“When I went out to Los Angeles, I really didn’t know anyone,” Johnny Gates told American Songwriter. “When I had lived in Nashville before, we had a major record deal and I was able to write with anybody in town. Then, all of a sudden, I was in a city of 13 million people and I only knew five of them, and no one knew who I was. So, I basically started over again.”
As scary as the prospect was, starting over again actually proved to be a blessing in disguise for Gates, who is perhaps best known as a contestant from the 12th season of NBC’s The Voice. First embarking on his music career as a fresh-faces 18-year-old providing lead vocals for the rock band Runaway Saints, it wasn’t until this life-changing journey to Los Angeles that Gates began to really find his voice, as well as the confidence to make music the way he wanted to make it. Now, on April 7, Gates is back in Nashville and is putting out his newest single, “Reckless,” which is a testament to the unique blend of country, pop and rock the now 35-year-old has become known for.
With a sound akin to a marriage between the Big Loud country scene and the Los Angeles pop scene, “Reckless” shows off Gates’ newfound sense of liberation when it comes to songwriting. See, even though Runaway Saints had a major label deal when they were based in Nashville, it took going to Los Angeles and coming back for Gates to figure out exactly who he was and what he wanted to say.
“When I first went to Los Angeles, I actually moved out there with the band,” Gates said, beginning his story. “We were doing shows around Hollywood, doing the whole ‘Los Angeles band’ thing and it was going pretty well, actually. But, then my bandmates were like ‘You know, we miss Nashville.’ Right around that same time, some of my solo shows started popping off more than the main shows.”
With obvious tension growing between his solo success and the state of the band, Runaway Saints ultimately decided it would be best to take a break—Gates stayed in Los Angeles and the rest of the band moved back to Nashville, waiting for the right time to regroup. But then, opportunity struck.
“The Voice actually hit me up on Instagram,” Gates said.
While that alone would be enough to make nearly any unsung vocalist overwhelmed with joy, Gates wasn’t so quick to celebrate. He had done the major record deal thing, he had gotten a glimpse at what the inner workings of the industry were like and, at first, he wasn’t so sure he wanted to do the show. “I remember getting that message and thinking ‘Eh, I don’t know if that’s for me,’” he said. “I feel like there’s always been a negative vibe around stuff like that—reality singing shows, that is. So, I passed on it.”
But, after things went further south with Runaway Saints, Gates had a change of heart. “A little while after that, in a band rehearsal, we got in a blow-out fight about the guys moving back to Nashville and the band ‘ending,’” he explained. “Well, I literally walked out of the rehearsal, went to the parking lot, got out my phone and called the casting person for The Voice to say: ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’”
Now, this is the point where the plot really started accelerating for Gates. A bit hesitant to do the show to begin with, he quickly found out just how exciting, enlightening and challenging being on The Voice can be.
“When I did The Voice, I had only been in a band, I had never done anything solo,” he said. “The band started in high school and we had a 15 year run doing just that one project. So, The Voice kinda showed me ‘Okay, I can do this on my own. I can do this solo thing and maybe it can actually work.’ Plus, it also taught me to really truly appreciate the art of singing—stuff like warming-up, treating it like a pro does. When you’re doing the band thing, it’s just like ‘Play a show. Play a show. Play a show’ and then ‘Drink and party. Drink and party. Drink and party’ and then ‘Play a show’ again. But, when it came to The Voice, I remember walking down the hallway of the hotel and hearing everybody singing and warming-up. I thought to myself: ‘Oh my God, I’m around some amazing singers.’”
In such talented company, Gates couldn’t help but be inspired… and feel a little silly about his previous hesitation. “It definitely made me appreciate the show more,” he said. “Say what you want about talent shows and stuff like that, but it’s super stressful to get on that stage knowing that literally millions of people are watching. You have to deliver. So, I know that those shows aren’t the coolest thing in the world, but it gave me an appreciation for vocalists. Even some of these kids who have never played a real show before got on that stage and sang their asses off in the most stressful situation ever. So, I walked away from The Voice thinking I could do a solo thing.”
And “do a solo thing” he did. Getting a residency at Los Angeles’ Hotel Cafe, Gates began working on a new batch of songs with the intention of building up a catalogue for his solo releases. With a new vigor of confidence pushing him onward, he also came to the realization that if he was going to do this solo thing the right way, he was going to have to return to his true stomping grounds: Nashville.
“After being on The Voice, you can walk through an airport and people will know who you are,” he said. “For three to six months, you’re kinda like ‘Oh my God, is this happening?’ It’s kinda nuts. But after that, it kinda fizzles away—I was back to being alone with my guitar, walking around Hollywood. So, I started writing and writing and writing, preparing to move back to Nashville.”
Quickly, Gates started finding producers and began to build himself a team—he was prepared to give everything he had this time around. “I didn’t want to show up again with nothing,” he said. “I wanted to come back having released a few songs on Spotify and Apple and stuff—I wanted to have something in my back pocket that I could play for people. I basically wrote a batch of strong songs and thought ‘Okay, I think these songs and their high caliber can help me get back into Nashville.’ Once I had that catalogue, I felt like I had another legit shot of being a real artist.”
And a big part of that catalogue was Gates’ newest single, “Reckless.” Co-written with Tyler Thompson and Mason Thornley, the song is emblematic of the air of authenticity that Gates wants his artistry to exude.
“For ‘Reckless,’ I kinda wanted to write about a situation I had been in before,” he said. “You try to end a relationship, but you end up missing the other person. Usually, you let those feelings pass, but on ‘Reckless,’ I kinda explore what would happen if you didn’t let go of it. What would happen if you tried to get back together and make it work? What would happen if I make that ‘mistake’ and just call her up? What if we just hung out again to see where it goes? I was trying to be fluid and authentic with it.”
That word—“authentic”—comes up a lot when Gates considers what he wants his music to be like. In fact, that’s why he gave it a name inspired by his own life in Nashville; he calls his genre “East Music Row.”
“That’s what my life in Nashville is,” he said. “If I’m going to be 100% authentic about myself, then who I am is split between my time spent in East Nashville and on Music Row. When I lived in Nashville the first time around, we’d hang in East and party and stuff. Then, I’d wake up the next morning and go write songs on Music Row. But, I’d be writing the songs about a life that I wasn’t really living. So, this time around, I’m trying to incorporate my authentic life—the bars I hang out in and the people I hang out with over in East Nashville. But, I still incorporate the Music Row too—I’m obsessed with Music Row. That’s where I learned how to write songs. The songwriters down there are the ones who gave me my first shot. So, this time, I’m really focused on authentically being who I am. Before, I was just trying to chase stuff.”
Having performed his “comeback” show in Nashville at the end of last month, Gates is revving up for a big summer. As a true troubadour in the modern world, he’s eager to get back on the road and start sharing his music with fans in-person again.
“I love being a singer-songwriter,” he said. “I actually grew up reading American Songwriter. I would go to Barnes & Noble or Borders and I’d just sit in the magazine aisle, reading each issue. So, I can’t wait to get back to playing shows and sharing my songs, even if it’s just solo with me and a guitar. I’ve been cooped up in my apartment writing for a year, but songs are meant to be heard and played. I really can’t wait to get back out to some dive bar with a Budweiser sitting on stage next to me, just playing these songs I’ve been dreaming of playing for a year.”
Listen to Johnny Gates’ new single “Reckless” below: