John West Talks "Lovely", Making Music, "The Humble Hustle" and So Much More
Mon, 09 May 2011 07:07:41
"I call it the humble hustle," says John West of his beginnings as a street performer in Los Angeles. "People don't have to stop. When you captivate them, you realize that it's not about you. It's about the song. Music is a service."
With his latest single "Lovely", West continues to provide that service with panache, power, and poise. Jamming out a slick groove and a seductive croon, "Lovely" bounces with R&B swagger and pop infectiousness. West rocks to the beat of his own drum, creating a style that's bound to win hearts everywhere—and break a few in the process. He's the new voice of pop R&B…
John West sat down with ARTISTdirect.com editor and Dolor author Rick Florino for an exclusive interview about "Lovely", working with Pusha T, his family's influence on him and so much more.
You put your own spin on pop and R&B, while honoring traditional aspects. Would you say that’s what you're doing?
I'm glad that's the interpretation. However, I never really had that moment as a kid where I was handed the cool box of all the dope R&B and hip hop records. A lot of the time, I don't necessarily have that much context for what classic R&B even is. It's funny. When people say, "Damn, 'Lovely' sounds like some classic R&B," I think, "Cool, I didn't really know!" [Laughs] Growing up, my sister got me into Lenny Kravitz's first album, Let Love Rule. I thought that was just amazing, and I listened to it incessantly. I was into some Cat Stevens and Carole King here and there. It wasn't until high school that I got into Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. Before then, there wasn't a lot of R&B in my upbringing. It's been great to feel like that's where the music I'm making comes from. At the same time, I'm not that well-versed. I didn't hear that much in general. I was into some random rock. I listened to Midnight Oil, a political rock band from Australia. I was into the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack and U2.
How would you breakdown your musical journey?
I sang in the church choir. I did some musical theater in high school and was playing guitar. However, I didn't really start writing songs until college. Even then, I was studying art. I was into comic strips for political cartoons. Music was always something on the side. Then, it took on its own life for me at the end of college when I decided to make a go of it. A year later, I moved out to L.A. I started doing some street performing and one thing led to another.
What does "Lovely" mean to you?
It's a super authentic song. I wrote it two years ago. There was this girl who I fell in love with after a week. At the same time, she wasn't really returning all of my phone calls necessarily. I felt something really strong and I had to share it. It was a funny song because I wrote the verses after we’d been together for eight days. Then, I recorded it with guitar. Over the summer, I was in London doing a couple one-off shows. When I got back, I was doing some street performing. I was literally on the street performing when the chorus for "Lovely" came to me. We were sitting there with the crowd watching us and sharing the moment. It just felt right. Pusha T heard it and thought it was dope. Literally, in a day or two, he put his verses on and sent it back to us. It all happened quickly over the course of a couple days. We got in and had a little studio magic and a great time. Pusha did his thing, and it kept the record really natural.
Do you feel like "Lovely" is a good introduction to your sound as a whole?
We just want to give people a sense of the spectrum of what the album's going to be like. It's all great, feel-good, soulful summertime music. At the same time, it's not all necessarily like "Lovely." There are all varieties of swag. I might drop a verse on one jam or there might be a little sing-rap here with different types of production. I'm excited to continue to share this record. I feel like I’ve been working on it my whole life.
Is it important for you to tell stories with the songs?
I'm good at telling my own personal story. I can say, "I did this today. This was a struggle, this was lovely, this was hard, and this was beautiful." I don't consider myself a very good storyteller in a lot of ways. I think I’m more of an abstract artist in terms of the pictures I paint. When I say certain words, it makes me feel something. You have to go with that and trust it. Who knows what a great lyric is? All you’re trying to do is write the most impactful lyric that you can.
What are your influences outside of music?
I'd say my biggest influence is probably my family. There are five kids. My mom spent her whole life in education and general public service. She started some non-profits down in Baton Rouge. My sister's gone on to carry on her work running some great spoken word and arts education non-profits out of Chicago. My sister is graduating with her Master’s in arts education from Harvard. I have had some previous gigs as a substitute teacher doing music workshops out of Chicago. My family has the values of service. I think that's sometimes easily lost in the entertainment world where people think that the point of it is glorifying the person making the art or the person in the movie.
Have you heard "Lovely" yet?