Who is J’Von? Is he a rapper? A producer? An animator? A cartoon kid in a catsuit?
In short: yes. All of the above.
If it’s not already clear, J’Von is a force to be reckoned with. The Seattle artist can seemingly do it all – making beats, writing rhymes, and accidentally creating a brand for himself with his pastel color pallet and his Catman alter-ego. His skill set is vast, but J’Von considers himself simply an artist at his core. In our conversation, he’s quick to dismiss ideas that his varied interests make him anything less than committed to all of his crafts.
“They have that whole ‘jack of all trades master of none’… I hate that,” J’Von says. “I don't want to be that. I don't want to be the dude that's alright at everything. I want to be amazing at everything.”
Part of what makes J’Von so compelling is his way of observing the world around him – specifically art that speaks to him most. Not surprisingly, our conversation takes a few turns toward anime. We talk about his influences from popular Shonen anime like Dragon Ball Z and Yu Yu Hakusho as well as western cartoons like Adventure Time. You can see that in his drawn art, but you can also feel it in his music.
J’Von’s music is brimming with color that matches the pastels of his album artwork. His beats emit lilac and turquoise flourishes and pale pink pastiche. His airy voice weaves between it all like a paintbrush, swirling all the colors together into a wondrous design. The aesthetics of his artwork and his music are intertwined. It’s just as exciting to see what colors he’ll use on a new project as it is to dive into the new music – but ultimately it’s how it all comes together that proves to be most satisfying. You can feel that on the two vibrant works he’s already released this year – the video-game invoking Dream Surfer and the tangerine textures of Orange Suit.
Since releasing his debut EP in 2014, J’Von has been on a steady rise thanks in part to semi-viral YouTube animations and Internet connections. He’s worked with mainstream artists like Lido, Mayer Hawthorne, and Towkio while staying mostly anonymous outside of his Catman alter ego – an avatar of himself he uses on his album covers and music videos. But now J’Von is ready to put his “real face” out there.
As J’Von preps to introduce himself to a new crowd at Street Sounds Live on Oct. 11, we sat down at KEXP to chat about his artistic evolution. From looking back on his childhood sketching out Goku fanart to how becoming a father has changed his perspective on the world, J’Von has a way of taking in the world around him and coming to fascinating conclusions. It’s just a sample of the colorful, cosmic world that awaits in his music.
KEXP: Trying to describe who you are and what you do is hard because you do so many different things. You're a rapper, producer, animator, creative director, and I'm sure I'm forgetting a few other things in there too. Where did your artistic pursuits start and how did music begin to overlap with them?
J'Von: I'm gonna go further back than the elementary [school] Dragon Ball Z drawings. I would say the real creative pursuits started with dance. When I was five or seven, my mom used to always lace me with these Michael Jackson albums on cassette tape and I'd always try to mimic Michael Jackson and from there I think musicality became like a big thing to me. I grew up in a pretty conservative Christian household, so my mom thought that rap music had evil spirits behind it and stuff. So I didn't actually break off and listen to rap music until I was making my own money and had a job in high school.
So it was just a lot of R&B. A lot of melody-driven things. I was like, "Well there's something about music that I really like." So there's that. And then you know Dragon Ball Z shocked the culture in '99. So you know, emulation until you get your own style going – for the most part. Dragon Ball Z and dancing.
I keep a Piccolo figure at my desk.
I feel like [Dragon Ball Z] was pretty formative for a lot of people artistically.
Yeah, that was it. It's weird because you go on Twitter and you see people tweet things about their childhood and you're like, "Wow, We all grew up the exact same! In the exact same era, exact same time. Everyone was drawing Goku." Which is great, so good.
And so that's what got you into like drawing and art in that way?
One-hundred-percent. Akira Toriyama, he's the GOAT.
What was it about that style of art that appealed to you? You still see that in your art today. You have a lot of characters "powering up" and things like that.
I feel like the statute of limitations is passed on this. So, when I was a kid, I used to steal Yu-Gi-Oh cards from Shonen Jump magazines in Safeway on Othello. But I was always fascinated by just the use of colors and how compelling you can make a drawing. You could have a Goku – or whoever, whatever you subscribe to – in an action pose holding something and with the right colorway and atmosphere you have a whole emotional thing going on. From there it was just like, "Yo anime is the best." And not to discredit Western cartoons, 'cause Catdog was fire. Rugrats was cool. But I think just the whole foreignness of it all was just like, "Yo, there's something about this that I want to be a part of." To this day, I've just held onto that. I want to eventually have my own anime movie or something.
When did you start breaking into music and making your own music?
I want to say my junior year in high school is when I hooked up with my man [Erik] Grady. I always had an affinity for freestyling, just kicking rhymes, nothing serious. I think Lil Wayne was the hottest thing on the planet at that point in time. So a lot of the Dedication 2 and Carter albums. YouTube just started popping off. Cassidy was on YouTube freestyling and it was like, "Wow, these guys are so amazing." And it kind of just destroyed everything I knew because the little hip-hop knowledge I had... It only contained a lot of West Coast artists like Mac Dre and stuff because my oldest brother would play rap music when my mom left. He was like, "Ah well, she's not here no more so it's time to play some hyphy stuff."
So I had a very limited view until like high school, just listening to a bunch of stuff. Then the homies and I get around, start freestyling. I want to say I wanted to do music full time leaving high school, but I didn't have no one speaking that life into me or motivating me or pushing me to really pursue that dream. One of my main talents is just my mental capacity – being able to do things. Hold information. So I was like, "Well, I have decent grades, so let's go to the University of Washington." I found myself there for a couple of years just like, "What am I doing here? I don't like these people. I don't like what these people are becoming. I don't like what I'm becoming." And around that time, I still held music in my heart. My bro Grady and I, we were just like, "Yo, man. We should just do music, man."
So I told my mom and she's like, "I know you're a genius and blah blah blah but give it a couple of years and if you want to do music, do your thing." So I gave it a couple of years and, sure enough, I left and now I tweet very cryptic things and release animations! Yeah, it's great. Still broke, but we're working on it.
You have such a defined visual aesthetic. You make your animated videos as well. Was that important to you early on or when did you decide that these things needed to be integrated? The music and the art are so synonymous.
I wanted to say in 2014. Wow, it's been five years since I had my first little animation. I made a little animation called "Seattle Girl." It's on YouTube, it's not that great, but it's the beginnings of something important – kind of – to me. I was a big fan of Pendleton Ward, the creator of Adventure Time, and I basically created Catman to be like a good little hybrid mixture of a black Finn, also... What's the child's name from Where The Wild Things Are who wears the monster onesie that looks like the Catman suit?
Max! Affirmative. I was like, "Yo, I really like the minimal nature of this." It became something out of just emulation. It was like, "Well I like the name Catman," because I was super into the theatrical over the top version of Cat Man that Adam West played in Fairy Odd Parents. So I really liked that as a moniker or like an AKA. Completely took it. And then from there, I was just like, "Adventure Time. Adventure Time."
My girlfriend was like, "You have an Instagram. You have like two thousand followers and you don't post anything. You should at least draw stuff." And I was like, "Oh, well, I guess." And it's been doing pretty good... People like it. People care. It's like my little vlogging, little doodles, and stuff. I think I accidentally made a brand in a lot of regards because it was just me just kind of facetiously putting stuff out. I know that some people see the whole animation thing like, "Oh yeah he's just a multi-talented threat." I never really marketed it like that. I was just kind of like... I wanted to do some more cool stuff. But now it's become, "Yo this man, he does everything." I'm trying to embrace it now. Like, "Yeah, I do everything. I'm Godzilla. Whatever."
But yeah, I think I accidentally built a brand because I think I just steered into what everyone was already perceiving. And it worked. I started drawing my friends. Eric was putting out a string of songs a couple of years ago and I would just draw him in different poses and boom, branding. It's that easy. People started hitting me for commission work and so [I thought] I must really have something if people want to pay me for it. Now it's just working on getting paid more for it.
It's cool it's just been such a natural thing for you. You weren't trying to be perceived as this multi-talented, savant.
And that's my thing, too. They have that whole "jack of all trades master of none." I hate that. I don't want to be that. I don't want to be the dude that's alright at everything. I want to be amazing at everything. I've never wanted to be like, "Oh, look at all the stuff I do." It was more so like... I'm amazing at everything I do. That's what I work towards. Now I do, I guess because I'm at a radio station and it's kind of being promoted that I'm this kind of multitalented guy. So I am steering in it. But I'm still practicing, everybody. I'm not perfect.
Knowing that you do all these different things and hearing about how you feel about it, do you describe yourself as a musician first or an artist first? What do you think of yourself as, as an artist?
I've always been conflicted because I would always say I'm an artist first, like a visual artist because I feel like that's where I'm the strongest. My left hand is the best thing I have. In fact, that's where all the magic is. And it just flows in courses through the rest of my body. I'm lefty if that hasn't been made apparent. I also think I've aced every language arts class I was in. I rhyme words really well. That isn't necessarily a highlighted thing in a lot of my music because I do a lot of melody-driven love songs and it's not necessarily – well, in my older music – but it's not a highlighted thing in a lot of aspects of today's world. So it's nothing I really capitalize or boast about being a great writer. I want to just be an artist and people just like, "No, literally, he's an artist in every way." That's the goal. But I think right now, I'm the visual artist that makes music, unfortunately. Or to some, I'm a musician. The goal was to make everything work together, so it's starting to work together so I'll take whatever people call me. Eventually, I'll just be "that guy.”
I know you're saying that you don't like to promote yourself in that way, but I think it's awesome how the "branding" came about really naturally. But the artwork and the music do feel synonymous with one another. The way you draw and the colors you use reflect the music that's on your albums. Are you thinking about it that way when you're making the music or when you're doing the art?
Recently. I think at first it was a little chaotic. I have a thing for pastel colors. Pink is cool but like a nice powdery pink. Purple is alright, but lavender is amazing. Pea-green, like green peas, as opposed to like forest green and stuff like that. But I think more so now it's like I want to feel colors and see sounds. I want to be able to do the impossible. I think there's something crazy about Pharrell Williams being able to say that "this sounds purple" or something like that. Or "This just feels teal in your heart." I try to exercise that.
Certain instruments give off certain like... Everything's frequencies and I mean, not to delve deep into metaphysics or things of that nature, but like if you hear a marimba or a kalimba or vibraphone or this or that, the right arrangement or just the right stab on one of those particular instruments sounds like water almost. That's why a lot of the island-y songs you'll hear have those type of components because you can kind of feel the atmosphere. I don't know. Its textures and just it's a bunch of stuff. But I definitely try to make things work together to surmise all of that.
You mentioned emulating other artists like Akira Toriyama or Pendelton Ward's Adventure Time. I love how it all comes together in your work. It's almost like this fusion dance of all those different styles coming together. It feels like the art is more than the sum of its parts. When it all comes together it's something uniquely its own. Is that something you're striving for?
Yeah, I tell everyone who does anything: Start at your base or foundation to have no shame in it being just a mimicry of something. I feel like we find who we are by failing to be other people. At some point, I wanted to be Cassidy. I failed at being Cassidy. Found out who I was. I think it's kind of nature at that point. I draw from a lot of... like literally draw...well and metaphorically draw... from a lot of different places where it's like, "I want to see how I if I can do that." That's what I feel about songs and sampling. You can use the exact same source material or take from something and if it sounds completely different or it sounds off, congratulations you've done something original. If I draw a Goku with a super long Pinocchio nose, goblin ears, and I don't do the classic Toriyama style eyeball; I've created a new character, technically.
I think that's where a lot of new stuff comes from. It comes from making the mistakes that you're trying not to make. So yeah, if anyone's listening to this: copy. Copy, copy, copy. Don't steal, but copy, look at it, and be like, "Yeah, this is not it." And then you'll start finding something that is it. Now it's like second nature to just get to what I want to draw. But at first, it was, "OK, how would Akira Toriyama draw this?" or "How would Hayao Miyazaki draw this?" That's the guy who does Studio Ghibli – My Neighbor Totoro was one of my favorite movies of all time.
Where does your musical process come into this? Is it similar at all when you're writing your songs? Are you creating music separately from your visual art?
I would say, I've been definitely switching up the process lately. With Dream Surfer, the album I dropped this past March, I experimented with having the characters first. Normally, I'll have the sounds first and then derive a story from the sounds. But because I already have my J'von character and I already had Catman... It was like, I want to draw them a certain way. And I drew my J'von character in a blue hoodie and a big black puffer jacket because that's what I wear now. Brown pants. Same ones I have on [now]. And I was like, "Well, let's tell a story about this guy. Let's have the visual first." Normally I try to just make drawings according to what it sounds like. Which is easier, because it's like you could listen and be like, "This sounds like they would be here." We have super deep bass and sad piano, you can make it rain outside. Put them in a rainy drawing or atmosphere.
With this newer stuff I'm working on, I've definitely been going back and forth with "character first...No, sounds first." I have probably like 40 demos and one character and I'm looking at my character because I'm currently animating him. It's a new character. Stay tuned. But I'm like, none of these songs will do. None of these fit. So I have to go back to the lab and make more. Long story short, I go back and forth to keep the creative juices flowing. To not get stale.
Would you call most of your records concept albums?
I honestly think from back to Yellow Suit, they've all had some kind of concept. Dream Surfer was the most realized concept I've had because I thought that one out before just making songs. It was centered around sounding like a video game. I wanted it to be like a very, very old Hudson Mohawk album but with J'Von's words on it.
But I wanted it to be like you go from one place to another. So you'll have like a big buildup, like water level and then it'll go into very reverb, hollow piano sample. And then me rapping about some really introspective stuff and then it'll switch again. I wanted to practice sequencing and actually dipping in and out of emotional content. Stuff prior to that, like Orange Suit. Orange Suit was four songs. I was learning guitar so they're all guitar recorded, acoustic into a mic. Just campfire songs and that was the theme. Campfire songs that I could even play live if I ever needed to if I practice enough. You have to like callus your fingers. It's a very grungy process to get good at the guitar.
So that was that vibe and Yellow Suit, I wanted to make like a very, very miniature version of 'To Pimp A Butterfly.' So I have the whole super jazz influence, super dark things I go through but it's wrapped up in a pretty little Catman package. I'm learning how to get better with getting across the ideas. That's the struggle. Expressing things without words and without visuals. Audible. Guess that's the last sense left, right?
Especially with Dream Surfer, it has that flow of like videogame music where the music is intertwined with the narrative and it moves and flows with it. Are videogames becoming a more of inspiration for you?
Right now, no. I definitely do think it was with Dream Surfer. I started working on Dream Surfer after Space Suit, which is a project I did with the homie Lido in California. To celebrate that little EP release show we had in L.A. last year, he bought me a Nintendo Switch and he gave it to me at breakfast randomly. Just gave me a bag and was like, "You did so good." And I was like, "You did not just by a Nintendo Switch." From there, we were playing Mario Kart. I bought Smash Bros. Ultimate last holiday season. So I think into making Dream Surfer, I definitely had an idea about how I wanted it to sound. I think having a Nintendo Switch made me really comparative to how they score video games as to how they used to. Like now and then. A lot of things are now more natural sounding. Real strings. This and that.
But if you go back to anywhere [around] the Megaman X era video game music, everything was pretty digital, pretty synth-heavy. But the music of that time was also synth-heavy. I was listening to Polyfolk Dance by Hudson Mohawk which is very video-gamey. Something about video game soundtracks. Maple Story was a big influence. I don't know if anyone played Maple Story, but if you Google Maple Story and they have a whole original soundtrack for every level. It was like an online subscription-based game where you just like a little chibi avatar. You walk around, you fight people. But all the OSTs are so beautiful. I implore everyone to go check out the Maple Story OSTs. I just dropped a gem. If you don't know what those are, you might have gotten a lot of material to sample from. So do with that as you will, public audience.
This is kind of a random aside question. I read that you are a huge Yu Yu Hakusho fan. I just finished re-watching it last night.
Pretty stoked that you're into that.
Oh my God, I love Yusuke Urameshi so much. Which is weird though because... Well, I guess it's not weird. I always would equate the homies to the spirit detective squad. Like I got my man Kuwabara, Erik Grady. He's the lover. He's the heart. I'm kind of Yusuke. Not because I'm the main protagonist, but mainly because like there's something dark to me as a person but I'm still the positive guy. And then we have the homie Zuke Saga, he's Hiei because he's a full-blown demon. sort of the Dragon of the Darkness Flame, no-nonsense. And that was back in the day because I had Dex Amora being a Kurama because he's super like plant-based and Kurama is the rose man.
I re-watch it all the time. I'm very thankful for the dub they have on Hulu. I hope they never take it off. I might have to actually tell my girlfriend the pirate a copy so we can have that on deck. There's something even about that particular art where it's classic style. It's 640 by 480 is the framing. The colors are very saturated but not contrasty. The way that they dress the characters. Yusuke had fits out the Ying-Tang. There's a little profane language so as a child you were like, "Oh! That's spicy!"
I have an affinity or a deep interest in the way demons are depicted in modern culture. Some of the things I'm working on right now have depictions of demons. I'm not demonic myself, but I think it's just interesting how we as human beings define or interpret things such as like good and evil and the practices that go about that. So Yu Yu Hakusho is very amazing to me, yes [laughs].
And then that show gets into what you're talking about too with "Are demons bad? What's the perspective?"
I want to say probably episode 160 and up, basically, the Sensui arc. It was all about "are demons really bad or are they just a means of existence?" Like we watch Discovery Channel and you see a lion and you're like, "Oh my god, that lion is so beautiful. It's so strong." Five seconds later it has blood on his face, it just slaughtered a baby zebra. And it's like no one says, "Oh my God. That lion's horrible. Hate that lion. It's evil." Nah, it's natural selection. So if we – and I don't want to get too philosophical here – I think what we do in society is we externalize things such as evil; things that make us uncomfortable. Things that drive us to do bad things. Or things that we just don't like, we externalize them. If these things are the same or a different face on the same coin, it's like... I don't know. It's just very compelling. It's very interesting. There's something deeper there that I'm going to get into it at some point in my life. Who knows, maybe it'll be that anime movie that I get at some point.
Do you feel like those types of themes come up in your music now?
More and more. I just had a daughter this past June. I think about the world in good and bad a lot now because you want to preserve the good. It's kind of like, what would you do to preserve the things that are good? If you do evil things to preserve good, are those things evil? The answer is yes, obviously, but how much of that is circumstantial? The world is a very crazy place right now. So I think in my music, I am doing a lot of reflecting on good and bad now. And like what I'm doing just to get by. For those who heard that I'm not doing anything illegal. These are just contemplative.
You've worked a lot with people like Lido and Towkio and Mayer Hawthorne but also with people locally as well. You blew up first on the Internet and then more and more locally. How important is the local community for your music?
I think it's becoming more important to me. It wasn't important to me. It's not that important to me right now, full transparency. But it's something I am working through. Like I said, I have a daughter. So I'm doing my best to not let my ego ruin opportunities for me. I want to say when I first started doing music, I watched Dave B a lot. Shout out to bro Dave. I need to text him, he needs to finish that song we got.
I watched him because they were getting the ball moving on his career back when I started like he just started cooking a little bit. I was like, "Dang bro, they're not messing with nobody. They don't like anybody. They're not collabing with anybody." And at first, I was like, "Dang you guys are mean. Why aren't you guys collabing with anyone?" But then once we started taking ourselves at a certain level of seriousness, we were like, "Okay, we have to have our own foundation first before we bring this to anybody." And that's kind of what I've begun to learn and see from a lot of different artists and groups here in Seattle. I don't believe we're all super closed off and we just don't like each other. I believe everyone's trying to do their own individual thing so they're not wasting everyone's time, but it is time to collab.
After semi-blowing up on the Internet, I've seen myself kind of being this digital entity because I draw... A lot of people still don't even know what I look like, which is weird 'cause I put my face on the Internet now. I have a whole video of me dancing in a white background. Whatever. But in being this invisible guy, I see myself as kind of like the Loch Ness monster where it's like, "Yeah, you've heard of me or you might have heard me somewhere, some playlist, but I don't really exist."…Unbeknownst to me, a lot of people actually like me out here. So I'm like, "Wow, I need to get out my shell and stop being so stubborn." I did a verse for [Mista DC] and everyone loves it. So I'm like, "Yo, this is great. Maybe they love me after all!" I think that's all. It's just a test of ego and humbling yourself enough to be like, yo, I'm here guys.
But I do implore you to find yourself first as much as you can... You hear those stories all the time, it's like a classic blunder in the aspirational music career. You hear about people's hometown not supporting them or local acts not trying to work with them. I think it's just a matter of having your own thing first. That's it.
Are you trying to your real-life, physical self more seen? Not just the avatar of Catman? It seems like you've started that with the video for "loverboy castle music."
A little bit, a little bit. I want to say four years ago I didn't dress as well as I dress now. I do think I have a [few] things to offer as a real human being [laughs]. That sounds weird to say. I think it's just another element to see a six-foot man being really facetious with one of the homegirls – shout out to [Cheyenne Jourdan] – on a big white backdrop, white cyclorama. I thought that was good. I haven't actually dropped anything animated in over a year. I'm getting ready to. Since I'm gonna be stepping out more, I dropped that video. It kind of went. It almost went viral. It didn't really go viral. I always get to that point where it's like if I get past this point I'm out of here. Viral town. I never get there.
But after that, I went to the homie Sol's – see, I have friends now out here! Local artists. – Soon Enough album release party like a week or that following weekend and people were like, "Yo, that was you!" People who probably have never seen my face before seen that. And then it was like, well, maybe it is worth like at least every now and then showing people what I look like.
You've got the Street Sounds Live performance coming up next week. What can people expect from you in your live show?
They can't expect my blue Lennon sunglasses. I lost those. I think I left him at Barboza. It's made me very sad. I still have some Lennon circular frame sunglasses. They're silver. They will have to do. Aside from that joke that didn't really land, people can expect... I'm gonna go over my whole catalog. I perform like once every five years, so no one's sick of my songs. But it's good. It'll be a very good introductory. Like, if you don't know, now you know who J'Von is. I'm gonna rap pretty well on stage. I'm gonna have Erik play some beats. It's gonna be a good time. I'm going to support Parisalexa the best I can. Shout out to the god. She's doing her thing too. You're going to finally get to know who I am. If you come, you'll be able to see me and you will see that I am much taller in person than all my whimsical drawings would lead you to believe.
No, seriously I was at Sol's listening party, some dude was like, "Bro, you're actually tall in person!" And I was like, "Yeah man, I just draw cartoons." [laughs] It's almost cathartic being able to not be some tall, stressed out, coffee Gremlin. So I don't draw that. But yeah, I digress.
Any upcoming projects you want to mention?
Thunder Boy. I don't want to get into it. Just remember I said Thunder Boy.
The Seattle based artist will perform at the Street Sounds Live Show on Friday October 11th.
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