Of the many transformative moments that made JJ Shurbet realise that a whirlwind of touring life, addiction, and the pressures of internet stardom had been sucking her under, one particular therapy session stands out. “They didn’t allow us to bring instruments to rehab,” says the 20-year-old artist otherwise known as Scruffpuppie. “But within two weeks of being there, I found out that one of the counsellors had their own guitar – and I would beg him to bring it out so that I could play for everybody. I just wanted to be able to feel music again.”
As Shurbet relays this story over Zoom to NME a year later, they are about as far away from the memory as they could be. Calling from her bedroom in LA – where she moved from Wisconsin with the intention of feeling “more settled and free” after leaving treatment in September 2020 – she is bright-eyed and enthused when discussing her forthcoming project, set to be released via Phoebe Bridgers’ Saddest Factory label (where they will join the likes of Claud and MUNA) in January 2022.
Mired in relief and wonder, the new music charts Shurbet’s recovery from years of consistent drug abuse as they toggle between plucky emo stylings and hyperpop with a deft hand. Even though she first arrived as an unpredictable, DIY-minded talent on YouTube as a covers artist before releasing 2018 Bandcamp collection ‘Zombie Boy’ and its follow-up ‘Never Coming Home’ the year after, it’s here where Shurbet sounds truly invigorated, particularly on lead single ‘Assignment Song’: “I’ll see you all another day/When we are cured and clean again”, she sings during over scratchy riffs its cloud-parting chorus.
“JJ’s writing is both referential of all the emo music I love, and yet, entirely new. I recognise the world I know in it,” Bridgers tells NME. “It’s like she’s filtering everything through raw emotion, throwing some distortion on it all, and handing it back to us so we can feel something for a second.”
We caught up with Shurbet to reflect on their fraught relationship with the internet, personal growth through music, and becoming the latest Saddest Factory signee.
Your new single ‘Assignment Song’ explores overcoming personal pain. What did writing about recovery instead of hardship open up for you in terms of songwriting?
“A lot of the music I worked on prior to rehab was self-deprecating, and very much based on pitying myself. I’m incredibly proud of the songs that I have previously put out, but ‘Assignment Song’ has a greater sense of hope to it than any of my older songs.
“I never thought that hope could be such a touching and important theme in my music until I finished the demo for ‘Assignment Song’. As the name entails, it came from an assignment that I was given in rehab to write a song about my treatment experience and what I learned with my peers. I found a new sense of security while writing it, which was a really important part of my recovery process.”
So would it be fair to say that working on this song made you realise what making music means to you?
“Absolutely. I used to take music for granted and just saw it as something that I could fall back on if I ever overdid it with drugs. But recently, I have started to understand how making music has helped me divert myself from wasting my life away. This newfound love and appreciation for writing has really motivated me to become a better artist.”
How much of this change in direction was a reaction against your previous projects?
“I guess it’s me proving to myself that I am able to do what I’ve always known I am capable of with my music. My previous work was thrown together quickly and that would make my manager happy. This new album is the greatest body of work that I have ever made as it shows how far my mindset has improved; I was so discouraged when I first became sober as I felt like I couldn’t make music as good as when I was high. So for sure, this album has absolutely been a reaction against where I used to be. Ever since I started recording it, things have been on the up.”
Why is it so important to you to be so open about your experiences with addiction?
“There’s a lot of people online who know what I’ve been through, because I read my YouTube comments all the time and there’s always just somebody on there who is just oversharing a little bit, which I totally understand. I see all these other young kids who are also dealing with a lot of the same shit that I am, and are stuck in the mind frame that drugs are the only motive to turn to – and I think music is there to assist with understanding how to overcome that.
“I was also once convinced that drugs were the only reason I had gone as far as I had with my music. I’m proud to be sitting here today, listening to this album that I’ve made, and watching the music video for ‘Assignment Song’ – I never would have been able to do any of those things without getting clean. I just want people to know that without using drugs as a crutch, you’re going to accomplish so much. I feel like it’s very important for me to keep everything as an open book with my fan base because I know that people find my music for a reason.”
How have you found the transition from starting out as a YouTuber to switching to music as a full-time gig?
“There’s definitely been a lot of pressure. When I was on YouTube, I could do whatever I wanted, but over time I slowly became an influencer, which wasn’t the plan at all. But equally, I have always loved being able to talk about both my sobriety and my original music with an audience.
“I feel like ‘Assignment Song’ is going to be my first real transition out of being a cover artist in the sense that it will show people what I’m capable of as a musician. I want to break any old ideas of what people think a covers artist can achieve.”
Do you think those negative preconceptions are changing?
“To an extent, yes. But sometimes I’ll be live on Instagram and playing my original music and people will be like, ‘Yo, this sucks! Stick to the covers,’. The YouTube comments section can also be quite toxic. I feel like a lot of my fan base thought that I was going to continue working as a covers artist, which is something I never wanted to be, but I kind of involuntarily became one as my following count went up.
“But now, I’m not fazed by negativity anymore because I know what’s coming. Personally, I think my new album is one of the greatest projects of all time, and I’m beyond proud of how it sounds – and that’s all that matters.”
“Personally, I think my new album is one of the greatest projects of all time”
Why does now feel like the right time to join Saddest Factory, then?
“When I signed, I was getting a gut feeling that I was going in the right direction. During my visit to LA last year, my manager turned to me one day and said, ‘We have a meeting with Phoebe Bridgers today’ – and I freaked out. At the time, Claud was the only artist that was publicly signed to Saddest Factory, but the team had heard my demos and wanted to speak to me. Ever since, Phoebe has been so supportive of me and my music.”
What’s different about your relationship with Phoebe compared to previous collaborators?
“Phoebe immediately became a homie. She just gave off vibes of someone that you wanted to be friends with, which was a crucial part in my decision making; at the time, I was speaking to a few A&Rs before I went with Saddest Factory.
“‘Punisher’ is one of my favourite albums of all time, so it’s kind of weird being starstruck but also in a business relationship with somebody and working on music with them. We have a song together on my new album. It’s the closing song and before we had it finished she was like, ‘Can I sing on this?’, and I was like, ‘Are you serious?!”. I was so happy – I honestly couldn’t believe it.”
How do you want to be seen as an artist now?
“I just want to be somebody who inspires people like me, and who can make people feel something. I really take pride in being able to let people know that they’re not alone. I also want my new music to be a beacon of hope. My writing has changed tremendously from being in a hopeless state of mind to being very hopeful for the future. I am proud of what I can do for others.”
Scruffpuppie’s ‘Assignment Song’ is out now