By Alex Siber
At 19 years old, Jon Waltz puts the typical college sophomore/aspiring rapper to shame. His gripping narratives and unshakeable hooks make him a probable candidate for rare crossover success, the kind that satisfies the appetites of the hip-hop heads and the pop-craving masses.
It began with “Bang.” Waltz’s first major single displayed his ear for soundscapes deep enough to swim in, and a control of melody that most rappers can’t touch. This somber story, centered around lost life and set to a watery soundtrack, was the rapper’s first to amass 100,000 plays on SoundCloud. Since crossing that threshold, the buzz keeps building. In a Reddit AMA from October, record executive Lyor Cohen named Jon Waltz as the one unsigned artist he’s been listening to. Michael Christmas and Allan Kingdom are both featured on Waltz’s debut EP Alyss, and Kevin Abstract counts himself as a fan.
Outside of his music and the accompanying components, little is known of the artist, who doesn’t even appear in his one and only music video. In the coming months, he’ll take on the increasingly familiar task of turning internet recognition into sold-out shows. He’s up for the challenge.
What was life like growing up in Memphis?
I’m from the suburbs of Memphis, close to this city called Germantown. I live around a lot of white people [Laughs]. The reactions to the music are funny, for the most part. When I become a better singer I think they’ll mess with it more. I kind of do my own thing, they’ll hear samples of some stuff and they like it. I have two siblings, a brother and sister, but I’m not even super close to them like that. My brother does a lot of guitar, that’s how we connect, but my sister’s pretty old so I don’t see her too much.
How would you define home?
In Memphis, we go all over the city. Whenever there’s parties or whatever, we see all kinds of different people and that’s what makes it home. I think you have a physical chemistry with people you literally and metaphorically grew up with. Even though your relationship might be different, the connect is there. You know who they really are. I consider more than one place home. Anywhere you feel comfortable with the people you’re with is home. But “comfortable” doesn’t do it enough justice.
How old were you when you began making music?
I started making music around 10th grade. I started taking it seriously really recently.
Did your school foster that creative drive?
Yeah, we have a radio station with a recording studio here. I recorded half of Alyss there. It was awkward at first because you have these real deep songs and you’re not necessarily cool with who’s with you. You’ve got to get on a really friendly level with the engineer. I definitely appreciate the intimate setting, though. Creating piece by piece. You gotta sit there and it’s your world once you start. Sometimes I’ll do like, 70, 80 takes on the same line just because I don’t like the way I said it.
[Laughs] Yeah, man. I’ll flub a line or just say something that doesn’t have enough power behind it, enough oomph.
Describe what school was like.
In high school I was in this program with my producer and we became so tight. It’s an international thing where it’s a British grading standard so like a 65 would be an A because it’s so hard. All of the classes are basically AP level and we had super-inflated GPAs because of it. We were in the same seven classes with the same kids, so we just listened to music and checked blogs.
Is that producer friend Zayd?
Yeah, that’s Zayd.
You also frequently work with Nova. How would you compare collaborating with them?
Me and Zayd will just sit and talk. We’ll be having a conversation about life and that leads to me showing him a song. We’ll sample it and I’ll sit with him. We’ll construct the song together so it’s much more organic with him. We’re on the same wavelength, stylistically. There’s never any clashing. Working with Nova is similar. We go back and forth a lot and swap ideas, but I’m not close with him like I am with Zayd.
What do you think your ear for beats says about you?
It kind of makes me look like a gloomy dude but I’m like the nicest guy. I’m not negative [Laughs]. That’s just how it comes off. I don’t know, at the same time I feel like everybody feels the way I feel on my songs, even cheery people. I am trying to make more happy records though, to show people I’m not depressed all the time [Laughs].
Are the characters in your songs drawn from real life?
Those characters are constructed from people I’ve either heard about or know. Everything stems from somewhere. Recently, I’ve been real cognizant with what I’m saying. I’m changing the words around because if it’s not true, why would I say it, you know? It’s all storytelling for me. A good half of my tracks are actual, real-life experiences that I wanted to translate to music. The other half is just stories that I’ll hear, messages I want to put out. And I make sure everything addresses what it implies. If I’m acting reckless on a song I make sure people know that that’s not the smart thing to do.
What’s your favorite song you’ve released that touches on that duality?
Definitely “Magic City.” I think it’s really clever, the back-and-forth between a stripper and a dude at a strip club. He’s throwing cash at her but they’re trying to play each other.
I read an interview where you say you texted your ex-girlfriend about tits vs. ass. Is that Victoria?
No, no, that’s this other girl [Laughs]. Victoria was a chick I always used to try and get at in high school. I randomly tried again in college, and it worked. I don’t know how, but it worked [Laughs]. So that happened, it was really cool. Definitely a song-worthy experience.
You’ve alluded to your weariness of drugs and alcohol. How do you perceive those vices?
I do them. Not like that—I really hate when people overdo it. Everyone overdoes it now, that’s our generation. We overdo everything. I think everything in moderation is good. It’s just the culture now. People act like that because they lost identity to the internet. Like it’s cool to be a dick. A lot of that stems from technology, from the lack of legitimate interaction and communication.
Do you find yourself following those footsteps, despite your concerns?
Man, I’m always on it. It’s terrible. It’s absolutely terrible. It’s that oxymoron of connection, a desire to reach out to people when you’re not, in reality. You’re sitting behind a screen. It’s really ironic. I started shouting out friends in songs and making references to things relevant to what I like—Dragon Ball Z, stuff like that. I watched that with my homies, in real life, so I need to include that in my music. It’s an imitation of real life.
You’re mature for a 19-year-old. What would you attribute that to?
I’ve seen a lot that makes me more aware of my surroundings. I’ve dipped into a lot of different cultures and seen a lot of life, a lot of trial and error. Either through me or through others. I analyze everyone a lot more than regular people. Even something as simple as smoking at home and telling myself, “This isn’t healthy.” I know I’m doing it because I like it, but I recognize it’s not helping my body out. I’ll probably be the only kid who’s like, “Man, this is not a good thing to do,” while passing around handles [Laughs]. I’m that guy in the group.
How’d you develop that perspective?
Well, I didn’t drink until late senior year. I’d be the only sober guy at parties, watching people act drunk. When you do this multiple times, you become mortified. People act like zombies and after a certain point it’s kind of scary. But when you’re fucked up it doesn’t look like that at all. It feels like you’re having a good time. It’s a moral thing. I’ve seen people change because of that, and I never want to do the same. You gotta know when your limit is your limit.
Your last video “Bang” dives into a slippery realm. Where’d the inspiration for that come from?
Man, to be honest? I was bullshitting in English class one day and the beat was made by math class, in one period. Probably took 25 minutes. In English, I opened the book we were reading and closed it, like, “This isn’t doing the trick.” That’s kind of where it came from. I don’t remember where it started, it kind of wrote itself.
You ditched the assigned story to write your own.
Yeah, basically. We did study a lot that inspired me, though. There’s this play called Waiting for Godot and that shit changed my life. In Memphis, I felt like I was Vladimir and Estragon, just waiting to get out. I related to them heavy. Random things. I don’t think anybody catches those references. I made many random English references that maybe film people would know [Laughs]. I would just shout out a bunch of influences, metaphorically. Emily Dickinson, too. She uses some cool words that I tried to put into Alyss. We study a lot of poetry so I was looking at poetic diction and stuff like that.
I’m still strategizing and developing how I want to be looked at. This is one of those things that once you start it, it doesn’t stop, so I want to start it correctly. I’m still 19.
Can you explain the reasoning behind not broadcasting your identity? A lot of people thought you were the central character in “Bang.”
I don’t want people to focus on me. I want people to focus on my stories. Alyss isn’t about me (for the most part) nor will the sequel be. They might serve as exaggerated parallels to my life, but I want people to hear and make a judgment of my music. It’s also because I’m still strategizing and developing how I want to be looked at. This is one of those things that once you start it, it doesn’t stop, so I want to start it correctly. I’m still 19.
You’ve received many comparisons to Drake. What would you say to someone who makes that claim?
He’s arguably the best out right now, so it works, but we’re different. What shapes you as an artist is life experience. First and foremost, that’s what separates me from everybody else because at the end of the day we all came up differently. Second, in terms of actual music, my content is much heavier. He’s more of a conversational artist with a bunch of one liners, he doesn’t involve himself in political matters or social inequalities. I make sure I address that. I definitely used to study his melodies a lot, which is where those comparisons come in. Melodies and production, because I have foggy, post-808s production. I see the similarities but we don’t talk about the same stuff. I couldn’t see most of the words in “Video Girl” coming out of his mouth.
What have you learned from Alyss?
I learned a lot. It’s seriously a process to go through a tracklist and check the fluidity to ensure they all mesh well. I’ve learned so much about the mastering process, too, and a lot about singing. I was never a great singer so I’ve had to challenge myself to leave my comfort range. A lot of amazing things have come out of that.
Why spell the title the way you did?
So it’s spelled like that because it’s similar to the word “abyss,” and I think that’s the perfect word for the project. It possesses a dark vibe. It’s also spelled differently because it’s not spelled like that elsewhere. Nothing comes up, so when people type that in on Google only I’m going to come up. It looks weird and sticks in your head.
How did you approach the making of that project?
Listeners don’t have a long attention span, especially when it comes to new artists. So I wanted to make sure Alyss was shorter than ten tracks. But for the future? The only rule is that there are no rules. I’ve studied film techniques more than music to create Alyss. If you’re making a timeless film, you really reflect that era or try to avoid characteristics of that era. You can make a movie in 1980 that will still be super cool in 2020. I made sure I didn’t mention any kind of technology in Alyss. I tried to ground it in reality as much as possible. The next project is miles away, but I want to make it a journey of stories and feelings that begin with the album process and end with the album process.
Where did you find influence in cinema?
Alyss is named after Alice In Wonderland. I was basically obsessed with that film. Junior and senior year of high school I probably watched it twice a month. The whole project is a metaphor in itself for somebody going from a completely familiar place to this whole new world. All the rules change. Nothing is known, nothing makes sense, just like Alice In Wonderland.
Especially film soundtracks, too. During the movie, you hear certain parts build up with the intensity. It lets you know to pay attention, that things might not be okay anymore and something might happen. We studied a lot of those breakdowns for Alyss to make sure people pay attention. It’s 2014. Nobody is trying to listen to an hour-and-a-half of material, and I understand that. I don’t listen to stuff like that either [Laughs]. The actual Waiting for Godot movie influenced us, too.
There’s art for every single song. We wrote a story with it, though it doesn’t serve the same role as Gambino’s script did for Because the Internet. For this, a lot of these lyrics are references to random stuff. There are lines between songs that I couldn’t spit, so the story fills in those blank spots.
What responsibility do you feel toward your listeners?
I think what a lot of artists are doing is turning their heads away from everything and not taking responsibility for their actions, which is ridiculous to me. It recently dawned on me that we do have a responsibility to tell both sides of the story, and tell what makes people act how they act. A lot of songs coming out are just about doing molly at the club [Laughs]. We’re not gonna mention that it’s like taking little ice cream scoops out of your brain. You can’t glamorize, you need to show both ends of the spectrum.
Do you maintain a level of ignorance toward the “big questions” of life to focus on the present?
It’s so cliché to say ignorance is bliss, but it’s true. When you’re a kid, you don’t know what’s going on. It doesn’t matter. You just care about getting your food, going to nap time, and going to recess. That’s your schedule, and you think it’s so cool to grow up just because you don’t know how messed up people are. We’re nothing at the end of the day. I’ve always thought about talking about this, but it might be too heavy of a topic. I used to think about it a lot, but you can’t dwell on it. Do what you want to do until you die.