At first, Jonathan Roy wasn’t sure that he wanted to be a musician.
“I started writing songs when I was a kid, probably around 12 or 13 years old,” the Canadian songwriter tells American Songwriter. “But, I kinda let go of that at a certain age. I was shy and I didn’t want my dad to be disappointed. Really, I wanted to kinda follow in his footsteps—he was a hockey player. So, I put songwriting aside.”
But like a lot of writers, the passion for song craft was burning in his heart and no matter what he did, he couldn’t seem to extinguish it. After resisting for a few years, he gave in to the temptation and again found himself pouring his soul into songs. “At 18 or 19, I picked it up again and I just wrote away,” he explained. “I just rented a studio out and started working on a bunch of songs. That was the start of everything.”
Now 32 years old, Roy’s love for music has taken him on a wild ride—he started out just making music on his own and sharing it with his friends. Eventually, that led to him getting to spend a bit of time in the major label system, working up a name as a pop artist signed to Warner. But, after becoming disillusioned with that, he left the “industry,” bought a van and went out to California to work on the music he wanted to make, forging a sound that blends pop, indie, hip-hop and his own unique point-of-view into a captivating aural force. Now, on May 28, just a few years removed from his break away from Warner, he’s finally putting out the first proper collection of songs from this new era: titled My Lullaby, Roy’s new EP offers a hard-hitting sampling of his eclectic, genre-blending style.
Listening to My Lullaby, the first thing that might strike you is actually the thing Roy gravitated to first as a musician: his raw and emotive vocal performance. See, believe it or not, Roy first found his voice as a rapper—being shy, he felt that words were the easiest way for him to express himself. This was fulfilling enough, creatively, but after a while, he discovered something that would change everything.
“I found out who John Mayer was,” he explained. “Which led to Stevie Ray Vaughn, B.B. King, Jonny Lang and more artists like that. I loved their tone, so I was like ‘Man, I want to sing like those guys!’ I started trying to copy Mayer’s tone and Stevie’s tone and B.B. King’s tone and all of that, but I eventually figured out that you can’t really ‘copy’ guys like that. In the process, though, I figured out that I could actually sing, which was the first step to me finding my voice. Then, all I did was start to connect my lyrics to these vocal melodies I was working on—that was the start to me writing pop and blues songs.”
Then, from age 19 to 25, he continued refining his craft, doing anything he could to try to get better at singing or songwriting, especially in the pop-meets-meets-blues-meets-alternative lane. He did a few musicals, worked on a few tunes and even started building up a list of A-list collaborators, including Corey Hart, who proved to be Roy’s ticket to success. “He was kinda like my mentor,” Roy remembered. “It was through him that I got signed to Warner Music Canada.”
After that, everything changed for Roy. Getting thrown into the fast-paced, big money world of a major label, he quickly realized that there was a lot he still didn’t know. “I learned a lot,” he said. “It was a really, really cool experience to work with people who are, like, working with Coldplay and Ed Sheeran and all those huge artists out there. But, I was just starting out and I didn’t really know where I wanted to go musically yet. They kinda wanted me to go into the pop world, but I didn’t really want to do that. So, to be honest, I was lost. I was pretty fucking lost. Eventually, I wanted to go back to doing what I was doing at the beginning of my career, which is more-so alternative stuff.”
Earning his music career equivalent to “sea legs,” Roy was finding his voice and figuring out who he wanted to be as an artist. As exciting as this was for him, the label was a bit less thrilled with his change in direction.
“They didn’t want to go backwards and rebrand me,” he explained. “But I knew that going in this direction was the right thing to do—I realized that being in the major label world had chewed me up and I had lost the love for music. So, I sold everything I had, bought a van and left. My label was like ‘What the hell is he doing?’ I went to Los Angeles for six months and started writing again.”
For Roy, this experience was life-saving—reconnecting with music and remembering all the reasons he fell in love with it in the first place basically ushered in a paradigm shift for him. “It was like a whole new era started, a new chapter in my life,” he reflected. So, he indulged—he took his time out there, let inspiration find him and, eventually, worked up a batch of tunes to reflect the new-and-improved Jonathan Roy.
“I brought it to Warner and… they weren’t into it. They let me go, actually,” he said. “I was like ‘No, this is fine. I’m going to keep going into the alternative world.’”
And “go into the alternative world” Roy did—linking up with Brian Howes (Mother Mother, Boys Like Girls) among others, he began chugging out songs like never before. “I kept at it and met up with Brian,” he said. “We really hit it off and wrote a bunch of songs that were all just really resonating with me and where I was at in my life. Brian and I pretty much did the whole EP together.”
While some folks might imagine that getting a highly-coveted record deal with one of the biggest labels in the world and then losing it would be a catastrophic turn of events, for Roy, it was actually a blessing in disguise. The EP he wrote with Howes—My Lullaby—turned out to be the most personal, innovative and rewarding experience of his entire songwriting career.
“In my case, I needed to know what was best for me,” he said. “Turns out that getting dropped was the best thing that happened to me, because after that, I went full throttle in what I wanted to do. I think that’s the best thing an artist can do: what they really love and connect with. When that happens, people really believe it. People will connect with it and they’ll recognize that. Even with the internet and social media and all of that, the ‘bullshit radar’ is something everyone has. When people hear and see the real thing, they know it.”
Roy’s right—listening to My Lullaby, the authenticity and passion that went into the songs become apparent almost immediately. Part of that has to do with Roy’s voice—gravely and expressive, it delivers his lyrics with power and impact. At the same time, the music throughout the EP is a case study of genuinely genre-blending music. Whereas a lot of other titles claiming that oh-so-hot adjective are merely just modern developments of pre-existing sounds and styles, Roy’s music is truly a-genre. With swaggering electric guitars, his bluesy voice, the huge hip-hop bass, the dancey beats and the introspective themes, it’s not quite pop, not quite blues, not quite country and not quite alternative either. The only thing it is for certain is: 100 percent pure Jonathan Roy.
And that’s the way Roy likes it. Even though it’s been a bit of a turbulent, action-packed journey, he wouldn’t have had it any other way. “I think it took me going through the major label system to understand who I was and who I wasn’t, what I wanted and what I didn’t want,” he said. “It forced me to go off on my own and figure my shit out.”
And while, in the past, labels were a major gate-keeper determining who was able to forge a career and who wasn’t, today, artists have much more power in their hands. “Now, with YouTube and Spotify, you can spread music all over the world,” he remarked. “It’s amazing. I mean, CDs were great too—and, obviously, the money was a little better—but, man, the way that YouTube has been pushing our music makes you realize how powerful and amazing it actually is. It was hard for me to sell CDs outside of Quebec, but because of YouTube and all that stuff, I can connect with the whole world.”
With My Lullaby finally out, Roy is incredibly excited to properly launch this new era of his career and life. It’s been a long time since he was that shy kid trying to figure out if he wanted to play music or hockey, but now, Roy is able to be unabashedly himself in a space that rewards his efforts. And, of course, he’s got an eye on the road ahead too. “It’s really, really special,” he said. “I’m just now promoting the EP, but I’m also already in the studio getting lots of songs ready for the next one! So, I think 2021 and 2022 are going to be pretty spectacular years.”
Jonathan Roy’s new EP My Lullaby is out now and available everywhere. Watch the music video for his song “Lost” below: