JOHN.k Wonders Where He Went ‘Wrong,’ Talks Debut Album (INTERVIEW)
JOHN.k’s ex really did a number on him.
When they broke up, the singer was emptied of all his self-worth. “You feel like someone is your best friend, and everything unravels,” the singer, who hails from Orlando, shares. “You wake up, and they’re no longer there. It’s the gap a lot of people are left with.” Plagued with a whirlwind of questions, the artist couldn’t help but wonder: What did I do? What should I have done differently? What happened to us? Where do I go next?
“You can spend forever trying to figure that out,” he explains. “That’s a part of heartbreak, until that one day when you decide to move on and take a step forward and not sit in the past and think about what you did wrong. Maybe the whole time, it wasn’t something you did.”
After the split, JOHN.k turned to pen and paper to heal. Joined by songwriter and manager Rob Zarrilli, the singer bore his heart on “Wrong,” a gospel-tempered R&B jam flecked with the sensuality of a Nick Jonas bop.
“You make me so hollow / Got me empty like this bottle / But when I wake up tomorrow / I’ve been wondering, wondering where I’ve been wrong,” he moans against a wave of ‘80s-inspired synths, a choir belting until the track bursts on the third-verse chorus pairing. It’s an apt blend of “Take Me to Church” redemption and glossy, anthemic escapism.
Below, JOHN.k discusses how the gospel choir came to play such a pivotal role, his general songwriting process and growing up as the oldest of twelve (!) children.
How soon after your relationship ended did you write “Wrong”?
I was in a very happy relationship when I wrote it. But it wasn’t that hard to tap back into those feelings. The guys I wrote it with had been in that situation, too. We were all able to really connect to it and iron out that story together. It was pretty cool because unfortunately, everybody deals with some form of heartbreak at some point. To creatively connect to that feeling and be able to purge that and come up a pretty good song was healing for some of us in the room.
How did the gospel choir come into play?
They were incredible. I know it sounds like 30 people, but it’s actually four. We had them come in. We had 90 percent of the song done at that point. I always like to invite somebody else’s creativity into the room, as well. It wasn’t like “hey guys, all I need you to do is sing this and this and this.” I wanted to sit down and talk with them about it and how they felt about it. We had an idea to stack the choir and add some different harmonies and make it feel really huge. We worked it over with them for one session and a couple hours. We decided to not only put the choir on the chorus but over the third-verse bridge. That was my favorite thing that came out of it. That wasn’t planned before they came in. It was purely organic and something we all created together.
Did you grow up in the church?
My stepdad is the pastor of a church down in Jupiter, Florida, called Calvary Chapel. I was in the church since I was a baby. The funny thing is I never sang in church. The influence is purely that feeling of how big choirs are and the more emotional engagement they add. It felt really right for this kind of song.
When did you start singing?
In my family, there were always instruments in the house and always music playing, [people] singing. It’s hard to pin down when it all clicked for me. My grandmother always encouraged me to sing, and she would sit me down at the piano, and we’d play stuff together. That started when I was probably five or six. She gave me a voice recorder and always told me to sing into it. “You need to hear yourself.” So, I got addicted to singing into the voice recorder and listening to the playback. At first, I totally hated what I heard. It got to a point where I didn’t hate it so much, and then, I got to a point where I could control it. Things clicked.
Did you grow up in the heart of Orlando?
I grew up in South Florida. I went to college in Orlando, and that’s how I got roots here. Life was good. I had a super loving dad and mom. They weren’t together; they separated when I was super young but always remained really close. There was no lack of love anywhere. I played football. I was super involved in my school. My dad always had a guitar in his hand…We were always singing songs.
They dynamic was [that] my dad and I had our thing and I stayed with him most of the week. Then, I would spend all of the summer with my mom, who started having kids when I was about seven. She got remarried, and I became the big brother to eleven siblings. I got the best of both worlds. It was sports and music at my dad’s, and then big brother of a small army at my mom’s. It’s a really special thing. They’re such a strong unit and have so much love. I go down and visit my mom all the time. It gets better and better as they grow up.
Which other singers and performers did you want to emulate?
I gotta give some love to my boy Gavin DeGraw and his Chariot (Stripped) album. I was 13 or 14 when that came out. I loved the way he attacked that whole record. It’s a combination of getting drawn to different phases of music throughout my life. I went through a big Bruno Mars phase and a John Mayer phase. I like to emulate these singers and sing their songs with them until I could sing those songs and really control it. Once I met my wife and realized she was the biggest Beatles fan in the entire universe, the discography was shoved into my brain. That has been the most recent thing, all things Beatles. It’s constantly listening and diving and figuring out what people are doing right. I’ve listened to a lot of Shawn Mendes, Charlie Puth, guys that are doing well and really writing good pop records with super hooky choruses. It’s doing that and adding flavor into and making it something new.
How did you fine-tune your vocal abilities, as displayed through your falsetto work on “Wrong”?
It was committing. I have a pretty simple setup. I have a little house set up in the back with a couple speakers. I’m back there a few hours a day. If you want to be a great piano player, play it for two hours a day. If you want to be a great guitarist, pick it up all the time. It’s the same with singing. If you want to be a good singer, then you need to sing all the time, constantly…Try different things. See what feels right. Go out there and dive in. I got really accustomed to singing in more live sets.
On a show set list a fan posted on social media recently, there is a song called “GFN.” What’s the story there?
That’s my baby. It stands for “Goodbye for Now.” It’s a song I wrote in Nashville before I moved [back] down [to Orlando]. I always had a passion to rework it and make sure that that’s definitely going to be a track on the album. It’s the best thing that came out of that show—other than meeting my wife, of course.
Did you visit Nashville only to write?
I actually lived in Nashville from 2012 to 2014, just to absorb. I was singing live all over the place and writing in writing rooms. I was just getting my feet wet. That was the first time I really committed to the industry. I needed to grow. I couldn’t be the singer without a foundation. I didn’t know exactly how to navigate it, but I thought I needed to be there. I went up there to figure things out. Funny, it wasn’t until I came back down to Orlando that I actually started to really figure stuff out.
Is an album on the horizon?
We’ve been pen to paper in a creative zone, just trying to create as much content as we can. That’s where I am. We’ve started to iron out a sound and find a groove. We got back from LA super inspired from the show and had a writing session immediately that day. We ironed out three songs in the past four days. We feel this momentum, and it’s really inspiring. Whatever fear we had that was holding us back…the only thing we wished we had done was write like this a year ago.