When you grow up in a town of 1,000 residents, you make your own fun. Backyard football. BB guns. Trawling the train tracks. Pushing flaming sofas off of forgotten bridges. You can only walk around Walmart so many times with your couple of good friends punning about products before you put all your restless youthful energy into becoming a prodigious music talent. At least, such was the case for John-Robert of Edinburg, Virginia, who started slaying local open mikes a cappella at age 9 and is now, at 18, launching his career as a proper pop upstart/outsider. On first listen, his is an intimate folk- and soul-driven sound powered by lithe voice, inventive guitar, and real heart. And that's all true, but the perspective is ever so askew—perfectly pleasant bops pushed sideways by sudden distortion, odd effects or the man's wild and often dark imagination.
He still lives there in the Shenandoah Valley, working out of his very minimal studio in his family’s basement, which he moved into after one too many nights falling asleep at his desk in the bedroom he shared with his brothers upstairs. John-Robert is the oldest of four kids raised by a pharmacist mother and a mostly stay-at-home father. "Mostly" because dad did home deliveries for mom's drug store, which meant the children came with. He also took them on random drives, getting lost on purpose so they could explore the land. That's where our hero found his voice: in a tan minivan on a backroad, howling along to Styx. Naturally, piano lessons and choir followed. Then came cafés, county fairs, and national anthems. But in his heart, the boy knew none of it was cool. So on his 12th birthday, John-Robert got what he wanted most in the world: a guitar.
Scarce evidence remains of the career before the career: a teen and his acoustic axe, wearing a Beatles or Hendrix tee as he faithfully covered Coldplay, the Kooks, and countless others to a growing YouTube audience. School was weird—kids assumed the "music guy" was pretentious when he was just embarrassed to be following a crazy dream in a small town. Either way, John-Robert's favorite part of the day was going home so he could teach himself finger-picking, or try to hit a higher note than he did the day before. He got a looping pedal and the covers became more ambitious in turn: Chance the Rapper, Alt-J, Hippo Campus. He'd lose himself arranging full songs on the spot, or tracking his voice until he had a chorus of wailing banshees. Software came next, and with it the dopamine rush of building his own songs in GarageBand and Logic.
Along the way some things happened. John-Robert started watching music documentaries and reading positive psychology books, developed an unnatural obsession with Swedish Fish, and began hanging out at college campuses—as you do. He also developed a knack for writing vivid stories about the intricacies of friendship and love three minutes at a time. The first songs you'll hear of his will be spare, penned mostly before he knew anyone would want to listen. But John-Robert became an ace producer with an unexpected hand during his time in the basement as well, working with a laptop and two monitors on his folks' old kitchen table, covered with a red checkered tablecloth so he doesn't scratch it. He graduated a year early and was awarded with a scholarship to Berklee. Music school was calling, but making music sounded like more fun.