It's the release date of his debut EP, My Name Is Earl
, and Cleveland native Earl St. Clair (né Earl Johnson II) is in Los Angeles, waiting backstage to perform on Corden’s Late Late Show.
We remind him of an interview he did in 2012, wherein he predicts that five years from then – in 2017 – he’d be living in Germany, herding sheep, making beats in a barn.
Earl laughs – a long, warm, deep-bellied cackle – and regroups: “Well, let’s update that.”
In 2012, Johnson thrived as a producer, creating within an art form he stumbled upon in his late teens. He got hooked on beat-making software FruityLoops at an Alabama family barbeque shortly before beginning college in the mid-2000s. After a semester spent focused on crafting songs rather than essays, he left school, moved back up to Cleveland and began producing in a studio with a small loan from his grandfather.
Johnson rapidly ascended as a producer and put his fingerprints all over recent Cleveland hip-hop lore. Under the name JP Did This 1, he worked extensively with local heavyweights Al Fatz, Royalty Camp, Ray Cash and Ray Jr. He produced Chip Tha Ripper’s 2007 anthem, “I’m Fitted
,” and was integral to the rise of Machine Gun Kelly, crafting one of his first hits, “Breaking News
,” along with “Hold On (Shut Up)
,” a single featuring Jeezy off Kelly’s debut album.
Throughout this time, however, Johnson remained behind the scenes and didn’t explore his potential as a vocalist until a serendipitous episode in 2014. He produced two reference tracks (songwriter demos) to send out to other artists and drunkenly decided to record himself for the vocals. Upon arriving at the studio the next morning, he was met by bewildered colleagues.
“'Man, that song you did last night was amazing,'” he describes them as saying,
"'I haven’t heard anything like that.'”
But he remained skeptical and unconvinced by his own talent.
“I didn’t know it was my singing voice. I thought I was just creating another character. All my friends in California were like, ‘Yo, you need to be an artist!’ I was like, ‘No, I’ll keep doing this – I’m cool.’”
Johnson’s mother passed away shortly thereafter, and he travelled back to Cleveland to spend time with family, continuing to produce out of the Bulkley House Creative Space on Prospect Avenue.
“[My managers and other producers] were trying to get me to come back out to California – I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ll be there soon.’ I wasn’t really caring [about being a vocalist] – I was thinking about getting these beats ready, so I could come back prepared.”
In early February of 2015, something changed. “I got an email from my manager and he said, ‘This guy wants to meet you, he wants to sign you, he loves you as an artist.’ I said, ‘Fuck it – I’m leaving.’ New actions get you new results.”
He flew back to Los Angeles and signed to Circa 13, an imprint of iconic hip-hop label Def Jam, joining a rarefied roster that includes Nas, Kanye West, Big Sean and Pusha T.
With label support, Earl seems to have found balance and momentum. His stand-alone singles, “Man On Fire
” and “Good Time
,” have hit their marks, along with this EP’s lead single “Feeling Alive
.” He speaks with an even-temperedness and exudes a low center of gravity that feels stable, forward-thinking, progressing. He’s come a long way.
Johnson grew up in Cleveland on 58th and Superior and 129th and St. Clair, but spent his summers in his father’s home state of Alabama. The amalgam of musical influences during his upbringing informs his rich, diverse sound. His father listened to blues and soul, and his mother favored gospel and R&B, providing an osmotic education which he supplemented with early 2000s hip-hop: Southern rap innovators like Houston screw and New Orleans’ Cash Money Records intermingled with Nas, Jay-Z and Kanye West, the genre’s kingpins. This triangulation rings true to his catalog, one that reaches back to soul and roots rock, built upon his hip-hop sensibilities and deftness. He burrows into this nook, then uses his utterly unique vocal instrument to explore it in different ways.
And his voice is truly an instrument. Its gravelly, rumbling texture, growling range and almost percussive elements evoke Ray Charles, Alabama Shakes’ frontwoman Brittany Howard, Cee-Lo Green and Andre 3000. He can keep it subdued over simmering bass riffs or stretch it out to Prince-esque shrieks on top of crescendoing brass and church organs. St. Clair has been blessed with vocal chops that don’t confine him and a producer’s mentality that allows him to venture along different avenues.
“I don’t want to be boxed in,” he states. “That’s my biggest fear because there’s so much to me as a person and me as an artist, and I want to be able to showcase everything that I love to do and everything that I’m capable of doing. I have three albums currently, and they all have completely different sounds.”
Stepping away from using genres and labels, Johnson describes his creative output through moods and visuals.
"Everything is energy, and energy is everything," he says. "I believe everything has a heat and color signature. I’d describe [my music] with a painting, a picture; it would be a picture of a guy standing on cliffs full of grass and flowers, with a big apple tree on it, and he has a frown on his face, but he has his eyebrows up, like he’s laughing, with a tear coming out of his right eye, holding a balloon to a blue sky."
His releases to this point demonstrate that diversity: his work with labelmate Bibi Bourelly is torrid and gritty, as evidenced in their duet on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
. Johnson has showcased his songwriting ability for high energy pop and electronic music in collaborations with stadium acts Avicii and David Guetta. This recent EP leans into Earth, Wind, and Fire samples and James Brown riffs, 12/8 time signature robust tracks (think Etta James’ “At Last
” or Rihanna’s recent “Love on the Brain
”) that harken back to rock, funk and soul DNA. The EP’s sonic landscape ranges from vast, melancholic canvases abutting thunderous, cinematic strings (“Pain
”) to groovy, driving rhythms with a big band, feel-good pop energy (single “Feeling Alive”).
“I wanted to show people the different genres that I flirt with; hence, My Name Is Earl
. This is me. This is what I do. I wanted people to see the different sides of me.”
His wishlist of collaborators reflects this out-of-the-box, uncompromising approach. Among them are Kanye, Pharrell and Andre 3000, all of whom have also successfully traversed the border between vocal recording and production work. He also lists the iconic Randy Newman, and praises the forward-thinking singer-songwriter Lizzo.
Earl St. Clair’s future is uncertain, yet bright. He hasn’t been back to the city that raised him since he left and was signed, but his debut album, Songs About A Girl I Used to Know
, will drop later this year, and a tour is in the works.
“Cleveland’s gonna be my first stop,” Earl says with a sense of anticipation. “It has to be — that’s my home.”