In a candid interview, the musician talks about surviving the music industry machine and rediscovering the joy of creativity.
On the face of things, Jack Johnson is one of the lucky ones. Part of a crop of viral stars like Jacob Sartorious, The Vamps and Greyson Chance, he rose to sudden fame as one half of duo Jack & Jack in the 2010s after breakout success on video-app Vine. Alongside real-life BFF Jack Gilinsky he was catapulted from sleepy Omaha to the bright lights of LA, landing a major label contract and breaking into the charts along the way.
But, as Johnson tells HUNGER, the trappings of success only concealed his growing frustration with his label’s artistic direction. Earlier this year, he and Gilinsky inevitably announced they were going on hiatus from the Jack & Jack project, freeing Johnson up to pursue his own project: JVCKJ. Recently dropping the solo EP PASTEL: The Early Days, showcasing a more experimental sound, he’s fully in control of his creative vision like never before.
Below, he opens up about his work as a solo artist, why the “pop” label doesn’t speak to him and his advice on navigating the industry.
Great to meet you! To get us started, what’s your earliest musical memory?
My earliest musical memory would have to be watching my grandpa play piano when I was little. He would always entertain the family with Christmas songs every holiday season, and I always remembered wanting to be able to play like him one day. He’s still way better than me I can’t lie.
Tell us something you’ve learned over the course of your career so far?
That nothing is going to simply happen by sitting around and waiting. If you have a vision, only YOU can get it in motion. Of course, having a team that believes in you is the other half to this equation, but without self-belief and a clear vision for yourself, nothing will ever come to fruition. Nobody is gonna have the same sense of urgency as you when it comes to your life and career, so be proactive and go make it happen!
Is there much separation between you and your artist alter-ego?
Very little I would say. I suppose I may be a bit cockier on certain tracks than I may be in real life, but that’s really how I feel when I’m in the studio. Untouchable almost. I think knowing what I can do on the microphone brings that braggadocios attitude out sometimes, but that’s what makes hip hop fun! And some of my records are soft as hell, emotional records. So I always juxtapose.
Who’s an artist you’d most like to collaborate with and why?
I don’t think anything would be cooler in my books than going bar for bar with Lil Wayne. Throwin’ back and forth punchlines with one of my rap idols would be next level, and I’m ready for whenever that day may come!
What songs do you have on repeat at the moment?
Two right now are “Heartbreak Anniversary” by Giveon, and “7 Summers” by Morgan Wallen. Both beautiful records that make me feel some type of way.
An eclectic choice! So, what are some of the inspirations that fed into your debut EP?
Striving to be a better version of myself. PASTEL is an acronym for “Progression always starts through experiencing life”. Nobody gets anywhere or makes any progress by being stagnant. You have to say yes to more shit, get out of your routine and experience the world around you while you still have two functioning legs and a sharp mind! I want to inspire the youth, and really anyone for that matter, to embark on that journey they are on the fence about. To shoot your shot with that person you’ve had your eye on. Whatever is gonna saturate your life! We are all pastel colours, striving to become a more vivid version of ourselves. Put simply, it’s all about personal growth.
Definitely feel you there. Speaking of growth, how does working as a solo artist differ to your work as part of Jack & Jack?
It’s been very liberating in the sense that I don’t have a label or manager shoving demos down my throat, saying, “Hey guys cut this cool song, you would sound good on it!” And then we cut it and yeah it sounds cool, but I don’t feel proud or attached to the song in any way. Our label definitely wanted us to be a pop act, and it seemed like I would only really get to showcase my abilities on a track here, or a track there. Now everything is coming from my mind. I’m choosing my beats if not producing them myself and writing all of my lyrics, which has always been what made music fun. I feel like a kid in the studio again. I’m just excited to dive a bit deeper on this project and talk about some things that are really important to me.
What’s some advice you’d like to share with aspiring musicians?
Own your shit. I know you’ve probably heard it before, but you truly [get] the upper hand when you aren’t in anyone’s pockets and are recording or releasing stuff guerilla-style until the day comes where that one song hits. Now you have all of the bargaining power, you own your masters, you’re essentially your own boss! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with label partnerships, but I’ve seen people get signed and develop this false sense of security like their career is going to be all blossoms and daisies going forward. I noticed it was almost the opposite. I felt like I lost my identity as an artist, and wasn’t really hands-on with anything because there was always, “someone who’s got it covered”. I like having the reigns, and I would recommend it to any true creative who knows what their vision is. If you are going to do a deal, make sure it’s on your terms since it’s your fuckin’ music!
If you weren’t in music what would you be doing?
I wanted to be an orthopaedic surgeon, which is just a fancy name for a bone doctor. But God knows where the winds would have taken me.
Finally, what’s one thing you want to communicate with your music?
Days get better. I’ll make a song about a breakup or some sad shit, but then the next record will lift your spirits and be something you can just vibe out to. This is kinda like the sad days in life. They are only temporary. Those days of fun and excitement and feeling alive are right around the corner. Ups and downs are a part of it all. I think my music and this project can almost represent that notion.
JVCKJ’s debut solo EP, PASTEL: The Early Days, is out now. Stream it here.
7 December 2020