Q&A: Justin Jay’s Departure Into Newfound Territory Ultimately Brings Him ‘Home’ On Sophomore Album

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Justin Jay’s career thus far may be relatively short, but its fruitions thus far feel mark and varied. The DJ and producer, now turned bandleader, found initial success in his freshman dorm room when prolific Los Angeles electronic label Dirtybird took a liking to the young artist, making him the youngest member of the Dirtybird family. One would expect the rest of Justin Jay’s journey from there on out to be smooth sailing, making house music and touring across the world, but following Jay’s debut release, Fantastic Voyage, the rising artist suddenly retreated. Despite the critical success of Fantastic Voyage, something felt off for Jay, who decided to make a move that most artists on such a rapid ascent would never think to do. He moved back into his parents’ house, leaving behind the world of international fame for a time of introspection and reflection.

Jay’s period of withdrawal would ultimately serve to produce his most enlightening project to date, Home. The expansive album merges the world of Jay’s originally solitary beatmaking with the collaborative live production elements found throughout Fantastic Voyage for a welcomed departure into previously unexplored territory. With the new Justin Jay at the helm of Home, the project ventures into the realms of everything from indie, psychedelic, and lo-fi all without losing what made Jay’s music so pleasing from its outset. We had the chance to speak with Justin Jay about the journey that would, in the end, lead him to Home

OTW: Following your debut album, Fantastic Voyage, you underwent a period of retreat from touring and instead opted for time to reflect and look inwardly. What was the most important thing you realized during this time?

JJ: When I first started singing and writing songs, it was pretty scary/daunting especially when I compared myself to my friends who are so musically talented. I was worried that I would disappoint people who had liked me for DJ’ing and making house music, especially given my inexperience as a singer/ songwriter/performer. As I pushed myself to try writing songs, I ended up enjoying the process so much that it didn’t matter how scared I was or how good or not good the songs would be. I just kept going because the process of expressing myself in that way felt so right. I had to push past a lot of fears and doubts.

It was tough when I realized I had trouble hitting pitches while singing, or when I hit brick walls, trying to finish songs. It would’ve been easy to say, “I’m not very good at this, I should stick with DJ’ing and forget about all of this other stuff.”

In a very visceral way, I learned that if you want to try something new, it’s important not to be too judgmental of yourself, especially early on. It’s so important to disengage that critical voice when we are trying something new. We need to have the chance to get better by making mistakes, that’s how we learn. If you judge yourself too much early on, you’ll never get to develop the skills.

I was also under a lot of pressure to continue doing the things that were working in my career from agents and managers, and they made me feel as though I was taking a step backward; they made me feel like trying new things might not be the best idea. I realized how important it is when it comes to art to trust your intuition even if it might not make sense on paper or to those around you. It’s really important to not repress those artistic desires, thats when you defeat the purpose of art. It’s all about expression!

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Photo: Caroline Cuse

OTW: We’re beyond glad you’re back with your newest album, Home. It feels like this wonderful intersection between the worlds of live music and electronic production. What prompted you to move in this direction sonically?

JJ: I really wanted to write songs. My homie Josh Taylor really opened up the world of singing/songwriting to me in such an inspiring way. Seeing how he could express things that were on his mind musically. He told me that whenever he had a bad experience, he always could walk away on top by writing a song about it. There’s something so beautiful and positive about expressing yourself through singing and writing songs. It’s also really fun. That’s all this album is, just some songs I wrote. When it came to production, I felt free to do whatever the song wanted. Whether it was add house beats or psychedelic guitar parts.

OTW: Home is incredibly hard to pin down; it’s range is beyond expansive (something I absolutely love about it). It’s part everything, really, from dance to indie to psychedelic. So, musically or otherwise, where did you draw inspiration from for Home?

JJ: My focus early on was the songwriting. Starting at the piano, playing chords and singing at my parents house is really where a lot of these songs came from. Listening to guys who were doing cool stuff with their voices like Bon Iver, Kanye West, or Daft Punk really influenced me. Those artists inspired me to keep on singing even though my unaffected voice sometimes fell flat.

Later in the journey, I started making songs on the album that were a little more collaborative with the homies. I started scraping the surface of psychedelic, lo-fi rock music, starting with Tame Impala’s Innerspeaker and lots of Unknown Mortal Orchestra.

OTW: If you had to describe Home without using genre terms – as a setting or a state of being or anything – how would you go about describing it?

JJ: The concept behind the arc of this album was hugely inspired by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell is this crazy awesome dude who was renowned for his work on comparative mythology. Campbell’s big concept was that behind every great story, there’s a singular, common underlying framework. There is a hero, he or she begins at home, then leaves, faces trials, and then returns home with new insights, perspective and wisdom. With a lot of mythological stories, heroes go off and face monsters or slay dragons, but Campbell suggests that these foes or obstacles are external representations of things that the hero might be grappling with internally. The dragon might be a metaphor for the fear that hero is trying to overcome. 

The concept behind Home was inspired by the fact that the journey towards self growth can be an inward one, and take place in your parents’ house. You don’t always need to go somewhere new physically to grow. This album is a snapshot of a time where I took a break from traveling/adventuring and tried to figure things out within me, through introspection and writing songs. Hope I didn’t nerd out too hard for that answer.

OTW: Is there anything in particular you hope people will take away from listening to the album?

JJ: I hope people don’t hate it. Feels vulnerable putting all of this stuff out.

I’m curious to see how people interpret everything. For me, a lot of these songs helped me stay grounded and feeling good during the bumpy times. I think there’s a fair amount of ambiguity across the album. I wanted to leave interpretation open to people because I felt like it was less important for me to paint the literal picture of everything I was going through, but good enough to just try capturing the feelings behind the journey. Ultimately, would be pretty wild if some of these songs help others get through hard times.

OTW: Are there any tracks of Home you can’t wait to play live or for people to hear for the first time? We personally can’t wait to hear “Can’t Hang” and “Apologies” live.

JJ: Sweet, thanks for the love!

I’ve been playing can’t hang live for quite a few months now. It’s crazy because it came out over the summer and now people are singing along to the lyrics. It’s a crazy thing to experience, very surreal. Beyond that, we have a live rendition of “Hey My Friend” that is very different from the recording. It has a really fun, feel-good folk song vibe. It’s not a house track at all but I still think people will enjoy it. When we play it, there’s no electronic drums, no synthesizers, and no click or grid to abide to. Just feels really fun and free, a really live-band moment.

OTW: For the most part, your next tour will primarily feature live performances with a full band. How does playing with a live band affect the dynamic of your show? 

JJ: Many songs on the album aren’t really great for DJ sets. When we play live, it opens me up to playing songs I wouldn’t play otherwise. I love that because I get to keep myself on my toes when I DJ. I know I can’t just play the full album. 

I’m pretty new to playing live, this is pretty much my first band ever. I often get nervous before shows, knowing that sooo much can go wrong, but when things don’t and actually come together, it’s insanely rewarding. Either way, it’s really fun playing instruments, singing and being vulnerable in front of people. Also, the energy that you get when you’re on stage with all of your friends is incomparable to being behind the DJ booth by yourself. I love DJ’ing and it’s something that I’m so excited to continue doing. Just want to keep growing and getting better in all these different aspects of music.

OTW: What can fans expect from this upcoming tour?

JJ: In terms of what fans can expect, they’ll definitely see me and my homies trying things outside of our comfort zone while we hopefully have lots of fun in the process!

Catch Justin Jay on tour this fall and winter and listen to Home below:

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