An Interview with Johnny Sebastian

By Christian Peeney

Johnny Sebastian is an 18-year-old rapper, singer, producer, and musician from Cincinnati, Ohio. He has been creating music since elementary school, writing comedy songs inspired by the likes of Bo Burnham and They Might Be Giants. He recorded and collected a few into his 2020 EP, ‘Elevator Music.’ Over the next year, he turned to writing more serious music, culminating in 2021’s ‘People Are Mammals Too.’ Additionally, he began producing hip-hop albums under the alias Red & Green Dinosaur Toy, releasing several projects on Bandlab, a free music production and song sharing website.

These two personas seem to collide in 2022’s ‘johnny’, a mixtape posted to YouTube, Bandcamp, and SoundCloud with poetic rap lyrics discussing themes such as death, loneliness, and anxiety. It’s a far different project than anything Johnny has released before; it’s dark, thought-provoking, introspective, and mature. Each song is a poem, meticulously crafted and worded, with no catchy hooks or choruses. It’s truly an experience to listen to this tape, and it leaves the listener asking a lot of questions, the main one being “is this guy okay??”

I sat down with Johnny to talk about the mixtape.

Christian Peeney: Let’s jump right into it. This new mixtape, johnny, is out now on Bandcamp, YouTube, and SoundCloud, and the lead single, “the quark dream”, is out on all streaming services. Let’s start there. Is there a specific reason why “the quark dream” is the one song on all streaming services or was that just a coincidence?

Johnny Sebastian: I’d be lying if I said the key reason wasn’t sample clearance. That beautiful sample that I flipped into 5/4. The violins and the pianos and those sweeping things, all of that throughout the whole song is all cleared and essentially free. But if it weren’t for that, I think a part of me probably still would have chosen that as the lead single. I think a lot of how it’s structured; it’s a lot like other big songs of mine. If you’re at all familiar with my other stuff or you’ve listened to some of my albums like People Are Mammals Too or A Bump In The Night, you know often I’m very story focused. And I’m very linear in a song. An example’s “How To Sell A Penny For A Dollar”. It starts with a character and a story. And it just progresses. Even though “the quark dream” was very poetic and pretty weird and really deep and sonically super different and alternative, it’s story focused and linear like my other songs. I felt that if people liked the other stuff, they could have liked that. However—and this is sort of done at the beginning of the project with “mosquitoes”— johnny is a really stark project, and it kind of is what it is. And if you don’t like it on the first three tracks, you’re not going to like it on the twelfth. So, “the quark dream” is similar in that it just starts, and it’s about the album, and it’s not pandering one bit.

CP: I think that’s a great way to describe the mixtape as a whole: it is what it is. It’s very much its own thing compared to your other works. Where did this idea come from? How did you decide to do something that is so starkly different than anything else you’ve released thus far?

JS: I mean, that’s sort of a big question. And there are kind of a lot of different reasons. Because I could approach it lyrically, or topically, or thematically…

CP: Let’s say thematically. Where did the whole idea for the mixtape come from?

JS: Well, I’d say the greatest inspiration is probably life experience: what’s been going on with me in the past year, my thoughts on death and how I’ve been reacting to that, my mental health, my sense of identity, my legacy. That’s a big word, legacy. It’s about being a being a third: my dad being John Sebastian II, and my dad’s dad being John Sebastian I. I’ve been thinking about that as I’ve been growing up. It’s not a mixtape about growing up, but it’s certainly a mixtape about my legacy. And so, that was sort of all on my mind. But as far as the way that’s approached, thematically, it takes major cues from theatre. It takes major cues from literature and poetry, specifically gothic literature and poetry. If you listen to mixtape, it’s not a concept album
because I didn’t want to be that direct. And I wanted to have more questions than answers. But the mixtape kind of has this underlying theme of me dancing with death, as an example, and death almost being a romantic partner. You hear these kind of old time 1950s Jazz tracks, and you can imagine me dancing with death: that’s very gothic. Gothic comes from romanticism, where there’s a partner and it’s young love, but it’s also really dark and vulnerable.

CP: So, coming from that life experience, was there anything that was a little bit exaggerated for the sake of the mixtape, or was it all pretty much realistic as to how you felt?

JS: Pretty much realistic. It’s only about that. When I was experiencing a lot of the things that are on the mixtape, the rest of my life was still going on. There were still good moments when I wasn’t overwhelmed and totally stuck. in how I was feeling. But I felt this way probably most of my life. And, you know, it’s pretty heavy. And it’s pretty compacted into the project. But it is real. I mean, the motif of coldness is not just an easy metaphor. I really did feel shivers and sweats. There’s this fascination with sleep at night and dreaming, and that was also there. “omens” is about that sort of, I just had true trouble sleeping. Not in that I couldn’t go to sleep, but when I would, I would just dream about crazy stuff. Or before I would go to sleep, I’d be alone and thinking and would sort of just bug out. It’s very much an album for night. And it’s very much for winter.

CP: I wanted to go back to what you said earlier about how a lot of the structure of the album was taken from theatre and poetry. The mixtape opens up with a monologue, and it’s a poem written by [your girlfriend] the one and only Riley Courtney. Tell me about how that came to be. Did you approach her or was that something she had already written that sort of inspired you? Where does this fit into the whole theme of the tape?

JS: Well, I’ve wanted a poem on one of my projects for a very, very long time. I mean, I had this idea before I put any music on streaming services. I really, really wanted this. And I thought, you know, what better project than this? You know, she’s such an amazing poet. I mean, she’s fantastic. And this I’d be lying if I said a lot of inspiration of my poetry was not from her. Throughout the whole process, a lot of guidance was from her. I sent her “parka” as soon as I made it, I sent her “four”, and the instrumental for “loudmouth” like a year ago, “furnace creek” soon as it was done. And you know, she would give her feedback, I would listen to that, and with my own feedback, I would adjust. It’s very much a project about me, but in this way, she was a piece of me, just artistically alone. And so, I approached her and I said, “Hey, is this something you’d be interested in?” It’s not like anything she’s done before. She’s published things but they’ve been pretty selective or they’ve been in magazines. And she’s never done anything auditory, she hasn’t recorded much. She sent me a first draft, and I loved it so much. It’s essentially the poem you hear on the project today. And I thought it summed up things so well.

One of the reasons I wanted a poem in this specific project is, like I’ve said, there’s a whole lot of theater, and there’s a whole lot of performance. There’s this theme of performance of being a loudmouth. And I need to perform and keep going. So, in that way, that mixtape is almost like this one man show that doesn’t stop until “heaven on earth”. And so, I wanted an intro or a monologue with a jazzy backing track to kind of hint at themes of the album. It’s to say “Hey, this is what I’m going to do with this source material and this audio, and you’re gonna watch me”. I’m on this stage from track 2 to track 12. But I just approached her, and she recorded it in the woods, because we thought that worked best. And that makes sense because it’s kind of easing you into winter. And then “heaven on earth” samples a track called “Autumn in New York”. So it’s kind of easing back out of winter. The album repeats! She recorded three takes that I stitched together, I put the backing tracks over, I loved it, she loved it too. And it worked great. I love that track.

CP: So you were saying that through the writing process, you were sending Riley bits of your songs after they’d been completed or sometimes even just instrumentals. And then she wrote the poem. So would you say that her poem was more inspired by what you had already sent her or more that the mixtape was inspired by that poem? How much was already done when she completed that?

JS: The whole mixtape was done. The cover was taken, and the final mixes and the lyric sheets were done. I even gave her inspirations and things like that; she had every resource. That’s why it seems so complete and so full to me.

CP: That makes sense. Going back, you were saying that there are a lot of jazz samples, and darker samples on this album. Where did the sound come from? Like, were there any specific artists that you were inspired by? Where did this idea of a darker jazz album come from?

JS: Yeah, that’s a great question. Basically, alternative hip hop. Earl Sweatshirt, mostly. And similar artists like A Tribe Called Quest or anybody on an Alchemist or a Conductor Williams album. Any alternative hip hop beat probably inspired that mixtape, I probably heard it and really liked it. I mean, I adore this genre of music so much. I adore sample based hip hop, dark, jazzy hip hop, so much. I think it’s fantastic. And one of the reasons I wanted that sound for this specific tape was because it’s so honed. It can be exactly what it wants to be. Let’s say you have something like gangsta rap or bling rap from 2005: that music is for so many people. It’s very commercialized, it’s for a lot of different situations. And then, the first time I listened to Midnight Marauders by A Tribe Called Quest, and it says, hey, I’m your tour guide, you need to listen to this album at midnight, I was like, “This is so cool. This is incredible.” I wanted to make something like that, to craft a world within a mixtape that has an alternative hip hop sound, so honed and so specific, that even the listener could pick out things or places that did or did not fit in the mixtape You can feel the mixtape. It almost feels wrong to listen to it in the summer. That’s what I really wanted. And so yeah, that alternative hip hop sound. And jazz, I was listening to that a lot.

CP: What was the process of making an album of this scope and detail? Like you said, where you can feel the mixtape, and that it feels wrong to listen to in the summer. What was the whole process like of designing an album this intricate?

JS: I mean, I feel like I’ve never done something exactly like this, but I’ve been around the block. I made a couple albums, a couple EPs that are pretty refined like this and have a specific world, so I know what I need to do to get the end product I want. It’s refinements and making two beats every day and saying I want this to feel it like exactly like this. I would also test very regularly. Like “parka”, I probably played everywhere before I rapped on it. I made the beat, and I played it in earbuds, car, headphones, speakers. I remember I was working on “omens”. I was walking into a theater practice. It was really cold out, and the wind was like, really really blowing; it felt like a blizzard. And I was walking through it and I was like, “man this is perfect for this beat, this storm, but it needs an 808 like right here,” and I was like “that’s it!” and I just put it in. So yeah, like making a beat or two a day, working at it for a long time. This took a long time. But also, test it and play it for people. And as far as lyrics, I mean, oh my gosh, poetry is so hard, dude. I’m not doing this again.

CP: You don’t want to do this sort of thing again. So then what, if anything, can we expect next?

JS: Yeah, I mean, I’m about to go to college and take some music technology courses. So, I’m gonna pack my music whether I like it or not. Most likely in a good way, but probably in like a bit of a scary way. That’s probably gonna take some time. I might get a new DAW and just record with what I’m given. I’m also going to learn some more instruments and get a lot more into jazz. I’m not really sure what the future holds. I want to do another Bump In The Night. I want to make a math rock Midwest emo album. And the latter’s probably the most likely, but I just did a really themed album. I might just want to make not another People Are Mammals Too, but an album that’s like very art poppy where I can focus on instrumentals, truly finished songs and things like that. And a worry for this project is like it’s isolating a lot of people; I wouldn’t have to worry about that. But I mean, that’s the process, and now that it’s out like, man, people can’t listen to this but I don’t know. We’ll just say obviously, more music. I’m going to need to keep making music. I love it so much.

CP: Yeah, that’s great. One final question before we wrap up here, just about the mixtape as a whole. We talked a little bit about where it came from thematically, where it came from sonically. But you know, the mixtape is called johnny, which is your name, obviously. Why is it called johnny? You talked a little bit about how you were a third, John Sebastian III, with your dad and your dad’s dad. So that can sort of play into that. But why would you say it’s called ‘johnny’?

JS: I think “Johnny” is not what I’m supposed to be, but it’s what I am. I’m not supposed to have these worries or these fears. I think if I accept them, and I make them into music, or I internalize them, and I own them, then I’m better. “Johnny” isn’t said till the end of the mixtape, and when it is: “a man of death, who manifest God’s inner jests”. “Man of death”, that’s pretty big. But, I mean, if I’m worried about death, that I’m the man of death, or if I feel like a joke is being played on me by the cosmos, then I’m going to be the manifestation of that. I’m going to be the walking example that I’m still living. This is this is kind of heavy but in “mosquitoes”, I basically say suicide is not an option for me. I’m going to keep living, so, you know, what’s next? And then throughout the rest of the mixtape, there’s just a character study. And it just goes through every dirty, dark spot in my head. And then once that character study is done… all of this is me. And I don’t know what to do with it. It’s not a good thing, it’s not a bad thing, but it’s certainly me. And I think that could make me better. And that ends with “heaven on earth”. I’ll let you take that however you want.

CP: All right, well, thank you for talking to me about the mixtape! It was very informative.

JS: Thank you so much. I really appreciate this. Thank you. Thanks for listening to my mixtape and thank you for the questions and I truly appreciate it.

Listen to ‘johnny’, out now on YouTube, Bandcamp, and SoundCloud. You can also stream “the quark dream” on all streaming services.

YouTube here.
Bandcamp here.
SoundCloud here.
“the quark dream” Spotify link here.

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