Growing up in the small town of Wingham on the Mid North Coast of NSW, James Johnston spent his early years hopping from farm-to-farm with his dad, selling and servicing tractors. With hours spent on the road travelling, James was introduced to great artists like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Garth Brooks and, at just four years of age, James hit the stage for the very first time, performing Friends in Low Places in front of his kindergarten class. From that moment on James’s future was set – he would be a country singer … although, as you’ll read from this interview, it just took a little bit of a journey to get there.
With his smash hit, Raised Like That – a tribute to his upbringing and tells the story of community, integrity, and a celebration to a way of life of people who grew up in a small close nit community – and follow up Small Town soon to drop, we caught up with the singer-songwriter to discuss his journey to number one and where he’s heading next.
Many people might not have heard of James Johnston before the release of Raised Like That. However, a quick history, you started performing at four-years-old, busked on the streets of Tamworth from a young age and have played in various bands throughout your life. Before competing on Australian Idol (Season 7 in 2009, the same year as Casey Barnes) and later, The X Factor in 2014, where you sang songs by artists like Katy Perry, Huey Lewis, Fall Out Boy, Pink, Queen, Foo Fighters, Kings Of Leon, OneRepublic and more – which if far from country. You also released original music in the style of acoustic pop-rock. How have your influences changed since appearing on those programs?
I grew up on country music up until I was about 16 [when] I stepped away from country and I got into more that John Mayer style of music. Then I did Idol and The X Factor, and that stage was me just finding my feet. I played in a funk soul band for a while, travelling around, doing different styles of music.
And, about five or six years ago, I was travelling through Nashville, backpacking with a buddy of mine. We were staying in this hostel that had this old piano. Everyone would go to bed at one o’clock in the morning, and I just stayed there for three- or four-hours writing songs … I’ve never been so inspired to create. And truly, from that moment on, I was like, “country music, that’s where my heart”, just songwriting and telling stories.
I’d released songs, but those songs were very much scripted by other people in the sense. I would walk into a room with a producer, and they’re like, “oh, you’re a pop artist that’s just come off Idol, let’s write you a pop song” but it didn’t feel honest, and it didn’t have a central identity to who I was. It was only through that process of writing so many songs and falling in love with the process of songwriting, that I truly felt like I started writing my honest truth. I know that sounds a little cliche, but it truly does feel like that.
When I did Idol and The X Factor, I always felt like I was kind of playing a character of sorts and it felt so disingenuous. I was young when I did Australian Idol. I didn’t know myself, and I would never have called myself an artist at that stage. I was a singer that loved to sing songs. So, for me, I didn’t mind getting pushed and pulled in different directions. Now I want to tell my story. I’ve reinvented myself a little bit. I call Raised Like That my debut because I very much felt like it was my debut. This song is something I’m really proud of.
American singer and actress, Jennifer Lopez said on The X Factor that you have a story telling quality about you – which, to me, sounds like you were destined for a career in country music all along.
Yeah, I feel like everybody around me was like, “Just hurry up and get back to country. When are you gonna realise you’re a country singer?” My parents, all my friends, everybody truly knew it.
What felt right about Raised Like That to release it as your debut single?
I was wanting to write a song that ticked two boxes. It was an upbeat, feel good song, that also felt genuine, was my story and had some substance to it. It wasn’t just a generic party song. Actually, my manager, I said to him, “I want to write a show opening song, something that I can start my show with.” That started with the beat and I was started riffing on top of the beat. It was one of those songs that people talk about that come out quickly, and it wrote itself in an hour or so. I started telling my story about how I was raised, and it just wrote itself.
I certainly have a gut feeling about certain songs that I get really excited about. But at the same time, I crowdsource reactions too. I’ve got about 10 people around me that I show all my demos to. As a songwriter, we inherently think the last thing we’ve written is the best thing we’ve ever written, right? You ask any songwriter, and they’ll tell you the same thing. The hardest part of me writing a new song every single day, I’d send it to those group of people, and then the feedback would come back: “Yeah, it’s okay. It’s good.” I was waiting for that moment where everyone’s like, “That’s the song.” And Raised Like That was that song.
On October 22nd, your single dethroned the Morgan Evans juggernaut Love Is Real after its ninth consecutive week on top of the Countrytown Music Network Hot 50 Country Airplay Chart. Did you ever think Raised Like That would get to number one?
No. You hope and dream, but truly, what’s happened with the song, being number one, the reaction it has had has been incredible. It was incredibly nerve wracking, after writing so many songs and spending so much time developing what I do, making that decision to put that first song out was terrifying [laughs]. But I’ve been blown away. The reaction it’s been getting, I’m feeling very lucky that it’s gone the way it has.
Would you ever follow in Morgan Evans’ footsteps and move to Nashville?
100%. I actually had my bags packed to move to Nashville. I sold everything except for my backpack and guitar. I had everything ready to go in February and had one way ticket booked … and then they closed the borders and life changed and took a different direction. I love like Australia and Australia will always be my home, but the way I see it, I want to celebrate the way I grew up and the way of life here in Australia, and take that to as big of an audience as possible. And the way to do that is definitely going to Nashville.
Did you do anything to celebrate Raised Like That reaching number one on the charts?
Well, I’m a dad now, so the idea of having a big bender of a night out … [laughs]. But my lovely wife bought me a little box with three beers in it and a couple of crackers. I sat around with my son*, and he had a soft drink, and we had a beer, and that was about as much as we as we did. It is a very dad answer, I realise that. [laughs].
*7-year-old Koda. He and his wife, TaliaRose are expecting a baby boy in December.
Your next single, Small Town, drops in two days, on November 19. What can you tell me about it?
I wrote this song on the drive back to my hometown in Wingham, New South Wales. I hadn’t been home for a little while and I wanted to capture that feeling, that idea, that excitement as you’re heading back to your community and back to where you grew up. That’s really what the song is about and the energy I tried to capture. It’s that drive back to your small town, going down main street, and everyone knows your name, it celebrates that story. It’s a big anthem to small towns.
It’s a similar vibe to Raised Like That. As an artist that’s starting off, I want to have a sense of identity and tell my story. There’s a good chance with this first lot of songs and first album (if we call it an album or not, we’re still working that out), I want to steer it around that story of growing up and where I came from. We’re going to be pushing out single after single over the next six months. I want to have as many songs out there as possible.
Lastly, you’ve got to meet a lot of super famous people in your career (I mentioned Jennifer Lopez earlier as an example), but who’s the coolest celebrity you’ve ever met and why?
As much as I’d love to say it was a country artist, hands down the coolest celebrity I’ve ever met was Michael Buble. It’s not even the same ballpark as anybody else. I love Michael Buble. He’s the coolest person in the world. I did a push up competition with Michael Buble, it was through Idol, and I remember being so awestruck that this guy had so much swagger and charisma. I’ve always looked up to Michael Buble as an entertainer, I just thought he had this incredible presence. I’d put him up there with Garth Brooks. They have this aura about them that’s so magnetic and, when they’d go out on a stage, they will just absolutely own it.
I also got to hang out with Lee Kernaghan for a couple of days when I was about 10 years old in Tamworth. I’ll never forget that. That was one of the coolest experiences in my life.
Keep up to date with James Johnston on his Facebook page here.
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