JOJI:
TURNING EMOTIONS INTO MUSIC

Get to know one of our #38: The Revolution Issue cover stars.

Joji is keen on details, which is why he couldn’t let this go. He was staying in an Airbnb that had a rampant ant problem. He would watch them meticulously build an assembly line to pass crumbs back into the electrical outlet from which they came. It took time. It took effort. And Joji admired that.

But eventually, he had no choice. He bought Raid. By the time he’d returned with his new weapon, the ants had disappeared. He looked everywhere for that hard-earned assembly line. The ants seemed nowhere to be found until he opened his freezer door.

“Turns out, they wanted my Ben & Jerry’s,” the 27-year-old multifaceted musician says. “They had embarked on a suicide mission and all died in the freezer trying to get the bag. I picked up handfuls of frozen, dead ants and scooped them out of the fridge – like mounds of coffee grounds. As a joke, I kept saying, What would you do for that sweet, sweet nectar? But next thing I knew, I kept saying it to everyone. What is your nectar and what are you willing to do for it?”

Joji – like his late ant roommates – thrives on nuance. He channels all of his nuances into his art, which frees him to approach the rest of his life with a very laissez-faire attitude. He’s silly. He’s whimsical. He’s endearingly quirky. But in Nectar, Joji’s sophomore album via 88rising, he’s introspective – confronting some of life’s harder, more existential questions.

Joji, born George Miller, carries a small picture frame with him at all times. The photo inside changes. While filming with GQ in February 2019, rapper Blueface was in the frame. At the time of this interview, it was Los Angeles Lakers guard Alex Caruso. “We want him to stay healthy,” he says. Bon Iver, Lil Pump and Radiohead vocalist Thom Yorke are among those who have received the frame treatment in the past.

“It started when I was just printing out random stock images of middle-aged people to make others think they were super significant people in my life as a joke,” Joji explains. “I’d pull out the frame and open it in front of friends, revealing a 50-year-old Ecuadorian man, and I would just sigh like I missed him. The joke clearly got carried away. I also think it’s a magic picture frame. Every artist that ends up in that picture frame goes super platinum a few months later. I might just throw my own photo in there [laughs]!”

Joji went platinum on July 9, 2019, for his single “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK.” The song, listed as the second track on his 2018 debut album BALLADS 1, achieved two-time multi-platinum status on March 27, per RIAA. The Australian-Japanese artist became the first Asian-born artist to top Billboard’s R&B/Hip- Hop Albums chart with BALLADS 1, which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Top 200.

In other words, maybe the next honoree in the small picture frame should be someone who actually needs its magic.

Joji is asked how fans will be able to see growth from BALLADS 1 to Nectar. “Three inches,” he says, coyly.

“The approach stays pretty similar in my opinion,” he offers when asked about the writing for each album. “Good time management. The only clear difference is that now I see more value in letting yourself rest sometimes because more creative ideas will eventually flow in. When things are moving too fast, you can get stuck and constipated.”

He will also concede that evolving as Joji—and especially crafting the Nectar era—has given him insight into George Miller.

“It definitely revealed a bit of unknown potential,” he says. “Developing this era makes me a better leader and makes the important things in life very clear. Being in studios and meetings all the time for 24 hours with no windows, I’ve realized just how much I depend on nature because I’ll go apeshit if I can’t be with or near wildlife.”

The music video for “Gimme Love” bears that out. “Gimme Love” dropped on April 16, the same day Joji announced Nectar, and was preceded by singles “Sanctuary” (June 14, 2019) and “Run” (Feb. 6, 2020). In the “Gimme Love” visual, directed by Joji and Andrew Donoho, Joji is a frustrated scientist trapped in an office environment. He is frantically working his way up the ranks. “Gimme, gimme love, gimme, gimme love (Oh),” he sings in the chorus atop a matching frenetic beat. “When I’m gone, when I’m gone.” Suddenly, yet seamlessly at the same time, the sonics shift from upbeat pop to forlorn ballad. The juxtaposed pacing mirrors its maker.

“My intuition,” he says, explaining why he chose to more or less pack two songs into one track. “I just needed it to be laid out that way. I love making upbeat stuff, and I like the total opposite too. This was a song that allowed for a real listening experience, as lame as that sounds. Back in the day, songs were longer and people had a ‘favorite part’ of a song—something that is not as popular today. I wanted to incorporate some of that feeling [of] nostalgia.”

By the end of the “Gimme Love” video, he is an astronaut. He launches into space as an orchestra mounts. “Caught in a river of rockers and dreams,” he sings, smiling as he soars into solitude. “Oh, will you keep up with me? / Everyone’s looking for someone to hold / But I can’t let you go.”

“The narrator is expecting a lover and/or recipient to forget about them and further wash them down the streams of memories, which they will inevitably forget as time goes by,” he says of the outro. “People’s faces get harder to imagine and voice recollections get skewed with time. The narrator, despite acknowledging the cons of time, promises that on their end at least, they will never forget.”

But there’s a vaster message.

"Certain emotions that are nearly impossible to put into words can be teased out via sound"

“Someone said this in an episode of The Office, they said something like ‘I wish we knew when we were living in the good old days instead of finding out later’ or something,” he says. “When things are fast and urgent (today’s world), we lose track of important things and forget to simply enjoy one another. And even when we’ve completed what might be our life’s work, those moments might mean nothing knowing what you sacrificed to get there. What looks like good foresight can sometimes be your own crippling devil. I find that people turning 60 start to regret a lot of things involving time. We can only hope we don’t end up regretting the things that would have been.”

The Office episode in question was the series finale. Andy Bernard, played by Ed Helms, said wistfully, “I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them. Someone should write a song about that.”

Joji, unsurprisingly, was paying attention.

It’s difficult to infiltrate Joji’s interior, but he’s polite about the walls he chooses to leave up. He respectfully declines to say how he feels about people focusing more on the fact he’s half-Japanese than the fact he’s also half-Australian. He does not have an answer for how his roots inform his musical decisions.

These boundaries would be a bigger conundrum if Joji’s music wasn’t so artistically revealing. You can get to know him, but it has to be through the music. He is picky about what tools he gives others to crack his code. It’s true that music helps him tap into things that he would otherwise struggle to express and process.

“Certain emotions that are nearly impossible to put into words can be teased out via sound,” he says. “I always had trouble getting my thoughts into words, but I certainly feel better when I get to have full control over something that I personally want to hear.”

Joji likes to listen to “happy music” or “turnup music when I need to feel good,” but he tends to make darker, provocative music.

In Tongues was his first released project as Joji in November 2017. Melancholy lead track “Will He” set his profile on fire. The official video, viewed 53.7 million times and counting, features Joji sitting in a bathtub full of his own blood. “It is a dark mystery that is open to interpretation,” Joji said about “Will He” in a press release. “I think the song is significant to all of us because it’s just a good old ballad about losing someone except you’re also a little crazy as well. Maybe you both were lol. It’s important to be honest about how toxic we are.” In the same thematic vein, the EP’s other five songs are titled “Pills, “Demons,” “Window,” “Bitter Fuck” and “worldstar money (interlude).”

Joji kept accentuating those painful landscapes in BALLADS 1, spearheaded by “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK.” The cinematic “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK” music video stars a disheveled Joji in a white suit and black bowtie. His anguish is physically palpable. He stumbles around in the rain with a cigarette. He’s shot in the back by an arrow, and his suit gradually turns from white to red. The smash combines everything he values in the process. He starts with instrumentals when songwriting, but he can’t make any progress unless he is able to “see the potential for a movie.”

What Joji accomplished through “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK” set the foundation for “Gimme Love,” “Run” and Nectar as a whole.

“I don’t intend to lean into [dark material],” Joji says, “but there are people who seem to connect with the darker stuff a lot, so I just like to give fans something they relate to.”

Of course he wants to connect—he’s human—but he is very conscious about how he reaches out his hand.

Joji is put off by how much stimulus (or ‘how many stimuli’) exists (‘exist)’ in modern society.

There is, he says, too much.

“I make sure any kind of stimulus I have around is at least educational or applicable to the future somehow, whether it be inspiration or just simply boosting my knowledge,” he says. “Anything that ensures that it wasn’t a total waste of time. Although, if you enjoyed the time you wasted, you didn’t actually waste it, so don’t take my word.”

Joji stockpiles intangibles but is otherwise frugal. He still owns the first real microphone he ever bought, a C-1U, at 16 years old. He keeps it wrapped up in a t-shirt because he never got around to buying a case. He keeps it on his person and records whenever the mood strikes. He also has a vintage MP3 player because, as he told New York Magazine, “if one of your songs sounds good on the cheapest MP3 player out there, then it’s going to sound at least as good on everything else.”

It somehow always comes back around to the craft.

What is Joji’s nectar, and what is he willing to do for it? The answers are likely buried deep within the subtext of the album’s tracklist. Or maybe he doesn’t know yet. Either way, he won’t divulge them outright.

“I do a bit of shit here, and a bit of shit there,” he says. “The quality of the shit is a different conversation. I’m not sure what the next shit is yet, or maybe I’m already sitting on a huge shit. I’m just excited to be creating opportunities. I’m not chasing anything amazing or legacy-related, I’m moving forward and creating the things I want and need to hear and see and use and taste within my field of talent respectfully.”

It is as simple, and nuanced, as that.

This feature was taken from tmrw #38: The Revolution Issue, available to shop below now. Stay tuned for Joji’s upcoming album, ‘Nectar’, out 25th September.

Words by Megan Armstrong / photography by James DeFina / styling by Kaitlyn Vitug

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