You immediately know something’s up when a new artist has a full house enthusiastically singing along to every song—and then energetically chanting for an encore. That’s the subtle magic of John West.
The full house, in this case the Key Club in Hollywood earlier this year, was another step in a burgeoning career that West calls his “beautiful struggle.” It’s a journey that began in earnest five years ago when the singer/songwriter/musician began honing his artistic skills while working as a street performer at the Third Street Promenade in nearby Santa Monica. Now West is ready to make an even bigger leap: going national with the release of his first album for Mercury/Island Def Jam.
Paving the way is vibrant buzz track “Lovely” featuring Pusha T of the rap duo The Clipse. The refreshingly spare track is set off by a sparkling piano rolling over and under a mesmerizing drum beat. Accompanying the soulful, airy groove is a short story about the simple pleasures of hanging out with someone special. West’s smooth tenor (“It’s like oh oh oh / We don’t need no words”) meshes perfectly with Pusha T1s easygoing flow and clever rap (“Let’s test the waters / love makes a splash / and you’re too thick to skinny dip”).
“It’s cool when a collaboration really works,” says West. “You don’t want it to sound forced. You want a natural feel with lyrics that people will remember. People tweet me lines from the song all the time, and I love it.”
And therein lies the key to John West. He’s a gifted yet humble talent who’s serious about his craft but also having fun with it. He’s a natural who feels music and, more important, can make others feel it too. His colorful, acoustically driven melodies—nuanced by influences ranging from classical and pop to R&B and hip-hop—are what draw you in first. Then there’s his intuitive wordplay; lyrics that zero in on the heart of the matter whether it’s about that special person, finding hope in a seemingly hopeless situation or just plain feeling good. Tying everything together: his expressive, soothing tenor.
“The creative process comes organically for me,” says West. “I’m usually just trying to come up with lyrics that pool on me because ultimately you’re trusting your emotional center. Then you’re trying to use your inner sense: does that note feel right there or is that line too obvious. Ultimately you want a lyric or melody that’s going to make a random person’s heart soar.”
That’s the vibe coursing throughout West’s debut album. In addition to Christian Rich, the production duo behind “Lovely,” the singer is working with Brian Kennedy (Rihanna), Ari Levine of the Smeezingtons (Bruno Mars, B.o.B), Kevin Rudolf (Lil Wayne, Leona Lewis) and the Stereotypes (Far East Movement), among others. Beyond “Lovely,” standout tracks include
“Already There,” with a thumping bass intro and shimmery feel that calls to mind a summer day at the beach; “Right Now,” whose pop-hop sound fittingly underscores the song’s appreciate life message and the romantic “Loved You Tonight,” which spotlights West’s penchant for simple yet penetrating lyrics: “We don’t have to judge each other / We could just be / We could just breathe / Maybe wait and see.”
Originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, West attributes part of his mellow sound to the classical guitar lessons he took for a year in high school. The other part stems from listening to such influences as Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Carole King, Jill Scott and Lenny Kravitz. Music was a side thing, however. After graduating in 2000, he headed to Los Angeles for college and the pursuit of a bigger passion: cartooning. But a visit to his sister over the next summer proved to be a game changer. A teacher in Chicago, she was hosting a youth poetry jam series that involved the spoken word scene and hip-hop community. Tagging along with his guitar was West.
“Coming out of Baton Rouge, I was just another dude playing guitar,” he recalls. “But I was watching her students free-styling and b-boxing. And that gave me confidence to start writing more and experimenting with my own spoken word pieces.”
But his intent to forge a career in cartooning—particularly political cartooning in the wake of 9/11—prompted West to transfer to Chicago’s Columbia College as an English and art major. However as senior year approached and newspapers hit a downward spiral, West began rethinking his plans. With diploma in hand, West moved back to Los Angeles to finally concentrate on music. While working as a substitute teacher and recording music, he was introduced by a fellow artist to the scene at Third Street Promenade, a popular tourist destination and public entertainment venue in downtown Santa Monica. “It both humbles and teaches you,” says West. “You learn about energy and how to consistently captivate the audience, which is a hard thing to do.”
Starting solo at first, West played street-side at the Promenade for a year. Then he took off on a road trip to Louisiana for a run of college shows. When a reinvigorated West returned to the Promenade, he was joined by a friend and the latter’s beat machine. That’s when things started to click. The pair began moving 60-70 CDs a day, kicking off West’s self-described “humble hustle.”
In addition to working the Promenade, he began steadily building a fan base on the local indie circuit playing such venues as the Hotel Cafe´ and the Temple Bar. In between West recorded new material for sale on the street and the Internet, including a live CD plus EP’s (“Paper Plates,” “Summer”). Six months after his college road trip, he met manager Ben Ricciardi. Their grind began paying off when, after passing out 10,000 flyers, West played to full houses in Hollywood at the Roxy and then the Avalon. Word promptly spread about the promising musician, and after being invited to New York City to showcase his musical talents with an acoustic performance for Mercury Records President, David Massey, West signed with Mercury/Island Def Jam last October.
West is still getting used to the idea of being signed: “It used to be the weekend was my work week and Monday-Thursday was the long weekend,” he says with a laugh.
But he’s definitely ready to take his grind to the next level. “My whole vibe is that I hope honest, true emotion comes through in my music,” he says. “That it inspires people to feel comfortable in their own skin so they can just groove along; like it’s one long summer jam. That would be a beautiful thing.”