Meet John-Robert: The guitarist finding identity and purpose through stripped-down storytelling

The 20-year-old singer-songwriter on guitaleles, connecting emotions to chords and why he says God has a sense of humour.

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What first inspired you to pick up a guitar?

“I got a guitar when I was 15. I was covering all my favourite artists, took some cues from them and then started songwriting myself. I luckily had plenty of great mentors and teachers who I got to watch and learn from. My guitar teacher at the time handed me a book and it had the numbers on the strings! My parents, they may deny this, but they didn’t like when I played with a pick. I had to learn this past year how to use a pick because it would overshadow my voice. I got really good at strumming with my fingers, and then I learned about fingerpicking. You can be very meticulous with the notes that you choose and when you choose them. You get to go all over the neck, and you don’t have to worry about strumming it and the muted strings accidentally ringing out. It’s surgery.”

“Then, with the hammer-ons and pull-offs, you get to make it feel very ornate, very specific to what you’re hearing, so that’s how I got into fingerpicking. I learned Dust in the Wind, and then I learned that song from Boyhood by Family of the Year, and then Blackbird. It helps you expand. It helps you because music is like any relationship. You fall in and out of love, and so you need to spice it up. What are you going to do? That’s when you get into different tunings, different picking patterns, and different styles.”

Tell us about your main guitar and pedal setup…

“A lot of my guitars just kind of came into my life. I used the Martin guitar primarily, and then I used the Ovation. Really weird, pretty eclectic. I always loved the style, but it was genuinely a pain to play. Half the time, my hands would cramp up and get tense. Right now, I have this Silvertone, so it’s a little jangly and a little grungy. I also have been loving the guitalele lately. It’s not a nylon, it’s not just a guitar and it’s not a ukulele. I also have a 1971 Höfner now that I’m very excited about. I play whatever’s nearby. Each guitar has its own colour, so it’s more about what you’re trying to make.”

What does your setup look like on the road?

“My setup is very portable, and it has all the heavy hitters. Whenever I travel, my whole setup fits in my suitcase. I have the Apollo Twin, which is really compact with a nice clean signal. I always work on a MiniLab MIDI controller, and then we have the SM7 mic, which was gifted, and it’s held up since 2017. It’s really good at cutting outside noise. Those are the main things that I always pack. I work out of Logic and then I have a lot of fun plug-ins. I take the gear with me everywhere I go and I’ve assembled and deconstructed it so it’s like second nature now.”


What do you sound like and what’s interesting about your approach to playing guitar?

“I had pretty good pitch early on. God’s got a sense of humour because I have a hearing deficit, but he’s like, your passion is music. With singing, I was originally self-taught, and there are a lot of little mental games when it comes to performing and singing. I’d always clear my throat as a nervous tick, then I started playing guitar and it stopped me from coughing in between [vocal takes]. I felt very predictable when using standard tuning and I just wanted to have that sense of discovery again. Later, I learned that I could learn new things and I got into different tunings. You keep a log of shapes that work in that tuning, and then you just try and mix-match them to see what can get you a nice chord progression. The capo select thing, my friend Tim showed it to me once and I was immediately obsessed and wrote a tune out of it!”

What inspired you to start writing songs?

“It’s about figuring it out for yourself. It wasn’t just one day I was like, ‘Oh, I’m a songwriter.’ It’s writing little poems when I was in the fourth grade, and those poems were so optimistic about chasing dreams. I was also really into Ed Sheeran at the time because he was, and still is, writing very well-crafted pop songs, but they were very senior songwriter songs, and I loved it. I used to have melodies and things, and then I didn’t know how to remember them, so I’d write them on a piece of paper in the form of the line you see on a heart monitor.”


How do you translate your emotions into songs?

“I love producing while I write because it helps me get all of my ideas out on paper. What inspires me to write is seeing other musicians live, watching their live performances. You feel the energy in the room with original ideas. When you start writing you start to build rules for yourself, and then you see someone breaking all of them and it’s so inspiring. Most of all, you’re grappling with something that’s emotionally over-stimulating or overwhelming. That’s when I’m not journaling out of habit, I’m journaling because I’ve exhausted all my other options. Then you really connect with the chords, with something you’re dealing with. And you’re like, ‘Oh, this relates to this perspective on this issue or these emotions.’ When it all comes together and you genuinely feel what you’re doing, there’s no better high in the world.”

How did you feel when you were writing and recording your latest project, Healthy Baby Boy, Pt. 1?

“That was the pinnacle of me moving and reflecting on where I’d been and what has changed in my life. I watched a YouTube video and I got really into math rock. The guy said, ‘If you’ve strung the guitar and everything’s open and it sounds good, then you’re ready to do math rock.’ I tuned the guitar until something sounded nice, with all the open strings together. I was into Sufjan Stevens at the time, so I really loved very colourful chords and fingerpicking. I got really meticulous with the melody, making sure I could play that while fingerpicking. It was very much stream of consciousness and that’s a writing style I wasn’t familiar with. Each first verse was its own sentiment, and then I wrote the last verse on the spot in the studio.

I tied in everything that I mentioned previously, like my long-distance relationship and calling my parents. It was very optimistic. Although my parents are miles and miles away, I can still call them. It’s more optimistic at the end and it was something I needed. The outro was originally me banging on the table for the rhythm, and then I stacked that up, quantised it and put it in.”


Where do you see yourself in six months’ time?

“For the next two months, I see myself in Virginia and hopefully tuning out a little bit. I hate this nagging thought of, ‘I need to be doing something or I need to be working on marketing.’ I miss being a musician, so, rekindling that love for music is what I’m trying to accomplish when I go back home, and reconnecting with my roots. It’s where I feel the most comfortable because I know it. It’s nice to go back. After that, hopefully finishing up the project [Healthy Baby Boy, Pt. 2], and I’m really hoping to tour to play live shows. It’s what I got into it for.”

John-Robert’s Healthy Baby Boy, Pt. 1 EP is out now

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