Q&A: Meet Mark Johns, Lover Of Pasta, Yaeji’s Biggest Fan, and OWSLA’s Rising Star

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I’ve done a number of interviews before, but none quite like my interview with Mark Johns. Settling in at the shared storefront of Moving Castle and Next Wave HQ on iconic Melrose Avenue, I set up my recording equipment and scrolled through Instagram as per usual. I watched Instagram story after story all in the hopes of calming those slight nerves that always seem to creep up when one is preparing to talk to someone whose music you’ve obsessively streamed on repeat before the idea of talking to them was even a reality. So, I can’t say with absolute certainty what I expected, but it most certainly was not a lively terrier-mix, who I would come to know as LiLo, darting into the storefront and leading the way of Naomie, the person behind the Mark Johns moniker. 

Singing Yaeji’s “raingurl” aloud and making herself comfortable on the carpeted floor below me, Naomie wasted no time before delving into her love for Yaeji and the undeniable banger that is BLAISE’s “Dua.” As LiLo ran around the storefront, occasionally stopping to play-fight and bite at my arm, Naomie continued to expand further on her clear and insatiable love for music. It was hard to envision the moment as a semi-formal interview and not as a casual conversation between friends who were simply catching up on their recent music discoveries and obsessions. 

Yes, before me sat, Mark Johns, the only singer on Skrillex’s record label, OWSLA, who was signed off of a single cover and inevitably poised for massive things. Yet, more than anything, the artist I found myself lucky enough to be chatting with was one with a genuine and irrefutable love for not only the music she was making but music itself as a whole. And yes, without a doubt, an artist clearly poised for massive things as well.

OTW: How’s the day been going so far?

Good. I’ve just been listening to that one Yaeji song over and over and over and over again, took my dog out, and made breakfast. I ate a healthy breakfast; I’m proud of that. 

OTW: Going back to where it all started, the first track you put out was with Manilla Killa, a flip of Lido’s remix of Yung Lean’s “Gatorade.” How did this collaboration come about?

That was my first thing ever. I was writing for this blog called Run The Trap. I was super heavy into curating playlists and my whole thing was I wanted to be in A&R. I’m still heavy into that. That’s what I spend the rest of my time doing if I’m not making music. I met all these DJs through Facebook when I was covering them or adding them to playlists. It starts in the DMs. So, Manilla Killa is in this other group called Hotel Garuda with this kid Aseem. He used to live in Singapore too and we went to the same school but missed each other by a couple years. So, what happened was somebody that I went to school with in California ended up going to college at Occidental, which Aseem also ended up going to. We were introduced via Facebook and he introduced me to Manila, who introduced me to AObeats, who introduced me to robokid, who introduced me to the rest of Moving Castle. That’s when they added me to Moving Castle and that’s what formed the whole core brick of my social life. And that’s how I met Manilla Killa!

So, when we were just talking, on this SoundCloud where I was making all these other playlists, I had a couple of covers that I had recorded on my iPhone with an acoustic guitar in my bathroom. And he was like, “Can you help me out? I’m trying to do this cover.” I was like, “Yeah, sure.” I had this hundred-dollar USB mic that my friend bought for my birthday, and that’s what I recorded the vocals on. That’s also how I met Sable, and we made that “In Paris” remix together that got me signed to OWSLA. And that’s why I’m here, long story short!

OTW: Your rendition of not only “In Paris” but “Rehab” as well, felt much more like a reinvention than a simple covers or remix. What inspired you to tackle that track in that particular manner?

I was just listening to the Tennyson song and then I started singing “Rehab.” I was doing something else at the time, the song was just on one of my playlists. So, I recorded it on my phone and didn’t do anything with it for a minute and then I watched that Amy Winehouse documentary. I have the weirdest relationship with Amy Winehouse. As much as I love her and everything she’s done, she’s so much more of a cautionary tale to me, because I see so much of myself in her, in terms of our characteristics and tendencies. So, I just look at her whole story and I’m like this is what cannot happen. That’s why that whole Lil Peep thing hit me so hard. The whole scenario felt very similar. But when I watched that whole documentary, I felt this person is too important to me to not do something, and I remember that Amy Winehouse voice note and just did it. I put it out without telling anyone, because I was so emotional. They were so pissed at me the next morning. They were like you can’t just do that! I was like, “But why? It’s just SoundCloud.” Anyway, everything worked out for the best.

OTW: How has the journey been from that original collaboration all those years ago to being part of Moving Castle now?

It’s cool to see something that started as a group chat grow into what it is now. I remember the Facebook group and the goals that we had then, they seemed so big to us back then, and, in comparison to the goals we have now, they seem so small. So, just to see that trajectory and that growth, it’s so exciting. I’m stoked for everybody. I’m very excited that it’s all happening! It’s such a good feeling.

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OTW: You’re a clear standout on Skrillex’s electronic and DJ-leaning label, OWSLA. Is it ever a worry for you being the only the singer on OWSLA, or is it something you find to be empowering?

That’s kind of why I signed to them. I know how it goes with most labels, at least major labels. The last thing I wanted to do was sign to a developmental deal. They sign you off a single or give you a certain amount of time to come up with a single and you have that single moment, hopefully. If you don’t follow that up, they kind of shelf you. I’ve just seen it happen to so many people, and that’s not what I want. And I don’t want anyone trying to tell me what to do, because I don’t know what to do. I was signed off of a cover. I wasn’t even writing original music at that point, so I know this is going to take me a hot minute to figure out, so when OWSLA was like we’ll give you full creative control that was tempting. They set me up with a place and studio space, and I dropped out of school and moved here. My parents weren’t too excited about that at the time. So, I would wake up every day and eat pasta, go to the studio, come back from the studio, eat pasta, and go to sleep. It took me awhile, but they’ve been super patient with the whole process, and that’s exactly what I needed at the end of the day.

OTW: Speaking more on your love for pasta, so much so that you have a Spaghetti Sauce Spotify playlist, walk us through your favorite pasta recipe.

My favorite pasta recipe probably starts at Trader Joe’s. They have pappardelle egg pasta. I get that, and then I make a cream mushroom sauce with pesto. That’s my favorite stuff. I can eat a whole pot of that. It’s the best.

OTW: Your debut EP, Molino, is beautifully downtempo and emotive. What are some of the inspirations lying behind the album?

I was writing so much music, because I felt the need to be experimenting trying new things, and working with new people, but it kind of had this opposite effect on me where it diluted the music I was making. I felt at one point I needed to just step back and just write songs. Let’s just really write how we feel and get that all out, so then we can go back to experimenting and figuring all this shit out. So, it was a very introspective moment for me. It sounds like a love song EP. All them sound like I’m talking to a dude or significant other, but, at that point, I didn’t know how to write about my relationships or just people in my life without using romantic metaphors. So, a lot of these songs are about everything, and I had to use these pronouns to make it make sense in my head.

OTW: And what was the feeling like as an artist putting out their first ever release?

I think there was too much weight on it. I know this happens everywhere, but it took longer for this actual project to come out. When you’re sitting on something, and you just want the world to hear it because you’re growing in that whole period and changing as an artist as well, you’re starting to not feel the same way you did five months ago. You get scared of what you made, especially as your first project. It’s so defining in a way and you don’t want it to be. I don’t think anyone ever wants any of their projects to be defining. Because I think everyone, as an artist, hopes to grow throughout their careers at some point, as long as you plan to keep on doing this for your whole life, which I hope most artists do. I was just scared that would be too big of a defining moment for me, because even for myself I felt that it was a too little left field for what I usually make, but I was very relieved. I felt I had gotten a lot off my chest, and I feel every artist should have those songs to go back to.

OTW: So, was music an integral part of your household growing up?

No, not at all. I had the most fucked-up relationship with music ever. My parents are pretty religious and had a pretty strict stance on what we could and couldn’t really listen to growing up. So, I just listened to the radio stations my mom would put on, so a lot of Celine Dion and Duran. It was very PG, and nobody else in my family was really into music, and I wouldn’t say I was either. I wouldn’t ever have considered music to be one of my defining characteristics. I didn’t develop an intimate relationship with music until a lot later, not until high school when I had my own computer and was downloading shit off LimeWire and getting into YouTube. I was learning there was more than just the singles you heard off the radio; there were whole albums. Honestly, I think the whole suggestions tab off YouTube is the whole reason I got into music, because it was just like, “Here you go, here’s a curated playlist of songs you might like.”

OTW: Your name is a play on the visual artist Marc Johns. What’s the relationship like between you and the Mark Johns moniker?

He does not like me. I was so bummed. So, last year there was this billboard, the first time I was ever in a print publication, and like two weeks after it came out I get an email from Marc Johns and he was like you just can’t take my name. So, that was a little bit disheartening, but I still love everything he does. The reason I chose Mark Johns was because one of his pieces was the background on my phone, and I was stressed out and panicking so I just went Mark Johns, “That’s the one!” It kind of sucks that he doesn’t like me, but I still like him.

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OTW: What’s your favorite part of making music?

I like wordplay. That’s my favorite part of making music and writing, figuring out how to make a sentence clever, like double meanings and all that. I get a lot of my inspiration from just reading sentences and thinking that a sentence meant one thing and being like, “Oh wait, nope.”

OTW: You parents weren’t originally too keen on you dropping out of college and moving out to Los Angeles to make music. Have they come around at all since then?

They were so pissed. They didn’t talk to me for a hot minute. Yeah, I think no mom and dad wants to hear from their kid, “Hey Mom! I want to be a singer that’s what I want to be in life.” As you grow up in life, you realize obviously you should always chase your dreams and do what fulfills you, and as a parent, I can understand how scary that must be to hear. You obviously believe in your child and think the best of them, but you worry that other people don’t. I haven’t lived at home since I was 14, so I’ve always been a little bit detached from that and to hear that I was going to be even more detached from their way of living and perspective on life, it was scary for them, so I understand. I went back to visit, and that was the first time I had seen them in about a year-and-a-half and from that point they became a lot more tolerant. They ask a lot more questions. They’re more curious. It’s a good relationship, and that’s all I can ask.

OTW: What does the future hold for Mark Johns?

More music. I have so much music that unfortunately you get so caught up in the way that people talk about music releases and it gets so strategic, but I don’t believe in that at all. It took me a minute to come to that affirmation, but I was like, “No, that’s not okay.” I make so much music, and I’m working all the time. Sometimes it takes me forty minutes to write a song and the forty minute songs don’t mean anything less than the three-months-to-write songs, so I just want to be more consistent with the music I’m putting out and have a more open relationship with my fans.

OTW: Is there anything at all you’d want the world or your fans to know about?

Just that we’re in a good place. I know that it’s probably going to go down again at some point, and then up again, and then down again, and then up again, but it was definitely a long little dip there. We learned a lot, and I’m really excited for next year.

OTW: Who are your Ones To Watch?

I’ve always believed in this kid Matt Maeson. I’m really really into BLAISE. You should look up his song “Dua”. He was obsessed with Dua Lipa, so he just made a song about Dua Lipa and it went viral that day. He’s the one who introduced me to writing in a way. He can do anything and everything. He’s a Ones To Watch for sure. I’m heavy into this Yaeji girl. I think she was a house producer before, but now she’s been singing on her tracks. There’s this one song “raingurl” that’s so fucking dope. I can’t not listen to it from when I wake up to when I go to sleep.

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