NME Radar: Breakout

Jawny: Bright and wise-cracking bedroom pop

The Bay Area artist formerly known as Johnny Utah says he’s busier than ever, having signed to the major label earlier this year following the huge success of his single ‘Honeypie’ on TikTok

Each week in Breakout, we talk to the emerging stars blowing up right now – whether it be a huge viral moment, killer new track or an eye-popping video – these are the rising artists certain to dominate the near future

Bedroom pop practitioners are seizing the moment during lockdown. Take Jawny, the West Coast artist born Jacob Sullenger and FKA Johnny Utah, and his regimented work routine. “I’ve given myself a makeshift schedule to keep myself busy and occupied,” he tells NME on the phone from LA. “I work Monday through Friday, sitting in my studio all day. And then I tell myself: ‘Saturday and Sunday, you’re not allowed to work.’ So I kick my feet back, relax, stay inside and chill out.”

This surge of productivity has provided Jawny with the impetus to finish a 10-song mixtape, which at its brightest indie-funk moments imagines what Mac DeMarco fronting Jungle might sound like. The recent Interscope signee has now switched his focus to writing his debut album, armed with the intent of furthering the momentum kick-started last year by his TikTok superhit single ‘Honeypie’. “It’s a fucking app that people use and do cool shit with that I can’t fucking seem to figure out” a confounded Jawny says of the social media platform that has brought him his biggest exposure yet.

As well as the pitfalls of navigating TikTok, NME caught up with Jawny to talk new music, ticking off major life goals and hitting up Keanu Reeves (well, sort of).

Congrats on finishing your mixtape! What can people expect?

I had what I thought was an EP in December, but when I came back home from vacation everything was just different. I was listening to all my music and I was like: ‘Something feels off.’ I then went on tour, and when I came back I felt like I had meaning for this project which I didn’t have before. I got all this sort of weird inspiration and just grinded. I’m really happy, dude: I’ve never made a body of work like that before.

I think people can expect a more mature Jacob. I got kind of lost in my artist path: I had a song blow up and go viral, so I started thinking maybe that’s what people wanna hear. But instead I was like: ‘I’m gonna make music that I love and if I love it, everyone will love it.’ There’s a healthy balance: I still have that pop shit in there that everyone likes, but then I also have songs that are a little left-of-centre and a little more experimental. They still live in the same kind of universe that the project is in because it’s me. It’s just fucking awesome, I love it.

Bedroom pop is where all the best new artists are working. Does it feel like a little scene now?

It’s not something I’m thinking about, but I do think it’s cool to be a part of something like that and have all these friends that are doing the exact same thing as you, like Still Woozy. But I also look to these people to be my peers as well as my friends, so it’s like friendly competition. Somebody will link me a song and I’ll be like: ‘God damn, they made this in their house? OK, I gotta go harder on my next one.’

What benefits do you get from working in your home studio?

It’s not the car, it’s the driver. You can be the best artist in the world and go home to your bedroom and make a song off a $50 piece of equipment and a microphone, and it’ll be awesome. Or you can be one of the worst artists in the world and go to a studio with hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of equipment and it won’t be anything. When I’m at home, I have two guitars, one bass, one keyboard and that’s it: I just have to make do with what I have. Simplicity like that is good for me, personally.

Back when you were a teenager, you were something of a budding rap producer…

It was instrumental to my entire career! If I never made beats first, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. Before we made beats together my brother was into making EDM music, and he taught me how to use FruityLoops. When I was 17 or 18, I was making real beats and uploading [them] online. I had a few placements with some rappers who I won’t say because I don’t want anyone to find these fucking awful beats I used to make. I scrubbed the internet of them, so good fucking luck finding them!

How did you then branch out into making your own solo music?

I stopped making beats when I was 21 as I was like: ‘Dude, I know how to make this stuff in FL— I’m gonna try to do it for my music.’ I wrote ‘Really Meant’, uploaded it online and tweeted it out: ‘What’s up guys, I’m doing my own thing now — please listen to it!’ And then I got on this ‘Bedroom Pop’ Spotify playlist, and after that my life began to change.

‘Honeypie’ blew up on TikTok last year, helping increase your Spotify monthly listener figures from 40,000 to 1.5 million. God bless TikTok, right?

When ‘Honeypie’ got six million streams on Spotify, someone called me and said: ‘I think your song just went up on TikTok today.’ I downloaded the app and saw that there had been about 100 videos made with the song. I didn’t really know what that meant, but sick! As the weeks went on it just started doing more and more and more, and everyone was calling me: ‘Yo, you’re like the hottest trending song on TikTok this week!’ I didn’t know what any of that meant: is that a big deal? Shout-out [to TikTokers], it’s helped me a lot so I definitely don’t have any negative feelings about TikTok at all. When I get on there I don’t understand the trends and the humour — it’s so advanced! There’s all these trends and dances, it’s like a whole different fucking world and I feel like I came to it too late.

You signed to Interscope back in January. How big of a life goal was that to tick off?

It’s that shit that you want for so long. All these people will tell you that it’s a one-in-a-million chance, don’t get your hopes up. But I was that one-in-a-million! I went in the Interscope office and I was like: ‘I’m gonna sign this fucking paper right now, feel the power in my hand and my life is gonna be different!’ For starters, it’s not like that: you have to sign your name like 95 times. But once I got to the last signature, I lifted my hand up and it was like: ‘Life is the exact same… Time to make more music!’ You set these benchmark goals, reach them and then realise you don’t feel fulfilled, so you put another match under your ass and go onto the next one. That’s fucking life! I can’t get caught up in the moment and think that I’ve made it yet. People fall off every day after signing to majors, so I gotta keep pushing.

And finally: what happened to your old name, Johnny Utah?

Johnny Utah is dead, but Jawny lives on! Keanu Reeves didn’t like that I was using his character name from [1991 movie] Point Break, so he fucking hit me up ‘cos we’re boys and we have each other’s number — Keanu’s my right-hand man. He calls me up, like: ‘Hey man. Really need you to change that name.’ I said: ‘You know what, Keanu? You got it, man. You’re my boy, my partner: anything for you.’ I went to the label, jumped on the table and said: ‘Boys, we gotta have a name change.’ And it was done right there.

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