell records.

But I did date a lot. I used to sneak out and hook up with this one girl in her car, and some rumor came out along the lines of: “Teen pop star seen in the back of a car, in a parking lot, hooking up,” and the write-up was kind of explicit. I kept thinking, Oh my God, there’s going to be video, there’s going to be photos. The girl was also in the business, and we thought we were screwed because we were both working with Disney. It would have been the worst thing we could think of happening to us. But nothing ever came out!

One relationship that meant a lot to fans was the one I had with Demi Lovato, who I’ve known for years. We had been friends forever, we were both Disney kids, and because we played a couple in the Camp Rock Disney Channel specials—and fans liked seeing us together—we eventually dated for a month. I really got to know her and got to see the ins and outs of what she was struggling with, like drug abuse. I felt like I needed to take care of her, but at the same time I was living a lie, because I wasn’t happy but felt like I had to stay in it for her, because she needed help. I couldn’t express any of that, of course, because I had a brand to protect.

It was an insane situation to be in. Things kept building up, and Demi ended up punching a girl in the face on a plane, because she thought the girl was blaming her for something. Everybody gasped, and the girl just started bleeding. That’s when her team and her family told her, “You need to go into rehab.” I remember being in South America, and fans immediately jumped to the conclusion that we kicked her off the 2010 tour, and they just hated on us for it.

Being a part of the Disney thing for so long will make you not want to be this perfect little puppet forever. Eventually, I hit a limit and thought, Screw all this, I’m just going to show people who I am. I think that happened to a lot of us. Disney kids are spunky in some way, and I think that’s why Disney hires them. “Look, he jumped up on the table!” Five, six, ten years later, they’re like, “Oh! What do we do?” Come on, guys. You did this to yourselves.

The first time I smoked weed was with Demi and Miley. I must have been 17 or 18. They kept saying, “Try it! Try it!” so I gave it a shot, and it was all right. I don’t even smoke weed that often anymore. I was caught drinking when I was 16 or 17, and I thought the world was going to collapse. But I was in another country, and it was legal there. My 21st birthday, I fell down a flight of stairs. I was unconscious that time, and my whole team was scared to death that somebody was going to get a picture. Now I appreciate wine or a vodka-soda at the end of the day every once in a while.

When I was 20, I started dating Ashley Greene, and she was my first serious relationship. We were together for almost a year. I was living out in L.A. by myself, and at the end of the day, long distance didn’t work. It’s incredibly difficult. I did a cover story with Details acknowledging the relationship, and the day after it was on newsstands, we announced our breakup. That was just coincidence, but it’s funny how that always happens, right? After Ashley, I took two or three years to just be single. I was hooking up and having fun. Now I’m with someone I really care about. We get each other.

And, yes, I’ve dated fans. I can’t say that I’ve never put a foot in that world; there were times when I definitely took advantage of the opportunities I had. I remember I invited a fan to a movie, and we just made out the entire time. I don’t even remember what the movie was about. I must have been 16 or so. Afterward, I was kind of freaking out, because I thought she’d go public and the whole world would find out. Luckily, she never did, I think because she assumed there’d be another meet-up down the road.

Joe performing at the 2007 American Music Awards.

There were days when I wanted to give up sometimes. When it all felt too overwhelming and exhausting. But my brothers helped me get through a lot. I mean, we’ve only canceled two or three shows in our entire career. There were times when we definitely performed while sick because there was so much riding on it. All we’d have to do when one of us wasn’t feeling well was say, “I need you to take this chorus.” There was never even a question. It was always: “Okay, I got you.”

It made us closer, being in this strange juggernaut together. I’m the middle child, so I’ve always been the bridge. I can relate to both really well. Nick and I are athletic, we bond over sports. Kevin and I were always close, but we don’t see each other as much since he got married. We were just three brothers facing all this insanity together. Whenever any one of us got too cocky, we’d remind each other that this shit wasn’t handed to us, we’d remind each other of all the people who hated on us from the beginning, who didn’t believe we were any good. We used that as motivation to get us going and keep us going.

Given all that, performing with two other people, especially if they’re your brothers, can be difficult. We all brought different ideas to the table when we wrote music together, and they didn’t always coincide—one person wants to write a happy song, one person wants to write a sad song, and I might just want to write a song about taking a walk down the beach. So in 2010, around the time that Nick was doing his side project, Nick Jonas & the Administration, I decided to take some time on my own to experiment and go in a new direction. And it happened organically. I was creating music, which turned into recording music on my own, which turned into thinking about what it would feel like to perform those songs onstage.

One of my biggest career disappointments happened a few years ago, when I made a solo album that never saw the light of day. I recorded more than a dozen songs with a guy named Robert Schwartzman, who’s the lead singer of Rooney, and the album was kind of Hall & Oates–y. Had a Freddie Mercury vibe (he’s one of my biggest influences). I handed the songs in, and Hollywood Records was like, “This doesn’t work.” They said the songs were too weird and sounded like demos. The record company wanted me to use a team of Disney hit-makers—the people who wrote with Selena Gomez and Miley a couple of years ago. But it felt so fake to me. I called my manager and said, “I really want to slam my head into a wall right now.”

We reached out to some of the biggest producers in the business, Rob Knox and Danja, for the solo album that actually got released, called Fastlife. There was a track with Lil Wayne on which he said the word bitch, and when I heard the album was going to have a parental-advisory label because of it, half of me was thinking, Sweet! People are going to think I’m a bad­ass. The other half thought, That’s going to alienate a lot of fans in Middle America. I’m not saying that’s the sole reason why the album ultimately didn’t do as well as my previous records had. But I think there were a lot of cooks in the kitchen, and I think it was rushed, and I couldn’t speak up because I was scared to. They wanted me to be this Justin Timberlake clone. Even one of the heads of Hollywood Records said, “He’s the new Justin Timberlake!”

After that, it was back to being with the Jonas Brothers, the “boy band.” I’m not offended that everyone would think we were a boy band; I like some boy-band music. Even yesterday, somebody said, “You still dance, right?” and I said, “I never did that.” But I can see why people saw us that way. We largely had a teen audience, and we’ve been on teen-pop magazines where you’d have to cuddle puppies. We wanted to be perceived as a cool band, one that plays its own instruments and writes its own songs, but a lot of people didn’t notice that. Radio stations would be like, “Whoa! Really? you brought guitars? Why?” All I could think was, You’re kidding, right?

The Jonas Brothers’ breakup was going on for a lot longer than a lot of people thought. We hit a place where we just weren’t jelling on the same things, and we didn’t want to become a band that was worried about the fact that people didn’t understand how cool we were. The whole situation was breaking us up as a family, and we ultimately felt like we were holding each other back. I wanted to go sexier with a video, for example, and Kevin wasn’t comfortable with that, for his reasons. I mean, he’s married, and I get that. Nick also had a louder voice than me and Kevin when it came to music and major decisions—he took a leadership role in the band, which got to us after a while.

Things came to a head when we had a meeting where we thought we were going to talk about how to release our new music and it ended up shifting into this huge fight. That was the first time we were really honest with one another about a lot of stuff we weren’t happy with. The fight got loud. I was screaming. When Nick presented the idea of closing a chapter and moving on, I freaked out. I didn’t know whether to pick up and leave or just punch something, because I was furious. I’d spent so long working with my brothers on this band, and in my mind, it felt like we were just giving up. It didn’t make sense to me.

But once I started peeling back the layers, I understood. There were a lot of dysfunctional things going on. The music was getting stale, too, because we’d write it and record it and then it would sit around for a long time. After that meeting, we took a night to think about things, met again, and nothing was resolved, so we decided to take a week and think about it. Then we canceled the tour. It would have been really tough for me to go on a last-hurrah tour. I didn’t care about the money; I just wanted to figure out the right, healthy way for us to be good as a family.

We appeared on Good Morning America to talk about the breakup, because we thought that would be the professional way of explaining it and expressing our love to the fans—I think they felt they were owed an explanation. Some of them were mad that this was happening, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to take care of ourselves as family. And that’s fine. And that should be fine.

Now that I’m 24 and have control of my life, I’m going back to the drawing board. I’ve been through a shit-ton of stuff, but I’m genuinely excited because now I can go back to the studio with those people who I used to work with. I don’t have to rely on anyone else’s opinion, whether good or bad, and hear them say, “No, no, you can’t go write with them. That’s too weird for us.” Because weird works. Look at Lorde.

*This article originally appeared in the December 9, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Photos: Andreas Laszlo Konrath and Styling by Avo Yermagyan; Grooming by Marissa Machado for Kevin Murphy at Celestine Agency.; Andreas Laszlo Konrath and Styling by Avo Yermagyan; Grooming by Marissa Machado for Kevin Murphy at Celestine Agency.; Ames Peltekian/Camera Press/Redux; Dave Hogan/2008 Getty Images; Ethan Miller/2007 Getty Images