First Look Friday: SAINt JHN Won't Stop Until He's a Superstar
On the first Friday of every month we put the spotlight on one up-and-coming artist; for December’s First Look Friday we take a look at SAINt JHN, an artist who released one of the best albums of 2018.
Back in November, I had a 30-minute phone conversation with SAINt JHN. He was driving, on his way to sound check for a show he had in Washington, DC. Near the end of our conversation, I told him he had a great year, and that he should be proud of his 2018.
SAINt JHN said, “watch this.” He put the phone down and yelled out to a driver next to him: “My name is SAINt JHN. Have you heard of me before?” The driver had not.
“There’s a guy that has never heard of me before,” SAINt JHN then told me. “No matter how good of a year I feel like I was having, I haven’t done enough.”
SAINt JHN clearly has superstar aspirations. And there’s still plenty of work to be done. In March, SAINt JHN released the debaucherous Collection 1, a moody album centered around sex, drugs, money, and entertainment. These certainly aren’t new topics in hip-hop, and SAINt JHN’s vocal range is very much indebted to Kid Cudi. Add that to the fact that the production, while fine, wasn’t reinventing the wheel (insert Meteroboomin type beat.) But the album is good. Very good, in fact. And this is because SAINt JHN is an exceptional songwriter; he’s a switch hitter — transitioning between rapping and singing effortlessly — with the ablity to paint vivid pictures and mold seductive melodies.
SAINt JHN has been crafting these songwriting skills for years. After dropping a series of projects under his government name, Carlos St. John, in 2010 and ’11, he went to the background. He became a songwriter, crafting gems for the likes of Usher, Jidenna, and dvsn.
That album can’t be called anything but a success. There was tangible buzz, it received good coverage, and heavy co-signs, from places like The Joe Budden Podcast. SAINt JHN was also able to go on a worldwide tour due to the album. (When we spoke, he was getting ready to perform a sold-out show at Irving Plaza in New York City.)
So where does SAINt JHN go from here? Back to the studio. At the top of next year he will release Ghetto Lenny’s Love Songs for Christians. The album sees SAINt JHN go back to his aggressive rapping roots, like on the pulsating lead single “McDonalds Rich.”
For this month’s First Look Friday, we take a closer look at SAINt JHN. During our interview, we talked about process, growing up in Brooklyn, writing for other artists, and more.
Check out the interview and some exclusive photos below.
When did you start working on Collection 1?
It’s hard to say. I think maybe Collection 1 came about over the course of 16 months, something like that. Eighteen months. I don’t know exactly when we started ’cause there was no commencement. When the world doesn’t know who you are, has no idea, it’s not like you walk into a studio and say, “Hey, today’s the first day we’re going to put out this project at some point in the next year and a half.” We just started. We were working. I’m a songwriter, but I’ve been writing songs for other people, and, at some point, I just didn’t want to do that. I shifted the focus to Collection 1. So we’re introducing myself, in a way. When you write records for other people you can kind of get lost in that. Collection 1 came about as a result of that.
Is Carlos St. John your real name?
Carlos St. John is my real name, yeah.
So is it literally like stripping the slate clean a little bit? Are you consciously rebranding yourself? Or were you not even thinking about that? You’re just making the music and see what comes from it?
I’m conscious of where I am and when I am. Being it’s 2018, and I put out those projects in 2010. It’s a natural evolution that happens. Without even thinking about what needs to happen as a human being, as a man. So Collection 1 was an evolution of Carlos St. John. That’s who I am. My name is Carlos St. John. I’m never not going to be that.
How has life changed for you since the album dropped?
I’ve seen more countries than I’ve ever seen before. It’s an all-time high for me. My sense of self is at an all-time high. My understanding to be responsible and to create art is at an all-time high. I feel like I’m right in the moment that I’m supposed to be in. Everything changes. I guess I put my name on the list, on the short list. I’m here.
I said the difference is that I feel like I put my name on a short list. It’s almost like the first time you come out of your house in your brand new sneakers and everybody on the block knows you got your brand new sneakers on. The difference between everything I did before and now, is you can see me. It wasn’t visible before. I was still workshopping it. Now you can see it and you can decide for yourself whether you like it, whether you care about it, whether it’s important or it’s impossible. But it exists now. Collection 1 has a hundred million streams. So it exists.
During that period, when you were writing songs in the background, was that frustrating for you? Or did you enjoy being not in the limelight?
It was an incredibly humbling experience. It was humbling because you had to recognize your place. Recognize that you’re a contributor. It was so important to me to understand my value. I was contributing to other people’s dream. I was helping grow their perspective and shape their audience by virtue of my ideas. It’s the most important thing that I’ve ever done in my life, was sit down, give my art to someone else.
You said you look at it as a humbling experiences, can you pinpoint something specifically that comes to mind when you say that sentence. Like a scenario or something visual?
I think it requires you to sit quietly. It requires you to be subject to somebody else’s idea. Even though your ideas are leading the charge, you don’t get to be the one up at the front of the line. So when I say “humility” it’s almost like being a writer for Rolling Stone. You might write the article, but you don’t get to be the editor. You just write it. You don’t to choose the picture. You just write it. You start the conversation and you let somebody else graduate it. Don’t raise your hand and take credit. That’s what humility is. Understanding that you’re a part of the larger process. You’re part of a bigger machine. What’s supposed to happen is much bigger than you. Artists are selfish. Artists are supposed to say, “I and me.” But as a writer you say, “What do you need? How can I help you?”
My main distinction between a writer and an artist is there’s nobody else to explain it to. I don’t require permission as the one performing the art that I’m writing. Just do it. You get to cut out all the middle layer, all the things that might inhibit you. With this level of freedom comes an incredible responsibility and a great opportunity to fail.
You said making music is a selfish experience. Can you expand on that idea?
I made the music that I wanted to hear. For me, it’s a selfish, cathartic experience. I get to say what I want to say. How I feel at the time. I can change my mind. I can live in the moment. It’s selfish. It’s so expressive it’s all coming from within. Even though I’ve inspired a lot things outside of me, that makes it selfish. I made it for me and I hope you like it. That’s the greatest gift I’ve ever given myself and I hope you like it. If you enjoy it as much as I do, that’s perfect. I’m in sync with the entire world. If that happens.
Is Ghetto Lenny’s Love Songs for Christians still dropping this year?
It comes out next year.
What happened there?
Nothing, I get to change my mind. That’s the magic. The magic of being a creator in charge of your own creativity, with the opportunity … not everyone has this opportunity, but I can make the music. I can put it out. I can not put it out. In 2018, streaming the main and primary way other people consume my life. I can do whatever I want to do. As a responsible artist, I just made a shift. So January felt like the right time for me.
So it’s not the idea that something wasn’t hitting, or something’s incomplete?
There’s always more work to be done. I’m on tour right now. In the middle of tour. I was going to put out a project right before tour started. I just made a different decision.
How would you compare and contrast these two projects?
Ghetto Lenny’s Love Songs for Christians has a significant amount of angst. It’s urgent. I’m not saying that Collection 1 isn’t urgent. Collection 1 happened over a period of time. I wanted to concentrate the experience of Ghetto Lenny’s Love Songs for Christians. That’s what it feels like. It’s concentrated. You can hear it. In every single song.
I listened to the project and it definitely felt harder than Collection 1.
Yeah, it’s aggressive.
What’s the thought that comes into that? Are you consciously trying to do that? Or is it you go with the flow, where the project is going?
The only thing I ever want to to do when I walk into a studio is find and tell a simple truth. That’s it. That’s all I ever want to do. I want to be sincere about my story and I want to tell a simple truth.
That simple truth right now, the intention with which I made Ghetto Lenny’s Love Songs for Christians, just happens to be a sort of urgency. I want more. I want my ideas to be heard louder. I want to go further and I want to go faster.
When you’re in the studio and you’re working, are you consuming a lot of outside music or do you have tunnel vision about it?
I listen to everything. I’m watching, I look at things. I’m consuming things constantly. So any period of time there’s no rules for me. Actually no rules. The only rules for me is tell the truth. That is it. Outside of that, anything could happen.
I might turn my TV off if that’s what I want to do. Just Netflix. Or turn the radio on. No rhythm to that. I have to be consistent. I have to respect the emotion of what’s happening at the moment.
You said earlier that you’ve never seen so many places. Can you tell me some of the places that you’ve been over the last six months?
I went to Egypt for the first time to do a show. I sold out a show in Egypt. I sold out a show in Russia. London. Paris. Ten thousand people in Rome. Belgium. Frankfurt, Cologne, both in Germany. Amsterdam. I’ve seen all different parts of America that I didn’t even know were real. You only hear about them in name but until you go there, it’s not real for you. Middle America is a real place, it’s not just a place on the map.
Is there something that you’ve learned from traveling the world like that?
Yeah, that’s something that you can’t tell in a soundbite. That sort of experience unravels itself almost over a lifetime. You interact differently when you see the world. I’ve gone to so many different places. Not that I’ve picked up on one thing or two thins, but I knew that I was just growing. In real time. And not from a television screen. You’ve got to stay tuned, you have to pay attention. If you hear he music take on adoptive forms. If I can remember, if i can trace the influence, I’ll tell you, “I picked this up in Rome.” I just have to hear it for the first time.
Who are some of the people you look as influences when you were coming up writing, rapping, and singing?
I grew up listening to Beenie Man and JAY-Z. Those are primary influences for me. I wanted to be like my brother. I listen to Jay an Beenie and I wanted to be like my own brother.
My sources of inspiration are musical and business oriented. ‘Cause I came from a dark place. I came from Brooklyn, where it’s really rough, coming out of Brooklyn. Trying to make something of yourself from a poor family. So I was highly motivated by art and I really wanted to make it out of my circumstances. Finding a fusion of that is something I’ve actively discerned. Something I could be true and sincere to. Somehow develop and build something for myself that might be around long after I leave this planet.
Can you tell me about how the first six month of 2019 is going to look for you?
Hopefully, bigger and brighter than the first six months of 2018. Ghetto Lenny’s Love Songs For Christians comes out. I’m back on tour. My feet moving, touching the ground. I want to feel like I’m floating in 2019. I want to move faster than I did before. I want to get some more people. Collection 1 did a hundred million streams, I’d like to find a billion streams on Ghetto Lenny’s Love Songs for Christians, conservatively.