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Huron John, No. 11

Get to know this rising Chicago artist making music from his basement and dorm room.

On January 31st, Inner State 81 introduced me to Huron John through Insta DM, strongly recommending I interview John for II. Inner State found him through Instagram in October, when his most-played song on Spotify had 2k plays, “but I recognized the talent right away. I hit him up saying, ‘bro you’re talented af, can we make some music together or at least be friends?’ And after that we became friends. He’s a very cool guy, a very kind and gentle spirit.” Instantly open and helpful, he shares his number with me, encouraging cellular communication if he’s ever slow to respond through DM. I promised to send over a Google Doc of questions within the week. Four months later, after taking needed time to straighten out life logistics I needed to straighten out, I finally send the doc. His kindness and consideration were readily apparent as he took the delay in stride, not complaining once or expressing even a sliver of ill will. In that passed time, the 19-year-old Chicago native continued to polish his sound, attract listeners, and make progress on his upcoming fall project.

John’s music occurs in the vein of pleasant, synth-y bedroom pop (although he’s made a lot of music in his parents’ basement, so he’s also technically making basement pop). His early 2019 single “Friendzone” is even featured on Spotify’s Bedroom Pop playlist, alongside Jakob Ogawa, Clairo, Yeek, Men I Trust. If you encounter his Instagram profile before his music, you’ll get a sense of what his sounds look like: neon-y, fun, modern, something you wanna sit on the edge of to gaze at but also dive headfirst into. And he’s as much of a visual artist at heart as he is a musician: “My goal with the art stuff isn’t just to make music for people, but to create a kind of universe, a unique world for my music, visuals, etc to live in. I’m also huge on keeping in touch with our childhoods, which is why a lot of my lyrical themes revolve around video games, cartoons, candy, etc, while still touching on stuff like drugs, anxiety and depression, more coming of age topics.” He started making music back in 2014, and has only been releasing works under Huron John for about a year now. He’s already amassed nearly 50k Spotify listeners through just 2 EPs and 3 singles.

About a week before this interview’s release, I message John to note my observation that his music seriously gets better with every listen (and it was already pretty good on the first listen). The more familiar it becomes, the more welcoming it is. Like Kevin and BROCKHAMPTON, he gives that instant rebop, his replay value goes off. One of my favorite things about getting to interview musicians is that I get to discover genuinely good music. And John’s music is genuinely good music (that I anticipate I’ll keep listening to a lot, as a listener). Confident that he’ll get where he wants to be in just 10 short years if he keeps doing what he’s doing (which is steadily moving upward and onward in his own lane), I’m excited to watch him arrive where he’s headed. Here’s Huron John.

Hello, John. Who are you?

I’m a 19 year old alternative-pop artist from Chicago, Illinois. :)

Why Huron John?

Honestly there’s no obvious explanation: I wanted something with alliteration, something that described a location (Lake Huron), and something that incorporated my real name.

So no inspiration from Lord Huron.

Not really honestly. I’m not even sure if it’s a band or a single person - I’d have to dive into their stuff. I never really thought of the name similarities prior to choosing. I guess I just kind of chose it on my own. It was going to be Yukon John, then Neutron John, but I kind of found reasons to not do either of those. Huron John stuck, I guess.

And you used several other music aliases before Huron John.

Yes I had a couple different names, but none of them really fit or had some of the success that Huron John has so far. I just kind of wanted to rebrand myself and try out a new style, and I guess Huron John worked (somewhat), and hopefully continues to work.

You sing at length about loneliness and isolation - “I don’t feel included or invited when I’m with you. Why doesn’t anybody like me? Everybody’s got their friends, all I’ve got is PlayStation” and “How many miles more before I can smile more?” Because these lyrics are accompanied with references to apps like Snapchat and messaging phenomena like being left on read, I assume they refer to the present. Have you struggled with social stuff since you were a kid, around the age that you were striking out at tee-ball?

This is kind of a tricky answer. I’m super blessed to have a lot of great friends, who honestly make me feel like they’re family. I’ve been very lucky to have met a lot of amazing people, especially this past year. A lot of my lyrics involving loneliness, isolation, social stuff, etc, is a reflection of experiences that I’ve had, but I look at is more as general commentary on the process of being a teenager in 2019. It’s a weird ass time for teenagers. Our parents growing up in the 70s and 80s were so fucking different than how we’re growing up right now. Which is so crazy to me. So yeah, a lot of my lyrics are based off of personal feelings and experiences, but a lot of that lyrical content is written specifically to comfort listeners who might be dealing with that type of thing too. I love relatability. My favorite songs and albums are usually those that I really relate to, one way or another.

In “Golden Arches,” one of your singles from earlier in the year, you lament your mom’s refusal to buy McDonald’s “because there’s food at home.” There’s definite relatability there for the suburban demographic (link Insta vine). Has your mom heard the song?

Definitely! My parents are always listening to my shit, God bless them. Hi, mom.

You say you technically grew up in the Chicago suburbs, which is quintessential suburban America. I spent summers with my grandparents near Peoria, Illinois, so I know the white picket fence headspace well. Do you have any specific childhood anecdotes that really capture the mind of middle America?

Yeah, definitely. Of course, growing up in that environment is both good and bad, as with anywhere, but in general I love where I grew up. I think I was lucky to have a really great childhood. Of course, I reference a lot of this depression // loneliness // anxiety shit in my lyrics, but a lot of that is to comfort my listeners, and just air-out feelings that I’m having from time-to-time. When I think of where I grew up, and what my childhood was like, I don’t think of that shit. I think of summers at the public pool with my family. Endless hours riding BMX bikes at our local skatepark, all our friends just doing stupid shit. Lighting off fireworks in the front yard with my dad, Fourth of July parties, all that shit. Being in Scouts, and blowing off all the actual Scout stuff to just trade Pokemon cards with the other kids. My grandma taking us to endless museums, trying to make us learn all that we could. Board games, bonfires in the backyard, going from sharing the swingset with kids in elementary school to seeing those same kids get fucked up at high school parties. Discovering Odd Future, skateboarding, navigating first girlfriends, all that. Hahah. I really have been blessed. Shoutout to everyone that I’ve crossed paths with at one point or another. 

Your frequent collaborator Claire Ernst is someone you crossed paths with at Belmont - do you remember the moment y’all decided to collab? Did you record in one of your dorms?

That’s a genius right there. One of the best songwriters I’ve ever met, and has helped me grow endlessly. We’re not only collaborators but like super tight friends. That’s somebody I could go to with anything. The universe really tossed me a fucking treasure by making us cross paths. The moment we decided to collab wasn’t even really a descision, if that makes sense. I remember it was right when the school year started and everyone was still getting to know each other. So many creative kids at my school, shoutout to everybody, you know who you are. But yeah, this was right when I started working on Fanta Fantasy, so probably like late August 2018. There were literally like 12 people in my dorm room all kind of contributing to the song structure of “Yoko” while I was working on the beat. Everybody was kind of just tossing around ideas, but eventually it just came down to me and Claire working on the hook, and that was kind of our first collab. We co-wrote the hook, and then (I think) I was like, “Hey wanna sing it with me?” And she was down. And yes, we always record in the dorms. No studios, much more fun that way.

Ben Elder is one of your other public collaborators - did you also meet him in Nashville?

Yeah. That’s like my brother as well. All the shit I said about Claire goes for Ben as well. An extremely talented dude who has really changed the way that I look at a lot of this music shit. He’s really opened me up to a lot of new ways to create. Shoutout to Ben. But yes, met him at school as well. The cool thing about Ben and Claire is that I know they aren’t temporary, if that makes sense. Ever since I met them I’ve known that I’m in their corner, and they’re in mine. It’s super tight knowing that you have people that you can make whatever with. Just like, super solid partnerships. People who get what you’re trying to do, and you get what they’re trying to do.

Glad to hear that college is going well. What are you studying?

I’ve definitely met like the best people in the world there. I’m studying music production. It’s helped me gain a ton of perspective on how to produce sounds that people want to hear, if that makes sense.

How would you describe those sounds?

Stuff that makes people feel good. Stuff that makes people experience old feelings throughout their lives, bringing old experiences back to the forefront of their minds.

Most of your Spotify uploads are under an Always Outside label (a complement to your first EP Never Inside); however, your recently released summer single “Little League” is under a Nice Guys label. Did you recently sign to them?

Yeah! Always Outside has kind of always been my “brand” or whatever you want to call it. Super inspired by artists who kind of create their own “branding,” like Tyler’s GOLFWANG, Kevin Abstract’s “Question Everything LLC,” that type of thing. Nice Guys is a label that I did release the latest single through, but the contract was kind of just a singles deal type thing. I did it just to kind of dabble into that world and see what the whole process was like, which was cool. But, I’m huge on maintaining control of the stuff I make, so I’ll probably be independent for the near-future. Who knows though. I just want to make my shit and own it, I guess.

I feel that. Like Kevin said himself, “Could’ve got a deal if I wanted, but I like owning shit. And I like making shit. And I like selling it.” Do you find inspiration in any of your indie synthpop genre peers, like Kid Bloom or Dayglow or Vansire?

I actually have not listened to any of those guys. I should check them all out. I mainly find inspiration from people that I’ve been listening to for the longest - the Pumpkins, Tyler, etc. I think it’s cool to be aware of what’s going on the Indie community, but lately I’ve been trying to distance myself from it. A lot of insecurity and feelings of inadequacy come from being super attached to that community. Lately I’ve just been trying to be on my own shit. Exist in my own world, because I know that 10 years down the line I’ll be where I want. It’s all good.

You perform - as often as you’d like?

Somewhat. Obviously in the grand scheme of things I’m extremely new to this entire thing. I’m just kind of figuring it out as I go. I’ve had some super fun performances, but I know I’m kind of in the genesis of my live experiences.

When and where was your first performance?

The first one that I actually count was a summer 2018 house show in Chicago. A super fun memory, and it was back when I had like 300 monthly listeners. A lot of local friends and stuff came through, and it was a really good time for everybody to just hang out.

In most of your songs, as your verse begins or the beat switches, Siri greets you with “Hello, John.” You also directly address her - “Siri, direct me to a place that will make me happy” in “Landline” / “Siri, I feel so depressed. Where can I get relief?” in “Smile More” (she respectively dials Blockbuster Video and The Lego Store). When did this Siri soundbite motif occur to you?

Haha yeah! I think the Siri thing has kind of been a thing in my music since the very beginning, like back to the Never Inside days. It started out as sort of a joke, but when I was making my follow-up EP Fanta Fantasy I definitely saw the potential for a “character” type thing to thematically tie all of my stuff together. I see the whole Siri thing as kind of a constant companion: every single one of us has some sort of piece of artificial intelligence inside our pockets. It’s a really weird thing.

It is a really weird thing. In some cases, it's even used as a recording studio. Wild. What’s your equipment setup like? Where do you usually record?

I’ve recorded everything I’ve ever made in my basement at my house in Chicago, or in my dorm room at school, and soon-to-be apartment for my sophomore year of college. My equipment set up has definitely gotten bigger as time has gone on hahaha. Reason has been my software of choice pretty much forever, and I think it’ll stay that way. As for the new stuff I’m making for the project in the fall, I just bought a hardware drum machine from the 90s, so I’ve been using that for like everything. I’m using my Roland Boutique models a lot. I also just picked up a new Telecaster, so I’ve been micing my amp a shit ton versus my old method of just plugging it directly into the box. The new sound I’m getting is super interesting, and I can’t wait to share it.

What’s your usual songmaking process?

It’s pretty random, honestly. 95% of the time I just make a beat first. I don’t really write songs, I basically just make beats. Once I know a beat is finished, I’ll start writing to it. Lately though, I’ve been coming up with a lot of hook ideas, melodies, etc, before even starting a beat. That’s been an interesting way for me to change it up. The change definitely reflects in my new stuff too, as you’ll see later this year.

Your newest release, “Little League,” tells the story of five-year-old John striking out at tee-ball. “I’m no good at ball / I’m no good at all,” the speaker laments. Is this song autobiographical? Did you actually play tee-ball at age five (for and only for the Dairy Queen afterward)?

Hahahaha yeah. All that shit is true, 100%. I would say that most of my lyrics are autobiographical. I love reading biographies and autobiographies, and just getting detailed portraits of people. I always love that type of thing, especially in lyrics. And yes, I actually did play tee-ball. I cycled through most sports as a kid, just kind of discovering that they weren’t my thing with each new sport not working out. I fuck with Dairy Queen, though. Shout out to them.

Beyond its plot, “Little League” strikes me as a truly tranquil acceptance of your own strengths and weaknesses, and respectful but resigned acknowledgement that they differ from everyone else’s (especially those who have found that their talents align with mainstream practices and paths): “When I registered for baseball / I really thought it was gonna be just like that movie The Sandlot. But I couldn’t be more wrong / playing ball all day long is not for me. / But if it’s for you that’s cool, I don’t judge.” Did your lack of sport skill in our sport-centric society anguish you as a kid? How long ago did you realize that you’re really, really good at other things?

Lack of sport skill was kind of an issue as a kid, I’d say. I always kind of felt misfitted in that sense. I was pretty good socially, always able to make other kids laugh and shit, but it always kind of freaked me out when the recess bell would ring and I knew we were about to go outside, play kickball, and have teams picked. Stuff like that was always sort of stressful. But it’s all good. I started playing guitar in like 1st grade, which helped me feel like I had some purpose, I guess. That was kind of the start of the whole music shit. My parents understood that sports weren’t my thing, and they were totally cool with that. I’m blessed to have some of the most supportive parents I’ve ever met. But, me saying I didn’t want to do sports, they were like, “Well, you gotta do something.” They didn’t want me to be some kid who just sat around and played PlayStation all day. So, I started playing instruments, and here we are.

Huron John is on Instagram and Spotify.

II is also on Instagram. In the meantime, remember, your bike won’t ride itself.

By Cloude, who spends their time as a recent college graduate video editing, working on II, and organizing around climate justice. Originally from South Florida, they’ve been living in New England for the last year. They don’t know where they’ll move next, or when, but they plan on moving somewhere new soon. You can follow Cloude on Instagram.