“Pit stop!” announces an excitable Jawny as we zip through the sun-soaked streets of West Hollywood, palm trees whizzing by in the breeze as Dr. Dre rumbles through the car stereo. We’ve only just picked up a lunch order of overpriced LA salad, but that alone won’t suffice, and more pressing business is at hand. “You just can’t come to this city without going to In-N-Out Burger,” Jawny says. “I’m a son of California, and this is what I grew up with.”
Moments later, Jacob Lee-Nicholas Sullenger, better known as Jawny, is glowing with pride for his adopted hometown as devours a messy burger alongside NME in a nearby parking lot, goofing around and drawing attention from antsy restaurant staff. Having lived here for two years since moving from Philadelphia, the 26-year old vocalist and multi-instrumentalist has thrown himself into the spirit of this city headfirst.
Jawny’s new life in Los Angeles was all made possible by his breakthrough 2019 hit ‘Honeypie’, a carefree slice of alt-pop that’s fit for any poolside party: “Ooh girl / Don’t you stop ‘til you get enough honey / Oh honey, honeypie,” he sings atop jangly guitar lines. The track’s infectious melody became a supernova hit on TikTok in 2019, soundtracking an eye-watering quarter of a million videos, from makeup tutorials to Japanese doughnut recipes.
We take a post-lunch trip to a recording room at Gold-Diggers, a boutique studio that’s previously been used by the likes of Leon Bridges and Axl Rose. As we settle into a an equipment room, Jawny continues to explain how his viral moment became the springboard for his move to LA. “‘Honeypie’ was the catalyst [for me to move here],” he says, fluffing his bleach blonde locks, which flow freely from his ‘J’-emblazoned baseball cap. And what was life like before that? “Oh, I was just a fried chicken cook in Philly.”
It’s perhaps even more poetic, then, that this studio offers an impressive view of the world-famous Hollywood sign, a timeless symbol that stands as a constant reminder of the dreams, promise and heartbreak that LA is capable of. The storied city has been written about a million times over, a muse to everyone from Albert Hammond to Elliott Smith and The Weeknd.
Was it always a pipedream to move here and make it in the big city? “It was always in the back of my mind somewhere,” Jawny says. “I grew up in California, near Oakland, wanting to do music, so there was always a little part of me that was like, ‘Wouldn’t LA be amazing? It’s the hotbed of everything for music and acting.’” For years, his childhood dream didn’t feel like a reality. “I didn’t see myself landing here; I wanted this so bad, but how would it actually happen?”
The decision to uproot from his beloved Philadelphia – where Jawny lived from the age of 20 – and leave his pals behind wasn’t an easy one, but it had to be done. “It was for my career, there’s no reason to live here other than that, man,” he says. “If I was just working at Trader Joe’s and didn’t have a desire to be an artist, why the fuck would I work here and pay crazy rent? This is the place you go to shoot for your dreams.”
Given that Jawny emerged from humble bedroom pop beginnings – he had previously been making music under the alias Johnny Utah with no real expectations – it took some time to adapt to lavish studio spaces like the one NME meets him in today, which is overflowing with equipment. “At first, it was really weird because I’d come from a background of doing everything by myself,” he says of his early studio sessions. “I was still really young when I started out, so I still had a pretty ignorant mindset.”
The move to LA has helped broaden Jawny’s approach to collaboration, and encouraged him to release his 2020 EP ‘For Abby’, a collection of funky slacker-rock tunes. “When I came out here, I learned that music is about sharing, and it takes a village.” It’s no wonder, given he’s signed to the legendary Interscope Records, home of Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo, and Lana Del Rey. “Being label mates with so many greats is insane. [Interscope] put out some of the biggest records in the world, and hopefully I can live up to that potential and be one of the artists that they’re known for carrying in the future.”
Coming into studio spaces like Gold-Diggers helped him begin to let more people into the Jawny world. “It was pretty daunting at first with all the gear and people, but now it feels pretty normal, I like mixing it up.” He continues: “I don’t get hung up on beating my past efforts, that’s whack. It’s just about making something that gets you going and putting it out into the world. Hopefully people like it and it seems like people have been digging the stuff so far.”
As well as the millions of listeners around the world, Jawny has also found fans in his own heroes. In May 2021, he teamed up with indie-pop trailblazer Beck, after he fired a spontaneous text message to the star. On the resulting, lick-heavy jam of ‘Take It Back’ – which eventually dropped in June this year – the pair thrash out effortlessly groovy riffs, overlaid with effect-soaked vocals. Given that Beck ascended from busking on the LA bus system to overnight fame with seminal indie-rap anthem ‘Loser’, both he and Jawny bonded over how they share a similar rags-to-riches story.
“I definitely relate to Beck, and that was even before I knew him,” Jawny says. “He never played the game. ‘Midnight Vultures’ wasn’t a safe album to put out when you think of Beck as the ‘Loser’ guy – he’s singing like Prince on [album track] ‘Debra’. Through the years he kept pushing forward, but always remained true to himself – and that’s something I can only hope to strive to do.”
You can see why Beck was willing to jump in the studio with Jawny: the pair share a playful sonic palette and vivid lyrical style. Even Jawny’s straight-up love songs keep you guessing – take the woozy bop ‘Best Thing’, where he speedballs through playful bars: “Girl, you refresh me like ice cold Cola / My heart is requesting for you to come over / I know I’m obsessing about this being over / ‘Cause you are the best thing / Oh no I’m the John to your Ono.”
Beck’s last two records, ‘Colors’ (2017) and ‘Hyperspace’ (2019), built immersive worlds of daring visuals and vibrant, exploratory pop sounds, and Jawny says that creating similar stories is vital to him. “[My music] has to all be connected. I need to tell a story and it needs to make sense otherwise I feel unfulfilled, and Beck is so good at that,” he says. “I was like a kid in a candy store hearing Beck’s additions to my track, he really put his mark on it. I have videos of him on my phone performing the song live, and that’s the biggest compliment to me.”
After a short drive, we park up for a stroll around the idyllic Vista Hermosa Park, before taking a seat on a picnic table where the trees before us frame a postcard-style scene of the downtown LA skyline. In the distance, sirens wail, yet there’s a sense of tranquility up here. “It’s always nice to see past your four walls every now and again,” Jawny says, gazing out towards the city. “I’m lucky because I go on tour and escape my environment so I don’t go stir crazy – if I’m not active I need to go somewhere else.”
For Jawny, living in LA helps to keep his creative cogs whirring. “I can go to the studio and run into another collaborator in the hallway, and that wouldn’t happen in Philly,” he says. “There’s a scene here; if I hear a beautifully-written song, I’m like, ‘Wow, I want to write a song that good’, or if I hear a beautifully-produced record, it lights a match under me.”
You can feel the creative energy that Jawny describes in the streets around us. Having quickly built his own social circle here – including touring buddies Wallice and Spill Tab – he says that his contemporaries have helped him come to terms with his rapid rise to fame. “The week that I signed to Interscope was the week that my friend Remi Wolf signed. Both of us were bonding over this sense of, ‘Wow, this is fucking freaky!’. We were just normal workers a second ago, so it’s like, ‘How can we talk to our other pals about this life changing deal?’”
If the cards didn’t quite fall this way, Jawny insists he’d still be making music alongside the 50-hour working weeks he used to spend hunched over the deep fat fryer. “I’m at peace with everything; if you sent me back in time, I wouldn’t change any [of my] decisions, even the hard times,” he says.
Although Jawny has already achieved what many artists can easily spend a lifetime chasing, he won’t be looking over his shoulder anytime soon. “You’re only as good as your last battle,” he explains. “What happened with ‘Honeypie’ was a wonderful thing; it was that ‘movie moment’, I still can’t wrap my head around it. But now I just need to continue to make beautiful things.”
There’s no second guessing that Jawny will continue to evolve with his signature sense of fun and swagger. The video for his lively recent single ‘Adios’ saw him drifting around the LA streets like something from Fast & Furious, before eventually pummeling into a fire hydrant. “We’re always trying to do crazy stuff and top the last thing,” he chuckles. So what’s next? “There was talk of hanging upside down from a helicopter and flying me around Los Angeles… thankfully, the helicopter company wouldn’t do it; because I was terrified.” NME cautiously floats the idea of a stunt double, but to no avail. “No I do all of my own stunts, like Tom Cruise”, Jawny responds.
“Whatever happens,” he continues, “I just want to be one percent better every day. I want to keep growing and keep giving people more things to look forward to. You’ve got to put it into the world, trust your art and follow what you believe in.”
Jawny’s new single ‘Wide Eyed’ is out now