“I’ll never forget arriving in an empty LAX and recording in a ghost town Los Angeles, which was a site I never thought I would see. Or showing up to write and record on music row, and be the only car on the road,” singer-songwriter Johnny Gates shares, as he recalls the unorthodox recording process of his new EP, East Music Row.
The set was penned and recorded during the tumultuous year of 2020, a time when the music industry was faced with innumerable uncertainties. Recording studios were shut down, zoom songwriting sessions were the new normal, and music releases were subject to the ebbs and flows of the coronavirus and touring.
However, for Gates, he was determined to not stop recording new music, even if that meant being nimble and working around the necessary parameters to make it happen. “These songs were written and recorded during 2020, and instead of just delaying a year, we did whatever we could to make the music,” shares Gates.
Out now via Deluge Music, the eight-track collection was entirely co-written by Gates and showcases his myriad of musical influences, which include Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams and Ruston Kelly. Opener “Buy You a Beer” is a radio-ready mid-tempo love song, the impassioned “Reckless” details Gates’ post-breakup sentiments, while “Flirt” is a breezy pop-inflected tune that will be an instant hit for fans of artists such as Sam Hunt and Filmore.
Elsewhere on the EP, Gates embraces vulnerability as he gives the listener a window to his heart. “Will I Still Love You” is a gut-wrenching piano ballad that finds Gates ruminating on the what-ifs of a past relationship, and on the pensive “Loretta Lynn,” the singer parallels his wistful romance to the radio’s longing for Loretta Lynn on its airwaves. “Oh, what do we do? / ‘Cause I don’t wanna know a love without you / Oh, my sweetheart, where you been? / ‘Cause I miss you like the radio misses Loretta Lynn,” he sings plaintively on the chorus.
Gates is no stranger to the music business. While the former major label rock band frontman has toured alongside superstars such as Paramore, NEEDTOBREATHE and Rod Stewart, it wasn’t until his move to Nashville that Gates set the pedal to the metal to chase down his dream to be a country artist.
Sounds Like Nashville interviewed Gates recently for an exclusive Q&A about his artistry and East Music Row EP. Check it out below!
Was there a vision you had in mind as you were putting together your East Music Row EP?
Yes, for sure. I’ve had such a roller coaster ride in the music industry, and I just wanted this EP to represent the current chapter I was in, which was kind of stuck between LA and Nashville. I started writing it while living in Los Angeles, with the goal of moving back to Nashville in mind. It’s cool because I’ve always gravitated more to the DIY approach to music, and this EP was written and recorded in apartments in Hollywood, Nashville, on Zoom, in empty offices during quarantine, and [in] bedroom closets. Yet I wanted it to feel “country”, or my take on country.
What was the idea behind this interesting title?
The music scene in Nashville is kind of split into two neighborhoods. The country songs are written on music row, and the more indie stuff happens in East Nashville. For me personally, I moved here to write on music row and truly learned how to write songs there, so music row will always be a home for me. But, as far as hanging out, and bars, and late nights, I’ve always gravitated more to the east side. And for a while, I always thought you had to choose until I realized I just wanted to be a part of both. So that’s where the title came from.
Who would you cite as some of the musical inspirations on this project?
I’m all over the place as far as inspirations go, and honestly, I think it’s hard to even hear them in my music sometimes. When it’s stuff I write solo, like “Loretta Lynn”, I think they come out more, because I’m obsessed with the singer-songwriter scene. I grew up on Bob Dylan, Ryan Adams, Dashboard Confessional, and love the country take on the singer-songwriter stuff like Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, and artists like Phoebe Bridgers and Ruston Kelly. As far as the other stuff, I wrote it all with my best friends, and we just wanted it to sound 100% authentic and natural. I spent a lot of time chasing what was happening at radio, and learned the hard way that that’s not going to work for me.
“Will I Still Love You” is such a good, heartbreaking ballad! Would you talk about the inspiration for this one?
I think I write around 98% sad stuff [laughs], so with “Will I Still Love You,” I really wanted to go there. It was during the height of quarantine, and I was just personally in a place where I was missing a lot of stuff, and Mason Thornley and I just sat around a little keyboard in our office and went for it. I think we all have those ex’s that even as the years go by, you kinda wonder, do I still love them?
Your cross-genre influences are also evident in the feel-good and infectious song, “Flirt.” Would you also share more about the conception of this track?
With “Flirt,” we really wanted to write something fun. Me and my buds spend a lot of nights at Red Door so that’s totally the backdrop to this one. I had the title, and it just wasn’t clicking with other writers, and I played the idea for Mason, and he was in, and we just wrote what we knew. I need to shoutout my producer Tyler Thompson here because not only was he a writer on all of this stuff, but Mason and I flew out to LA, to record “Flirt,” “Reckless,” and “Between Me and You” in person, and Tyler drove to Nashville from LA to record “Will I Still Love You” in person. We just got tired of the zooms. He’s a rock star.
Having spent time in rock music before this, what do you think makes country music different from rock, or other formats in general?
For me, it’s the songs. I like to take everything away and see what’s left. And for me personally, when the big guitars, production, lights, “brands” and all that stuff is stripped away and all that’s left is the song, country [music] wins every single time.
You opened for the legendary LeAnn Rimes in your home state of Rhode Island recently. What was that like for you?
It was such an awesome night. My favorite kind of shows are by far theater shows, so going in, I was pretty hyped. And my family was there as well, so any opportunity to play in front of them is special. LeAnn can sing [laughs].
What can fans expect from your upcoming Drag My Ass Back To California tour?
Pretty intimate shows for this run. It’s my first time back out there since Covid, and it will be just me and a pedal steel player for most of the dates, though for LA I’ll have a band. We’re playing Hotel Cafe in Hollywood which was like a second home for me when I lived in LA, so I’m pretty excited to get back.
Lastly, what do you hope fans take away from listening to your East Music Row EP?
I just hope my fans know that this EP is truly a blend of what I’ve been trying to do for a while. These songs were written and recorded during 2020, and instead of just delaying a year, we did whatever we could to make the music. I’ll never forget arriving in an empty LAX and recording in a ghost town Los Angeles, which was a site I never thought I would see. Or showing up to write and record on music row, and be the only car on the road. I’m just glad my friends wanted to make music with me during that crazy time, and we’ll always have these songs to remind us that we didn’t stop doing what we loved, even when it seemed impossible. And for me, that’s been the theme of my music career.
Stream Johnny Gates’ East Music Row EP below.