ON THE RISE: 24 Questions with J.Pappas
Updated: Jan 13
J. Pappas is 21- year-old London-raised neo-soul artist currently based in Boston. As he pulls influences from old-school hip-hop and illustrates melodic jazz beats across his projects, he intricately weaves together his own ensemble producing a sound that truly demonstrates his versatility while replicating those of Mac Ayres, Loyle Carner, and Tom Misch. On July 8th, Harmony World had the pleasant opportunity to sit down and interview him to discuss some of the backgrounds behind his latest album, his experiences as a full-time musician and student, future plans for his career and so much more. Be sure to go check out his latest single “Your Favourite Songs” currently out on Spotify and all platforms!
HWM: Tell us about J. Pappas. Give us three words to describe yourself. What do you do for fun besides making music?
J. Pappas: I guess I would describe myself as very relaxed, open, and introspective. Besides making music, I really like spending time with my friends, going out to try different foods-- I’m a big food person, I love cooking! I’m also very into film, watching movies and TV shows, all of that kind of stuff.
HWM: What’s an average day like for you?
J. Pappas: Right now I’m a student in hand with being a musician, I go to the Berklee College of Music. I study music production and engineering so that consists of going to class and learning how to use all the gear in the studio, how to operate a console, how to record properly, learning proper etiquette as well as doing liberal art classes, so all the good stuff! I’m very much occupied in class and making music.
HWM: How did you first get into music?
J. Pappas: When I was probably in sixth grade, I remember the school I was at during the time in the U.K. offered a music technology class where we got to learn how to make music in garage band and I was just really into that. I loved the idea of grouping things and making beats and songs out of that! So ever since then, I was really interested and kept taking those classes until I got better and learned how to use more programs, more advanced things. I’d always been interested in songwriting too, I had a couple of bands growing up l-- was always the songwriter, was always the singer but I also played the drums so that was kind of my intro into everything. Yeah, that was where it started.
HWM: How many instruments do you play?
J. Pappas: My primary instrument is definitely the drums but I do play guitar on a lot of my records, some bass and I do all the key sounds unless I have somebody come in and do that for me. If I can, I try to do everything by myself. Some of the trumpet on my album was done by myself but I didn’t hesitate to call someone more experienced for songs like “Fabricated”; my friend Richard Stanmeyer who is an amazing trumpet player played. On “St. Pancras” and “Train to Imperia,” was my friend Caleb Lattimore, also an extraordinary trumpet player and musician. He actually had a verse on “St. Pancras,” as “Jxlen.” I’m always so inspired when collaborating with people when I know I’m not as best suited for the situation.
HWM: How would you describe the music you typically create?
J. Pappas: That’s a good one hmm… The music I create is definitely introspective lyric-wise, music-wise I’d say I like to try different things every time. Obviously, my album was very jazz-based and I credit a lot of that to being at Berklee and being surrounded by jazz musicians; I’m really inspired by that. But I also like sounds like neo-soul and old-school hip-hop, that’s kind of what I grew up on-- A Tribe Called Quest, J.Dilla, Nas. The New York hip-hop scene in the ’90s is really what influences my music the most I think.
HWM: Where do you get inspiration for your songs?
J. Pappas: It was old-school hip-hop, initially. I had a friend in middle school who taught me about that and I was obsessed with the culture and I was obsessed with everything involved in that scene and really digging deep into the music! It eventually got me into some of the more modern rappers of the time like Kendrick Lamar when he was blowing up and J. Cole too-- Just very influenced by that sound and then I kinda discovered r&b later in high school, D’Angelo kind of thing, Lauryn Hill, all of them were very much my main influences musically I guess. However, I’ve really been into the new neo-soul/r&b scene like Mac Ayres and Hiatus Kaiyote. They’re both musicians that I don’t even know how to categorize, they all have very unique sounds honestly. But yeah, I just like listening to that a lot and I think it definitely reflects in the music I try to make.
HWM: What’s your favorite song that you’ve ever released?
J. Pappas: Favorite? Haha, I mean I wouldn’t say I had a singular favorite song, I like to categorize it. Lyric-wise I think one of my favorite verses is on “St. Pancras.” I think that’s the most personal I’ve ever gotten writing a song and the production of that I loved. I kind of just let the people featured on it shine. I channeled more of my producer aspect on that song and wanted to curate talent for it to be a big finale on the album. I'd say the song I have the most fun listening to or had the most fun making was probably the one I released recently, "Your Favourite Songs." It was just a really different kind of vibe, I took a different turn with it. I got my friend Ziaire Sherman, who's a really great producer, to help me out with the big synth break. I used to listen to a lot of electronic music too, so I kind of wanted to incorporate that and start moving my music in a new direction.
HWM: What’s the most sentimental/vulnerable song you’ve ever written?
J. Pappas: Definitely "St. Pancras," but I'd also say the song titled "Chamomile" is a personal and vulnerable song talking about family, where I'm at, and trying to break where I'm at. I remember tearing up while writing that so that one was also pretty sentimental.
HWM: Which of your songs was the hardest to write and finish?
J. Pappas: Let's see... There were a couple of songs that took a little while, I'm just trying to think back to where I was at... like last summer, writing my album and recording it. I'd probably say "St. Pancras” because I had the instrumental very unfinished for a long time, almost a year. I was like I don't know what I want to do with this. I tried writing a couple of different verses. I had the song build up in the first verse and then I was like okay I know what I want to do with this. Then it was just about finding the talent for it, reaching out to my friends, and being like 'Hey I think you'd be great for this.' So that one took quite a bit just because I had to wait for verses and features and all that. The mixing of that song was really difficult; there was a lot going on with the low-end and the bass, but it got done!
HWM: What’s your creative/production process like?
J. Pappas: I'm very much a producer kind of songwriter so I'll make a beat and start writing based on the beat. Very rarely do I have a song pre-written that I later produce, most of which I have been doing recently. Over quarantine, I got much better at guitar and I've been learning about that, so I've been trying to write things first. It's just a different mindset and headspace, like "Your Favorite Songs," I wrote on the guitar first. I made the beat from the chords and started going from there, but mostly I'll make a beat, I'll record, I'll mix, I'll master.
HWM: If you could open a show for another artist, who would it be?
J. Pappas: Oh there are so many people I'd love to open for. Let's see... gosh that's hard. I mean I'm a huge Tyler the Creator fan, that’d be awesome. I think Daniel Caesar would be really cool. I’ve seen both of them live and I just think being the opener for that kind of show would be incredible. So yeah, those two.
HWM: What is the best song that has ever been released?
J. Pappas: There’s a lot! Honestly, I might just name three that I think are perfect songs. I think “Spanish Joint” by D’Angelo is a song I’ve never skipped; every time it comes on I freak out a little bit. The song “Runaway” by Kanye West is also a classic, perfect song in my opinion. The song “Figaro” by Madvillain is a song that I found when I was quite young and ever since then I’ve thought it was perfect. Those three songs to me are the pinnacles of beats and songwriting.
HWM: Tell us about your most memorable performance. What was it like?
J. Pappas: I think the last performance I had before COVID was at a Berklee venue, it was at a space they have called The Loft, and I had a huge band for it. I had a tenor-sax, a trumpet, piano, bass, guitar, drums, viola… All my homies were in it, I had my friend Lizzy McAlpine and my friends The Thistle Brothers play the set for a few songs of theirs. It was just fun playing my songs, playing my songs with Lizzy for the first time live, playing my songs with the Thistles for the first time, watching them play their own songs-- It was just fun to see everything come together and make arrangements for the songs I had. At the time I didn’t even have my album, those songs weren’t even in the picture. It was a good vibe and I remember it more because there weren’t any shows after that for me.
HWM: Tell us about your worst performance. How did you feel?
J. Pappas: Haha oh my god, I think my worst performance ever was my first performance-- my first performance as J. Pappas. It was at a public space in London where I used to live and it was an outdoor, really hip kind of shopping center. There were a ton of people sitting in the audience because it was a free show. Who doesn’t want to listen to free music? This guy that I met online-- who is a great friend now, a really cool guy-- was like hey do you want to play this gig? So it was just him and his guitar and me rapping and singing. I just remember being so nervous, I messed up a lot and I didn’t know how to recover at all because everybody was just watching me. It was a summer day and people were walking by and just stopping, I was like gosh this is the worst thing ever. I remember messing up one time, fully blanking and everyone was just trying to cheer me on and they were being nice but I was just like ah this is terrible. It was a learning experience so it’s all good.
HWM: Which of your collaborative projects has been your favorite so far and is there anyone you’d like to collaborate with next?
J. Pappas: I’d say one of my favorite collaborations is the song “Sunrise” on my album. That was just a fun song to make and it came together pretty easily. It’s with The Thistle Brothers and we made it during quarantine. I remember Cam, one of the brothers, had this chord progression and they were like let’s write a song and I was fully down. We spent the day recording synths on it and we had all their analog gear, so we used a Moog for all the parts. Then we recorded live drums on it, that’s actually me playing; that was the first time I’d actually played drums live on a song of mine and I was like yeah this is fun. Then we got the strings in, we were waiting for the strings from my friend Noah who is a great viola player. He did the arrangement for that and it all just came together really nicely. That was a really fun collaboration. There’s a lot of people that I’m dying to collaborate with. I’m a huge fan of this dude Stephen Day, I’d love to work with him on something. I kind of want to find people that aren’t really in the realm of music I make as well and collaborate with them and make something really cool whether it’s some modern Jazz artist or a Latin artist. I just love venturing into different things, I’m always on the lookout for new people to collab with.
HWM: You’ve had really serious writer’s-block for the last three months, what do you do?
J. Pappas: Honestly, that’s really relatable! I’ve had writer’s block for months and what I do to get over it is just forget about it. I forget about music for a bit, I’ll put it to the side and kind of just live and then find inspiration, whatever that may be. I use movies a lot as inspiration. I’ll watch something or think of the story and how it relates to my life. How can I use certain elements of the movie or certain symbolic moments to write something? Usually, inspiration comes in the shower or when I’m not really doing anything like taking a walk. I’ll get that spark and I’m like okay, yeah I can start writing now.
HWM: How has quarantine affected your approach to music?
J. Pappas: In the beginning, it was really hard cause you know you’re not really living anything. I remember when I was at home, it was really hard for me to write anything and that’s when I started getting super introspective; this is a good time for me to reflect upon myself and my decisions and how I was feeling. I just wasn’t afraid to be vulnerable at that time because I feel like everyone was super vulnerable at that time, we didn’t know what was going to happen. It just made me think a lot more about things and be at peace with certain ideas. I feel like it’s going to be interesting easing back into everyday life, we’re all a little more cautious.
HWM: If you weren’t an artist what do you think you’d do?
J. Pappas: I’m very interested in film. I was considering going to study it, I wanted to be a cinematographer. I love composition, shots, photography, and stuff like that but I guess outside of being an artist, I’d go for something else. I’ll say I probably would have studied something like urban development, something geography-wise. I love the study of people, how stuff works, nature, how to be sustainable, stuff like that. So probably sustainable urban development, geography, yeah.
HWM: If you could go back in time, is there anything you would have done differently?
J. Pappas: Hmm… honestly I feel like everything happens for a reason. There were many times where I’ve said “I wish I had done this or said this differently,” but everything has a path and everything happens for a reason. So I always think it’s best not to challenge that but yeah I definitely have regrets and all that. However, that’s just a part of my introspection and looking back on that and what it did for me as an artist and a person.
HWM: Where do you see yourself in the next five to ten years?
J. Pappas: That is a lot of time but I’d hope to still be making music whether it is as an artist or a mix engineer-- I love mixing, or being a recording engineer, or working in the business. I definitely want to be in entertainment for sure. I’m probably going to be in California, my family is there. I think L.A. is a good place to be for that. Honestly I’d hope to be traveling a lot, I’d hope to be experiencing the world especially post-COVID. I traveled a lot growing up, I lived in multiple different places, and that’s something I want to continue throughout my lifetime.
HWM: What is the best advice you’ve ever been given about music?
J. Pappas: Wow… I think it’s just to go for it, to put yourself out there, and not be afraid to send a DM to somebody you think might not reply. Just to reach out, don’t be afraid to reach out. Just be as genuine as possible, and this wasn’t direct advice but a lot of what comes from hip-hop, just being real. That’s a huge thing for me, I’d never want to portray myself as anyone other than myself in my music and I think long term that’s very beneficial.
HWM: If an aspiring musician came to you for advice, what would you say?
J. Pappas: I would encourage them to keep making music. I would say don’t force anything out, let everything come naturally. For me personally, whenever I try to force something I’m never as happy as opposed to if it came naturally.
HWM: What’s next for your music? Do you have anything coming up soon?
J. Pappas: I’m working on a little something, I’m working on an EP, “You’re Favourite Songs” was supposed to be the first single, so all that’s in the works. It’s very different from the album style-wise but similar enough to still be cohesive and make sense for myself as an artist. I’m also working on a lot of shows because I’ve missed performing. I can’t wait to get out there and perform.
HWM: Is there anything you want to say that we or you haven’t mentioned yet?
J. Pappas: I’ll just shout out the England team for the Euros. They’ve played amazing, it’s coming home. I mean hopefully they take it home, hopefully they win. (Note: currently post-Euros and it didn’t come home, sadly.)