“I love telling stories. There’s no better story than driving down the coast with that guy or girl you love, singing at the top of your lungs with the top down. Sometimes the best stories in life are the simplest.”
Born in Buffalo, New York, singer/songwriter J4 has always had a passion for music. He discovered his talent while singing in church as a child, before moving to Nashville, Tennessee for high school. In between classes, he began performing daily at Tootsie’s World Famous Orchid Lounge and started co-writing with established songwriters like Jan Buckingham (Lee Greenwood, Whitney Houston, Tim McGraw, Pam Tillis), John Goodwin (Michael McDonald, Brad Paisley, Steely Dan) and James Breedwell (Joey Evancho, Kechi, Jeffrey Li, Barry Darcy).
What are your fondest music memories from growing up in New York?
One of my first musical memories growing up in New York was actually my first real “gig” when I was 11. My grandfather, who was a proud supporter of the local volunteer fire department, volunteered me to perform for the opening of the new Boston Town Fire House. For the event, my dad and I unearthed an old town song from the early 1900s and we put the words to music, which was my first time I had ever written anything musical.
Another very fond memory of mine is when I competed in the New York State Talent Competition at 13, in which I sang “Imagine” by John Lennon. It was always a song that tugged at my heart, and I loved the simple but unifying message of the song. After many rounds of performing and traveling around New York, I ended up tied for first place with a dance troop from Brooklyn.
Lastly, one of the most defining musical experiences of my time in New York was performing at Carnegie Hall at 15 for the World Choir Competition. Our choir took first place and we ended up singing an encore African American spiritual I got the solo for, and for the first time, I got to sing a solo on the world stage. Being on that stage where all the great artists and musicians before me had been was absolutely incredible, and I can still see the view to this day.
You grew up singing in church. What were your favorite songs to sing?
During my childhood, I went to a Southern Baptist church near Buffalo, where I was exposed to all the traditional classic church hymns. I always challenged myself (sometimes unsuccessfully) to pick the hardest voice part and learn it. Then in High School, once I moved to Nashville, I got swept up in the Christian music genre. I constantly listened to bands like Casting Crowns, Danny Gokey, Matthew West, Sidewalk Prophets, and above all, Michael W. Smith, who I would end up working with regularly at New River Fellowship, our new church home.
I found myself leading worship there as both a member of the weekly services, as well as leading worship for the youth group. That is when I began to write my own Christian music, and eventually found myself as a member of the Belmont Christian Songwriting Community. Needless to say, my faith and my music have always been closely tied together.
What or who was the catalyst that influenced your decision to become a musician?
My father has been my largest inspiration throughout my entire life. I always look up to my double-doctorate physician father, who just happened to also be a phenomenal classical pianist of 40 years. My dad always pushed me, both academically and musically, to strive to be the best I can be, and was the entire reason I stuck with music throughout my childhood.
After my Freshman year of High School, we took a trip to Nashville, where I met with a major record company who had known me through a family connection. After meeting with the CEO, he set us up with his entertainment attorney, who told us that for me to be in music, I had to be in Nashville. And without hesitation, my parents decided to move all the way down to Nashville, without a single thought, and gave up everything they knew to give me a chance to chase my dreams. There is no greater catalyst than that.
Moving to Nashville as a teen. What was the first song you wrote in town?
Moving down to Nashville, I had a large connection to my friends and family up in Buffalo. At the time, I was in a long distance relationship. During the summer I moved down, I began playing every day sometimes 8 hours, on Lower Broadway. Who would have thought that singing country love songs for hours each day would make you miss your girlfriend.
I ended up writing my first Nashville song, “Neon Lullaby,” talking about how it was to constantly work and never see the person you love. I called it “Neon Lullaby,” because I loved to sing this to her over Facetime every night. It became our song throughout our two and a half years of dating.
Can you share the backstory to your new single “Two Front Seats?”
This last semester of college, I got an opportunity with a local publishing company, where I began work as a track writer and demo producer. It was here that I wrote with Nancy Deckant, the CEO of NashvilleCOOL Music Publishing, and Eric Mallon, a phenomenal track writer. We began writing, and I explained that I was so tired of writing ballads and sad songs.
Eric responded with an idea he had buzzing around the past few days-“How bout this,” and sings the hook to the song with a catchy Thomas Rhett rhythm and a cool groove-“As long as it’s you and me in those two front seats.” After that the song took shape, and it became that upbeat summer jam that I had been trying so hard to write. Now it’s one of my favorite songs to sing-just a simple, fun, lighthearted tune.
It’s definitely a summer jam — what other songs are on your summer playlist?
I’ve been listening to a lot of the new Thomas Rhett tunes, “Look What God Gave Her,” in particular. I love Dan and Shay’s new song “All To Myself,” with that new pop vibe they have going on, as well as Belmont graduate Russell Dickerson’s new song “Every Little Thing.” I love how newer country artists are stretching the boundaries and pushing the genre further. I’ve also been influenced by the newer EDM artists, such as Martin Garrix (I binge “High on Life” and “No Sleep” while driving down I-65) and the late Avicii- I can’t get “SOS” out of my head. And of course Marshmello always finds his way on my playlists, especially with songs like “Happier,” and “Here with Me.”
Was finding out you had your first major label cut your career-to-date highlight? Did you know the song was being pitched to Kechi?
I would definitely have to say it was a life changing experience for sure. It is probably tied with when I got the call I was going to be opening for Josh Turner my senior year of high school. As far as the story goes, this was actually the first song I ever wrote with hit writer James Breedwell. We had originally written the song to pitch to a newer artist over at Universal Germany for her next single. They ended up sending the song back, and I thought that it was going to sit on the shelf like the other 300 songs I had written before it. But then I got a call-mid February while hanging with my girlfriend at my apartment, and James is on the other line, “We got the cut buddy!” I thought he had meant the artist at UMG Germany, but then he explained that it was actually with Golden Buzzer winner of America’s Got Talent All Star’s Kechi. I was stunned. It took about five solid minutes for me to get the words out of my mouth to my girlfriend and tell her what was going on! We went out and feasted on sushi and cocktails at one of our favorite restaurants to celebrate. It definitely gave me the confidence to put out my own music this summer!
How do you balance studies at Belmont and performing?
I can’t say that it’s quite the easiest task. Music majors at Belmont take more hours than any other major on campus, and we also have some classes such as ensembles that count for less credit, but meet for longer. Belmont is definitely a large part of my life.
However, the beautiful unique thing to Belmont is that school and work are not mutually exclusive. In my seminars for voice, I often find myself singing originals to get critiqued by other students and my professors. Many of the classes, especially the music business courses, are extremely applicable to the business itself, and I now find myself writing tracks, making music, and writing using the tools they have taught me.
What are you currently working on?
Musically, I am always working on new projects. I have been producing demos and EP’s for all sorts of my friends at Belmont, as well as teach piano, and write at the publishing company. In terms of my own music, I am self-produced, and so I spend a lot of my time making tracks and getting them ready for my new projects. I have two more singles coming out after this debut, followed by my EP, Iridescent, coming out in January of 2020.
Dream venue to play?
I have always wanted to perform at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. I got to sing background vocals for Cage the Elephant there during my second semester at Belmont, and fell in love with the venue. The charm of the old church turned into a music venue makes me hope that one day I will be able to headline there-once you see the stage from that side it’s hard to go back.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you aren’t writing or performing?
My close friends would probably say that I am someone who always needs to be doing something with my hands. If I don’t have a guitar in my hands, I almost always will have a sheet of paper in my hands ready to become a flower or a crane or whatever I feel like making. Origami has been my hobby ever since I was a kid, and now I find myself doing it during my downtime just as a relaxing way to keep myself occupied, and have a bit of mindfulness in my day!