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Interview: 2020 Must-Know - Johnny Utah

Interview: 2020 Must-Know - Johnny Utah

The first time I heard a Johnny Utah song, I actually heard it twice. The person playing me the song was so deeply passionate about the undeniably catchy song 'Honeypie' that it was played as 'walking-out music' when I left the room that day - and that passion for Utah's music is understandable when you listen to the rest of his impressive catalogue.

In 'Crazy For Your Love', Utah (real name Jacob Sullenger, a 23-year-old from Philadelphia who just recently relocated to Los Angeles) embellishes the simple, sweet lyrics, "Baby girl, you know you got me crazy for you love," with jazzy horns and jangly guitar parts that will make you want to immediately declare your love to your secret crush.

Utah is set to kick off 2020 with a new EP, which he's enthused to share with the world, telling us: "I'm just really excited to finally show people what I've been working on. I feel like I get kind of put in the box sometimes, where they think I'm just an indie-pop kid, but I got some things up my sleeve."

MUST-LISTEN: 'Crazy For Your Love', 'Honeypie', '4Tounce', 'Patty'.
YOU WILL LIKE, IF YOU LIKE: Wallows, Gus Dapperton, Hippo Campus, Declan McKenna, Leisure, and... watching 'Point Break' with a cup of tea.

CDM: So you released two singles plus a brand new Christmas cover in 2019. What do you have planned for 2020 so far?
JOHNNY: In 2020 I have a project coming out. I'm gonna have an EP. I've just been working really hard on that in my studio.

CDM: What can you tell us about the project that you've been working on? Is it something that you've been working on for a while?
JOHNNY: It's something I've been working on for the last, probably, 11 months maybe? So over the course of the last 11 or 10 months, I just have had some freedom to finally just make music full time, instead of trying to find free time to do it, in between when I was working my day job, which was as a cook. It was really hard to balance that before. But right now, I've just been working on all these new songs, on my off time when I'm not doing these tours. And I'm just really excited to finally show people what I've been working on. I feel like I get kind of put in the box sometimes, where they think I'm just an indie-pop kid, but I got some things up my sleeve.

CDM: It must be cool to be able to dedicate all your time to your music project now. Do you find that you're able to work on music when you've been touring as well? Or do you find you have to do it when you're home and solely focus on writing?
JOHNNY: If I'm gone for a short amount of time, let's say four days, I normally don't bring anything with me, but there was a period of time where I went from Colorado to Chicago to New York to LA. And during those times, I did bring an interface with me just to mess around at the hotel in my off-time. But it's kind of hard for me personally, I know a lot of people do it, but it's hard for me to work on the road. I have ADHD, so I need to focus and be in my house and a comfortable space where no one can bother me and I have no distractions. And when I'm with my friends on the road and shit like that, I kind of get easily distracted a lot. I'm very easily influenced to go out or go to a bar or something.
CDM: At least when you're home, you're like, "Okay, this is music-making time."
JOHNNY: Yeah! And then also when I'm on tour and doing shows, my girlfriend will be like, "I miss you, let's FaceTime," and I'll be like, "Oh shit, I miss my girlfriend," and I'll be FaceTiming her in the hotel room for six hours. When I'm  home, I could be like, "Hey, babe, I'm going to my house for eight hours today. I'm going to work on music and that's what I'm going to do. And I'll see you later." I can just kiss her on the forehead and leave and go work on music for a whole day.

CDM: In 'Crazy For Your Love' you sing, "I could try everything / Baby girl I would change," which is such a heartfelt line. Do you think that people changing themselves for the people they are with is a good or bad thing?
JOHNNY: Depending on the context of what you're talking about, it can be good or bad. I think when you're changing qualities of yourself that are improving you, whether you are a man or woman or gender fluid or whatever, but in my case I'm going to say a better man, if I'm changing things that make me a better man, I don't think that's a negative thing. But when it comes to... I don't think you should change things about your personality, or your humour, unless they're negative things that are hurting people. If you can't find somebody that's happy with you for who you are, then I definitely think you need to start there first because you're with the wrong person. But if you're a partner, that's like, 'Hey, you do this thing that really hurts my feelings and comes off as super...' My girlfriend will sometimes sit me down and be like, "Hey, I don't know if you realised this, but when you said 'X' two hours ago it made me feel this way." Then I'll kind of sit and reflect and be like, 'Holy shit, I don't even mean for it to come off that way.' Then that's kind of you self-improving yourself for somebody else, you know? I feel like in the context of 'Crazy For Your Love', at least in the story I was trying to write in my head, that's more you being like, 'I'll change anything about myself for you. I love you so much. Like, I'll even do it in a bad way, I'll change myself just to have you.'

CDM: Do you find that you write your lyrics specifically for songs? Or do you kind of write poems or prose and then evolve them into song-form?
JOHNNY: 150% for the song. I actually don't ever write any lyrics ever. I make a song or I'll make an instrumental, and then I'll do what I feel like rappers do a lot of the time, where I'll just keep looping it over and over again, and I'll just freestyle stuff over that whatever comes into my head. Then I'll stop and I'll be like, "Oh, shit, that sounds good. I like that part." And then I'll go back and record it. I have a really hard time focusing, sitting down, and writing - I was the same way in school my whole life, I would always be fidgeting, and I couldn't focus on just looking down with a pen on the paper, but when I'm in my studio I feel this sense of freedom where I have my song looping over and over and over again, and then I can just get as many tries and takes as I want to get whatever it is inside of me out.

CDM: Have you enjoyed playing live Johnny Utah shows this year? Does that process inform how you work on music in a recorded setting?
JOHNNY: I definitely do see them as two separate entities. I also see myself as two separate entities, backstage at the shows I'm just so calm and just chilling out drinking water, and then when I come on stage - I didn't really know this about myself because I was never the frontman of any project before, I've always just played instruments in other people's projects - there's a whole other side of me as a human that I didn't know existed, that just fucking comes out for 45 minutes. I just feel so good about myself - not in a cocky way, but there's nothing else in the world that I want to do more than that. And that little time window where I'm up there, it just feels so good. I can't even describe it. It's amazing.

CDM: What was it about 'Christmas Wrapping' that made you want to cover it for Spotify's Holiday Singles?
JOHNNY: So Spotify came to me and a bunch of other people, and was like, 'Hey, we got this idea, we want to do these Christmas covers, if you pick one we'll either approve of it or not approve of it. Just take a week to think of some stuff and then hit us back.' I went back with my band, because I needed some help recording live drums. I was like, 'Hey, Spotify, I have this idea, do you guys know any song that would be good for this?' Because I didn't want to be cliché and do 'All I Want For Christmas Is You' by Mariah Carey - all these songs that everybody knows, that have been covered a million times. It actually wasn't my idea fully, I gotta give credit to my my friend Elliot. He was like, "Hey, I don't know if you remember this, but when we were like 12 or 10, there was a song 'Christmas Wrapping' that my parents would play all the time by The Waitresses." I had no idea what it was. And then he was like, "Trust me, just listen to it, and once you hear the horns you'll know exactly the song that I'm talking about." And so he played it for me, and I was like, "Oh my god, that song! Everybody knows that song when they hear that part." So I wanted to pick it, because I wanted people to listen to it and be like, 'What song is this?' And then as soon as that part comes in, I wanted everyone to be like, 'Oh, it's this song. I know this song!' I wanted everyone to have that same moment I had when I heard it, and I was like, 'Damn, I haven't heard the song since I was 10.' It's super fun and really wild, kind of weird experimental Talking Heads. And we just went in there to Electric Lady Studios in New York, and everyone from Spotify was so nice, and we did it in seven hours. It was really fun!

CDM: Lyrically, what's your favourite song that you've written so far?
JOHNNY: Oh, that's a good question. I think lyrically and as a music composition, I think 'Crazy For Your Love' is my favourite song. Music is so weird sometimes and so lucky that, I had this song 'Crazy For Your Love', and I was like, "This is my best song. It's gonna do crazy, this is my song," and then I put it out, and it didn't really do anything at all. And I was like, "Oh, damn, I have this song called 'Honeypie', maybe we should just release that one," and that was the one that took off. Sometimes it's weird that where it's the ones you don't think are going to do anything, they do stuff. But to this day 'Crazy For Your Love' is my favourite song I've ever made and my favourite one to play live - it's what we open the show with, it's my favourite song.

CDM: What do you think is the difference between a good song and a great song?
JOHNNY: Oohhh. Longevity. If somebody could come back to it in a year or two years and still love it, and still be like, "God, I fucking love the song," and the song never gets old, even if they listened to it for two months - because I do this. I'll listen to a song for two months and I'll get so tired of it. I'll be like, 'I don't even want to hear it anymore.' If they don't come back to it 11 months later and be like, 'Oh, yes, God, I love this song. I love this feeling I get when I listen to it'... I think it's the ones that stick with people for a long time.

CDM: Do you remember at what age you wrote your very first song ever and what it was about?
JOHNNY: Oh, god, yeah. I was in a fake band with my brother called Hello SOS. I was 14 and it was this super emo song that was like, "You left me standing in the alley." I think there was a line that was like, "I was 14 when you turned your back on me." It was brutal. Honestly if MySpace didn't delete all of their music, I would have linked it to you because it existed, little 14-year-old me belting some emo songs.

CDM: If J.O.H.N.N.Y. were an acronym, what would each letter stand for?
JOHNNY: Oh god, hold on. I have a sharpie somewhere. I'm gonna do this right now. Okay, Jacob, because my first name is Jacob. O for oats, because oat milk is great in an iced chai. H would stand for hope, because who doesn't love some hope? N would be nobody, because nobody can tell me that I can't do this shit because I've made it here. Everybody told me I couldn't do it, and now I'm doing it as my job. Hmmm I'm going to do nobody twice because seriously, nobody can tell you you can't do shit. And then for Y, I'm going to say yellow; I like the colour yellow. A lot of things in my house are yellow. I have a yellow painting on the way to my house right now. I have yellow in my bedroom, it's a cute little pastel color, I like it. I have yellow curtains up right now.

CDM: Was it on purpose that you named your musical project the same name as Keanu Reeves' character in 'Point Break'?
JOHNNY: Oh, it's absolutely that. It's that, and I think it's going to get me into some trouble, but that's okay. I love that movie, it's so corny and cute and awesome and amazing. It's a legendary movie. I love it.
CDM: I love Keanu Reeves. So I'm very glad that that's your name.
JOHNNY: Have you ever seen the movie?
CDM: I haven't seen it, but I was talking to people about it yesterday and they were saying, 'It's my favourite movie ever.' So I'm gonna go watch it this weekend just for you.
JOHNNY: This weekend you need to make a little cup of tea and turn on 'Point Break'. It's the best-worst/best movie ever. I got a lot of shit for this in my Genius interview because I said 'worst' and there's people like you just talked about who think 'it's the best movie ever!' and I need to clarify myself because in context what I mean by that, is the movie is fantastic. It's a great early movie, it's just amazing, but the acting in it with Keanu is so bad, but so good, but so bad because he's playing this undercover FBI agent that becomes a surfer and then he's trying to talk to surfers in this 'dude, bro' little accent. You'll never be able to get it out of your head after you see it and that's why I made name Johnny Utah, in homage to that.

CDM: Your Facebook bio reads: "the year is 2057. teenage slang has unknowingly devolved to an old forgotten eldritch language. suddenly teens have begun casting black magic spells while conversing with their pals. the sky goes black and a portal appears. thousands of black magic elves crawl out and wipe out all of earths population leaving only one man alive. that man is johnny utah." Did you write this yourself? I love it!
JOHNNY: Yeah! I wrote that for my Spotify bio, and it ended up elsewhere in the Facebook bio and stuff like that. When I was writing my Spotify bio when I came out and I existed, I was like, "What's going to make me stand out from everybody else? What is Johnny Utah? Who is he?" Almost if he was a superhero, I had to write him a story. It's like the origin story is Superman's parents get killed, kryptonite, all this stuff. That's my backstory. I don't know why I wrote that. But I wrote that with my own brain.

CDM: You’re one of our 'must-know’ artist picks for 2020… who are yours?
JOHNNY: Oh, easy! Her name is Remi Wolf. She's amazing, and her music is amazing. She's my homie, and she's killing shit and she will continue to kill shit into next year. Right now not everybody knows her name, but I guarantee you by this time next year, everybody in the industry and everybody who's a music fan will know her music, guaranteed.

Watch the 'Honeypie' music video below...

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