Wading into open water requires a gentle type of bravery. Head back, arms afloat, it takes faith in the force of the unknown to allow the cooling pull of the ocean to wash you over, ebbing and flowing until it finds you on the correct current to set you home. It's a courage that is rewarded with weightlessness and renewal - an experience that musician JVCKJ is familiar with. Since stepping away from the multiplatinum pop duo 'Jack & Jack', JVCKJ marks 24-year-old Jack Johnson's foray into the industry as a solo artist, and it's a journey he has curated with care. Making the decision to start this chapter without the backing of a major record label, JVCKJ is now embracing his independence and the mystery of it all - finding positive lessons in that which can not be predicted.
Photographer Monroe Alvarez takes JVCKJ back to that moment's first calm. Amongst the waves and backstreets of Venice Beach, water tickles toes and clothes cling to skin as the musician sits with his new-found freedom. It's a creative liberation that he has been able to flex from the onset, revealed in the self-funded, self-produced video for his first single 'You Lie'.
Stylist Luca Kingston picks out the many colours of JVCKJ's artistic repertoire. Punk, glam rock and street style seamlessly blend together in a series of looks that frame an artist who is not afraid to step outside the box, and one that certainly does not concern himself with unnecessary pressure and unrealistic expectations.
Your recent single 'You Lie’ is your first foray into the industry as a solo artist under the moniker ‘JVCKJ’ and signifies a new chapter for you. Who is JVCKJ?
It's a tough question. It's hard to put a concise definition on who I am, but I guess at the end of the day, I'm a hip hop artist who also loves to produce and to entertain on any facet. I don't ever want to just limit myself to the musical box. I kind of want to be like a modern-day renaissance man: I'm starting a podcast next month with some of my best friends; I love producing behind the scenes and I want people to know, and see that side of me too. I love playing the piano. I'm starting an eSports team with my buddy. But musically, I would say I'm a hip hop artist, who I think has a lot of versatility and can work from genre to genre.
Tell me more about your podcast! That sounds great.
So it's me, my best friend Jack G, and then our buddy Sam, who also lives with us. We're all from Omaha, Nebraska, born and raised, and we're all out here in LA, chasing our dreams, so it's a very interesting dynamic. And then our buddy from Arizona is on it as well. We wanted there to be somewhat of a different perspective and he's the one who's not in the music industry; he's an actor whereas me, Jack, and Sammy all make music. He's from Arizona and has a much different upbringing. He's kind of a hothead; he's very opinionated so it will be great to combat us on certain topics because the rest of us probably agree on a lot of things. It's called Parental Advisory, and it's just come out at the end of last month. I'm excited - I think it'll be a good avenue for us. Firstly, just so we can talk about whatever is going on in the world, whether it be music, pop culture, or politics and everything in between. But then on top of that, I think it'll really help other endeavours that we may be doing now. It'll be a great focal epicentre that we can always come back to every week and just recap about what's going on in our lives. It's going to be very fun.
It’s been a turbulent year. Any major learnings so far?
I think pacing myself in life, in general, has been something I've learned. Especially when quarantine first started, I was very eager to get back out there into the real world, and then I realised, maybe I’ve got to find a silver lining in all this madness. I think it helped me really become creative behind the scenes, and even my production sort of went to another level, because I was stuck in my house, and I didn't have much to do outside of making beats and getting creative. I was making a bunch of TikToks, like, let's be patient and let this thing blow over and take it out creatively while I have the opportunity. I've learned that you never know what's around the corner, because as we've seen, there's been some new crazy chaotic sequence of events happening in the world every given month, and it's just like, you keep thinking to yourself, how can this shit get any crazier? How can it get any worse and weirder? But 2020 has exceeded any weirdness expectations. It just keeps getting wilder every single day, every single week. Don't set too many expectations in this world, because you never know what's around the corner, I guess it would be another lesson I've learned.
Are we going to see that journey in any of your music as you show it to the world as JVCKJ?
Our new single, 'Bad News', is fully inspired by the pandemic, and the protests and just the world being in turmoil as of late. The tagline is, "I turn the TV on all I see is bad news outside, don't want to leave my crib kind of sick of this thing called life", but it's this really cool hip hop song and it's got this kind of eerie, creep-along beat that is fitting of the theme of the lyrics. But at the same time, I think it's going to be something that a lot of people can resonate with, and it's a fun song. In the video, I'm walking down the street and I'm getting splashed with the car; someone spills their coffee on me; there are people fighting in the background; a guy runs by naked on fire; all this crazy shit is going to be happening, but I'm not even going to be batting an eyelid, because that's just how normal this shit is in the world these days. I'm really excited because I don't get too political in it, but I think with this election coming up, there's going to be even more divide in America. I don't want to ever take advantage of people not seeing eye to eye, because at the end of the day that's what I want the most, but I think this record is just a true representation of how I feel. I think people are really, really going to resonate with it even more so around election time, because it's almost like you're either on one side or the other. We have this bipartisan system where it doesn't seem like there's any clear-cut option. To me, it's just a crazy time we live in and I know there's going to be a lot of butting heads, and fortunately, so the timelines are coinciding perfectly, I think, with the song’s release and what's going on in the world. But to answer your question, I've been very inspired by events and I've instantly taken it out in my music and on the microphone.
I saw you’ve already dropped a sneaky TikTok teaser of 'Bad News' on your Instagram.
I always wanted to release that record, and I thought this would be a cool thing to see, once people hear the final version. This is the first song that I've fully produced by myself. I had a couple of buddies over in the UK add some crazy organ on the hook and it sounds so much bigger now. But I'm excited because I feel like it's the first song that's truly started and ended in my mind. That snippet though - I just wanted to give people some insight as to how I made it and, honestly, I didn't expect it to be coming out this quickly after. I didn't even know if I was going to release it. But I think it's a cool piece of content for fans to see that I literally made this in my bedroom.
Your first single, ‘You Lie’ tells the honest story of how a relationship can spiral into a cycle of pain. What inspires your writing?
A range of things can inspire any given song. Sometimes I like writing from other perspectives outside of my own, I think it's really good songwriting training, just writing from alternate perspectives and not staying within your box. But this song specifically stemmed from personal experiences. There are some exaggerations in parts but the overall message is true - sometimes when there's a disconnect between you and a significant other and you feel like you don't have an open line of communication, stories can get misconstrued. People like to talk. Especially in a city like Los Angeles. You just hit that point of no return, and it's an unsalvageable relationship. It's real, you know, sometimes people make things more toxic than they have to be by retaliating without having facts, or without actually talking to the significant other to see what's going on. I think just being open and honest in a relationship is the most important thing.
And this was your first solo music video. How much creative direction were you able to have over this?
It was a very liberating experience. Even just having Andre back to direct it - he has been mine and Jack G's tour videographer ever since our first year living out in LA, and he's one of our closest friends out here. He is a great videographer and it would get annoying whenever we couldn't utilise him - whenever our people would want us to use someone with a bigger resume and whatnot, even though Jack and I believe in him so much, and always wanted to do more music videos with him. So for this single, I was like, okay, of course, we're going to use Andre because I know what he can do. It was great because it was all self-funded and self-produced. Andre and I did all the casting and the set design. I wanted to have this dope piano intro that was leading up to the video, and that was my decision and I'm so happy with the way it turned out. Honestly, it was my favourite video I've been a part of - to have your vision be curated and actually come to life, as opposed to somebody else's vision. It just feels great as an artist and as a creative.
I interviewed your former ‘other half’, Jack G, earlier this year and it was interesting to hear his experiences of the industry as a solo artist versus a duo. How do these two experiences compare for you? Is there a different kind of pressure now that you are a solo artist?
I think in my situation, it's definitely less pressure just because I'm not setting expectations. I'm not with a major label, there's no one putting money into me that I have to make them back. I'm living and dying at my own expense, on my own dime, and based on my own decision making, which, to me is exciting. It's very exciting. And with me and G, it's never a competition, that's the biggest thing that we want our fans and people to know. He's in his room right now, like, 30 feet from me, We're best friends first, before all this and after all this, and we still have a lot of Jack & Jack to come, but I think being with the label kind of got to a point where I felt like I was making music that I had no hand in the creative process of making. It kind felt like it was making the music a little more mundane, and the process a little duller. I love writing my shit and really being a creative force behind every record. The label would be like, "Alright, sing this part on this record". I was never comfortable with my singing voice. Of course, there's always a silver lining in all that: they pushed me to step outside of my comfort zone a little bit, which I appreciated too because we had to perform these songs on The James Corden Show, or Jonathan Ross over in the UK, and it was definitely an experience because before, I was never comfortable singing on stage like that. So I do owe credit to them in that sense. But the music itself now I feel like is the truest representation of who I am. To me that alleviates all the pressure because I know that what I'm making is what I want the world to see and nothing but it, and so I would say, it's the least pressure I've felt in a while. We don't have any expectations. We're just putting stuff out, we're going to build a catalogue of JVCKJ music and it's all going to be based around my vision and the people working hand in hand with me on this vision.
What has been the biggest challenge of the journey so far?
Honestly, changing the 'Jack J' Instagrams and Twitters to JVCKJ - it's a very stupid challenge, but it took a while for us to get all those handles locked down! Other than that, I think just getting out of my previous label contract and getting everything ready and prepped for this first single release. But now that the first single is out, I think everything is going to flow smoothly. We're not taking the foot off the gas anytime soon, it's going to be content on content, videos on videos. I think it was just the whole 'behind the scenes': figuring out who exactly the team was going to be leading up to the first single release that was definitely the biggest challenge.
Thus far it would have to be that first week of release with You Lie and seeing fans' reactions and just how excited they were for what was to come. To me that song really showed what I can do: my piano playing ability, there were some vocal parts where I was hitting some melodies, there are two long rap verses - and I think it was a good first representation of what I could accomplish as an artist and what I can bring to the table. It was exciting to see people talk about it and just be like, "Wow, I really see the potential now just based off this first song". I think people have always seen the potential, but I guess I would say now they see the true potential or the unhinged potential - if I want to rap for two 32-bar verses, no one's even going to think anything of it, because it's my record, as opposed to having to do creative compromises when you're in a duo. But to see all that positive feedback was a really great feeling for me. We hadn't released music in like a year and a half, so I just really missed that feeling. I'm glad it's back.
I’m also interested to know whether your relationship with social media has changed since you first grew your fanbase for Jack & Jack on Vine all those moons ago.
It's a good question. I think my habits are pretty on par with what they've always been. I'll always enjoy posting on the Jack & Jack account and just kind of being the social media guy who posted more frequently. So to me, it translated straight into the solo chapter. I've always been active with the fans on social media, I've never really gone away and taken too many breaks. I feel like I'm posting stories the majority of days, and just keeping fans in tune with what's going on in my life. If anything, I'm trying to use it more and interact more and want them to feel it's not just me on this journey, they're supporting me so it's like all of us on this journey, and we're supporting each other, so to speak.
Are you able to easily switch off from it all if and when necessary?
Yeah, there'll be days where I just don't want to see shit and the world is going crazy. And there are days when I'm stressed out for other reasons, too, and I just don't want to be on social media and even look at my phone, I'd rather just be to myself and be in my room and make music or whatever - stuff that doesn't involve your phone. Especially in the studio, I've noticed, I've been putting my phone down and not checking it at all when I'm making music, which was a bad habit of mine at one point. I would get sidetracked way too easily. But you have to know when to turn that switch off - my screentime at one point was like, eight hours a day in a certain week. I saw that and I was like, holy shit! I guess, granted, it was release week so I was trying to be on my phone and interact and do Instagram lives way more than normal, but even still, I was like, I don't need to be on my phone that much. I think it's down more towards the six-hour area right now, so we're making progress but you've got to know when to turn that switch off. You can't overdo it, because you will burn yourself out and just get stuck in these weird rabbit holes on the internet, watching mindless content when it's like you could be doing something productive. You've got to find balance. That's all it's about.
What does your downtime look like?
A lot of making music. To me, that is downtime: time away from the phone, just making music with friends in the studio. A lot of watching sports. All my buddies who live in this house, we're on a fantasy football league together and it's very intense. Shit gets heated! We're watching football every week. I'm also watching the NBA Playoffs right now. We go swimming a lot. We have a pool in our new spot, which we were all really stoked about because we love being outside and getting sun and just doing outdoor activities. So playing sports, as well as watching them. I guess those would be the big three. I haven't played Xbox since I've been here even though I love playing video games, but we've been in the moving process and the Wi-Fi has been kind of shit - as you've noticed! - so I've haven't been able to get all my Xbox Live stuff set up.
If ‘You Lie’ paints the picture of love gone sour, how does JVCKJ visualise falling in love?
I don't want to put a description on who the lover is because I'm very open-ended, I don't have any sort of type, I guess, but I would say it's a slow process. It's more like a chase, you know? It's definitely a long term thing, maybe where we meet each other and there's obviously some sort of connection, but neither of us moves too fast. The last time I was in a relationship for a period of time, that's definitely how it started. She wouldn't even let me kiss her for like, two weeks and I was like, wow, that makes me so much more into you. There's something about that chase. It's hard to have a solid vision because I think every single instance of love is very different. And based off my past, there hasn't been any two experiences that are the same at all. There's a different way falling into it every time and so I guess after that, it's sort of up in the air, but it's definitely something that I want to have to work for.
What is one goal you’d like to accomplish or challenge you’d like to overcome by 2021?
My biggest goal is to have my first solo project out. I don't like quantifying goals or putting numbers on them because, if you do that, you're kind of just setting yourself up for disappointment. Nothing is ever based off the numbers, you know? I'm not going to say, 'Oh, I want to have a platinum project before the year is over' because it's like, if that doesn't happen, then I'm just setting myself up for disappointment, and to me that's not how you judge actual success. I think it's about who it's impacted and if it's made an actual change in the world and so to me, it's really about just getting this first project out and hopefully changing the world even if it's in a miniscule way, and changing people's lives. Just try to take the world by storm in whatever way we can.
What is the ultimate dream?
Probably to not live in Los Angeles. I want to live somewhere in the Midwest like maybe Colorado. Hopefully, this will be at a point where you can work on music and be in the music industry from wherever in the world because of how advanced technology is. I want to be a music executive, I want to have a label, I want to have artists underneath me, I want to have this whole sort of conglomerate of an empire of musicians and writers and producers. Whether it's based in LA or some other city, it doesn't matter to me, but I definitely want to be an executive in the music game in a sense, and I want to curate and find new talent because I feel like I have a good eye for finding new artists and people who are flying under the radar. I want to help other people on this journey, and use what I've learned to help others. I want to keep entertaining the world, whether it be behind the scenes or on the camera, or, you know, in your ear pods, your air pods, in whatever way possible for many years to come. I want to have a lot of stake in the music game and do it the right way: make sure artists are getting paid out and fight for artists. I really see myself doing that in years to come, it's something very possible with the team I have around me and what we're building, and I think it'll all go hand in hand with us building out the JVCKJ brand. The bigger that becomes, the more opportunity, the more leverage we have with these organisations, and these labels and whatnot to start our own imprints. That's where it's all going to start.
What is it about the Midwest over LA?
Well, I'm from Omaha, Nebraska, so that's just where I'm from. And it's not even just the air quality, but the quality of life. It's just such a happier place. And people love living within their means. Everyone out here just wants to flex and be cool as shit. I don't know, it's such a better place to live in my opinion and especially raise a family. I'm definitely not going to raise my family out here, I don't think - whenever that may be. I might be a single man forever and never fall in love again! Who knows? Either way, I just want to get out of the city. LA - I've seen the dark sides of it, too, and there's a lot of it.
How do you keep your feet on the ground in LA, then?
I think the people around me for sure. Especially having everyone in our house, we have five people in our house, and we're all from the same hometown. Just having those guys around me who have known me before any sort of this fame or whatever bullshit you want to call it. Even if I were to get an ego, they would keep me in check - and I never would just because I'm not that kind of guy - but I feel like we can all keep each other in check. Just having a good support system and a good friend base. There's a lot of people who will be advantageous out here and cling on any opportunity to climb to the next rung of the ladder in whatever their respective industry is, and I think it's easy to keep those people away when you have people that you know are real and true to your heart. They'll tell you if you're standing too close to something that isn't going to be good for you. Or if someone is just blowing smoke, and telling you what you want to hear and being a yes man or whatever. We all have a good radar for that. But if we do notice it, we can tell our friends and it's good because I think we just keep each other accountable. We all remind each other where we're from, and that helps a lot in a city like this.