Jon Bellion On “All Time Low,” Touring & Artist Development: Interview

Mike Wass | October 3, 2016 2:00 pm
The Drop: Bat For Lashes & Jon Bellion
Your guide to New Music Friday featuring songs from Bat For Lashes & Jon Bellion.

After honing his craft (and amassing a loyal following) with a string of mixtapes, Jon Bellion released his debut LP, The Human Condition, in June and landed at number 5 on the Billboard 200 — an impressive feat for a new artist without a song at radio. That has now changed with hugely-relatable single “All Time Low” taking over the airwaves, but the 26-year-old remains a shining example of how an artist can shorten the odds for success by fostering a fanbase before a record company becomes involved.

“It was a slow, but steady approach,” Jon told me recently via telephone. “I think a lot of artists think too far into the future after one mixtape and go, ‘I want a hit record. I want this and I want that.’ In my head, I want my fanbase to be so big that it doesn’t matter if the record works at radio or not.” It’s fair to say that the New York-based singer/songwriter is well on his way to achieving that goal. During our conversation, we also spoke about Jon’s love of all things Pixar, his upcoming tour with Twenty One Pilots and his passion for the 1980s. Find out more about the rising star below.

Did you think “All Time Low” was going to be such an important song for you?
Yes. I finished the song two years ago and said no matter what song I made after that, that that was going to be my single. Yes, I definitely had a feeling the day I made the song, I produced and wrote it. I definitely had a feeling about it.

What is it about that song that stood out?
It was written so fast. I finished the song and wrote it so quickly. I think that’s usually a telling for myself. There are numbers and letters in my head, and puzzle pieces. The way they all fit together so quickly and became the finished puzzle, I was like, “This has to be a sign.” I fought for it, for about two years, for it to be the lead single. Now that it is, it’s great to see that it’s really working. It seems to be climbing. People are really gravitating toward it. It’s a good sign. I’m excited.

One of the things I love about the song is the juxtaposition between depressing or real lyrics and then this really catchy chorus. Was that your intention?
I think so. I think the juxtaposition makes it interesting. I think you’re also experiencing a juxtaposition of sonics and lyrics. I think when you hear the vocal delivery that’s pseudo Owl City, but then you have these really simple drums and this whole situation going on as far as the rhythms. The rhythms are very visceral. I think that combination is very ear-catching.

I think that’s why, even though the song is two years old, it still sounds newer than everything out on radio right now. I’m excited that such a risky record that doesn’t sound like anything else is cutting through. I saw a trend happening two years ago when I made the record and started realizing that interesting records are the ones that are really winning. I think we’re at a time in music where you can’t fake the funk. Just because you’re a mega star doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to have a hit.

How autobiographical is the song?
It’s an illustration of what it feels like to be three days into a break up — the really heavy, emotional, “I don’t even know if I want to continue living at this point.” I’m just being majorly honest and letting you know how horrible everything’s been since you left. I don’t think it’s a specific situation but I want it to be broad so everyone can relate to that. I think everybody’s been in that situation at least once in their life. Your first love… when that ends that’s a devastating thing to feel.

Will there be an official video? I know there are a couple of different versions online.
There is a visual that we shot in Salt Lake City on tour. It’s called “All Time Low (The Human Condition Tour)” , video. It looks like that’s probably going to be the visual. I’m not too concerned about a crazy, ridiculous visual yet. The song is so old. I’m kind of uninspired to write a video treatment for it. I would rather jump into songs that were newer on The Human Condition.

Personally, I don’t believe that a video is what’s going to put a record higher on the charts just because the video is super incredible. It could help, but to spend $100,000 out of my budget to shoot a video for something that I’m not too inspired to write for, I just want the song to work at radio. If the song starts to go top 5 there’s no reason why we can’t shoot a video then. In the meantime, let’s just make sure we’re working the record properly and see what it does at radio.

These kids live on their iPhones. These kids are watching the video from this tiny screen while they’re on their way to work, maybe before someone gets a text message and gets distracted and pauses it and might not even come back to it. Videos are important. Visuals are important, of course. When I do them I want to do them to the best of my ability and when they make the most sense and when they’re the most practical.

One of my favorite songs on the album is “80s Films.” What inspired you to write about them?
I’ve always wanted to do an ’80s-feeling song but I never wanted to do the classic gated-drums and synths. I wanted to do an ’80s record that was an interpretation from a kid who wasn’t born in the 80s, who was born in the 90s. I wanted to interpret how the ’80s effected me and that’s how I did it. It’s funny, some reviewers and musicologists… first of all, any album that was critically acclaimed usually got bad reviews out of the gate.

It’s funny. I see some people writing, “He’s not born in the ’80s. Why would he make an ’80s song?” It’s like, “What does that mean?” I never said that I was born in the ’80s. The ’80s affected me. That’s like saying you can’t talk about Jimi Hendrix because you didn’t know him personally. He affected me and I think he’s one of the greatest musicians of all time. He definitely affects my music and encourages me to be different.

That’s what the ’80s was for me. I’m fascinated by the time and the movies. ET, Tron and The Breakfast Club. It’s this very nostalgic, cool-looking, specific time in history that really inspires me. I just want to show that to an even younger generation. I’m almost 26 years old. A kid who’s 16, I’d love to tell them about the ’80s in my way, how it affected me as a ’90s baby.

What is your favorite ’80s film?
I think The Breakfast Club. I think there’s something very corny and cool at the same time about it. I enjoy that movie.

You are one of the few artists to successfully navigate the journey from independently released mixtapes to getting signed and landing a radio hit. How did you do it?
I think I’ve been fortunate enough to see what other artists did and take it from there. My first three albums I produced everything myself. My craft got better. I have a rule. Let’s say you put out a mixtape and you have 20 fans. If it’s good those 20 fans like it and they become die-hards. All you have to do is make a better album than the next one and that fan base will double. My craft improved because I wasn’t outsourcing anything. There wasn’t anybody I had to convince to work hard. There weren’t any producers I was waiting to get stems from or to get sessions with. I feel like I was in control, in the driver’s seat, as far as making sure my craft was getting better and better.

After three albums that got better and better and better, I guess the fan-base multiplied and everybody in Visionary Music Group and Capital worked together to make sure we were touring the right way and playing in the right rooms. I think it was a slow, but steady approach. Small wins add up. I think a lot of artists think too far into the future after one mixtape and go, “I want a hit record. I want this and I want that.” In my head, I want my fan base to be so big that it doesn’t matter if the record works at radio or not. Right now, the fact that “All Time Low” is working is just the cherry on the ice cream. It doesn’t affect my touring. I’m still selling out.

My first tour was sold out, and then we doubled and tripled the room sizes, and we leave in a month, and that’s going to be sold out too. That has nothing to do with radio. That’s before the record blows up at radio. You have to put things in the right perspective and understand what they’re used for and use them properly.

Did you ever doubt that it was going to happen for you?
Yeah. When I dropped out of college. I decided after a semester to drop out and pursue music full time. I was working full time at a catering hall, six days a week, 12 hours a day. I was so tired. It was tough to work on music and still be at work. By the grace of God, 3 days after I got fired after being there for a year, a woman called me and said, “Do you want to come make records? I got one of your mixtapes. We want to sign you. We want to talk to the producer. We want to talk to the writer.” I was like, “It’s all me.”

She was like, “Okay, let’s do this.” Then, things moved from there. It was a blessing to have the publishing moving in a great direction while the mixtapes are being put out on the internet. It’s just been a blessing. It has been a big blessing.

You must have felt a huge sense of accomplishment when The Human Condition debuted in the top 5.
I think it speaks volumes to the free-mixtape artist development thing. I think these labels want a developed artist. They don’t want to take the time. They need their investment back fast. They’re sacrificing developing the artist. One record goes at radio but they haven’t been making music very long and they can’t repeat it when the pressure’s on. Then they shelf the artist and move on to the next one. I just didn’t want that to happen to me.

You’re sandwiched between Beyonce and Rihanna at number 4 on the Billboard 200. I think 42,000 [copies sold] the first week really sent out a ripple. It’s just a blessing to see. Chance The Rapper and Twenty One Pilots were doing this before they went to radio. I think there’s a new generation of artists that are getting hits… the public is really what controls the artist’s success. The fans and the general public are the ones that are doing this. I don’t think there are gatekeepers anymore.

You first made a name as a songwriter. Was it hard to give away songs that became huge hits?
That’s a good question. No, I wouldn’t say it’s hard. It was pretty easy knowing this could fund my artistry. I used a lot of the checks and stuff from the records that I wrote to pay for videos for myself and all this different stuff. It was all calculated but I had to be blessed enough to get the hits. Once the hits came I was like, “I can really make a living. I want to keep making more hits.” A couple more were blessed to go and I was able to take that and put it into the artistry.

It wasn’t very hard to give away records. If a huge star wants one, it’s just a foot in the door. A lot of people will be like, “I don’t know if I should keep it or give it away.” I’m not too precious with my records. I’ve learned to not be too precious. I create and move forward and create and move forward and create. If somebody wants it, I’ll be more than willing to give it away unless I’m artistically attached to the record, then I’ll keep it. Besides that, no, I don’t mind if someone takes it.

Are you still writing songs for other people?
Funny enough, once you write a record like [Eminem and Rihanna’s] “The Monster” or [Jason Derulo’s] “Trumpets,” you would think the publishing would flow in and you would have sessions all the time with big artists. They reached out. They wanted to work with me but I haven’t done an outside session in probably a year and a half. I haven’t wrote for another person for a year and a half.

The second I had the number one hit and then the double platinum record, I just kind of disappeared from publishing because it was time for me to work on The Human Condition. Once I’m done touring… I don’t want to give away too much information. I feel like once I’m done, I’m going to shut down the artistry for a little bit and work with everybody that I wanted to work with for the past year and a half. I think making the Human Condition is only helping that calling card. I think it’s only driving people more to want to work with me.

You’ve talked about Pixar inspiring your album art in other interviews. Have you always been a huge fan of animation?
As far as Disney goes, I heard the record Phil Collins did for Tarzan and it changed my life. I’m like, “I really want to do a Disney movie. I would love to be the person to do the score for an entire Disney movie.” I used my entire album as a pseudo business plan to get to Pixar. Let’s say “All Time Low” goes top 5. I produced and wrote “All Time Low”. To me, that’s the perfect business ploy to tell Pixar, “I produced and wrote this. The masses are enjoying it on a massive scale, a country wide, worldwide scale. I want to write for you guys. I want to produce and write for a movie.”

They might check the album out. If they see the hard copy of the album, there’s a Pixar-esque poster for every single song on the album in the booklet to the album. People can literally get lost in the world of The Human Condition. It’s basically a giant plan. We’ll see how it works out.

Good luck with that! Are you excited to hitting the road with Twenty One Pilots?
In my lowly opinion I think they’re the most popular band in the world right now. Literally the most popping act in the world. My manager was joking around. He said, “If you put a genie in a bottle and you had one wish to open for somebody,” Twenty One Pilots would be that act right now. I feel so humbled and blessed that they would ask me to go on tour. It’s really cool.

They approached you?
Yes. My manager was speaking with their manager. One day I got a direct message from Tyler on Twitter. Literally it was, “Yo, come on tour with us.” I was like, “Okay.” We made it happen. He seems like such a nice, cool dude, who’s super normal and normal about his stuff. It was cool. It was really cool.

Are you nervous about performing in arenas?
No, I’m not nervous. My band is my same buddies from college. We’ve been together and playing together for about 7 or 8 years now. Our first tour was in a church van playing dive bars. There was barely sound equipment. This next tour of my own is going to be my 4th sold out national headline tour. We’ve played shows and festivals and colleges together for so many years. I’m not really nervous. I think the live show is one of the things that separates us as a collective. I’m not too worried about that.

Do you have any routines or superstitions when you’re on tour?
I can’t repeat underwear, socks or t-shirts. That’s my one over-the-top, unnecessary thing that I do. I hate reusing anything. After I’m done I will literally throw out underwear, socks, t-shirt and put on brand new ones right out of the bag. That’s my only thing.

Your publicist mentioned that you still lived at home. Is that true? I thought you would be living it up in a fancy mansion by now.
Fancy mansion, that’s funny. I travel so much and I’m gone for probably 9 months out of the year. For me to buy a house right now just doesn’t make any sense. I don’t need a house just to tell people I have a house. I still live with my parents. I’m at my parents crib right now. Me and half my band live in my parents basement. I built a studio down there and put a hardwood floor studio and sound proofed it and whatnot. I made a lot of the album out of my parent’s basement.

I think after the tour, I might pop a crib, do that whole thing. It’s just not time right now. My parents are between 60 and 70 years old. I just want to spend as much time with them as I can. It’s obviously not a money thing. There’s no real reason for me to get going. I like spending time with my family. Both my sisters live near my mom and my dad. Right now I’m chilling. I’m not really in a rush to find a spot. Maybe after touring if things slow down. I’m always gone. There’s no point in me moving out.

Last question. What’s your favorite song on The Human Condition?
It changes. I love all different records for different reasons. I think “Hand Of God” as far as all the choruses coming together as one thing over the choir that we hired. That was the first time I ever worked with a string section and a choir. I love the song. Those are my favorite drums I’ve ever done on “Hand Of God.” I would say “Hand Of God” is my favorite record on the album.

Thank you for your time. Good luck on tour.
Thanks. I really appreciate it.

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