It starts with the voice. In an alternate universe, it’s the type of voice attached to the type of story — 19 year old kid from small-town America — that would have stolen the stages of American Idol or The Voice. Instead, it went a bit viral on Instagram, captivated an industry insider enough to get signed (Grammy-nominated pop producer Ricky Reed), and scored nearly a million streams with its first single.
And, now John-Robert has released his debut EP Bailey Barely Knew Me, which pairs that voice with a musical and songwriting talent beyond his years. It’s a contemporary pop record with an old soul feel. In a tone that croons, soars, and lilts up into a brilliant falsetto, the freshness of John-Robert’s youthful sound is tinged with bits of ragged nostalgia and older wisdom — even as it searches.
“I want my music to feel familiar, but like something you’ve never heard before. That’s the goal.” With the excellent set of songs off his debut album, John-Robert is certainly on his way.
He generously took time to sit down with WtMM to share a bit of his story and highlights of the new record. (*Note: This interview was conducted prior to the recent George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests.)
[WtMM] First, the sadly obvious questions in these days and times of COVID-19: Are you and your family safe and healthy? How are you holding up right now?
Family is safe and healthy. A lot of cards, a lot of board games but I’m happy to say everyone’s keeping their distance and washing their hands.
Where are you physically sitting right now? Describe the room. Is this where you work on your music now or do you have someplace else to go? Has it been harder, easier, or about the same to get in a creative space and write music while staying at home?
My room is filled with plants, literature, records and shiny lights. It’s very easy to feel comfort in the space I’ve created and I feel more creative having the time to reflect and to make weird noises on my laptop.
To our readers who have never heard of you, let’s cover some introductions. You’re from Edinbug, VA, near the border with West Virginia. Born and raised there? Is that home?
I’ve learned from my travels that home is wherever you’re with the people you love, not the places you go, but yes, it’s absolutely home.
What was life like there? Did you love it? Hate it? Something in-between?
Pros and cons. I was bored enough to get into music, but it was exciting enough to have things to write about.
If I were to visit, where’s the best place to get breakfast? A hearty one.
Candy’s Diner, always has the PHATTEST pancakes.
What is your first musical memory?
My father always got a kick out of my singing Not Dead Yet by STYX and would show family members that I knew how to recite crass lyrics. That and The Wiggles.
How long have you been performing? Did you always know you wanted to do it?
I knew from a very early age I wanted to perform. I didn’t know all the caps I would have to wear, but you learn over time. My parents always encouraged me to pursue music as a career, so shout out to them.
How would you describe your music?
Authentic. I only lyrically talk about things I know and most of the music from the first EP came from me and what I’m learning about life.
Among your musical influences, whose work has pushed and challenged you the most?
Highly admire The 1975. Pop songs, but not always down the line. Twenty One Pilots is another great example of genre bending. Those guys showed me I could pursue whatever I wanted with my music and I didn’t have to pigeon hole myself.
What are some artists who have been on heavy rotation for you during quarantine?
Alice Phoebe Lou. Her vocals are very expressive and her lyrics are well- crafted.
Tell us more about your debut EP Bailey Barely Knew Me? Who is Bailey?
I had crushes on Baileys throughout my high school career. But, I was highly insecure and uncommunicative. Being so that I am the way I am, I used songwriting as an outlet and means of processing. Nearly each song is about the yearning for someone who doesn’t reciprocate the same feelings back, and is meant to highlight the tragedy in idealizing a love interest. This EP taught me that you never know the impact you have on somebody, nor will you ever have a full grasp on the complexities of another person’s life. Don’t oversimplify a person or situation so that it tidily fits within your self- written narrative.
Was the collection of songs on Bailey Barely Knew Me always going to fit together on an album? Or did you write them with a cohesive musical theme or subject in mind?
The EP definitely feels like an evolution and getting more experimental with songwriting and production. At the end of the day, what strings them together is my vocals and an acoustic rhythm guitar.
On “Pelican,” one of the singles from the EP, you sing:
"Yeah, I found me a lover who's just as cute /
It's not hard to say when she looks like you /
When I wish not to care, but a part of me hopes you're well. Well."
That’s such a great set of lyrics; simple, but conveys a lot. Are love and relationships the most immediate sources of inspiration for you in your writing?
At the time of writing the EP, it was more about me searching for what a healthy relationship looks like and having a reasonable expectation for myself and the other person.
What comes first for you: the music or the lyrics?
Typically, the music because then I can freestyle a topline, and afterwards, craft lyrics around where my voice lands.
What are one or two things about each track that you really dig? Walk us through some ‘behind the music’ details.
I really admire the outro section for Love Won’t You Stay – it felt like the perfect sentiment to end an EP on. I’m a sucker for background vocals, so the backgrounds on Friends are lush and beautiful. Also, I love the organic sounds in Adeline and the sinister baseline in Urs.
Which one is your favorite to play live?
Love Won’t You Stay is my favorite to play live. A lot of chord changes and inflections I love to hit. And we go into half time after I get to scream during it, so it feels the most encompassing.
Whenever you next get to perform, what go-to cover song are you going to just tear into?
Mama You Been On My Mind by Bob Dylan with Jeff Buckley’s chords from when he covered it. Lyrics are beautiful and the color of the chords takes the audience on a journey.
Putting a record out into the world is a big deal, especially your debut. How are you going to mark the moment?
I’m gonna get a milk shake from Cook Out, it’s been a long day.
Final question: when washing your hands for the recommended 20 seconds, what song clip do you sing to yourself?
Generic answer is gonna be Happy Birthday twice. But, if I’m having a good day it’s going to be Truth Hurts by Lizzo.
Thanks to John-Robert for taking the time to rap with WtMM. Be sure to stream/download “Bailey Barely Knew Me” and follow him on the platforms below.