John Williams, who goes by the name JWILLI is a rising DJ and producer coming out of Chicago who can’t be boxed into one specific genre. Finding inspiration from a multitude of avenues the 26-year-old producer takes pride in the versatility of his sound and it shows. From massive remixes to original songs JWILLI creates everything from emotional melodic bass to hard-hitting dubstep and is quickly becoming one of EDM’S most promising new artists.
The Daily Frequency had the chance to sit down with JWILLI and discuss his official remix with Abel Grey, his inspirations, and more!
Check out the full interview below!
When did you decide music was something you wanted to pursue? Was this a lane you always envisioned yourself going through?
I think I’ve known most of my life that I would do something with music. I’ve been writing songs since I was a little kid when I wanted to be a rock star, I wanted to be the next Fall Out Boy or ADTR. I started learning guitar early on and picked up trumpet with the school band around the same time. And once I started that classical training I was dead set on becoming a music teacher or professor. That’s actually what I was studying when I first started college, music education. Up until that point, I was learning more and more traditional instruments, I never at all thought that I would be pursuing electronic music. But once I was exposed to it, it became obvious to me that I wanted to chase it. I started to DJ at bars and private events throughout college, and once I learned more about production and developed my skills a bit, I decided I was going to really dedicate myself and my life to music.
What’s your creative process when in the studio? Do you have any routines to get you in that creative state or do you just go with the flow and find inspiration as it comes?
It varies a lot, and for a long time, I would just kinda wait for that inspiration to strike, to get into the creative flow. That could be frequent or scarce, and the inspiration could be totally random and abstract, or very defined. But that’s changed, and still changes a lot from project to project. I don’t think being totally at the whim of that creativity showing up is the most efficient thing for an artist that wants to be consistent.
For me, I’ve learned that that creative spark isn’t something I can force but it is something I can facilitate and encourage. Lately, when I want to start something new, I’ve found a working process. I like to start in the morning before I’ve gotten on my phone or listened to anything or spoken to anyone. I’ll open up Ableton, grab water or tea and an edible, and sit down for a couple hours and just go bananas in the DAW. Usually, I start by just jamming on guitar or piano, or digging for some crazy sample, and build on that. More often than not I’ll come out with a working sketch, or sometimes an entire tune. I think for me it works because my ears and mind are totally fresh, and I haven’t really been influenced by anything I’ve heard or done yet that day. It’s just me and that raw creativity in my own little world.
Chicago is widely known as the birthplace of house music. Do you believe your home city has had an impact on your musical taste and direction?
Absolutely, at first, it was a subtle influence but now it’s very pronounced. I grew up in the cornfields a couple of hours south of Chicago, so house wasn’t something I heard much of growing up. But when I first got to college, a lot of students were from the city/the burbs and brought house music with them. I think it’s one of the reasons I started with house when I first taught myself to DJ, it was salient and accessible. And later when I took a college class on Ableton, we were taught the history of electronic production, and even though house wasn’t the genre I really wanted to create at the time, its history and influence on electronic music as a whole was inspiring and undeniable. Fast forward, I’ve now been living in Chicago for almost 3 years and the vast majority of my peers are primarily house producers and DJs. A lot of them have become good friends of mine, some are even mentors to me which I’m extremely grateful for. Those relationships have opened me up to a whole new world of house music – the 4 am sets at Happy’s are vastly different than what makes it to the radio, and knowing the personalities that create house music has given me a better understanding of the genre. I think that’s where the culture comes in too. It’s influenced me to the point where I’ve actually been writing a lot of house music the past couple of months.
Which artists would you say are your biggest inspiration for your sound?
This question always gets me haha. There are seriously so many artists big and small I look to for inspiration. I’d say my top 3 have stayed pretty consistent: Seven Lions, Illenium, and NGHTMRE. I found all of them very early into my discovery of electronic music, but along the way, I’ve been heavily influenced by tons of others. Nurko, Modern Machines, MitiS, Dezza, MK, Au5, Blanke. I also find tons of inspiration from non-EDM artists and try to incorporate some of those elements into my sound.
What genres aside from electronic music do you gravitate towards the most?
I know it’s a bit cliche, but honestly, there isn’t much music I don’t like haha, my Spotify library is a hot mess. I’ve been a lifelong fan of rock, especially punk-pop, metal, and post-hardcore. The vocal melodies, guitar riffs, drums, lyrics, the emotion infused into the music, it’s just so engaging. To name one band, Dance Gavin Dance has this incredible versatility to their sound that I just find deeply inspirational. And I think it’s interesting how a lot of those characteristics translate into electronic music, both literally with the music (try telling me a metal breakdown doesn’t sound similar to dubstep) and culturally (I see lots of people who loved metal in the 2000’s/2010’s coming over to bass music). I also love modern rap, especially melodic sad boi rap with its adoption of 2000’s emo/punk-pop elements. I’d really like to see that specific genre hybrid with electronic music more.
Do you have any inspirations outside of the realm of music?
I find inspiration in as many non-music things in my life as possible. I think it helps bring a more original flavor to my sound than my musical influences because it eliminates the worry of unconsciously copying another style. Being in nature is a big one, it helps me feel grounded and opens up my perspective. Another big one would be my life experiences, relationships and friendships. Just love in general I suppose is one of my biggest inspirations. There’s just such a wealth of emotion to dig into and translate there. Doing that in an honest way, I think, opens up one of the core reasons a lot of people listen to music; to experience and process strong emotions, to feel understood and validated in whatever is going on in their own lives that the music helps them relate too, positive or negative. And sometimes it’s not that deep, like you just want to party or chill out which is great too, but sometimes it’s deep too. Some of my other inspirations are really all over the place – anime, the MCU, living in downtown Chicago, certain video games (read: Bloodborne), space, the human experience. My music peers here in Chicago are also a massive inspiration. I’m always finding new things to inspire me as well. Sometimes it’s as minor as a weird sound that a bottle makes or a random sample I hear in a show or something.
You release a lot of remixes, is there any song, in particular, that was your favorite to work on?
Probably Drunk Me. I had taken about a year where I didn’t produce much of anything; between graduating college, moving to a new city, starting a big boy job, DJing clubs in Chicago and some other life events it just kind of fell to the side. When I started working on it, my life was in a very weird place and I was lacking direction as a person in the aftermath of a toxic relationship and leaving a toxic job. I was spending a lot of time doing things on my own, doing some soul searching, and trying to rebuild myself and my life. R3HAB’s remix came up when I was taking a train back to my hometown and reminded me of the original that I’d heard years earlier and forgotten about. I put on the OG and it just hit home in some really strong ways; the lyrics felt all too similar to what I was experiencing in my personal life, the original was country music which had a nostalgia factor from growing up with it, and Mitchell Tenpenny’s voice and the melody just struck me as beautiful. I started on the remix as soon as the song ended, and did most of the work either on train rides to and from the city, or while back at home where my sister would help me work out the kinks in the tune. It was a very personal process rediscovering my passion for writing music, making this hybrid of the music I’d grown up with vs the music I currently loved, while I was simultaneously trying to figure myself out between the kid I’d grown up as and the person I was becoming. It helped me redevelop my love of and confidence in creating music and artistic expression. I felt like I was unloading a lot of my own emotion into the song just through the process of making it. I was terrified to release it because it was so personal, but when I finally did I got one of the best responses I’ve ever had to my work, and it’s still my most streamed song today.
Going through your catalog it is obvious you have the ability to switch up your style yet still stay genuine to your sound. Is versatility something you really try to focus on?
First of all, thank you, that is a massive compliment to me haha. It’s absolutely something I aim for. A major goal of mine is to be authentic as an artist, and to me, that means chasing all the creative ideas that just pop up in my head. And with such a variety of inspirations, that often means chasing ideas all over the place and in weird directions. It’s satisfying to me as a creative, it encourages that little creative voice in my head to be louder/more confident, and it makes the work feel honest. However, it does often pose a challenge to keep so many different styles and genres cohesive to what I want my artist brand to be. But some of my favorite artists manage to do it really well – Seven Lions and Nitti Gritti immediately come to mind as artists that have managed to fuse tons of genres into their defined sounds and brands. I want to develop a recognizable signature sound, but also want to just kinda make whatever, like a punk-pop EP or a bunch of dubstep plates or something, who knows. It can be difficult figuring out where to draw the line but the endless variety is also my favorite thing about art and creativity.
You have quite a few shows under your belt, especially for a new producer. How did it feel to play with huge artists such as Two Friends and R3hab?
Those were some incredible experiences that taught me a lot very quickly. The R3HAB show was first, and was my first real show outside of a bar/club or private event. At that point, I had been a DJ for a few years and was confident in my ability to perform, but I was still a new producer without much of my own music to share beyond edits. That show helped give me some context about what it was like being on the other side of the stage, and showed me the difference between the DJing world and the producer/DJ world.
The show with Two Friends was probably my favorite show I’ve played to date. It was a year after the R3HAB show in the same venue so it was the perfect benchmark to look back and see how much I had grown; I’m happy to say I grew a lot in that time with my sound, brand, and skill set. The show itself was amazing too – we were within 10 tickets of selling out, had massive production that apparently the crew brought off of Zedd’s recent tour, raised a ton of money for charity, and Two Friends threw down a killer set. I had been a fan of theirs throughout college and had already seen them on tour once, so it was insanely cool getting to open for them. Hanging with them before and after the show was a blast, it was 50% goofing around and drinking tequila and 50% of them dishing out veteran wisdom and answering all of our (the opening artists’) questions about their career and just the professional music world in general. They’re busy guys and absolutely did not have to do that but it meant a lot that they took the time to just hang out and help us learn.
The pandemic has disrupted our day-to-day life and hit especially hard in the music industry. As an artist how did you cope with everything going on and remain positive during the lockdown?
It was definitely tough, it was really challenging to stay positive at times, but I did my best to take it as an opportunity. Just a couple months before the pandemic, I had taken some time off of DJing the clubs in Chicago to improve my craft, and also decided I was going to invest in myself as an artist and had started building out a respectable bedroom studio. I remember being worried about how much I would even use it, with summertime Chi just around the corner. But with the pandemic DJing went out the window, so I doubled down on producing, built out a custom production PC, and just completely dove in. I also lost my day job with the pandemic shortly after that, so I finally had all the free time in the world to get better at music.
It was cathartic creating my own music consistently for the first time in years, and honestly, it helped keep me sane. I got more involved in online communities with other producers, and I’ve gotta say it was a game-changer for me. A big one for me is feedback streams; some of my favorite producers have made themselves so accessible with Twitch, Patreon, etc and it is priceless being able to get constructive feedback from some of the best in the game. Every song you’ve heard from me in the past 6 months has gone through at least a handful of those streams, and I firmly believe it helped me step my game up. Because of all these online communities, I’ve met some really incredible artists and made some great friends, and I’m really excited to see how it’ll all translate in person when the industry can open back up again.
As a fan, there are so many aspects of live music that I miss. From the artist’s perspective, what do you miss most about live shows?
I definitely miss hanging out around the venue pre- and post-set, getting to see the other artists play, and meeting people in the crowd. Not to mention the energy in a venue. Every show I’ve played, or even just gone to, I’ve walked away making new friends and fans. Just everyone being so happy and carefree and excited, it’s contagious. Also I just really miss feeling a sub rattle my rib cage and lasers hitting me in the face haha.
What are your favorite festivals you’ve been to as a fan and what was the last one you’ve been to?
Lollapalooza holds a special place in my heart since it’s here in Chicago. It was my first festival (if you don’t count Warped Tour) and it’s where I really fell in love with the live aspect of electronic music over a couple summers. I remember being on the rail for NGHTMRE in 2017 and it was just a mindblowing set, and it heavily influenced the sound of my DJ sets for a while afterwards. My all-time favorite though, and the last fest I went to, is EDCLV 2019. It really cemented the fact that I want to pursue electronic music, it was like pouring gasoline on the fire. I saw some of the craziest sets including my dream lineup in one day (shoutout Skrillex surprise set), and seeing the community come to life at that scale and meeting people from all over the world was an insanely cool and even humbling experience. I bought my ticket for 2020 as soon as I got home and am still holding on to it for whenever festivals resume. To any festival lover or just anyone toying with the idea of going, go.
What can fans expect from you as the year goes on?
Lots of new music, including plenty of collaborations. At the time of this interview, I have just released an official remix for Able Grey. It’s called “Out Of My Mind” and I decided to go back to my future bass roots for it, I’m really excited with how it turned out. I’ll also be incorporating some new genres into my sound, so some house music and more dnb is definitely coming. More melodic bass too. For the time being, you can expect some occasional chill progressive house live streams on Twitch, and a few bigger streams, but fingers crossed there will be show announcements soon as things open up. There are some other more tentative plans as well that I won’t say too much about yet, but I’ll say it looks like there may be an EP and a collective launch with some friends in the near future as well. Maybe even some new JWILLI merch too.
Lastly, if there was one thing you could accomplish in your music career what would it be?
A more specific goal I want to accomplish is playing the festival circuit, with EDCLV and Lollapalooza at the top of my bucket list. But really, I just want to create a large catalog of quality, beautiful music that people can relate to and express themselves with. I have this whole musical universe in my head, and I want to get that out and onto people’s speakers.I want that music to be the kind that helps people feel deeply, whatever that feeling is for them, and I want to share it with as many people as possible. It’s a pretty abstract goal but I think it’s an important one to keep me in the right headspace while I’m creating.