Jon Bellion's Emotional, Inspiring Journey To The Top Of The Music Industry
Jon Bellion is in the position any aspiring artist dreams about.
He is floating, suspended in air somewhere between the ground and a ceiling-less sky. He currently inhabits the purgatory that exists before the type of massive fame that doesn't allow a person to buy his own groceries anymore.
After all, his first studio album The Human Condition earned the number five spot on The Billboard 200 during its first week out. Jon finds himself in good company, considering the fifth spot lands him just behind Drake, Nick Jonas, the cast of Hamilton and Beyoncé.
The difference between Jon and his “top five” companions is that he has never had one of his songs on the radio. His album doesn't feature an electrifying verse from Big Sean or a crooning John Legend. In fact, the 25-year-old singer/songwriter still lives at home with his parents in Long Island, New York.
Despite the lack of traditional mainstream build-up, Jon Bellion is primed to become a household name by next fall. He is just now starting to perform his unique fusion of pop, hip-hop and R&B on major radio stations, interview with mainstream influencers and receive Twitter praise from NBA stars and established artists.
It's all nice and great, but it's not fazing Jon one bit because, like some divine oracle or divisive puppet master, this is exactly how he planned it.
Jon would never say he could have predicted his first-week success, but through extreme patience, attention to detail and savvy PR work, he's more or less been able to control his roadmap to stardom.
With a number of behind-the-scene successes under his belt, like penning the hook for Rihanna and Eminem's massive 2013 hit, "The Monster," and holding a major writing credit on Jason Derulo's 2014 anthem "Trumpets," Jon was able to convince Capitol Records to let him release three free albums before moving forward with a major studio production.
This is the reason he already has an army of devoted fans and has sold out two (soon to be three) national tours. There's no doubt he's a musical visionary, but if he weren't so good at his craft, he could probably be a marketing guru with a corner office overlooking midtown Manhattan.
When I meet Jon at a New York City rehearsal space, he offers a quick handshake before heading back to his position in front of a microphone and futuristic-looking machine that allows him to record and play back his voice. He needs a little more time to perfect something before stepping away to chat.
Jon's band, Beautiful Mind, is a group of nine talented musicians he attended college with before dropping out. A few of them are scattered around the room watching. The group of friends made a promise to each other while in school that if any one of them started to gain popularity, they'd bring the others along.
Jon, who may be the most dedicated friend in the universe, honored that vow. We all watch together as Jon tampers with buttons and mumbles to himself before suddenly breaking out into song, delivering a near concert-worthy performance of one of his new tracks.
I immediately get chills. He's planning on performing the song solo during his upcoming sold out tour, which means making every bit of music with his mouth. This is where the futuristic sound looping machine comes in. Every sound will be recorded and layered until he is literally singing to the sound of his own voice.
If you were to close your eyes while listening, you'd think his nine-piece band was playing furiously behind him. For Jon, it's an imperfect test run. For me, it's one of the most dynamic performances I've ever witnessed.
When Jon is finally ready to step away from the robot machine that, at this point, is a living, breathing extension of his body, we head to a small room with a couch. The space we're in is actually SIR – the definitive New York City rehearsal studio.
Countless legends have graced its hallways and perfected their live performances in its rooms.
I wonder who else has sat on the same couch. Justin Bieber? Jay Z? Paul McCartney? Best of all, the couch looks like something you'd find at a suburban garage sale. The entire room is mostly bare and colorless, like a dorm room occupied by first-year fraternity brothers. Nothing about the place is glamorous, which, I imagine, is the point.
It is not a place where musicians come to live out the sort of paparazzi-captured moments we're accustomed to seeing. Within these walls exist a side of musicians – even the megastars – the public is not often privy to.
Here musicians can be their sweating, tired, experimental, sweatpant-clad selves while focusing solely on what got them to where they are: the music. This, I assume, is exactly how Jon likes it. Practicing 12 hours each day, he hasn't seen much daylight since his album dropped.
I start our conversation by asking Jon what he wants people to know. The answer comes to him quickly.
“The Pixar thing is important to me,” he says.
He's referring to his album's intricate, fantasy-inspired artwork, which he shelled out $50,000 of his own money to commission from an Indonesian illustrator named David Ardinaray Lojaya.
The dream, he explains, is that someone from Pixar will see the artwork and think, “Wait, this isn't from one of our films.” He hopes it could be a foot in the door to scoring a Pixar movie one day. This is Jon Bellion's ultimate dream, and who better to be the spokesperson for the “follow your dreams, do it your own way” message preached by so many of the Disney films that shaped our childhoods?
Our conversation veers into a discussion about fear. Specifically, fear of being misinterpreted as success continues to amplify.
“I have anxiety attacks regularly,” Jon admits. “I'm like the dog in the fire meme, like, yeah, I'm fine, while the house is burning down behind me.”
It can't be easy gradually losing full control, especially considering just how much of it Jon has maintained throughout his career. This is the trade-off artists make in order to gain the resources they've never had, like making a commercially released album. There's no way he can continue to choose every photo of himself that gets posted online or hand-craft every tweet that is blasted out to his followers.
I imagine similar anxiety exists for Jon's original fans, the followers who have laughed, cried and grown with him since the days of free music. This same fandom that believe its JB is the superior JB in the music world will now have to share a space with a brand new crop of Bellion faithful. The secret is out. Sharing is a childhood lesson they'll be forced to learn all over again.
Jon admits that he's learning to accept this inevitable fate. “Everything is going to work out the way it's supposed to,” he tells me. “God is in control and that's the only way I can survive. I'm just going to focus on the music and performance.”
Jon talks a lot about God. He doesn't just talk about a vague idea of faith; he makes sure to emphasize God specifically.
I admire this because, in his realm of music, which often perpetuates a lifestyle of vices, derogatory messages and over-the-top displays of wealth and greed, Jon knows he could be risking his reputation. The beauty is, he doesn't seem to care. He will continue to talk about God because God is what he knows and loves, and if he is judged for it, so be it.
You will never find Jon Bellion shouting into a camera or out to a crowd that he's a creative genius who achieved success all by himself. He believes his fate, like his album's monumental, choir-backed outro suggests, lies in the “Hand of God.” He also subscribes to an interpretation of genius as a spirit that visits people if they are lucky enough, not something they can attain on their own.
When it comes to his views of achieving success, Jon's advice would make any mother proud. “Keeping yourself in check is the best way to be successful,” he says. “Constantly questioning yourself and asking, 'Am I treating people correctly? Is my music actually getting better? Am I looking people in the eyes? Am I really listening?' In this business, you might preach love and positivity and equality and whatever, but if that's to get yourself further, it's actually the most selfish thing in the world.”
He adds, "If you wake up every morning and really want to be a better person overall, I feel like success is inevitable. Success will be a byproduct.”
When you take a step back and look at the story of Jon Bellion up to this point, he seems to be as genuine as his answers suggest. He still lives with his parents (and even takes the garbage out), he told a major record label he wouldn't sign unless he could bring his nine friends along and release music for free. He isn't ashamed of his faith, and from what I can tell, he really is looking me in the eyes and listening.
If Pixar were to make a movie about a kind-hearted boy who wanted nothing more than to inspire people with his music, Jon would be that boy.
I don't doubt any of his seemingly pure intentions, but as a journalist, I am trained to question everything. I can't help but wonder if any of his words of wisdom are rehearsed or have been perfected over time, the way they undoubtedly are for other artists.
But then it happens. Right there in front of me, the man on the verge of serious global fame and endless praise, whose album is sitting right behind Beyoncé's on the music charts, begins to cry.
I've just told him that I admire how much he talks about giving back to those around him when his eyes begin to well up with tears and his voice begins to crack.
“I'm… the most blessed person in the world,” he manages to mutter through tears. “I fucking love the people around me. I wake up every morning like, 'How the fuck did I get to this position?'”
I am stunned and speechless. Any questions that were taking shape in my mind are erased.
“Fuck the fucking competition,” he continues with a heavy sigh. “I just want the people around me to be happy and to succeed. There's nothing else.”
Suddenly I find myself holding back tears. It's a feeling I haven't experienced in some time. I can't help but think of my own family and friends and the support they've given me. Like his music, Jon's sincerity and compassion is too genuine not to be contagious. I'm not sure how we've gotten to this point, but we have, and we embrace it.
Jon is now rich, popular and has a flourishing music career ahead of him, and yet his emotions got the better of him due to an overwhelming devotion to give back to those he loves. He is the hero in the yet-to-be-written Pixar movie, but he would never look at himself that way. That I am sure of.
I thank him for opening up the way he did and tell him the conversation was one I'll certainly never forget. We talk a bit more about video games and make plans to play basketball when his tour is over before saying our goodbyes.
Before I can blink, he is right back where he started, in front of the complicated machine that will do its best to keep up with him on stage. He's tinkering with the buttons once more, challenging himself not just to be proficient, but to master.
From what I've gathered over the span of our conversation, he won't be able to sleep without knowing he's done all he can to be the best he can. It's what his fans deserve, and he doesn't know any other way to live. Anyone who attends one of his 28 shows during his tour is in for a treat, that I can assure you.
Usually I'd walk out of an interview like the one I'd just had giddy with excitement, drooling over the material I've just gotten and beginning to consider how well the final story could do online. How many eyes it could reach and page views it could accumulate. Though, I don't feel any of that.
I am peculiarly calm for my usual self. Instead of jumping in a cab, I decide to walk the six avenues it takes to get to the subway. I put my headphones in and start from the beginning of Jon's album.
Along the way, I can't help but text my closest friends and family to tell them how much I appreciate them.