JAWNY (f.k.a. Johnny Utah) is like a lo-fi pop Peter Pan; balancing superstardom, viral buzz, and the angst of young adulthood is a struggle many major artists find themselves dealing with at one point or another. In his case, the 24-year-old copes with this reality by escaping to a nostalgic Neverland through his smooth melodies, youthful falsetto, and painful metaphors about love. Now, JAWNY's For Abby album, which dropped on Oct. 27, stands as a culmination of years of self-growth. Every track symbolizes a moment in time when the line cook turned rock star experienced the peaks and valleys of love.
JAWNY first made waves as an artist in November 2018 on the Philadelphia DIY scene, a community where artists' bedroom studio-made songs found forever homes at small, local venues. He found his niche making groovy pop cuts, like "Crazy For Your Love" and "PATTY," and uploading them to Soundcloud, where they spoke to an audience unbounded by club capacity. His life at the time, however, was anything but glamorous.
"When I was making music before [getting a record deal], my back was up against the wall: I was trying to make sh*t work, quit my job [as a line cook]," JAWNY tells Elite Daily.
Then, JAWNY got the big break he had been craving. He achieved viral success when his May 2019 track "Honeypie" went viral on TikTok. The summery love song has been used in over 60,000 videos on the app, and it's been streamed over 80 million times on Spotify. JAWNY says the track's viral takeoff was the point when the mainstream vortex first opened up for him; he announced he signed to Interscope Records at the start of 2020 as a result.
"Honeypie" was also the catalyst for his relationship with rap powerhouse Doja Cat. She contacted him to tell him she hated the song, but that didn't bother JAWNY. "I found his music video for 'Honeypie,' and I didn't like the song ... I don't know, it was his pants. I liked his pants," she joked in an Instagram Live from September 2019, the same month the couple went public with their romance. It was short-lived, though — the artists ultimately broke up before the pandemic hit.
The breakup, paired with the newfound success of his music career, was a rollercoaster of emotions for JAWNY. It led him to reassess the trajectory of his October 2020 album. "[After signing,] I was starting to play shows, I had this girlfriend — and she was doing sh*t — I'm traveling around the world, taking meetings, going on flights," he says. "Obviously, when you get sucked into that, your whole creative process just changes because you kind of lose sight of yourself."
Doja Cat announced their breakup in a February 2020 Instagram Live — clarifying they were still on good terms — but the breakup impacted JAWNY's album. The "Say So" singer had lent her vocals to one of his singles before the split, a lovesick bop called "Anything You Want." "She did the backing harmonies that sound really awesome at the end of the song," he says. The track ultimately didn't make the final cut of For Abby, but bitterness over their breakup had nothing to do with it. "I have massive respect for her, and I believe she does for me ... When we split, we were like, 'I don't think this feature makes sense ... because we're not dating anymore.'"
In the end, what was more important to JAWNY than any lost Doja Cat collab was how their split, and his whirlwind international touring schedule, informed the album. He realized he no longer connected with his new material. "Don't you think it would look goofy if you know that somebody just went through a very public thing — you know for a fact that it was probably really sad — and then you come out and you have 10 super happy pop songs that are all about how happy you are and how tight everything is?" he says.
JAWNY returned home and reworked the entirety of For Abby to reflect his new outlook, leaving behind any qualms about trying to make a hit song and, instead, focusing on telling an honest story. "I spent the next four months obviously going through feelings of heartbreak, so I wrote about that. Through quarantine, I reflected on some of my past relationships and things I had been struggling with myself," he recounts. "It's all fictional, but it does have elements of non-fiction as far as how I was feeling at the time of the project."
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, JAWNY hasn't had a chance to play For Abby live. In the meantime, he's been working on several videos to take listeners on a visual journey with the new music, and his latest one for "Super Bad Mantra," out Dec. 9, is a stadium-pop earworm that ties For Abby together with a perfect bow.
"I just truly feel like there's something about human connection where they can hear if you mean something that you're saying, instead of you just saying something you don't mean," JAWNY says of the final product. "When you mean what you say, it will connect with somebody."