With each person I meet and share a conversation with, I feel a sense of pride and joy at the prospect of being able to tell their story to a wider audience - and I definitely felt that strongly with American singer-songwriter AJ Mitchell. At only 18 years old, he is a performing artist in his own right, climbing the charts with some banging Pop-R&B anthems about young love and the inevitable predicaments of life. Speaking to the young artist, I discover someone who has risen to the occasion - to a level that's above and beyond what one might expect - despite having all the odds firmly stacked against him. Growing up on the wrong side of town in Belleville, Illinois, AJ found his safe zone by the piano, tuning out the negativity whilst engrossed in melody. Through social media, AJ was able to travel beyond the borders of his hometown and find an audience for his music.
We captured AJ during his second trip to London - this time he was here to do his first live performance in the capital at Camden Assembly. The performance felt intimate and personal as we were able to take in his endearing self and impressive vocal range and versatility in close-up. Our first meeting with the vocal artist was high up in a pastel splattered studio in Whitechapel, with floor to ceiling windows making for spectacular views of East London and the Thames River, where photographer Gigi Umbrasaite transcribed the musician's just-about-right balance of serious and goofy personality onto digital. Stylist Nick Byam accentuated the Pinterest pastel dream of a theme and AJ's confidence and complexion with bold tones; a hot pink Dior jumper, neon details and some tie-dye.
At the age of age 13, AJ wrote Used to Be about a failed relationship with a girl in sixth grade and the song has now amassed over 50 million streams on Spotify. Two EPs, Hopeful and Slow Dance, and a slew of hit singles (three of which broke into the top 40 US radio chart) later, he is set to release his debut album Skyview, named after the nostalgic and historical drive-in theatre in his hometown. The album is his opportunity to tell his story the way it was always meant to be told.
AJ Mitchell will be releasing his much-anticipated debut album, Skyview, this spring.
My first question requires some introspection. Who is AJ?
Not too serious - even with the music that I put out there. I mean, there is definitely a message that I would like to convey with certain songs in terms of situations I've gone through and things I want other people to know about because maybe they're going through the same thing. At the same time, I have songs that are like 'this week I have no plans'. I try not to be too serious, and sometimes, I'm a little bit goofy.
The topic of our last print issue was happiness. How would you define happiness?
Happiness to me is doing things for yourself; making time for yourself. Actually, a couple of weeks ago, I wasn't doing things for myself and I could feel it, but once I started taking the time to do things for me, I was a lot happier. Surrounding myself with friends; surrounding myself with the people that I love - makes me happy.
On the other hand, what is upsetting to you?
Not getting enough sleep, haha!
Yeah, I think most people feel that way...
Yeah right! Climate change keeps me up at night... Whenever I'm upset - you know - I try to be as positive as I can. Anything negative - I try to just push it out.
How do you do that? What's your process like?
I like to sit back, close my eyes; almost like meditation. I put on some calming music. Just like easy listening music. Easy piano. No lyrics. Relaxing. Classical music - that's definitely something, just like strings and very easy.
Do you consider yourself an emotional person?
Yes, I do. If I weren’t as emotional as I am, I wouldn't be a songwriter. That's where I put all my emotions: in my songwriting. Although, I feel like I tend to hold things in a little bit, up until I have that time to just talk it out with a friend or pour it all out into my music. Music is like therapy for me. Sometimes playing the piano for fun, not even writing lyrics. As long as I can just make melodies.
And you've now been doing that since you were four years old?
Yeah, I started messing around on the piano when I was four, and at six, I started writing songs.
What did you write about back then?
Nothing good, haha. Back then I was just trying to put words together that rhymed, like 'two little birdies in a tree. One fell off and broke his knee'. That's the first song I ever wrote. And from there on, I wrote about girlfriends and just like kids stuff.
I'm very impressed that you wrote Used to Be when you were 13. It's about a failed relationship, but like, how did you have so much emotional maturity at the age of 13?
Haha... I don't know if I was that mature at 13. It was something I went through in the sixth grade when I got out of a relationship with this girl and I went home, sat down by the piano and just like, tried to get into a good mood. I thought to myself there and then, 'man, she's not the girl she used to be', and I thought, 'that's a really good title!'. Then I wrote the whole song about what we went through.
What are your thoughts on masculinity and how do you define that for yourself?
I guess for me, it's about being myself. I wear girly shirts sometimes, but that doesn't make me any less masculine. The town I'm from, you couldn't wear anything pink. You couldn't wear anything 'too girly' because then you weren't perceived as manly... There was kind of a stigma around that in my hometown, but for me, I never minded. I used to wear hoodies with pink details on it. I always thought that was cool, and I had pink basketball shoes.
How was that received by your environment?
I didn't really care. I just thought it was cool. Honestly, I think people were like that because everyone else thought like that. When people are like, "That's not cool", then everyone else goes, "Oh, that's not cool". But really, they were all just saying that because everyone else was saying it.
With that in mind, was it nice to move to a big city like LA?
Yeah, it was. There, everyone can wear whatever they want and no one really judges you for it.
What is your feeling about your hometown now? I just saw your VEVO short film and I'm guessing that is your hometown?
Yeah, so about that VEVO shoot - I had actually never set foot on a farm until that shoot. So, it's kind of funny because looking at it you're probably thinking 'farm boy'. I look back at that video thinking: I don't want people to think I grew up on a farm when in reality, I didn't. I did not grow up on a farm. I grew up like 25-30 minutes from a farm. Where I lived was, I would say, not the best part of town. There weren't that many fun things to do there, except for like exploring abandoned buildings, sneaking into places until we get kicked out for playing basketball. So for me, in Belleville, there weren't a lot of opportunities available. A lot of my friends found themselves in unsafe situations: one of my closest friends actually ended up joining a gang about three years ago, and some of my other friends have kids already and they're only like, 18 years old!
Wow. You've all gone in completely different directions.
And that's kind of the thing in my hometown - there's not much opportunity, so everyone kind of gets into bad situations. That's kind of the thing about my hometown: if you don't leave, you kind of get stuck in a really toxic environment. And that's why I wanted to move away. I actually just brought my best friend over from Belleville and he now lives with me in LA.
Do you think music was your way to avoid the toxicity of that environment?
Yeah, totally. It was my way to just close all that out. When people were around drugs and doing all that stuff, I was at home writing music, or when I did want to go out, I'd go out to play basketball.
You got your start basically on social media by posting covers. Since social media has been such a big part of your career, what's your relationship with social media?
I think social media is a good platform to put out what I'm doing. For me, social media is more of a branding thing: 'this is my music, here's a cover or here's this thing I'm doing in London. I have a show here. I have a show there'. The Insta story is where I'm a little bit more personal.
How do you find a balance between what to show and what not to show - public and private?
I feel like now I'm at the point where I'm not posting because I feel like I have to post all the time. Whereas before it was like, 'oh, I need to keep posting content. I need to keep doing this because I don't have enough content'. But now I'm at a point where I don't think that's a good idea. I think it's more important that I post things I feel are important to me and that I am posting because I want to and not because I feel like I have to.
Do you feel like the pressure is gone?
Yes, and I feel like I don't have to be on my phone all the time now. Before, I felt I needed to find something to post; I had to take a photo. But now, I feel the pressure is gone and I don't have to do that anymore.
Let's talk a little bit about your debut album. You've been releasing several singles, the latest being Unstoppable. What are you looking to express with this album? I can imagine, this is it - this is you.
That's exactly what this album is all about: it's about letting people know who I am and where I come from. Even with my hometown - as I said before - I'm not a farm boy and I didn't grow up in the best area. I think it's important that people know that and know that I'm not some white kid who grew up in suburbia. I want people to know where I come from because I think that will really help them understand my music and why I am an artist, which is why I named the album Skyview. Skyview is a drive-in movie theatre in my hometown, and that's actually the big staple piece there. As I said, there was nothing to do besides exploring old buildings, so that was the really cool thing to in do my hometown. I went there all the time. My parents went. My grandparents went. I took my first girlfriend on a date there.
What movie did you take her to see?
I think it was Transformers, haha.
Not very romantic. That was actually the girl Used to Be is about. But yeah, Skyview is like the big thing in my hometown because when I think of my hometown I pretty much think Skyview.
Very nostalgic place, and I love how it's been a part of several generations.
It's actually the 70th year anniversary of Skyview, which is pretty cool.
I really loved the Slow Dance music video. Why did you go with Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet concept?
I've always loved Romeo + Juliet. I love that movie. Oh, it's so good... I really wanted to use the party scene in the film. It just felt very appropriate. It felt like it was the perfect scene for Slow Dance.
For your music videos, do you take a big part in deciding what concept to do?
Yeah, totally. With every music video, I always have ideas for what I see and the vision that I have for a song and I bring those ideas to my team so we can come up with a concept together. So in Unstoppable, there is the line "left, right, left" and that's actually how the song got started. I was like, 'man, wouldn't it be super cool for a music video to have a marching band doing like left, right, left'. We actually started with that initial idea for a music video and then we started building the song on the back of it - so we kind of started backwards. I was in the studio with one of my favourite writers, Sam Roman, and we were just talking, and that's how Unstoppable came about.
Whilst on the topic of writing, what's your writing process like?
Really depends. As I said, that's how Unstoppable came about. It could be quite random: sometimes it'll start with one word and I'll think, 'oh, that's a really cool word or sentence. Let's start with that'. Or it could just start with a melody idea that comes to my head and then I try to put lyrics on top of that. Sometimes, it comes from a situation I'm going through. For instance, for my song Down in Flames, I came up with that on the day that the Notre Dame burned down. I just thought how crazy it is that a beautiful building, that took hundreds of years to build, in just a couple of hours burns down. It was that and something else. That same day, I saw two people, who were in a relationship, arguing and not hearing each other out. And literally, that relationship will go down in flames. I kind of put those two situations together. You could build a relationship to be so beautiful, but like within two hours of that argument, it can all go down in flames. And literally that day I went to the studio, and I had this melody in my head, "don't let it go down. Don't let it go down in flames". Then that's when I was like, 'okay, that's - that's it', and the song just came to me.
What inspires you?
It can be everyday life situations like I could be - you know - walking down the street and then someone says something and I go, 'that was a cool thing'. Or I might be going through something with a friend or a relationship. Or I witness someone else's relationship. I am inspired by the everyday.
From your music, I'm getting a vibe that you're a bit of a hopeless romantic, would you say that's true?
Just a little bit maybe...
With that in mind, how would you visualise the feeling of 'falling in love'?
It's definitely not like stubbing your toe, haha.
You can save that for the next question actually.
Falling in love is like seeing for the first time. Going to a new city. Getting to see all these new things. Falling in love is the excitement of exploring new territory. Doors that haven't been opened yet. Love is like exploring abandoned buildings with doors that haven't been opened yet.
I love that. That's a good line. What about heartbreak? How would you visualise that?
It's like stubbing your toe.
There you go, haha. Sometimes it might be easier to describe the more painful moments.
Yeah, exactly. Like why did I do it again?
Do you think it's easier to write about something sad or something happy?
I guess it really just depends on how I'm feeling at the moment. Sometimes, I go through my notes and I find an idea that I wrote a couple of months ago about a sad moment. I can kind of go back to that experience and feel how I felt in that moment and start writing about it, which I do a lot, actually.
I get that. I feel that sometimes when you're in the moment, it's so hard to like, sit down and think about it because you're just so in it.
Yeah, that's true. For me, I do think it's easiest to write about the 'now' and the feelings of the moment because I feel like I am really honest with my words then.
So do you come back to it later or do you just flesh out a song in that very moment?
It depends. If I flesh out a song, I'm really internal at that moment. Sometimes I'll have ideas and I'll write like a full paragraph and then I'll come back to it later. I have like 600 notes on my phone and 5 million voice memos.
Do you consider yourself a dreamer?
Yeah, totally. I would totally consider myself a dreamer. When I was a kid, listening to the radio, I was like, 'man, that'd be cool'. And now I'm on the radio - it's crazy!
Are you living your dream?
I am living my dream.
Do you have some new dreams now to substitute the one you're already living?
Yes, I do, which is getting a number one. I mean, that'd be amazing. Winning a Grammy. Touring the world. I would love to perform at Red Rocks in Denver, Colorado. That's a venue I've always wanted to play.
You've been accomplishing your dreams so damn early. So, like, what are you going to dream about when you've reached number one and you've won a Grammy?
Then I will have to find new hobbies haha... Like building a house.
In Life Is A Grand Adventure, you say: “The goal is to never stay the same. I always want to be changing and evolving. That’s the whole point of life. That’s the whole point of music or art. To be constantly moving forward.” Currently, you’re flexing that Pop and R&B muscle, but where do you see your music going in the future? Will you be exploring different genres or?
Yeah maybe, I guess it really depends on where life takes me, but I love all sorts of music. Even with my album, I pull inspiration from literally just all over. With the music that I write, it's inspired by the music that I like listening to. Besides pop, I like R&B, Hip Hop, contemporary. I think the music that I write right now and the music I'm going to be writing in the future, it'll all be different. It will be in the same way but just finding new ways, new sounds. When I'm writing, it's not like I'm attempting to write a certain way. I'm just writing what I'm feeling and what I think will sound the best. As I said, I like writing music that I like listening to so I pull inspiration from Justin Timberlake / Timberland type vibe and Phil Collins. Pulling inspiration from all over.
Just to bring it back down to earth a bit. I feel like you've probably had quite a whirlwind couple of years. Does it ever become overwhelming?
Sometimes. But I'm kind of used to it now. You know, I've been travelling a lot and doing a lot more interviews and stuff like that. I'm definitely more used to it by now. Yeah, but there was a point, like I said, a couple of weeks ago where it all kind of just built up. Same thing with social media. It was so much travelling, interviews and just staying 'on' 24/7.
Where do you feel most at ease?
I think I feel most at ease in my bed or at the piano. To be able to just play whatever; playing around with new melodies, making new chords and messing around.
I'm seeing you live next week at Camden Assembly, which I am very excited about. What are you like live?
A lot of singing - I'll tell you that haha. I'm actually not going to sing. Just going to rap haha. But no, on a serious note, I've come to love performing live. I mean, I remember when I was younger, performing live was like the scariest thing, and I never wanted to do it. I was so scared to the point where I didn't even want to go on stage, but now it's one of my favourite things in the world. I've spent so much time writing, putting together the songs and then to finally release all of it and to bring it on stage and sing it to a crowd of people who sing my lyrics back to me - that's amazing. It was a dream of mine ever since I was a kid - I just always thought it would be so cool if people heard my music. It's the coolest thing in the world.
At 13 years old, did you imagine that this was going to happen?
No, I had no idea how in the world I would even get to this point. I'm from this really small town. We didn't have the money to do this. Like I had no idea how to get anywhere. I really thank social media for getting me out and giving me that exposure.
I really loved the last thing you said in the VEVO short film: "Sometimes it feels like you have to leave to come back. To burn it all down, to move forward”.
Yeah, sometimes you have to leave to really understand. The situation I was going through in Belleville with all my friends - people getting pregnant, people doing drugs, people joining gangs and stuff - was something that was kind of normal. I didn't really see how negative that was until I left. And then once I came back, I was able to be like, 'okay, this is something that I don't want to be part of', but I didn't want to have my best friends be stuck in such a toxic environment. I moved to LA and I'm not looking back. I mean - I love my hometown. I love where I'm from. I wouldn't be who I am today if I wasn't from there. I'm very glad, but it's good to move on.