A Conversation with JAWNY

BY CATIE MOORE

PHOTOS BY CHRISTIAN WADE

Jacob Sullenger, better known by his moniker JAWNY, is no stranger to social media or name changes. The singer/songwriter/producer refuses to be defined by a single sound or genre, instead choosing to focus on the story he tells with his music. With the release of his most recent EP, The Story of Hugo, and a spot at Lollapalooza during the highly anticipated return to in-person events, JAWNY is proving to be one of the most exciting artists to come out of the pandemic. Sullenger called in with WNUR to talk about quarantine, his musical influences and TikTok.

Anything going on lately?

Well I just put out my project a few days ago. I quite literally just uploaded a music video 15 minutes ago, right before this phone call. And that’s been really cool.

You signed with Interscope at the beginning of 2020. What was it like working with a label and making music through the pandemic?

Making music through the pandemic was definitely a shift, as it was for everyone. Luckily I started off–and I say luckily, because I really was grateful for this skillset I have–I started off as a producer first. I already know how to make music at home, so I was one of the lucky artists that got to be able to do that, because some were out of work for months with all the studios closed. It was different. Not so different in my workflow because I’m used to working everywhere, but just different in mindset. Every time you turned on the news you’d see something really dark and scary, and it was hard to feel a lot of light sometimes. But, you know, I would challenge that pretty much everybody–at least in the States–overcame it hopefully. Humans are resilient, we found a way and we figured out how to navigate through this whole pandemic thing, myself included.

As far as the label, not downplaying that or anything, but nothing really changed at all. What I mean by that is we were already doing most things independently for a long time before, and the label was just some extra gunpowder in the gun. The team got a little bigger, but as far as workflow nothing really changed that much. Just a different person to email and a different place to submit the files to, but they let me keep everything else the same. I’m lucky in that aspect.

That’s nice, you still got to maintain creative control.

Yeah, I’m an artist in a new day and age. We’re lucky to be able to negotiate certain terms that let us have creative autonomy and things like that, whereas artists in 2013 and 2014 weren’t able to do things like that. Social media is kind of cool in that regard–power to the artist.

Would you say that social media plays a pretty big role in getting your music out there and who you are as a musician?

100 percent. You can’t exist any other way, or at least not in any financially comfortable place. Not to be pessimistic, but it’s true; the day and age of you putting out an EP or an album and a label or someone putting it in front of everyone’s faces in Target and telling everyone to buy your CD, that doesn’t exist anymore. You can’t force-feed artists down people’s throats anymore. People don’t wanna listen to them, they don’t care. You can play them on the radio as much as you want, pay for as many campaigns as you want, but if people don’t want to listen to it, they’re just gonna click “next” and stream the next song or go on the next playlist, or listen to whoever they’re following on Instagram. The power’s really in the artist now, I feel, and their social media presence.

Now that also takes a dark downfall in certain ways, where every day I scroll on TikTok and I see 800 videos like, “What’s up my name is Kyle, I’m a 17-year-old artist from Massachusetts and this is why I’m supposed to be the next viral artist overnight, and I’m gonna have 100 billion streams in six months!” That’s where it gets a little cringey and crazy. But for the most part, yeah, social media really takes a big chunk of what being an artist is now.

What would you say to the “Kyles” trying to get their music out there on TikTok?

I think that shit is lame. It’s wack. I’m not hating, because this is someone who TikTok has helped, and I did have a song do something on TikTok. There’s nothing wrong, by the way, with making a video being like, “Hey this me, I make art, please check it out.” It’s mostly these videos I see of these people being like, “My dad told me I have ONE YEAR to make this music thing work so I have to get a MILLION streams of my song in the next three weeks or else my dad’s gonna make me get a job again!” Work a job, work on your art, pay your bills, and when your art takes off, that’s your main source of income. Not everyone can just blow up in six months. That’s what I’m saying the scary thing is about TikTok: it changes people’s perspective. I and many others grinded on music for years getting nothing, you know what I mean? 

And I’m very into tattoo culture too, I have lots of tattoos, and in tattoo culture you have to pay your dues too. You start off as an apprentice, you work in a shop, you learn your craft, and then you get your tattoo gun. I just think it’s a weird perspective to give yourself a runway of “I need six months to become the next viral thing.” That’s so weird and dorky. I had a viral thing go off on TikTok, but I spent four or five years grinding. And I’m not saying people who blow up in six months don’t deserve it–if it happens organically, that’s so sick.

As someone who was working and doing music for ages and recently had a song that did go viral on TikTok, what was that like?

I was working a job, and in 2019 something organic started happening and I blew up very fast. I probably blew up faster than I deserved at the time, I’ll admit that openly. I definitely blew up and got bigger than people who’ve been working a lot harder and a lot longer than me, and that whole mind state was crazy to wrap my head around. It was exciting, it was scary, it was beautiful, it changed my life. I mean, it’s a wild thing to describe to you, because it’s never happened to me again. But yeah, there was a point in my life in 2019 where I would open any platform or any app and would just have thousands of notifications every second, when that song was going viral. Now it’s kind of slowed down a little bit, just been normal organic plays, but still doing well. And I’m grateful for it, y’know? It put me in a good position, it got me seen by a lot of eyes, and now I have the money invested in the project by Interscope to work on some records and make some music.

That’s a great way to look at it, and you know what it’s like to be working on music for a while before you get that comeuppance. 

Yeah. I’m not saying you have to, because that is an old head-ass thing if I was like, “You gotta grind to get nothing before you get something.” Man, if somebody blows up in four months now I’m happy for them. I think that shit is super tight, and if they weren’t a total cringe ball on the internet, then I think they’d deserve it all. 

For me personally, though, I wouldn’t change anything, because I do think that working very hard and getting nothing for a lot of years has built a lot of character. And I do think that when I did get my spot and when I got my moment, it made it so I didn’t act like a little jerk, y’know? It was time. Even though I felt like I wasn’t ready, I feel like all the years of grinding on different monikers, on MySpace, on Soundcloud, on Bandcamp, finally going into the streaming era and having it pop off on Spotify and Apple Music built a good character in me, to where it helped me navigate through the rest of my music career. I wouldn’t change anything about it.

I remember the stuff you were releasing as Johnny Utah. Since then, both your name and your sound have changed. What brought that about?

Well the name change came around because of trademark laws and issues. I took it from a movie, it was a character Keanu Reeves had played, and as I sailed upwards in the music industry, I’d been trending upwards, and then I would get bigger and then I’d sign to a major, and I’d do all these things. And eventually it got to a point where they [the label] were like, “You can’t have this name anymore dude, you’re trying to get sued,” so we moved on it really fast and changed the name. I’ve come to like it way more now, and it feels way more like me, and I identify with it more. When you Googled Johnny Utah, at the time it was me and a bunch of pictures of Keanu Reeves, but now I feel more like a singular thing, where if you Google “JAWNY,” nine times out of 10 the only thing that’s gonna come up is me. Something about that feels really good, like I’m not confused with anyone else. There’s one of one. I’ve grown into it and I’ve learned to love it. 

Last year you released For Abby, which is this project that follows the story of a guy trying to win this girl back, and more recently, you released your EP Story of Hugo. Is there a similar narrative behind that new project?

Yeah, 100 percent. Last year in Oct. 2020, I put out For Abby. In short, it’s just a story of two people’s love: a guy trying to win this girl back, making a mistake, and he’s putting a bunch of songs on it that represent how he feels about her. I feel like I never told the story of the people, I only told the story of the love. And so I wanted to predate that and write a small EP of The Story of Hugo, which is what happened before For Abby. That’s why in track one he’s super in love with this girl, hyper obsessed, and she leaves him at the end of the track. And the rest of the EP is stages of grief, almost, but it never really heals. There’s no, “Yes! Humans are resilient,” or any of that, it’s all just mad, sad and self-hatred. And I think it’s an interesting side of me to show too, because I’ve only put a bunch of upbeat, indie songs out. I think it shows some depth, and I’m really happy with it.

What, if anything, do you hope people who listen to it will get out of that new EP?

I guess one of two things. One being, somebody either mad or sad or going through something, maybe they can listen and get something out of it. Secondly, as the artist side of me, I would hope that if someone had listened to me for a long time, they could hear this and appreciate it for what it is and also be like, “Ok, this guy’s not a one-trick pony. He can make an alternative song, or a really sad song or an indie dance song.” That for me was really fun, because I was trying to tap into a bunch of stuff that I hadn’t really tapped into. I’m pretty stoked about it.

It seems as if you’ve evolved a lot. How would you describe the current place that you’re at with your sound?

I think it’d almost be pretentious for me to accept what I’m doing, because it sounds too smart. I think it’s just that I grow older every year, and also each project I put out I’m listening to different things, because I change my music taste every month. When I was putting out the Johnny Utah EPs I was listening to a bunch of lo-fi DIY indie music, so I wanted to make lo-fi DIY indie music. When I put out “Honeypie,” I was listening to a bunch of old Darwin Deez and old OK Go songs, and I wanted to make an indie pop song and do an indie pop project. And then through quarantine before I made this EP, I was listening to a lot of Beck and The White Stripes and old Daniel Johnson, so I was getting a mix of “in your face” and also chill but also really fast, and so I think my EP had all that. I think I just grab influence from whatever my taste is at the time and it comes out. I don’t wanna say I evolve because I feel like I’ll just do whatever makes me happy at all times. I could go back to making indie pop songs tomorrow, and I might! I like leaving that door open, and just not closing anything, like I might make a country album tomorrow. Who knows where I’m gonna go. Maybe I’ll be Orville Peck soon.

A country album would be pretty cool.

I don’t think I actually would. But I’m not gonna close the door on it! Keeping the mind open.

So you’re in LA now, but you were in Philly beforehand, and before that you grew up in the West Coast. 

I was born and raised 25, 30 minutes outside of Oakland, so I fake-represent the Bay Area, but I don’t. And then randomly at the end-ish of middle school or middle of middle school, somewhere in that weird adolescent era, my stepdad at the time got a job transfer to the Carolinas. So I moved to the Carolinas and as soon as I graduated I just got out of there because it was not for me. I migrated north, I went out to New Jersey, and then I learned that it’s very expensive. I was in between New York and Philadelphia, and so I looked up “most affordable cities to live in on minimum wage.” I remember that was my Google search. Philly was number two on whatever list I was looking at, so I packed up my truck and I went and moved there, and lived there until I moved to LA. 

Would you say that bouncing between the West Coast and East Coast had any effect on whatever your musical influences were at those times?

Yes technically, but probably just subconsciously. I don’t think it’s anything I ever thought of. I remember back when I was doing the label circuit meetings there was this guy, and he had all these plaques on his wall, all these people that everyone knows–big names–and then he had this plaque of this band called NEEDTOBREATHE, and it was in that moment where I started talking to him that I realized, dang this is kind of a niche record I was into. I think it was really big on country radio, but no one else in the room knew what I was talking about or what he was talking about. The people from New York and LA that were in the room had never come across that record naturally. That was the first time as an artist and as a young adult that I was like, dang, maybe my time living in the South gave me some weird country-rock edge sometimes that I don’t identify with all the time but I have to respect. 

So I definitely think that deep down in the subconscious living in all those different places there were certain musical influences that I was drawn to without even realizing. If you were to ask me earlier in the call if I was a country music fan, I would have been like, “NO, absolutely not, never!” but I lowkey am, with some Southern rock stuff. That was one example in the South. Definitely living in the Bay Area, you get the old rap groups, like Hieroglyphics, and E-40 was like a god where I came from. Going up north you get a lot of the New York rock band scenes and the DIY underground band stuff, and I think it was all just a cool mix for all different parts of my life that definitely somewhere deep in the subconscious helped to some degree. 

I read your Spotify artist profile. It seems you like to incorporate humor into your music and your persona as a musician. 

I definitely live my truth. I’m not calling myself funny, but I like funny situations and I like being humorous and I like laughing. I’m always goofing around, so that probably comes out on my social media or when I tweet stupid stuff on Twitter, or my Spotify bio. And I definitely try to incorporate it in my music with the skits–Eminem used to do skits and stuff I was really inspired by when I was a kid–but I don’t feel like I put it into the actual songs themselves. I try to keep it out of the music music, but I feel like it seeps into everywhere itself just naturally, like in music videos, because I just like doing goofy shit. 

This summer is the first in at least a year that we’ve been able to see live music. What are you hoping for with the return of live performances?

One for starters, the obvious, I’m hoping that I don’t get some weird call or text a day away saying for whatever reason it got cancelled or something. That’s just a living fear, because with the last year you’d think that something was coming back and you’d start planning but it would get shut down and pushed back and delayed. But from what I’ve read and what I understand, we’re on successfully, and if everyone is vaccinated, we’re ready to rock. It feels really cool, and I’m just excited to be able to play one of the biggest music festivals in the States, something I’ve known about since I was a kid. I’m really grateful, and I’m ready to go! 

Photos taken at JAWNY’s 7/29 Lollapalooza aftershow at Thalia Hall