Guitar Center has become known for its competitive events to help artists develop their skills and take their careers to the next level, such as its drum-off and its “Onstage with Vince Gill” contest. In what may be the retail music chain’s most popular program, some 10,000 people entered Guitar Center’s Sixth Annual Singer-Songwriter competition, with the final five contestants performing original music at the Troubadour in Los Angeles on March 24th. This year’s winner was John Russell, a modern pop singer and writer from Savannah, Georgia.
Russell, who won with his songs “Dance For Our Lives” and “On Giving Up,” writes and performs on both piano and guitar, and had the same “pinch me” reaction that other contestants have had over the years when his name was a called as the winner. “You dream about these things,” he said, “but then you think, How, in this sea of people, how likely am I really to be selected, picked out of the crowd? I really lucked out.”
Many people think about entering the contest, but taking that final step of actually submitting a video and waiting to see what happens is another matter. Russell’s confidence in himself and the encouragement of his wife and others, as well as being picked by singer John Legend to perform as his opening act at South by Southwest a couple years ago, all played a big role. But the example of someone he’d never even met was the key in helping him make the final decision.
“What really prompted me to enter in the first place was a girl named Tess Henley [profiled in the May-June 2014 issue of American Songwriter], who had won the third singer-songwriter contest,” he said. “I was just amazed at what she did and at her performance, and it seemed like such a cool program, and she really inspired me to do it, to go for it. I knew going in that, if I was going to do it, that I not only would have to give it 100 percent, but really work my butt off and strategize and make the most of working with the machine and the mechanism for how to get noticed by the panel of judges and the producers.”
While he lives in Savannah today, Russell grew up in Detroit, and even though he’s only in his early 20s he was affected by the sounds and artists of the Motown era. “Motown, absolutely,” he simply says when asked about his influences. “The Jackson Five, and Michael Jackson of course, who was phenomenal. And Ray Charles and James Brown. The Bee Gees are another influence. Today I listen to Bruno Mars, Coldplay, the Chainsmokers … and I really like Mark Ronson’s work. I love music that makes me move, makes me want to dance. With any of my songs that’s what I aim to do – evoke some sort of reaction, pull at the heartstrings with a ballad, or make people dance, make them happy.”
As the grand prize winner, Russell took home $25,000 and a ton of new gear from such companies as Martin, Fishman and Roland. He also won a mentoring songwriting session with Australian singer-songwriter Cody Simpson, and the recording in Los Angeles of a four-song EP with Grammy-winning producer RedOne (Lady Gaga, The Band Perry). “I’m super-excited to be working with RedOne,” he said. “He’s a modern pop producer who’s relevant, writing hits for today’s market. I want to write pop music and I think he and I are on the same page with that, but I think we also both want to promote things like love in the world and unity and hope. I think we really connected in our conversation, we even talked about soccer for five minutes and I ended up thinking I’m the only American who likes soccer.”
Russell said that playing the stage of the Troubadour was another part of being in the finals that he never could have imagined. “I never dreamed that I could play the Troubadour,” he said. “Not only some of my favorite artists – the Eagles, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, James Taylor, Elton John – but modern day people like the Foo Fighters and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, even John Legend has played there. I was sitting in the green room thinking, If I didn’t win tonight this would still be enough, to experience this moment, to have played here.”
Russell, who once played against type trying to use jazz chords in a high school screamo band, started writing in his teens. “Once I started writing it became about storytelling, and it became about the effectiveness and the purpose of those stories, and the ways that I can communicate them that can change people’s lives. How I can help someone who’s in a rough place, or just make someone’s day brighter or bring hope to someone. I want to bring light to the world. I’m just an optimistic guy and it kind of invades everything that I do.”
You can hear more of Russell’s material at johnrussellmusic.com.