Johnny Utah would just be another artist name on any lo-fi centric, A.I.-curated SoundCloud discovery playlist if it weren't for how genuinely fresh his music sounds. The monotony of today's alt-pop playlists is broken by his piercing falsetto and distorted funk guitar riffs. His catchy hooks assist in the cultivation of this unique take on lo-fi pop; in his song "PATTY," a love drunk voice cries out, "I don't know why I talk to you / I get drunk and I think of the things we used to / I wonder if I could ever forget your name or forget you baby." Who is the man behind these undiscovered earworms?
I began chatting with Johnny, and discovered that he's more than just a singer. Johnny Utah is a 22 year-old wildcard disrupting the DIY scene by embracing his relatively naive technical skill set. After considering a wide-range of career aspirations from clown college or WWE wrestler to school guidance counselor, Utah began working seriously on his music. Utah dropped out of college and worked as a manager of a pizzeria in New Jersey before moving to Philadelphia, where he began crafting his current sound. He leveraged a following built mainly upon his viral Tweets, like an embarrassing video he sent to his boss or his childhood anecdotes, and built a cult-like following for his own music. The overlap is not surprising, considering that the same youthful personality Utah employs on Twitter is found in each of his songs that he's released.
That isn't to say that listening to Johnny Utah's music is as fleeting of an experience as viewing a viral meme. His impact is evident not only in his fervent fanbase, but also in his impressive Spotify streaming numbers, where he has reached 76,375 monthly listeners and well over 800,000 total streams — a big feat for an unsigned artist. Utah was also recently awarded a coveted spot on Spotify's "Bedroom Pop" playlist and Apple Music's popular "Untitled" playlist for rising artists, among the likes of Empress of and Vince Staples. With this success in tow, Utah embarked on creating his most ambitious track to date, "Crazy For Your Love." The song is a stadium-ready alt-pop cut that calls upon individual elements of his previous releases to come together and create an infectious tune about young love.
PAPER chatted with the rising artist about how he defines his sound, specifically within the growing and controversial "bedroom pop" genre, and his carefree approach to creating earworms.
I delved deeper into your first EP in preparation for the interview, and I discovered that that hook on one of your more recent tracks, "PATTY," is a reimagining of the track "Elliott's Song" off of your first EP. "Elliott's Song" is a lot less groovy and falsetto-laden. Can you talk to me about that transformation?
I'm happy that you actually asked me about that. Two years ago, I was in a project with my friend at the time. His name is Elli, he's an artist in Maryland. We were in a project together, and we had a song called "Flower Crown," and there's a line in the song that goes, "I don't know why I talk to you." And so, when we were in this project together I wrote this song, which eventually became "Elliott's Song." There was some shit that went on with it, but at the end he gave me permission to use the song, so that's why I called it "Elliott's Song," and that's why I had his voicemail at the end. But then I wasn't really happy with the outcome. There were a lot of things on that record that I really didn't like at all. After it came out, there were months where I was just like, "I really didn't like how I executed that song, and I think that that's not the final form of it." So then I got back onto my computer, and I tried to remake it all, and then it just had a mind of its own, almost. It took on it's own beat, and it became "PATTY," which I actually named after my friend. It has nothing to do with her, the song lyrics have nothing to do with her. I just love her name.
I bet she's really happy!
I asked her too: "Hey, would it be weird if I named this your name for you, even though it has nothing to do with you and the song meaning and lyrics don't have anything to do with you?" And she was like, "Yeah sure, why not?"
That's an interesting transformation. I was hoping there was a story behind it because I was really fascinated when I heard that hook.
I wrote that hook in my second apartment when I moved to Philly, but it was like, my first official apartment. I had just gotten through a really fucked up breakup with my ex-girlfriend, we had broken up for the first time.It was just a really stressful situation and I remember she was out of the house and went back home to New Jersey for a little bit to visit some friends because she was having a really stressful time. I was in my room, and I was in between a job and she was the only one working and I was broke. We didn't have anything, it was just a fucking mess. Stuff on the floor, garbage bags full of clothes and shit, and I just pulled out my guitar and for some reason I wrote that song, even though it has nothing to do with her, and none of the lyrics have anything to do with her and our breakup. I guess I was just in my bag and I wanted to write a sad song but it had a happy melody to it.
What are some of your influences when making these songs?
My influences are so weird, because you can't really hear them in my music. I was a huge Teen Suicide fan in high school. I was a really big Coma Cinema fan, really used to love Passion Pit. Oh man, there is so much, I could name a lot. I was definitely really, really into Teen Suicide though, the most. It's crazy, too, because with all this stuff going on in the last few months I somehow crossed paths with him, and we became really good friends on the Internet and we're going to meet up in real life next time he's in my city.
There are ways to hear those influences. Your music — I was going to call it quirky, but I think quirky is the wrong word — it's kinetic and eccentric. There's that ebb and flow of falsetto, you have your normal range, and then you have the spoken word. Despite it being all of that, it's still really well produced.
That's a big compliment that you just told me it's well produced because I have no idea what the fuck I'm doing. [Laughs] I do everything in my bedroom and I have some knowledge, but I have no clue what I'm doing.
That's crazy because I've been playing some of your stuff around a couple of friends and they're just like, "Oh my god, it's crystal clear."
That's crazy that you say that. All I gotta say is thank you, that's nuts. Thank you to you and your friends because, I mean, everyone else is telling me the same thing. I'm not an idiot. I have some knowledge, but I don't have proper music recording or mixing training, so I've been doing it all by ear. That's really awesome to hear.
The word I hear people use is "bedroom pop" producer. You kind of encapsulate that.
Definitely a "bedroom pop" move, with artists like Gus Dapperton and Clairo and Cuco and all them. That's them doing it in their bedroom too, that's really cool. They're probably a hell of a lot better than me, but my friends are out here doing it as well.
Slayyyter comes from that same camp.
Slayyyter is fucking tight. She is badass.
It's amazing that we have these people who are subverting and going around the typical narrative for how an artist should rise or come to fame.
I've been watching it happen with a couple people recently, like you said, Slayyyter. She's amazing, she's killing it right now. We've been following each other on Twitter for like, ever. I've just been watching her fucking blow up from like, nothing. It's crazy. I've been following this artist Still Woozy lately. He's fantastic, incredible. One of my favorite, favorite artists right now. There's a lot of people that are just doing this shit by themselves, and they're really just getting their point across online. Just doing what they want and finding their little aesthetic and sound and a lot of people just love it. I think it's so fun to watch, it gives you almost a friendly competition to be like, "Damn, if they're doing this in their bedroom, I can definitely do this shit too."
Going back to the concepts behind the music, I think that what evokes a 1980s glam aesthetic in some of your music is that it's paired with sensual lyrics. Are you a casanova in Philadelphia?
[Laughs] No, I don't think so. I think I'm just a corny ass boy making love-pop music.
You're right, they're not the most confident love songs.
It's definitely like, a dude with his head down and his hands in his pockets but he's trying to flex to like, get what he has off of his chest and tell this girl, "Yo, I fucking love you baby!" But, he has to pick his head up.
That is definitely the visual I get when I hear your new track, "Crazy for Your Love." It's no exception.
Oh man, we're so excited for that to come out. I'm really excited to share that people. And when I say "we," I'm talking about this label me and my friends started, Underwater, because it's just me and my buddies, Donny Electric and Jawncarlo, that all make music in Philadelphia. We just wanted a name to start putting our music out under, because we're all just independent artists whose music has started getting a lot of traction recently, and I went over to their house, actually, to get a trumpet and the piano recorder for that song, so the last week we've just been sitting and listening to this rough mix of it in the car and on the laptop and stuff, and all of us are just like, "Fuck!" I cannot wait to drop this song. I definitely think it's one of my best, for sure.
It does not go against that rule of being extremely well produced but also very kinetic and frantic. You've got those elements in there: the really catchy hook with some of the spoken word in the middle.
It's definitely — can I curse?
Yeah, of course you can curse.
It's definitely a clusterfuck, it's clusterfuck carnival funk. I get messages all the time, or not really messages, like people just replying to things in threads or on Reddit or wherever, Twitter, where people are like, "It's so weird, because he puts so many sounds together and so many things that just shouldn't go together and not make sense, but somehow it all works. Like, what the fuck? How does this kid do this shit?" I'm just like, "I don't know man." There's so many weird elements. I have rap drums, and then I have funk guitars, and then I have these weird, corny-boy spoken word verses and stuff. I don't know what's going on in my brain. I feel like it's not working properly.
So, "Crazy for Your Love," how is that getting released?
I was just emailing with the people at Urban Outfitters and I'm going to be hosting their next Weekend Warmup. They told me pretty much when "Crazy For Your Love" goes up to link it to them, and then they're going to throw it on a playlist on their SoundCloud page. They've just been really nice to me, they reached out to me and were like, "Hey, we really like your music. We'd be interested in an opportunity to have you premiere a single with us." It was just really crazy.
So you'll have full autonomy over when you release it.
Yeah, I didn't think I would, but I do. It's all to my discretion, which is really, really cool because I didn't know I was going to be able to do that. I'm also really freaked out by that a lot. Where like, somebody else owns my music or whatever, that really freaks me out.
Is that not the ballad of the "bedroom pop" producer? Everything is yours, until suddenly you're getting bigger and you wonder if you're going to lose that element of autonomy.
Yeah, it's very scary, actually, because I've been doing all of this just by myself, kind of with no direction. I was kind of able to — I still am able — to have full control. But it's getting to this point where it's getting kind of really big, and a little bigger than I ever thought I was ever going to get to begin with. So now, yes, it's always scary to have those thoughts in my head where I'm like, "Man, am I going to have to open up that conversation one day, where I have to get someone else to help me do this, because I can't do it by myself anymore?" But, that's a thought for like, way down the future. I've definitely got my hands on everything right now. I still got 'em all in the putty, and I'm going to hold onto that solo/independent artist thing for as long as I can possibly go, until I can't do it anymore.
Photographs courtesy of Johnny Utah