Jon Waltz understands the messy imperfections of artistic evolution. He knows about the false starts and that sense of self-awareness that increases the better you get. He knows about wrong right turns and correct left turns and vice verse.
At 21, Jon seems to have found the beginning of his path. The first hint of which was a record called “Bang,” a song he recorded at 17, set to a labored loop of a King Krule sample. Back then, he rapped wearily, almost detached from the narcotized nihilism, his voice slipping into the pocket almost as an afterthought. The listener grew almost numb until the hook broke through. You can probably trace him beginning to realize his voice in that 10 bar chorus.
These days, Jon has exchanged those rough melancholy edges for pop-inflected, warm, smooth, soul. A soul that still has its bumps and bruises: the newer records sound like sunny catharsis that belies the darker threads of the lyricism—still as concise and vaguely poignant as “Bang’s” bleak reverie. Jon seems to know you’ll lose your way in the enticing melody and lush instrumentation, but gives you just enough of himself to trace your way through each song. His revised mission is to be as honest in each release as he can bring himself to be.
It’s been a tangled odyssey to get to where he is now; a journey encapsulating an ill-fated trip away from his hometown, spells of depression and stasis, and a healthy dose of teenage angst. Jon relates all of this over an intermittently working Skype call, between a cameo from his dog and dropped connections. Through all of it, you get the sense that Jon is now right where he’s supposed to be—back home, in Memphis. —Luke Benjamin
So tell me a little bit about your childhood, and growing up just outside of Memphis.
Jon Waltz:I was born on the outskirts of town. It was this area called Orange Mound, but like the very edge of it, and my dad was really good at saving money. There were a couple robberies in that neighborhood, so we ended up moving out and moving into a really nice neighborhood. A wealthier part of Memphis, and then from there on my parents enrolled me in private school.
They very much tried to steer us in the right direction, kind of like groom us for a career in a field that is more dependable than music [laughs]. So, yeah, I guess I kind of grew up in a private school, and I hung around a lot of kids who were more like me the older I got. Just because it felt kind of surface level, at least when I was a teenager. It felt like a lot of people were more concerned with just getting a job there, and living a sustainable life, and I understand that, but I don’t think your dreams and living a sustainable life are two mutually exclusive things, and people [there] seemed to think that. So it was just a weird experience, and I’ll talk a lot more about it in my new music.
So, like you, I also did the whole private school thing, and I remember one of the really jarring things was just being exposed to so much wealth as a very middle class kid, can you speak to that a little?
Jon Waltz:Yeah man, growing up in that environment makes me see how someone like Donald Trump could be popular, you know? Because I think people that grow up a certain way, they’re just not introduced to, or not around people that have less than them. The older I got the more I realized that a lot of these kids’ perceptions of what real life was, was very different from my perception.
I would go from private school one day, and then my mom would take me to my cousin’s house who didn’t live in the greatest part of town. It was just a very eye-opening thing, and I think my mom did it on purpose when I was younger. I was aware of what I was living in, and I was aware of what they were living in, and was able to recognize the difference between that.
When did you really start to take music seriously, and what was the catalyst for that?
Jon Waltz:Man, when I was 17 I was like super angsty for whatever reason. For no reason, really.
Honestly, everyone is.
Jon Waltz:Yeah everyone goes through that phase, but like I made this song called “Bang,” and I sent it to Confusion from Pigeons & Planes. Me being like a snobby, stuck-up seventeen year old, and being like what’s my purpose in life? Like existential and shit. I sent it off to him like music is probably not right for me if he doesn’t pick up this song and post it, and he ended up posting it. So then I was like, alright, maybe I should stick with it for a few more months [laughs].
It’s so wild that it all hinged on that one interaction.
Jon Waltz:Yeah! And I’m kind of hesitant about telling people that story these days, because I feel like that’s kind of the wrong example to set. At the end of the day, you should only worry about making the music you want to listen to, instead of seeking other people’s approval. But at the time, that was something that made me feel like what I was doing wasn’t a waste. I’m grateful for how everything ended up playing out, it just seems like it could have gone a hundred different ways. Little things like that are why a lot of artists are still doing what they’re doing.
Tell me about your first attempts at making music, what were those early recording like?
Jon Waltz:Uhh, bad. Really, really, bad. I think I bought a $10 mic when I was like 13, and recorded rap battles against other kids, oh god [Laughs]. Yeah, really bad, but thankfully I didn’t have anybody to tell me that I sucked. So, I just kept doing it. I think everybody’s first experience with music is always going to be bad, because everybody starts out with somebody they idolize and they’re always trying to sound like. So when I was 13, the only motherfucker I would listen to was Eminem. Man, if my mom heard what I made when I was thirteen she’d be so disappointed. [Laughing] She’d be so disappointed.
I would make beats with this dude that plays for the Thunder now, Cam Payne, he’s from Memphis. We would just make a bunch of beats and mess around on ‘em. Just like bullshit after school. That was my first experience with music like that.
How long did it take you to go from the battle raps to Bang?
Jon Waltz:When I was maybe 15, I worked with a lot of people who went to high schools around me, but the music I made with them wasn’t as impactful as the music I made with people I met online. So, I met this producer named Nova, this artist named Dutchboy, and another artist named Ramsay Almighty, and we were all part of like a collective. We just set up a dropbox and we’d drop different songs in there every week, and we’d compare verses. I was lucky enough to meet people on the internet and develop a creative environment where these things were cultivated and given enough space to grow.
So, that’s when I started learning what mixing was, how to get better at writing, things like that. It’s cool, a lot of artists now, a lot of kids, are just getting online and meeting people and doing it that way.
A little more about Bang, what was your inspiration for that record?
Jon Waltz:I guess around that time I had started discovering genres that weren’t hip-hop. Just because of all these artists that were popping up, Kid Cudi, Drake, Kanye, were doing things that looped back to hip-hop but didn’t live in the confines of hip-hop. I found Francis & The Lights through Drake, and started digging down the rabbit hole. I think Francis & The Lights produced this song on Drake’s first album, “Karaoke.”
From then on I found out about King Krule, I love that dude. Seriously, one of my favorite artists, and I’m so glad I found him when I did, just because he spoke to me on a lot of personal levels. But I was listening to his music, and I heard this sample. I was in math class, and I sent it to my friend Cyprus who produced the song, [he goes by] Zayd, and he just sampled the instrumental from “363N63.” In like 30 minutes the beat the was done, and I wrote the actual song in that class, and recorded it that night.
I got lot of inspiration from being in poetry class, and learning how to describe things in a more captivating way than you ordinarily would. I think that was one of the most important lessons I learned about songwriting. You can write a song about doing something super normal, as long as you can make it sound dope. As long as you’re able to make your narrative compelling, you can make good music and people will enjoy it. No matter if they relate to who you are or they don’t.
I guess I didn’t really understand how important that record was going to be. I remember before I put that shit out, it was like 500 plays was really good. It was like, ‘oh shit I just got 500 plays, I am on! Like damn I’m the biggest fucking rapper! Lil Wayne you better watch out!’ And then 2 days later my plays had gone from 500 to 1,000 and the next day it was like 2,000. I just felt like something was about to change, it was definitely a very revealing moment for me. I kind of wrote it when I was at a low point in my life.
Would you mind speaking about that?
Jon Waltz:Yeah, like i was saying I went to private school, and was in an accelerated learning program with Zayd. We were the only two black people in that whole thing. The premise was like an IB (International Baccalaureate) program, which is unnecessarily terrible, and I would be in the same classes everyday for two years with the same ten people, and it was just very depressing. I’d be in the house all day and study and have no life anymore.
On top of that, I was diagnosed with depression when I was like 16 or 17, and I’m really glad my mom said this, but she didn’t want me to be on medication for it. So, I didn’t have any medication or anything to cope with, I just had to sit down and be depressed. It was just a very, in retrospect it wasn’t as bad as I made it out to be, but it felt like a very low point in my life. I didn’t really have any friends, people didn’t want to talk to me, and I just felt like I was losing the important people in my life.
I think that feeling of kind of being out of place transitioned into my move to college initially. Because I ended up going away to the University of Missouri, and being around a lot of people who weren’t like me.
There’s a sense of escapism in the opening bar from the chorus of ‘Bang’: “Left my home with a dream and a cigarette.”
Jon Waltz:Yeah, right, I think that’s a lot of kids mentality when they leave for college, like, ‘I hate my hometown, I’m leaving, I’m never coming back.’ Then, a year and a half later I realized I really loved where I came from. It was just the circumstance I was in when I was there. It didn’t allow me to appreciate it as much as I wanted to. It was just a very weird period of time, and I ended up moving back to Memphis. I enjoy it way more than I used to.
What was it like when you first moved from home?
Jon Waltz:When I first moved to Missouri I kind of decided I was going to let music take a back seat. Kind of keep creating, but not do it as much. I guess life had different plans for me though, because I kept sending music to Pigeons [& Planes], and it kind of became a competitive thing. I’d see the people around me doing things and I’d think if they can do it I can do it. So it became a thing where you see someone going up, and then you want to reach that level of acceptance.
I started to realize I was getting better and better, and before I knew it I was making music that people enjoy, but also music that I personally enjoyed, and music that I felt like I was missing on my iPod. Then it just started being something where if it didn’t satisfy me, if it didn’t make me happy, it wasn’t worth it.
So was this around the time of your first project Alyss, or did that come later?
Jon Waltz:Yeah, so I made Alyss my freshman year of college. My freshman year all the way into my first semester of sophomore year I think. That whole process was me kind of taking in college life, and feeling out of place, and almost exploiting what I saw. A lot of the time I was just feeling super alienated, and there would be parties where everybody was just getting fucked up, and I was too, but I wasn’t enjoying myself. Like I’d rather just be in bed, or be at home. I don’t leave the fucking house anymore.
So, was that a lot of what was feeding into Alyss?
Jon Waltz:Yeah, when I wrote the whole Alyss project it was like finding out this was not what I ended up wanting. And [realizing] that I told myself that I’d wanted this. Having to deal with that.
Alyss is a pretty conceptually ambitious project, do you see yourself going for something similarly ambitious in the future, or opting for a little different framework?
Jon Waltz:I can’t imagine doing something that’s not more ambitious than that. Just because putting that out kind of set the bar for me. Like the music wasn’t great on that, but it was enough to pass, and the concept was cool. It just wasn’t executed as well as it could have been. I have high hopes for the future, and I want to do more things where there’s a lot of bigger picture stuff. I’m kind of laying the groundwork in my own city. I definitely want to get my city more involved.
When do you feel like a songs finished? What’s the bar it needs to meet before you feel like it’s ready to be put out?
Jon Waltz:Man, that’s tough because I never feel like a song is finished. I put out a song last week, and I still hear things like, ‘I could have changed this,’ but it’s already out. It’s kind of like how parents don’t want to let their kids leave for college, but like you have to let them go. Even if they’re not ready, it’s time to go. So nothing is ever truly done to me.
If the song gets the point across I want it to, or portrays the feeling I want to portray, I’ll take a step back from it. Then after a few days I’ll listen to it with fresh ears, get kind of what an initial reaction to the song would be like, and if it feels right, then it’s done.
But I have a very rigorous process with my managers, and producers, and engineer. On average, we probably start a record like 6 months before we put it out. We’ll go through so many mixes, sometimes 50, sometimes like 60 or 70, and then after all that it’s done, in a sense.
So talk to me about the transformation between Alyss and your three newer singles: “Anna,” “Justified,” and “Riot.”
Jon Waltz:I think the turning point for me was when I moved back to Memphis. I had an epiphany, like, ‘I’m going to do this,’ and if I’m going to do this then it has to be truthful, it has to be genuine, like relating to my life. But as I was saying earlier, it’s hard to write music about something that’s not particularly interesting. So, you have to find ways to make it engaging. I just let myself live for a couple months, and then wrote about it later.
Did you always have an idea you were going to go in the direction sonically you’re following now, or did it just happen organically?
Jon Waltz:It happened organically. I think a lot of it was just realizing that if I didn’t do something different, it wasn’t going to resonate the way I wanted it to resonate. There were too many people having these three melodies that were very accessible, and that was just me trusting my instinct to go in another direction. So instead of worrying about things like song structure, it became more about how the lyrics were going to affect people.
How has the way you approach songwriting changed from then to now?
Jon Waltz:My biggest [concern] was finding new ways to say older things and inject my personality into them. Like “Justified,” I originally wrote that song about depression, and then kind of remodeled it so it sounded like it was about a girl, although really it’s about a bout with depression. Kind of like no matter how good life is, no matter how content you are, there’s always going to be this little self-loathing feeling, this little hole like ‘you could do better.’ So, kind of exploiting that feeling.
How would you describe your sound?
Jon Waltz:I just want to make music that sounded like what my city’s music used to sound like. Memphis used to be a place that had a lot of soul in it. But I’m a kid who didn’t come from an underprivileged background, so I needed to find a way to write about something that sounded very real, and pierced through all the bullshit, while being true to myself. I just wanted to make some really soulful shit, not worrying about the boundaries between rapping and singing and all that jazz, just making music.
What do you regularly listen to now, what’s always in rotation for you?
Jon Waltz:6 Feet Beneath The Moon by King Krule, Channel Orange and Endless by Frank Ocean, a lot of FKA Twigs…that’s bae. And Kali Uchis.
And who are your inspirations artistically?
Jon Waltz:Definitely Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life, I model a lot of the feeling of “Riot” off of that. I want my vocals to hit you the way Stevie’s vocals hit you. Though I’m not as good a singer as he was, or is. Also Bob Dylan. My three favorite songwriters of all time are Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, and Frank Ocean, so if I’m writing my lyrics even nearly as good as them, then I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
Let’s talk about “Riot” for a minute, your new record. How did that record come together, and what was your vision for it?
Jon Waltz:My friend Abby recommended that I work with this producer named RNDYSVGE, and he made the original beat. When I wrote it at first—it was about minorities that live in Calabasas and have these really extravagant lifestyles, but who are aware that even though they’re privileged, society will always see them differently no matter their situation.
Then the further we strung along the song the more I incorporated lyrics about myself. So, the first verse, a lot of that verse is me speaking to myself. It’s a narration of me when I’m still like 15, and an angsty kid, thinking of the life that I should be living: One of traveling around a lot, not hanging around, not dating, just moving around like a nomad.
Then the hook is me accepting that I was kind of acting out, and seeing that as a call for help, but instead of people coming to help they just add more gasoline to the fire. Start a riot.
The third verse is personal to me as well. In high school a lot of the time if my friends, or me, were dating somebody, like a white chick, there would would literally be parents who wouldn’t let us in the house. Like it was fucked up, I didn’t think shit was still like that, but it was very eye-opening for me to go through that, and learn okay, like your child is a human being, but the person who created you is not. To this day I don’t understand how a parent could be that cold. So I said, “snatch a juicebox out the fridge, leave a trail of glitter at the door,” as kind of a big fuck you [laughs].
I think it happens more than people think it happens, that made me realize it doesn’t matter what type of background you come from, where you live, or who you are, some people just don’t care.
I guess what I wanted to get out of the song is almost it could always be worse, but it could also be better. At the end of the day, it could be kind of nihilistic, but everyone’s going to die. So you should just be content where you’re at and keep working hard. You don’t really need a purpose to live on earth, so just do what you want to do until you die.
You seem to have consciously avoided giving up too much of yourself on social media and in your other material, what’s the rationale behind that?
Jon Waltz:I’m a firm believer that human beings aren’t meant to be famous. Like the concept of fame just isn’t healthy. Just being highly publicized is unhealthy. For the person themselves and their followers, because there are so many ways that relationships can be deluded, and that’s always been a huge fear of mine. Like I’ve never wanted to be Beiber famous, even though I do want to be Bieber famous, because it’s like man, these people can’t take a piss without ten bodyguards. Like that’s scary, that’s scary to me.
I try to be more open these days, but being anonymous and blending into the crowd is more natural to me than leading the crowd. I think a lot of the superstars today, are to me, bad people, which is kind of my motivator for wanting to be a lot bigger. Like a lot of things aren’t being said with a mirror held to them, there’s a lot of artists preaching really bad things without showing the duality of them. That’s always been my mission statement: show things for what they are, not what they could be.
Briefly, who is Jon Waltz as a person?
Jon Waltz:I basically hang out with my dog, hang out with my girlfriend. I watch a lot of Miyazaki films. I Love Frank Ocean, I love Stevie Wonder. What else…and Rick and Morty, man. I be watching that like a motherfucker, that’s my favorite animated show probably ever. It just reminds me of childhood a lot. I don’t know, I’m not too cool. I don’t really do shit [Laughs].
Finally, what kind of things do you have planned for the next year?
Jon Waltz:If anything, one of the most honest projects of the next year. I can’t say too much else. I feel like for the very first time I am bluntly honest, and I can confidently say that this is the first time I’ve never given a single fuck about anything outside of my group of people. I feel like now if I put out a song and don’t get in trouble for a lyric, then I’m not being honest enough.
Definitely a lot of cool things next year, and it’s going to be like a really crazy roll out. I think I’m going to do a lot of things that make people excited for some creative shit again. I think what’s been lacking in music a lot, is creating a world for fans to live in, so I want to give listeners that full experience. People just kind of put out music to stay relevant at this point, or they use versace flows, and it’s just like there has got to be some variation here.
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