By Jordan Yeager
Like the superheroes he idolizes, New York/LA-based YouTube sensation turned pop star Joji has made a transformation as dramatic as any telephone booth costume change.
Once able to claim 800 million viewers for his YouTube channel, George Miller, once known by his YouTube handle Filthy Frank, now commands platinum album sales and nearly 12 million monthly Spotify listeners as Joji.
Though his first project under the Joji alias wasn’t released until 2017, Miller existed prolifically in the public sphere long before. Remember the Harlem Shake? Yeah, Filthy Frank started that. The character was crude, outspoken and self-described as “the embodiment of everything a person should not be.”
In 2017, Miller announced his separation from the Internet world he’d created. He no longer found the content funny, and health issues regarding his throat, from making voices for various online characters, rendered him unable to continue creating content for YouTube. That same year, his first EP as Joji, In Tongues, was released through label 88rising. Mixing downtempo, electronic and ambient hip-hop vibes, it was an instant departure from anything he had made himself known for previously. The next year, he followed up with a full-length studio debut, BALLADS 1, refining his sound with soulful vocals over lush and grimy textures. The album is a collection of musings on love, heartbreak and navigating the depths of your own emotions.
Ballads transcend time, they’re the anti-meme. Joji’s music is lo-fi, moody and relatable; part of the new wave of emo music that is breaking barriers and tugging on the heartstrings of sensitive music fans all over the world. The production experiments with genre combinations that might not seem obvious, but blend together so naturally it’s surprising it hasn’t been done sooner. He creates a sonic atmosphere through hazy, muted vocals and vast, layered instrumentals. It’s well-made music, independent of any reputation or identity Miller had previously crafted for himself. Fans respect the change of pace.
“It was all well received,” says Joji. “I’m pretty easy going. If I see a thumbs up, I’ll just keep doing it. I’m a person of expression, one way or another; as long as I get to keep creating, no issues.”
Even when YouTube was his focus, Miller was always crafting beats behind the scenes. His first track was a re-creation of Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” in sixth grade. He’s been honing his technique ever since, and to great avail – the second single off BALLADS 1, “Slow Dancing in the Dark,” is certified Platinum. Though his success has come quickly, he never truly expected to make a career of music.
“I was a very realistic person as a child, and still am,” he says. “I like music, but I never tried to do anything with it. I kept it as a hobby for the most part. I would project things that were more realistic, and I would keep songwriting to myself just because I didn’t really think anything of it.
“It was the one string of continuity, the one thing that kept everything together. No matter what I’m doing, I’ll always try to put a musical spin on it. I just like music, that’s the only relevant thread since day one. I was expecting to be a businessman. Which I am now, so that’s still kind of going. I’m just a businessman that can sing a little bit.”
Having built a vast platform for himself, Joji’s philosophy is to give as much as you get in a way that’s informed, thoughtful and intentional.
“There are people that take little, but as long as they give the same amount, they’re giving everything they’ve got,” he explains. “Basically, the more successful material-wise you get, you should be giving just as much back. If you feel the balance is right in your heart, then you’ll know.
“Right now, I’m trying to figure out ways to give back. I’m leaning towards medical and environmental causes, because I’ve always been into zoology and reptiles and the ocean. When I was younger – if I wasn’t going to be a businessman – I wanted to be like Steve Irwin. I’ve always had a soft spot for that kind of stuff.
“I think it’s good to, at the very least, have the idea in your head that if the world is giving you a lot then you should give back the same amount. If the world is giving you little, you give back the same amount. And it’s going to be the same level of success.”
You can take the boy off the Internet, but you can’t take the Internet out of the boy. Despite having distanced himself from his YouTube persona, Joji maintains a strong social media presence, like on his Twitter account, where he asks such thought-provoking questions as: “Would you drink Frozone’s melted ice water?” Obviously, his insight on the matter was necessary.
“I’ve been waiting for that question to come around – this is the first time someone has wondered how I felt about Frozone,” he laughs. “I might want to drink his ice water just because it’s Frozone. I wouldn’t drink a non-superhero’s ice water, you know what I mean?
If he was just a guy who decided he wanted to build ice sculptures for the rest of his life in his backyard, I wouldn’t want to drink that.
“But if Frozone skirted past me in the city on his way to fight crime and the ice path was right there, I’d probably run my tongue along it, I’m not going to lie. Just to say I did it. I’d probably get my tongue stuck on there, too.”
Joji performs Friday, September 13 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre as part of Westward Festival.joji, Westward Festival