In 2019, a feel-good, summer single entitled “Honeypie” became a homerun hit on TikTok. Featured in thousands of videos and racking up almost 80 million streams on Spotify alone, the runaway success of the tune forever changed the life of the 24-year-old artist behind it: JAWNY.
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Formerly known as Johnny Utah — and perhaps most famous for being the ex-boyfriend of pop star, Doja Cat — JAWNY is the new moniker for Jacob Sullenger and after the success of “Honeypie,” he got busy working on a follow-up. On October 27 via Interscope, he finally released that follow-up: a 10-song project entitled For Abby.
Blending cavalier slacker rock with hard-hitting indie-pop grooves, For Abby is an encapsulation of the best that bedroom pop has to offer. For starters, it shies away from the standard way of thinking about “albums” — instead, this release opts for the more casual (and creatively liberating) term “project.” But beyond that, For Abby paints a portrait of a young artist at a crossroad, walking the line between easy-going and contemplative. Faced with a difficult break-up, the demands of touring and the surmounting success of “Honeypie,” the record-making process wasn’t exactly easy for Sullenger. Falling into patterns of toxic thinking, he found himself unable to tap into his creativity without feeling like he had to top his hit. This thinking eventually built up until, in February of this past year, it burst: Sullenger decided to scrap the entire project and start over.
Since then, he’s been able to reignite his genuine passion and devotion to his craft… which really shows. Each track on For Abby feels purposeful, they all culminate together into this big image expressing what JAWNY is all about. Between the bombastic swagger of tracks like “Sabotage,” the nostalgic lo-fi-ness of tracks like “When I Fall In Love I Fall Apart” and the psychedelic vibes of tracks like “For Abby,” the project serves as a manifesto of sorts for Sullenger’s artistry as a whole.
Last week, American Songwriter hopped on the phone with Sullenger to discuss all of this. Charming, honest and endearingly goofy at times, he opened up about the year he’s had… and if you watch the documentary he made about it, you’ll see that it’s been one hell of a year. Nonetheless, Sullenger overcame and delivered a project that was worth the wait. Read our conversation below:
Tell me about the making of For Abby — what has the past year been like for you?
It’s been crazy. I had what I thought was a record — err, I guess “project” is the better term, I don’t think it really counts as a “record” — that was going to be released by Interscope. But… it wasn’t really anything. It was just a bunch of songs. It wasn’t what you would consider to be a record, it didn’t actually stand on its own. I went on tour in February and I just lost myself. Between the break-up I was going through, flying all over the world (while being scared of flying) and living out of a suitcase in hotel rooms, it made me… well, yeah, lose myself. I lost track of what I was doing.
When I came back home, I was immediately thrown into my house for quarantine. I was going nuts-o in my house trying to deal with all of these emotions while not being able to see anyone because of the pandemic. As much as that sucked, it also allowed for me to have more time to think about who I want to be and what I want to do. I basically came to the conclusion that other than the few tunes that were already released — “Honeypie” and “4Tounce” — I was going to completely start over the project I was working on. Completely new, with a totally different direction. I was ready to try my hardest and make something better.
I had to call up my team and my label and say “Hey, what if I restarted this thing?” Everyone got a little nervous because I was already not very far in the last project to begin with, but it ended up being awesome. I spent the following four or five months in my house working on music and working through my emotions. I got to work with some really cool people like Dan Nigro, Jason Evigan, Nate Cyphert, my buddy Jaime and more. It ended up being this really beautiful thing. I’ll never regret it. Restarting my project was the best decision I ever made and I’m really, really happy with it.
How did you approach re-doing the project? You mention that it didn’t feel like a “record” — how did you change that?
Well, here’s what happened: I went overseas with my label, Interscope, to promote the new music I had coming out. There’s a song of mine called “Anything You Want” — it’s a great song and I like it, but it just wasn’t what I wanted for the project. I was just lost. I was writing music that I didn’t really… well, I wasn’t writing music for the right reasons. So, I’m going to all of these different markets — like Germany and Australia — playing this song live with my band, looking out at all of these industry people. By the end of it, it became soul-crushing. I was like “Man, I don’t really know if I love this song. I don’t know if this is the kind of music I want to make.” It was a great song, but do I really want to be playing it in 25 years?
So, when I got back home I went into my studio and tried to change up my entire process. I started everything by scratch and went back to the basics. I was a producer before I became a recording artist, so luckily I have that beat-making skill-set. I would start by making a drum beat and just letting it loop. I’d let that play around the house and eventually I’d pick up an instrument — a guitar or synth or whatever it may be — and I’d just start playing over it. Slowly, after 30 minutes or an hour, it’d start to become a song. I’d be like “Oh, I like this guitar loop,” so I’d track it. Then I’d pick up my bass, then something else — it would slowly start building into the meat of what a song is. I would do that over the course of a full day and then wake up the next day and start over again with a different beat.
So, that’s what I did instead of working on old songs that I had already made or trying to polish something. For most of these songs, I completely started from 0 and just followed the mood I was in for that day. If I was a little angrier, then the instrumental would come out a bit angrier. It was just really nice to be in that realm, playing instruments. I was reminded that music is what I love to do and I’m in it for the right reasons. I want to make the best music I can make for my fans. I’m not trying to get on the radio or on a specific playlist — that’s what I mean when I say that I “lost myself” last year. It’s not that I was making music to sell-out, but I do think that having one of my songs get big screwed with my head as far as writing new stuff goes. I felt like I was expected to follow-up that song. I had to drop that entire mentality.
In the documentary you made to go along with this project, you mention that some folks will never know what all went into this record-making process — how does that dichotomy make you feel?
Well, I’m very self-aware. I know that I have fans and I know that there are people out there who enjoy my music. At the same time, I’m also very aware of the fact that I’m a rookie artist and a lot — like 80% — of my fanbase is here from one song that I put out last year that’s very happy, very upbeat and doesn’t really have a deeper meaning to it. It’s just a fun song, what you hear is what you get. My thought when I said THAT in the documentary was “If people are here from that song and they just listen to this project at face value, I don’t know if they’re going to know the story.”
But, at the point of time when I said that, I hadn’t really fully fleshed-out the mixtape idea and the interludes and all of that. Since saying that in the documentary, I think that I’ve found a better way to convey the story. That’s why I did the weird, lo-fi tape intro, that’s why I did the interludes. I was trying to find a way to tie these songs together so that if people listen to it start-to-finish, they understand it more. Even though it’s all technically fictional, there are things on these songs that are nonfiction and very real. There is hurt in these songs. I hope that I convey it in a way where people can enjoy it and still feel that the emotions on it are real. I hope I did a good job of conveying both without being boring, but I guess time will tell.
How have you felt about the reaction the record’s garnered thus far?
I haven’t paid attention to any industry stuff at all, I only base my judgment off of what my fans think about it. I’ve seen pretty good stuff! Everyone who’s messaged me or commented or replied to my story or whatever told me that they enjoyed it. That makes it all worth it. Everyone’s been really supportive and really cool. That’s all I care about — if my fans like it, then that’s enough for me.
Backtracking a little bit — did you have an “a-ha moment” when you thought of that mixtape idea? What kind of impact did it have on you when you pulled the record together thematically?
One night, me, my brother and my manager came up with the idea while we were hanging out. We were all talking out loud about that thing I mentioned earlier — I’m not hating on any other artists, but there is a factual reality that a lot of artists will be popping, then they’ll sign with a major label and put out a record that’s just a big clump of songs. It really sounds like they just picked 11 files out of a big folder of ideas — it’s a project of no substance, really. It’s nice, it can be cool, but it doesn’t mean anything. That’s just a personal thing that I have against records sometimes.
So, we were talking about that. I was like “Listen, I’ve never made a record before, but I don’t want anyone to listen to mine and say that about it.” Over the next couple of hours of talking about that, we came up with the mixtape idea. From there, I put all of it together that night. I wanted to do it while the idea was fresh, before I forgot it. I got a buddy of mine to play the part of the girl — it all came together really nice.
But, yeah, I have a weird thing about that… I just don’t like it when a project just feels like a clump of songs. I don’t really like projects to begin with, but, I’m at that point now where I was like “Okay, I need to figure out how to do this in a cool way.” I’m a rookie — before this, I only dropped singles. I had never made a full project — turns out, it’s hard! But, I wanted to make sure I was doing it the right way. I wanted to make it mean something.
On November 18, you put out a new music video for “Sabotage” directed by Zach Bailey — what can you tell us about it?
Oh dude… these videos are fucking crazy! Zach’s a fucking mad man. He’s one of those people where you can throw him the craziest idea you can think of — like “Hey, I want to crash a pink Ferrari into a wall” — and he can do it. He can figure out a way to do anything. He hit me up and was like “Yo, how do you feel about being lifted into the air by a giant crane?” I was like “Let’s do it” and within a week he pulled everything together and we did it. He’s a fucking genius, and he’s awesome at what he does. It was such a pleasure to work with him.