Nashville Pop Soul artist J. Human is not afraid to be honest about the awkwardness of our existence.
At the very beginning of December, I stood amongst the crowd in The Basement East feeling slightly bemused. A tall, energetic man had just spun onto the stage wearing glasses and a red velvet housecoat over his clothes. My first thought was that J. Human was ready for an all-night dance party in the Gryffindor common room, and I couldn’t help but grin.
My fellow-nerd radar was further heightened when he introduced the next song — his upcoming single, Skin. “You know that feeling when you see someone across the room that you want to get to know, but you don’t know what to say and are pretty sure you’re going to do something horribly awkward?” I nodded along with his description. That was my entire life.
The smooth beats and buttery vocals of Skin seemed to contradict the lyrics of the song, which talked about being awkward while talking to new people. Not to mention, J. Human himself seemed very confident on stage. His energy along with the irresistible beat of the song had everyone in the crowd dancing and singing along. I was intrigued — despite the fact that he seemed entirely sure of himself while performing, I believed that he knew how awkward it was to meet new people. Driving home, I found myself singing Skin under my breath, and since its release a week ago, I haven’t quite been able to get the chorus out of my head.
Sitting in Ugly Mugs Coffee & Tea a week later, J. Human talked about his thought process behind writing Skin.
“Skin is an expose of how awkward I am. When you’re at a bar and you see someone cute, or you see someone that you’re intrigued by and you want to go talk to them… how do you start that conversation? I’ve never known how to navigate that well. I don’t use pickup lines, I think they’re stupid.”
He said Skin is also about how, to overcome that awkwardness, sometimes you just have to go for it and be straightforward — while also laughing at yourself. “I kind of live in this weird walking contradiction world. I call myself out a lot. It’s just another cross section of me as a human being — I’m bad at this but we can still be groovy about it.”
In addition to what the lyrics say, Skin is also a representation of how people struggle with having been conditioned to think that they need to restrict their interests or career path to one thing — but he knows and wants other people to know that that’s not the case.
“We live in such a branding-focused world, and it’s only getting worse. We constrict ourselves to a certain lane because we think it’s consistent. I think, what makes us human, is like… I could be a huge video game nerd, and then also be down to go hang out with my friends, and then I can be extremely painfully awkward in certain situations, but then be completely confident in others, and have these different interests and tastes and personality quirks that seemingly have nothing to do with each other, except for the fact that I am passionate about all of them.”
Our conversation then took a half an hour tangent, discussing all our nerdy passions, from Zelda to Star Trek to Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings — which J. is embarrassed to not have a tattoo for yet. Through this conversation, we eventually worked our way back to discussing the song — in particular, the confusion many listeners have over his reference to Cyrano de Bergerac, which many people mishear as “cereal.”
“For those who are reading this and maybe don’t know who he is, Cyrano was very ugly but incredibly good at talking to women, so the situation in the play is that he’s helping young suitors find love by whispering the things to them to tell women to make them fall in love. He was smooth as hell. So I’m representing that in a pop chorus.” He paused to laugh, then said, “Trying to teach the kids a few things.”
“I get up on stage and swing my hips, but then I get off stage and I don’t think I’m cool. I’m super dorky.”
J. Human grew up in Franklin, Tennessee, constantly surrounded by music. His parents were both in music, specifically through church ministry. “When my mom was pregnant with me, I was probably either in rehearsals or in a church service or listening to music, so I was kind of inundated with it from the beginning.”
When he was 5, he told his parents he wanted to play drums, but they signed him up for classical piano lessons. Despite hating that, he continued to grow his own opinions on music and find community through it. First listening to Christian Contemporary Music, he then moved on to Christian rap and ska, then shifted to hardcore metal, and then discovered his love of horns and the soul/funk world.
“I feel like I consume music differently than most people around me,” he explained. “You see a lot of artists say music was their refuge, they found it or it found them, or it was the thing that brought a bunch of band members together — for me it was the opposite. For me, music was the given, it was the guarantee, it was always there. Also, growing up in a place where you understand that there are a lot of people doing music, and doing it better than you, you focus on what you do well and try to not get stuck in a comparison world. That allowed me to focus on and find things in the music world that I love.”
One of his biggest influences musically is Stevie Wonder. “I’m a huge fan. I kind of coined my own phrase for his writing style — calling it the ‘spoonful of sugar’ approach. Stevie was a master of taking heavy topics and really talking about them, but surrounding them in a vehicle that was so easy and fun to listen to — first you listen to it and thing this is cool as hell, the melody’s great, I can vibe out to it — but then the tenth, fifteenth listen you’re like ‘ohhhh.’ You’re kind of getting the message through osmosis in a way, which I love. People don’t want to be preached at nowadays — but if you can kind of sneak stuff like that in there, people respond better to that.”
“I’m navigating the best way to do that with my music. My songs go between more mindless and fun, to things that are more self-exposing. I want to be able to use my platform to talk about heavier things, especially because there’s so much heavy stuff going on in the world, but we’re doing ourselves a disservice if we get so hyper-focused on the shit that’s wrong than the things that are right. At least in America and other first world countries, we have the luxury of art and music. These are things that are necessary to life, but also can be not as important when the entire country is on the verge of war — there are things that fall by the wayside quicker because they’re not ‘necessities.’ It’s a balance, to take advantage of that while we have the ability. That’s what I want to cultivate with my stuff. As much as it may sound frivolous and kind of goofy, I think that’s the point.”
He paused to grin, then said, “It’s like the boggarts in Harry Potter — laughter is the thing that gets rid of it. It’s not nearly as scary when you can laugh at it. If you face the monster head on, you don’t have to be as strong or stronger to overcome it. If you ridicule it, that reduces it. It makes it so much smaller and easier to move past. I think that’s a very healing thing.”
“Being frivolous and goofy in the face of overwhelmingly dark odds is its own form of defiance.”
Thinking about being a bit frivolous and goofy, I asked J. Human who he would want to play him if there were ever a movie made about his life. Not surprisingly, this brought us right back to the Wizarding World references.
“I’ve been really nerding out on the new Harry Potter movies, the Fantastic Beasts series, and— well, he doesn’t look like me, but I feel like Eddie Redmayne is doing such a brilliant job of changing the classic masculinity narrative. Recently, I stumbled across this YouTube channel, Pop Culture Detective, and watched a video called The Fantastic Masculinity of Newt Scamander. I love what Eddie is doing with Newt Scamander’s character. American culture seems to say he’s a weak leading man, but he’s not a weak leading man — he’s just not what we’ve been conditioned to expect. He’s not got the bravado like this classically heroic character. In the first movie, he wasn’t setting out to be a hero — he was trying to write a textbook, he was doing research, and finds himself in the middle of this crazy thing that’s going on. As a character, he’s defined by his kindness and gentleness towards everything. He cares about creatures and people that other people don’t care about, and he wants to protect them.”
“I’m very passionate about that, flipping the scripts of how things would typically play out, and I identify a lot with Newt as a character, being a slender, artsy, sensitive, emotional male, which has not typically been the cultural norm.”
“I don’t want to be famous just to be famous — I want to be on a level of visibility where I can use that for good, affect change in the world, and make a difference.”
To wrap up the conversation, I asked what was coming next for J. Human in 2019. He says that he’s got new music coming out within the first couple months of the new year, and then we’ll be seeing bigger and better things from there.
“Beyond that, what are your hopes for J. Human? Do you want to keep putting out singles, go on tour… what?”
“All of it.” His voice was full of conviction. “I want to take J. Human as big as I can possibly get it. I have my sights set on the pop record mainstream, Billboard, that world. My sights are set on the top. I’m not just shooting towards being a festival artists or a touring artists or something like that, I want to go for mainstream, I want a Grammy, I want to do all that stuff. I want to be chasing the top of that world. And I don’t want to do it just to say I’m the best at music — I want the platform. I want visibility, to then use that to talk about other things. I am navigating how best to do the ‘spoonful of sugar’ approach and incorporate that into my music, as well as other things.”
“I believe as musicians, there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with our platform, and how you use it is really important. For me, music is a vehicle to get that.”
Part of this too relates to his name — while the stage name J. Human is a play on his real name, he’s happy to have the human element there for everyone to see right away.
“It’s difficult to be a human, and I’m learning more about that every day. With my project, if it’s anything, I want it to be a platform to advocate for being a human, being one of everyone else on the planet. We’re all here together, we’re all just trying to figure it out the best that we can.”
“Let’s focus on the things that connect all of us, instead of the things that separate us.”
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