A career in music comes with a heavy price tag. John-Robert has certainly paid for his ambitious nature, exchanging his childhood for live performances, Nashville trips, and honing his producer credibility.
“In fifth grade, my family was looking forward the entire year to a canoe trip. My father took me to Nashville instead, because he wanted me to talk to some producers and play a show,” confides the rising pop musician to American Songwriter. Walking the line between holding onto youth and cracking early adulthood is a delicate routine, indeed.
“It’s very much a give and take. I also wasn’t being invited out to many parties. I really had nothing to do but produce music and sort through some feelings. And I picked up journaling.”
He soon discovered music was far more than a passing fancy. He was unearthing a voice he may not have had otherwise. “It ended up being my happy place, my safe place. It’s like a chef in his kitchen. You know where all your spices are and what goes good together. You’re down to experiment. I went on a trip to the beach for a week once, and I brought my setup and stayed inside. I didn’t even want to go out.”
Out of Edinburg, Virginia, a town of 1,000 residents, John-Robert lived a pretty idyllic small-town upbringing ─ with a dose of angsty, teenage rebellion. “There was a lot of redneck hoodlum stuff,” he confesses. “A lot of BB guns, explosions, and fire.”
Mostly, he corralled his friends into going swimming at the local pool or tossing a football in the backyard. Life was pleasant enough, and as he got older, things shifted. He got his first guitar when he was 12, mostly so he could strictly cover Plain White T’s “Hey There, Delilah” on constant loop. The art of the cover song, of which he did plenty on his YouTube channel, taught him how to contort his body and voice around the instrument. “I didn’t really appreciate it until about a year in,” he says.
When he was 15, he began putting pen to paper and often drew inspiration from such artists as Bob Dylan and countless indie-folk outliers. Funny enough, his high school English teacher soon became crucial to his understanding of poetry and structure. “They really taught me how to analyze and appreciate poetry. At first, I took poetry very literally,” he says. “T.S. Eliot was very cryptic, and it infuriated me.”
Meanwhile, Justin Bieber was taking over the world, amassing a rabid fan base and selling out arena tours. Everywhere John-Robert turned, he was slapped with the obvious, and maddening, comparisons to his own work. “Everyone was looking for the next Justin Bieber, and they’d write songs for you. They were very heartless, faceless. Nobody was going to tell my story better than myself,” he says. “I started gaining a sense of personal responsibility and really got into production and songwriting. As pretentious as it sounds, if you want it done right, do it yourself.”
John-Robert is a commanding presence. He knows what he wants and doesn’t stop until he gets it. There’s little hesitation not only in his work, including current single “Urs,” but in conversation. As he grew up, his craft grew, too. He began experimenting with a looping pedal, a tool used to develop textures, genre-blurring, and other cool, acrobatic tricks in pop music.
“A lot of power comes from personally electing your sound, samples, instruments. It gave me a sense of purpose to wake up everyday,” he says. “At the end of the day, it was knowing I’d have a scratch demo, even if it was a complete song or just a loop. There’s never a right musical combination for myself. I’m very scared to get complacent in my sound and style. I’m constantly introduced to new artists and inspired by them. That’s what keeps me going.”
He measures his worth in a song’s ability to affect people, letting other’s approval slide off his back.
Originally written in high school, “Urs” smolders with crackling guitar and John-Robert’s uneasy view on love. While he has certainly done some maturing, he carries “the song as a memento, a reminder of the place I was in then. I don’t think of it as me reliving where I was. It’s a reminder of growth, mentally and musically. The song feels a little endearing to me, too, and the passion I had for that situation.”
In revisiting the song, lacing up richer textures and a more volatile vocal energy, he opts to document his musical “story in chronological order. I thought I’d take things back to earlier works. I wanted to give my friend Tim credit on the song. I think the baseline is too good to pass up, and the tuning is a bit obscure. I only capo the highest four strings on the fourth fret. I thought people would get a kick out of that.”
With “Urs” and 2019’s “Adeline” debut single in his arsenal, John-Robert is signed to Nice Life and Warner Records, a decision he most certainly didn’t take lightly. His parents, of course, loved the Nice Life team, but the crew also just seemed to get him and his artistry.
“I had talked to a lot of other people. Nice Life isn’t looking to alter the artist. They’re looking to enhance the artist. That’s really difficult to find. They do it well,” he explains. “Before signing to Warner, they gave me a lot of resources, like vocal lessons and a place to create. When I first moved to LA, they gave me a place to stay for a couple months. That feels unheard of.”
He adds, “They really helped with my confidence and understanding of fashion.”
Producer/songwriter Rick Reedy (Lizzo, Halsey, Maggie Rogers) was another piece of the puzzle he needed. Their electric intensity together evokes James Blake, yet its John-Robert’s signature vocal tone that injects melodies and lyrics with even more emotional currency. “When I first met Ricky, he thought I had ADD. I was bouncing off the walls and just fucking excited to be there. His studio is very inspiring, a lot of natural light.”
Even more, John-Robert crossed a promising new threshold of his creativity. “I keep getting worried I’ll get bored with music, but Ricky wants to learn. He’s constantly inspired and inspiring to work with. He’s really refined his tastes, and he’s very decisive. Watching him work with a whole bunch of gizmos and gadgets that are very obscure was inspiring to see. He has a very calming presence and is always there when you need him. He’s been a guiding hand.”
Photo Credit: Spencer Ford