For 20-year-old rising pop sensation AJ Mitchell, songwriting began when he was young —really young; like, five years old. It began at the foot of his father, whose prized possession was an old keyboard. While Mitchell’s parents would “blast” Stevie Wonder, KISS, Enya, classical music, and other varieties around the house, it was listening to his dad write and play that sparked everything. In fact, Mitchell says, he wanted to compete with his pops at the effort, even then. Now, all of that work has paid off and Mitchell, who has already garnered tens of millions of song streams, is set to release his debut LP, SKYVIEW, this fall (now Oct 8).
“I had a huge passion for it and such a love,” Mitchell tells American Songwriter. “Really, there was nothing else that compared to my love for music. Before school, I would write songs. During school, I would think about music. After school, I would hop on the piano and start writing.”
Mitchell, who has a crystal clear singing voice, began to hone it just out of pure love of participating in song, in melody. Thinking about it now, he realizes he was practicing, honing before he knew what those concepts fully meant. Repetition came from pure joy. Over the next few years, Mitchell wrote, and, at 13 years old, he composed what would later become his most significant release to date, his single, “Used To Be.”
“I started posting my songs online,” Mitchell says, “especially Instagram because my friends said, ‘You got to put yourself out there.’ So I got on Instagram and started uploading my songs online and a couple of months later, I started to gain a fan base from that.”
The newfound online recognition led Mitchell to make a move from his small-town home of Belleville, Illinois to Los Angeles. In L.A., Mitchell moved into a place called Team 10 House. He lived with other young people, all of whom had large social media followings. The time was instructive for the aspiring artist but not in the way it was likely supposed to be. Instead of a celebration of ability, it was a catty, backstabbing place.
“It made me learn that you have to find people that look out for you,” Mitchell says. “That was a place where no one was looking out for each other.”
While Mitchell’s life at home with his parents was solid, educational, and inspirational, his hometown wasn’t always the same. Mitchell is glad for the varied, diverse group of friends he grew up with there. He carries with him local pride. But he also learned a lot from seeing the downside of the poor community, which included gangs, drugs, and other dangers.
“It made me realize,” he says, “this isn’t the place I want to be for myself. It gave me the push to want to move to Los Angeles and start a career and really just do my thing because I want to make a difference. I want to put Belleville on the map and I’m doing that with my album, SKYVIEW. I named it after a drive-in movie theater in my hometown.”
On his new record, Mitchell displayed the signature singing ability and pop draw that made him a talked-about artist (see: “Slow Dance”). But he also demonstrates a reflective side. For example, on the track, “Miss You,” Mitchell speaks openly about death; specifically, the idea of his parents passing away.
“When I write my music,” he says, “I really just want to speak from the heart.” He adds, “It’s weird to think about, my parents are still here but I miss them. That as a concept—I really just wanted to talk about that. It came out of being very vulnerable and emotional.”
As the young singer looks ahead, he has big goals. He wants to be an impactful, respectable artist, perhaps one that stays near the top of the charts. And Mitchell may in fact achieve that—and sooner than some may think. But as he reaches for those gold rings, he says he will keep music—especially music composition—at the front of his mind. Good, surprising, and remarkable compositions. That’s what’s always mattered most.
“At the end of the day,” Mitchell says, “I grew up writing music. I love singing but I truly love creating. That’s what I do every day.”