Justin Garner Talks New Music, Chart-Topping Success, and Independence with The Roew

Meet Justin Garner, the singer-songwriter who is breaking musical barriers and creating a blueprint for other independent artists to follow.

Artists have a responsibility to know who they are and the direction in which they want their careers to go. Justin Garner accomplishes both of these tasks in a way that feels genuine and seamless. Garner, a self-described singer-songwriter, artist, and performer, is a Plaquemine, LA native currently based in Baton Rouge.

His discography consists of several full-length albums and EPs. In 2017, he released his most recent EP, Into the Wild. That project was as vast as it was impressive. Each song had its own identity, yet the consistent through line made it feel cohesive and bonded.

At the top of this year, he released a new song and accompanying visual for “What’s Love Without Heartbreak.” It serves as the lead single from his forthcoming album which is slated for a spring or summer release. When discussing his latest project, the artist revealed that this is his “most daring album yet.” Without telling too much about the direction, we also learned that he plans to express himself beyond genre and reinvent his sound.

Garner did not reveal the album’s title during our interview. However, he promised to share discreet teasers over his social media accounts so fans and listeners can figure out its title before it comes out. In addition, he plans to strategically release the singles and visuals. These are undoubtedly promotional tactics that he picked up studying marketing during undergrad.

To support his ideas, Garner surrounds himself with talented producers, engineers, and visionaries. He’s a true example of how to build and develop meaningful relationships, as he’s assembled a loyal team for whom he has much respect. Justin Garner is breaking musical barriers and creating a blueprint for other independent artists to follow.

Read how Justin Garner is stretching across genre to prepare for his latest album.

This interview was adjusted for clarity

Photos courtesy of Justin Garner

How did you come up with inspiration for your latest single “What’s Love Without Heartbreak?”  

With my last EP, Into the Wild, I had this idea to create a song that talked about love and heartbreak and questioning if the love was really real if you didn’t feel the heartbreak that was involved with it. Usually, when you’re really in love with someone, you have ups and downs. If you’re in love with someone, and you just have nothing but high moments and there are no low moments at all, it kind of makes you question was that even love.

I wanted to do a complex love song. I wanted to do something lyrically that was different for me because a lot of the music that I’ve done in the past has been really radio friendly. It was created to fit in certain spaces. This particular time, with this song and this upcoming album, I wanted to do something that was a challenge. I wanted to express myself vocally, challenge myself lyrically, and showcase my true artistry.

One thing I noticed, too, I was hesitant to release the song because initially, especially in the R&B world, and as a Black artist, we’re usually typecast into certain roles and sounds. So, I wanted to break that mold. I noticed great artists like Ed Sheeran [and] Sam Smith, were creating these soulful R&B ballads and sweeping songs, and a lot of it is really reminiscent of soul music and Black music. So, I wanted to go back to my roots and create a song of that nature which is really natural to me.

“I feel like my sound accomplishes a total array of different genres and sounds.”

I had a chance to listen to the latest EP. It feels diverse and feels like it reaches across different [genres]. I think you captured that really well. To your point of being pigeonholed as a Black artist, as a male artist, what are some expectations that people have of you before they listen to your music?  

I think, especially as a Black artist when you say that you are a singer, they instantly think urban. Musically, I’m a combination of different genres. I create ballads, mainstream songs with pop chords, and then I also have urban, and club bangers, I love acoustic vibes, I love piano vibes, and I even listen to rock and soul. I feel like my sound accomplishes a total array of different genres and sounds. So, what I try to do—with my brand, image, and music—is to get listeners to understand that it’s not just urban. [There are] an array of influences that come together and make me who I am.

From whom do you pull your inspiration if you’re writing something new? Do you look across genre?

My classic vocal influences would be Earth, Wind & Fire, Lionel Richie, and of course, Michael Jackson. Contemporary sounds would be Maroon 5, Ne-Yo is a great artist, [and] Bruno Mars is incredible. Across different genres, I really like country music. I really like Lady Antebellum—I loved their music from the start. Also, this singer-songwriter group [called] The Civil Wars. They have this folk, acoustic sound. I really think I’m just influenced by good music, [and] I listen to different sounds across the board. I [especially] admire the vocals of musicians from the past because I feel like that’s needed again in music.

You have a marketing background. How do you mix your business acumen and what you studied formally, and how do you bring that into your professional career as a musician?

A lot of people actually don’t know this, but as a musician, it’s really a business. I like to explain to people that it’s like a small business. The same way that you can open up a store, like as a bakery, or if you’re trying to sell clothing or whatever, it’s the exact same concept with music. You’re creating a brand, a product offering which is your music, and then you create your identity, identify your consumer base, which is your fans and your audience. I actually use [my marketing degree] way more now in music than I ever have in life because they just go hand in hand.

Being independent right now, you really have to manage relationships. I have great partnerships with my digital distributors at TuneCore, [and] great relationships with publishing at Warner/Chappel. I feel like my marketing degree prepared me to take the reins on my career. Even though I do work with a team of different individuals, at the end of the day, I am the head of everything that I do.

Who else is on your team?

Producers—We’re actually really great friends, and we’re all located here in between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Dominic Bazile, he produced “What’s Love Without Heartbreak.” Justen Williams, he produced a ton of records for me on many of my projects. Shaun Andrew, who produces and engineers all of my vocals. He does all of my mixing. I even work across seas with Kolja Dominiak [and] I also collaborate with this German, EDM, house type group—they go by the name Garry Ocean. We all believe in my sound and believe in the direction that I’m going in. That makes up team Justin Garner.

You’re the person that’s leading this cohort of folks from the producers, to the engineers, etc. With that autonomy, and having things in-house, how does that help you shape the larger [vision] when it comes to touring and booking venues or really getting your name out in other ways?  

I feel like it makes me disciplined. Everything you do, you do with your vision and your goals in mind. So, when it comes to touring [and] sponsorships, that has to align with who you are. At this point in my career, I want to be booked alongside an artist who has a similar sound, or just some type of movement or campaign that fits.

I’ve opened up for a lot of artists, and I’m really blessed that I’ve been able to do that—Trey Songz, Fantasia, Keri Hilson. One thing now that I’m looking to do is continue to get my music out to the masses in a way that’s in my own lane.

“I feel like this has been the most creative I’ve ever been in my life.”

What are the projects that you have coming up? You mentioned an album.

I’m working on a brand new album. I would say that this is my most daring album yet only because I’ve completely thrown out genre. I’ve thrown out trying to create a certain type of sound for radio or anything like that. I’ve been in the studio every single night, working with my team, creating good music.

It ranges from urban, to pop, to acoustic, to dance, to everythingI feel like this has been the most creative I’ve ever been in my life. Lyrically, it’s a different direction because I’m finally getting a chance to say what I feel about plenty of things from past experiences, to love, to emotion. I feel like I don’t have to be restrained and try to create something for radio.

In the past, radio and program directors would ask for a particular type of song or type of sound. [It] would have to be at a certain BPM, have to be about a certain topic for it to be played. But this time, I’m pretty much going by my own rules and taking control of everything. I’m really excited about that.

Do you have a release date?

Definitely before the summer—spring/summer-ish.

What about the name? Is that still a secret?

It’s actually still a secret. Over the next couple of days, maybe a month or so, if fans can kind of read between my Instagram posts, and my Twitter posts, they’ll get to see where I’m going as far as the name.

So they’ll figure it out! That sounds fun.

With this project, we’re releasing song by song by song, and then the final body is unlocked. “What’s Love Without Heartbreak” is the first in a story arc. This is the first entry to continue a story with different sounds and genres. I think they’re really going to appreciate it this way.

“I want people to understand that I’m a songwriter, and an artist, and a performer.”

What are some things that you would like to share with people who are looking forward to your music?

I want people to understand that I’m a songwriter, and an artist, and a performer. Those are three different stages to who I am. As a songwriter, I’m influenced by past experience; something I may have seen someone else go through [or] just life in general. As an artist, I’m not necessarily bound to one particular genre. Every release that I have, I’m definitely bringing the vocals, the emotion, and soul. But, I also want people to accept the different genres because that’s a big part of who I am. As a performer, my goal is to perform more; I have a live band [and] dancers. We put on a great show, and I can’t wait to show people that on a large level.

I have done quite a lot [and] I’m still independent. My past EP Into the Wild hit the top 20 on iTunes R&B, and it got close to the top 10. I was really proud of that because it was such a grassroots type release, and just off the strength of the fans and the listeners, we were able to crack into the top 20 on iTunes R&B. That’s just something that doesn’t really happen for unsigned artists. To pass up The Weeknd’s project and different artists, that was just humbling. I was really blessed to have that happen.

I released tons of music internationally. I’ve been number one on iTunes Japan R&B. I don’t like to get caught up in numbers and what I’ve done, but I really want people to be ready to accept a new direction and get a feel of who I am.

It’s nice to quantify your success and look back on it. I appreciate your humility as well. Do you have any aspirations to join a major label or do you like where things are right now with your independence?

The goal is to sign to a major label. I would love to sign to and have that major label [support] run and campaign. However, I really want it to be with something who believes in my talent and where I’m trying to go. I definitely don’t want to be a carbon copy of another artist. Usually, some labels and industry executives, see one person do something, and they want you to do the same thing. I don’t really want to do that.

[At this point], I really want to show who I am and need a team that believes in Justin Garner, not someone else. Then, we can do some incredible things together.

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