Johnta Austin Interview
It may seem like songs just magically appear on your radio, but the finished product is only a fraction of the story. Before the next hottest track hits the pages of DJBooth, countless hours of work have been spent, and no one knows more about what happens behind the scenes than Johnta Austin. Name a hit over the last few years and Austin probably wrote it; Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Chris Brown, he’s done it all. Now Austin has decided to keep his hit-making abilities to himself for his debut album Ocean Drive. In an interview with DJBooth’s Nathan, Austin talks about his sophisticated sound, the legacy of Marvin Gaye, and why he’ll never be like Britney Spears.
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Johnta Austin Interview Transcription
DJBooth: What’s up everyone, this is Nathan from DJBooth.net and with me today is a Grammy award winning songwriter, producer, and now solo artist Johnta Austin. How you doin man?
Johnta Austin: I’m good, and yourself?
DJBooth: Fine, thanks for taking the time today. You’ve had unbelievable success as a songwriter for basically everyone, most notably Mary J. Blige and Mariah Carey, but now you’ve got your own album coming out called Ocean Drive. What prompted you to make the move to the mic and step up front?
Austin: I’ve been working with Jermaine Dupri for a while creating music for other artists and from that he saw something in me as an artist, and wanted to extend an opportunity for me to showcase myself to the world in my own right. Somebody like Jermaine Dupri giving you that type of opportunity, I felt like I’d be a fool not to take it.
DJBooth: Is that something you’d been looking to do for a while?
Austin: I had a record deal when I was young, like 13, through RCA and that never really worked out. I got dropped and I was actually replaced by Tyrese, that’s how my opportunity to write “Sweet Lady” came about. Revisiting the artist thing was something that I wanted to do but I wanted the timing to be right, I’m not necessarily sure the timing is perfect for anything, but with someone like Jermaine seeing something in me as an artist I wanted to try it out.
DJBooth: He can make the timing perfect right? Take us through your songwriting process, do you write differently when you’re writing for yourself as opposed to when you’re writing for other artists?
Austin: It’s a little bit of a different process…well the process is the same but the conceptualizing is a little different. When I work with someone like Mariah I try to assist them in what they want to say to the people, and try to help bring their vision and their ideas to life and assist them any way I can. When I’m writing for myself I have an idea of who I am as an artist and what I want to say. I’m a real fun guy and I like to have a good time, I try to create an escape in my music as far as Johnta Austin the artist goes. So conceptually I take a different approach, but as far as the process goes of trying to tell a story it’s the same across the board.
DJBooth: What is your conception of yourself as an artist?
Austin: I call myself the black Frank Sinatra. More recently I call J.D. the black George Clooney and I’m the black Brad Pitt, we’re like a walking Ocean’s Eleven.
DJBooth: Is there anyone else in the Rat Pack?
Austin: We got Usher in the Rat Pack and Bow Wow’s the youngest member. That’s how I see my artistry. It has substance but I like to have a good time and those guys like to have a good time, so that’s what we try to bring out. A good time in a sophisticated kind of way. I watch the Ocean’s movies and I’m like man, those guys are having a blast but it’s a sophisticated blast. They’re always clean, they always look good. It’s just making the most out of life. That’s who Johnta Austin is.
DJBooth: Speaking of having a good time, the lead single off the album is called Video which has a club/party feel to it, why did you choose Video to be the lead single?
Austin: Because it was a little bit of a different feel for me. I write a lot of stories and substance, a lot of deep records if you want to go there, but Video is just kind of an escape. Just have a good time, everybody just let your hair down and enjoy yourself. Everything doesn’t always have to be so serious. We gonna get to the ballads, we gonna get to the substance and the nitty gritty of everything on Ocean Drive, but this is kind of like a teaser to let the people know we do know how to have fun.
DJBooth: It’s just a little appetizer?
DJBooth: On songs with a little more substance, you have a track called “The One That Got Away” produced by Stargate, and you said that’s a “defining song for you and indicative of how the album sounds.” What is it about that song that defines you?
Austin: I think it’s just fresh man. “The One That Got Away” is a personal experience. I think it’s one of those things that ties into the lifestyle. When you listen to the record, the character in the record is basically saying that I have houses, I have cars, I have my selection of any woman that I can put my hands on, but it does not matter to me. My mind is focused on the one that I want that got away from me. All this stuff didn’t really matter to this person. That’s the person you really love, that’s the person you want to have around, that’s the one that got away. The lifestyle’s still in place so to me that defines the album; he’s having a good time but he’s still not afraid to show the raw emotion and everything is not just about a good time. Even in the midst of a good time I’m not afraid to show that side of me that has remission or remorse or regret because no good time goes unpunished.
DJBooth: So you’re out in the club partying but by the time you get home and go to bed you’re still thinking about the one that got away, is that it?
Austin: You feel me? Exactly, we’ve been out partying, we done red carpeted that thing. Me, Jermaine, Usher, and whoever looks at it the next day don’t know I’m sleepin alone that night. That’s not a good feelin.
DJBooth: I think everybody can relate to that no matter where they’re from. You’ve cited Marvin Gaye as a tremendous influence on you. Before I got on the phone I was listening to some old school Marvin Gaye and realizing how much soul and spirituality and social consciousness he brought that you don’t seem to hear much in popular music anymore. Do you feel like you’re keeping Marvin Gaye’s spirit alive?
Austin: I don’t wanna step on Marvin’s legacy by saying I’m helping to keep his thing alive but I’m certainly trying to show that I’m a fan and I appreciate the legacy Marvin left with the world. He was such a melting pot. He was very socially conscious, he spoke out against the war, and he had an opinion about that. He was a conflicted individual to struggle with his Christianity and his sexuality. He had to struggle with the women and the drugs and all of those things, but to me his music allowed you a window into his soul. He wasn’t an artist that hid from you. He put it all out there for you to see all the different struggles that he went through, it’s almost like you went through the struggles with Marvin. He wasn’t afraid to be a contradiction. A lot of artists want to be one way to the people but behind the scenes they’re a totally different way. Well Marvin wasn’t that type of artist. He wanted you to see all sides. He wanted you to see I try to be a strong Christian person but at the same time I have a problem with liking all of these women, but then I have a problem with the Vietnam War, and I have a problem with this and that. Marvin left an incredible legacy and the closest I hope to come is to touch a bit of that and not necessarily leave the same kind of legacy behind but a legacy that people say wow, Johnta wasn’t afraid to open up and let everything out through his songs.
DJBooth: Is it a little frightening to let people see these different sides and see the real complexity of your life?
Austin: Not really for me…are you recording me?
Austin: Can you bleep out something I say?
DJBooth: Sure, go for it.
Austin: I’m a private person so the only thing I’m protective about is people attacking the people around me, but I don’t really give a shit if people see I have problems, but when the problems become more talked about than the music that’s bad. It’s like ok I have problems, but occasionally I like to do music as well. I think we as a society have become focused on the problems of an artist. If Marvin lived today we’d say ‘oh there’s a rumor he’s got a cocaine addiction, there’s a rumor he left his wife for this other woman,” and very little of the talk today would be about the fact that he actually makes great music from time to time. It’s scary in that aspect about I want to open up and be candid but I want people to take the totality of the person and not just focus on the problems but also focus on the sum total of what makes me a man.
DJBooth: As long as you don’t go down the Britney Spears route I think you’re gonna be ok.
Austin: I would never toss my baby in the front seat and drive and eat an ice cream cone, or whatever the hell she was doin.
DJBooth: I’m surprised the baby wasn’t on top of the car.
Austin: Right. I think there’s a difference. I want to be candid, I don’t want to be crazy. I don’t want people to say ‘that guy’s lost it,’ and there’s a fine line between saying, ‘hey I have a lot of screwed up stuff that goes on in my life but it’s no different than the screwed up stuff that goes on in anybody else’s life.’ There’s a fine line between that and just being a wack job.
DJBooth: On a more business tip, on the cover of your album you’re sitting in front of the ocean, and looking sharp may I add, and you got the business section of the newspaper in front of you. How important do you think the business side of music is in addition to the artistic and creative side?
Austin: It is the music business. It’s not show friends, its show business. The business has to be right, it’s definitely important. I don’t know if you noticed but in that picture there’s also some swimming going on, so that good time is still there. You have to be about your business and have the business people around you. You have to be savvy, you can’t just be a dumb creative person and focus on that so much the business is not intact.
DJBooth: Well thanks for taking the time, is there a MySpace page or a website where people can hear more about you and your music?
DJBooth: I appreciate you takin the time and good luck with the album.
Austin: Good talking to you Nathan, thank you.