Musician:  JOHN-ROBERT

Music Video:  “Pelican

John-Robert is a 19 year-old artist and producer who will release his debut EP Bailey Barely Knew Me on May 22, 2020 on Nice Life Recording Company / Warner Records—staking out fresh and unexpected new territory in contemporary pop that incorporates a wide range of influences, as seen with his yearning, acoustic-based “Adeline.”

“I started writing songs to figure out what I’m about, my guiding principles and why people act the way they do,” says John-Robert. He’s been performing more than half his life, going from small-town open mics to YouTube videos to building his skills as an instrumentalist and producer. He got signed by Grammy-nominated producer, songwriter and founder of Nice Life Recording Company, Ricky Reed, who also signed Lizzo to Nice Life and developed her, and has worked with such artists as Halsey, Leon Bridges, Maggie Rogers and Twenty One Pilots.

Growing up in the tiny Shenandoah Valley town of Edinburg, Virginia, there wasn’t much to do. John-Robert is the oldest of four kids raised by a pharmacist mother and a stay-at-home dad. “He couldn’t leave the house unless he took us with him,” says John-Robert, “so we listened to his records a lot, and to his music on the car radio. He loved Chicago and Michael Bublé. When I heard the original songs that Michael Bublé was covering, I thought they weren’t giving him credit.”

For his 12th birthday, John-Robert got a guitar, beginning his path of making music on his own. When he was 15, a cousin showed him the basics of GarageBand and he started producing tracks. “I was finding sounds I had never heard,” he says, “learning how to manipulate audio, learning vocabulary so I could communicate with other musicians—it always felt like progress. And that gave me a real sense of purpose, knowing that day by day, my music was getting better.”

John-Robert wrote the first few songs on Bailey Barely Knew Me when he was still in high school. He graduated a year early and was accepted with a scholarship to Berklee College of Music. Instead, he decided to go to LA for the summer and got inspired. He returned home, moved back into his parent’s basement, and continued crafting his songs. He was sleeping all day, working on music all night, doing open mics and house concerts with kids from nearby James Madison University.

Eventually, he sent Reed “Adeline” and “Friends,” which both made it to the EP. In less than twenty minutes, Bailey Barely Knew Me actually takes us through John-Robert’s own musical evolution, from the spare voice and guitar of the opening songs to more spacey and psychedelic sounds on the closing, more recent compositions.

We talked with John-Robert about his creative inspiration, his love for songwriting, the old-school music that has inspired him, his new EP and the idea behind his latest video “Pelican.”

with M Music & Musicians magazine publisher, Merlin David

Tell us how the idea for “Pelican” came to you.
“Pelican” came at a time I was hanging around JMU [James Madison University] and going to their house shows. I was introduced to dream pop and surf rock. I didn’t know guitars and synths could go hand in hand and complement each other. As I was thinking of the artwork for the song, I liked the visual of a slender guy wearing jeans, boots and a flannel—having a pelican head while smoking a cigarette. You know, proper college grunge. I reflected on a past relationship—remembering alt-J’s Joe Newman explaining his lyric “Please don’t go, I’ll eat you whole” (from “Breezeblocks”). I stirred all this in a pot and came up with the vibe and theme for “Pelican.”

How did your debut EP Bailey Barely Knew Me evolve?
The earliest song to make it onto the EP (“Urs”) was written when I was 16. It was with a minimal setup in my bedroom. At that point, I could pretty much only handle pressing the record button in Logic. Now, I’m much more comfortable with DAW and experimenting with production. The EP went from simplistic folk/singer-songwriter to whatever you wish to label it now. My taste in music and instruments has changed over the past three years—rapidly, especially during this pivotal and explorative time in my life.

Is there one song you are especially glad made it onto this recording?
I wasn’t sure if “Pelican” was sonically too different for this project. But it adds exciting new taste to the EP. The bassline is unconventional, and the lyrics are a little less on the nose. I did all the guitar work and a fair bit of production in my basement—so my bedroom was able to be credited as a location.

How did the idea for “Adeline” come to you?
I was pacing my kitchen alone when the first line struck me. I played the chord progression for months. I gave the lyrics time and the story unfolded itself in the verses—one by one. I didn’t plan out the theme and say “this is my angle.” I gave my subconscious the wheel when writing the first draft, then adjusted the lyrics to tell a more cohesive story.

Who originally inspired you to write songs?
Originally, I was a ride-or-die Wiggles fan. (Laughs) Then, Jon Bellion would put out these videos of him producing while songwriting. I would watch those when I got discouraged with the process. I was enamored with his production and sample choices. I was heavily inspired by Ed Sheeran’s work with the Boss RC-30 Loop Station. Before I began working in Logic Pro X, my first demos were made in a looper pedal. It was empowering to see a solo singer-songwriter sell out Wembley.

Tell us when something unique inspired you to write a song.
Personal experience and being turned on to new music inspires me. A perfect example: I once fell hard for somebody while still getting to know them. In the same week, I was introduced to Labi Siffre’s 1972 album, Crying Laughing Loving Lying. Naturally I was inspired to write this cute tune called “Lovely Lady Lemon Balm”—a short song with earnestly sweet lyrics about how the person made me feel.

What songwriting tip would you like to offer?
Be honest and don’t overthink it. Trust your gut more than your logical reasoning because music is subjective and therefore it is impossible to reach perfection. However, if you know in your gut a lyric or guitar part is lackluster—then, it probably is.

What instruments/equipment can you not live without?
I take my Arturia MiniLab, MacBook Pro and LaCie external with me—everywhere. Those are the essentials. As lame as it sounds, I would take them out to friends’ parties, in case I wasn’t having fun or got bored. On top of that, Universal Audio’s Apollo Twin interface, Shure SM7 mic and Yamaha HS5 monitors completed my setup. The Apollo and SM7 make my audio sound clean, and the HS5’s eliminate headphone fatigue and gives me a more accurate and even playback. The whole setup (minus the monitors) is easily portable and it’s my laboratory.

Top 5 Musicians who inspired you?
From late 2000’s to early 2010’s, Ed Sheeran inspired me because I started out on an acoustic guitar. I took note of his strumming style, how he muted the strings with his palms and used the guitar as more of a percussive instrument. It was new and bizarre to see a white ginger rap over an acoustic guitar. His lyrics were lovely, and I would religiously watch and try to imitate his The Live Room session—“Give Me Love” and “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You.” I got a looper station because my bandmates and producers would flake and I didn’t know how to produce. It was empowering watching one man take the place of an entire band.

Twenty One Pilots: I’d never heard such extreme genre bending. They won a Grammy for Best Rock Performance, yet playlists labeled them as pop. It was then I learned that labels don’t mean much. I began experimenting with screaming and became more comfortable writing about uncomfortable topics. I would watch their live performances in the back of geometry class. Tyler Joseph would climb things—fling himself off the top of a piano, and Josh Dun would do a backflip. They left all of themselves on that stage. I also began sitting in silence.

Jeff Buckley: Inspired me to explore my falsetto. His performances were swooning, chords intricate, and his voice was beautifully eerie. I couldn’t anticipate his vocal choices or where the tune was going. Buckley’s passion translated and connected with me.

The 1975: So many eclectic sounds. There’s some kind of ear candy or lick every other second. Nobody sounds like them unless it’s an artist that they work with. They take their time with their projects, and it shows.

Queen: Freddie Mercury is hands down the best frontman of all time. I admired his vocal range and commanding presence. I would do countless school projects on him, and loved watching his sass in interviews. Queen songs are anthems. They inspired me to experiment with backup vocals and harmonies. The guitar call and response—come on. Later I appreciated the production and their use of panning.

Top 5 favorite albums of all time?
I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It (2016) – The 1975
Carrie & Lowell (2015) – Sufjan Stevens
Portamento (2011) – The Drums
Who Really Cares (2016) – TV Girl
Crying Laughing Loving Lying (1972) – Labi Siffre

Tell us a “pinch me” moment when you thought “Wow, this is really happening to me!
I was working out of the Nice Life house [Echo Park, CA], the same day Leon Bridges came to the studio. This was a couple months after opening for him. I had recently acquired a realistic middle finger mask. The finger had painted on creases at the joints and webbed netting in the eye slit. There was a chemical on the mask that was so toxic—we had to leave it in the studio bath tub. Later that day, I found a pic of it on Leon’s Insta Story and it was then I thought, “I’m starting to influence and be a part of this community.”

Best advice you’d give upcoming musicians.
I’m paraphrasing a quote attributed to Jimi Hendrix, “Compliments are crippling” [“I don’t like compliments…they distract me”]. People will grow an ego and/or find too much comfort in a compliment and cease to push themselves. They’ll squander the talent they’ve worked for by becoming complacent.

What’s next?
My debut EP Bailey Barely New Me will be out mid-May, and I just released “Pelican” in April. Until further notice, I’m working on more music and live streaming till the quarantine is over.

Where can new fans get more info and stay updated?
@johnrobert – on Instagram and Twitter
@swedishfishmafia69 – on TikTok

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