Wise John is an ex-computer engineer turned musician who creates indie music that will shake your soul. He uses a jazz pianist’s mastery of harmony and heartfelt lyrics to create songs that show you new ways to feel and sound unique, drawing inspiration from both the virtuosic big band arrangements of Electric Light Orchestra and the poetic approach of singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan. Is his music from the past or brand-new music? It’s difficult to say. A Wonderful World, WJ’s self-released debut album, received favorable reviews when it was released in 2021, and it has since amassed a modest but devoted fan base. Its blend of rock, pop, and old-time jazz was praised by Cody Conard at The Big Takeover as “one of the most creative, unique, and bold debut statements from an up and coming artist in recent memory” after being written during a period of personal low point and recorded with friends (including producer Alex Strahle and Echosmith bassist Noah Sierota) over a long weekend during the pandemic. Wise John, who is now based in New York City, is hard at work polishing a number of projects that will be released beginning in late 2022, including partnerships with producer Quinn Devlin and artist Elise Trouw.
With this happy soul pop song, you can leave the present behind and dance through romantic memories. John’s smooth yet powerful voice and a sparkling full-band arrangement, which includes a Hammond B3 organ, two saxophones, and a 6-voice backing choir, lead us on a tour from the depths of loneliness to the sunny meadows of romance in Mr. Love, which was recorded in Brooklyn with artist Elise Trouw and producer Quinn Devlin (Quinn Devlin and the Bridge Street Kings). Check out his single ‘Mr. Love’ and the exclusive interview below:
1. Can you tell us a bit about where you all come from and how it all got started?
WISE JOHN: Sure! I was born in Newport Beach, California. My parents made side money flipping houses, so I grew up in a series of unfinished luxury homes and temporary rentals. Sort of like if the Bluth family of Arrested Development sold their house and moved every 10 months, and weren’t federal criminals (as far as I know).
I started playing piano as a toddler but didn’t get lessons until I was 10. I was obsessed with it from that point on, but I never seriously considered music as a career. It quickly became the thing that I did to keep myself sane while I pursued other goals. As a kid I wanted to be a physicist, and eventually went on to study computer engineering at USC, where I fell in with some rocketry nuts and helped design, build, and launch the first entirely undergrad-made rocket to reach space. In the summers I worked for NASA JPL and a space robotics firm called Honeybee. I also sang in an a cappella group and played the occasional jazz gig, but mostly for fun–my passion for music was primarily directed into the songs I wrote in my room alone, and shared with nobody.
So skip ahead to after college. I had switched industries and was working for a medical device startup. I’d been pretty fulfilled by the mixture of music and engineering I’d pursued in school, and though I’d already achieved most of the goals I set for myself, I expected that after I graduated I’d find a new set of milestones to be excited about. That didn’t really happen. I began to feel like a stranger in my own life. I worked remote and moved around, from LA to NYC to Oregon, but was unable to escape a growing depression.
Before the pandemic, I’d met Los Angeles music producer Alex Strahle through a friend, and had recorded a couple songs with him, which eventually became my debut album A Wonderful World. It was intended to be a side project, but the making of it took over my life. Managing the release of the album and my day job, as well as a series of tragedies in my personal life, overwhelmed me and when the album finally dropped I was burnt out and deeply depressed. My online presence, already slim, fell silent, and I struggled to focus on my job.
One day, driving in eastern Oregon, it hit me all at once that music was the only thing left that made me feel alive, and that if I didn’t make a change I could only see darkness ahead. Six months later I’d moved back to New York and left my company.
So it’s been 8 months–I’m chugging along in NYC burning through my savings, trying to make a career as an artist. I’ve made a ton of music and art with friends here that I’m really excited to show the world, of which Mr. Love only the first bit. My life feels like my own, like an adventure again. 26 is a bit late to start completely fresh but, hey, better late than never. :)
2. Did you guys have any formal training or are you self-taught?
WISE JOHN: I had piano lessons on and off through high school, and I played in our high school jazz band. I also did most of a jazz piano minor at USC, and was in a couple musicals. I don’t have any formal training in anything aside from piano, but I’ve sung enough with highly trained friends that it feels a little disingenuous to claim I have no vocal training at all.
When it comes to arranging and writing, I’m self-taught. I got lots of practice in arranging for voice through my college a cappella group, though, which definitely shows up in the music that I’m putting out now.
3. Who were your first and strongest musical influences and why the name ‘WISE JOHN’?
WISE JOHN: I grew up on the Beatles from the womb. I also listened to a ton of Jack Johnson and Coldplay off my brother’s iPod, and I think Jack Johnson’s lyricism and Chris Martin’s approach to melody lingers in my writing if you know where to look. I also grew up listening to my dad play guitar and sing from the American Songbook, which is where I think I got my love of Frank Sinatra and singer-songwriters like James Taylor.
In high school I realized jazz and classic rock existed and got really into Bill Evans, Steely Dan, Pink Floyd, and Queen.
As to “Wise John”, when I first started recording music for public release I thought I didn’t want anybody to know who I was. John’s anonymous, and a family name, and I like how “Wise John” can be taken kinda seriously or kinda as a joke. It’s flexible. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the music yet, but I figured the name would probably fit whatever it turned out to be.
4. What do you feel are the key elements in your music that should resonate with listeners, and how would you personally describe your sound?
WISE JOHN: I’ve been describing my sound lately as “what you’d get if you smashed ELO and Bob Dylan into each other in a particle collider”. It’s carefully arranged, harmonically complex music, but my songs are ultimately built around my lyrics, and usually are directly confessional narratives from my own life.
6. What’s your view on the role and function of music as political, cultural, spiritual, and/or social vehicles – and do you try and affront any of these themes in your work, or are you purely interested in music as an expression of technical artistry, personal narrative and entertainment?
Music connects with people using a different channel than words do alone. It’s good at carrying the truth of a feeling; it’s not always good at carrying a detailed, specific narrative. If you want people to understand why you’re feeling, use prose; if you want people to feel what you’re feeling, use music (or sometimes poetry). I hope that my music helps others feel beauty, feel less alone, and see the people around them more clearly.
Secondarily, I think that within my lifetime, American global hegemony will end, for better or for worse. Empires have a lifetime, same as anything else. I hope the transition is as peaceful as possible. I suppose if I have another big long-term goal for my art, it’s that the sum of my work conveys one view on life in the twilight of an empire.
7. Do you feel that your music is giving you back just as much fulfilment as the amount of work you are putting into it, or are you expecting something more, or different in the future?
Oh definitely. I’m using my music to learn how to be a better person. It’s therapy that other people can enjoy. Pretty much any amount of work is worth that.
8. Could you describe your creative processes? How do usually start, and go about shaping ideas into a completed song? Do you usually start with a tune, a beat, or a narrative in your head? And do you collaborate with others in this process?
Sometimes I have a particular feeling I want to say, and if that’s the case I’ll usually write the lyrics, melody, and chords all together all at once. Other times, I’ll have a string of words or a melody pop into my head while I’m reading or in the shower or something, and I’ll eventually write a song around it. I keep painstaking notes of all those little ideas, which lets me come back and finish them months or sometimes years later. (shout out to Obsidian)
9. What has been the most difficult thing you’ve had to endure in your life or music career so far?
WISE JOHN: In fall 2019 I was living in Hong Kong, hoping to find engineering work in Shenzhen, and the fabric of society kinda fell apart while I was there. I also had a severe flare-up of my chronic illness which left me very underweight, disabled, and in pain for a couple months. A good friend of mine back home also killed himself while I was there. The day I left the city, my then-girlfriend and I broke up, and when I got home I passed out in the shower and knocked out a bunch of my teeth.
That’s definitely the worst series of events so far in my life. lolz
10. On the contrary, what would you consider a successful, proud or significant point in your life or music career so far?
WISE JOHN: When I submitted my first single (Leaving LA) to CDBaby, for sure. I called my buddy Justin and we had a remote pandemic drink together.
When I finished my first album.
And when I got the masters back for Mr. Love and Marry Another Man (the next single I’m putting out). I’m very focused on the music, and I’m extremely picky, so the finest and rarest moments are definitely when I’m really proud of a recording.
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