What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a question we’ve all been asked countless times over. The first time you were asked, you probably gave a multitude of answers. Your young brain swimming with the possibilities of what is to come and what you could be capable of. For Johan Lenox, as a young kid growing up in Boston, it was when his father took him to see the legendary John Williams conducting the Boston Symphony Pops Orchestra and he knew immediately, “I wanna be that guy.” Having already taught himself how to play the piano at age 8, Lenox made it his mission to compose and conduct orchestras. Spending time training in various summer programs and at the New England Conservatory eventually led to the Yale School of Music and discovered something that equally blew his mind. After getting inspired by the work Kayne West did on the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Lenox and his friend, Yuga Cohler, decided to craft a concert entitled Yeethoven that entwined the work West was doing at the time with the work of Beethoven. This was the impetus for Lenox to immerse himself in more of that pop world and a few years later with 100s of production credits under his belt, including working with West, Lenox is about to release his debut album, appropriately titled, WDYWTBWYGU, or without the stylization, What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up. The journey to get to this point was full of hard work and as Lenox explains, when we reach him over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, not without its unique challenges.
“When I work with other artists it’s easy for me to contribute for me what I think when working on a smaller part of it all,” he explains, “and I don’t have to make these big decisions about where it’s all supposed to be going but honestly, even with the challenges involved, the majority of the time I’d rather be working on my own stuff.” Lenox’s drive, to not necessarily build a bridge between the classic and contemporary pop worlds but, to make the classical music world a thing that is more exciting to contemporary audiences has been a huge factor in his evolution as a producer and artist. “I’ve been doing the classical stuff since I was in middle school and played piano since elementary school and was really immersed in that world. There are still a ton of people now who write contemporary classical music for orchestras and I was really ambitious and tried to work my way up in that world and it became increasingly frustrating with the lack of urgency to make new works culturally relevant. It was something I’d address in school and I still do continue to address. Along the way I discovered Kayne and fell in love with that music and, from a more intellectual standpoint, the platform he has and the fanbase he has that will ride with him through anything that he does. That is the kind of thing that I’m interested in and that’s how I feel I gauge the success of my own music.” When the opportunity to do something more interesting in the classical world came about, Lenox didn’t realize that he was about to embark on an entirely different career path.
“My friend Yuga that I grew up with and also studied classical with became a conductor and he always wanted to work in Los Angeles. Out here you have the musicians and everyone seems to have the propensity to do something more unique in their productions. He wanted to do something cool. When I came into the picture, with a lot of ideas of what that could be and how it could work, it ended up really working and that concert was what got me connected to other producers and started this chain of events but it definitely wasn’t part of any big plan.” Through Yeethoven Lenox connected and eventually started to work with such luminaries of the hip hop world like Vic Mensa, Big Sean, Nipsy Hustle, Kayne West and more recently, with artists like Finneas who praises Lenox for helping him to bring the vision he had for his latest album to life. Throughout all this success though, Lenox was still looking to bring his own creative vision to life.
With WDYWBWYGU he certainly has. Lenox’s solo work is quite something stunning. He has this ability to craft the perfect pop song but one that is imbued with his singular point of view. The string arrangements stick out right away. The organic musicality of it all binding together the electronic side of the production and his baritone vocals saturate the entire affair with melancholy, but one that is just slightly tinged with optimism. The album plays out as one entire piece, not just disparate songs strung together on one collection but a true bonafide album. When asked about how he approaches his songwriting, Lennox explains, “This was a long process of me starting to do this type of music, I didn’t know anything about this world. I lived in a bit of a culturally closed off space and I didn’t see most of the cultural spaces that most people grow up with in movies and tv shows. I was kind of living under a rock. My initial process was studying charts and listening to albums and learning how to write a pop song. When I was trying to break into the industry I went out on a lot of sessions where I’d write pop songs to pitch to artists and really going through that grind helps you learn a ton about songwriting.”
Lyrically, the content on WDYWTBWYGU seems quite autobiographical. With song titles like, “I’m a Mess”, “Get My Shit Together” and “Fuck This Town”, you’d think that Lenox is writing very personally but as he explains, that’s not always the case. “It’s a few things at once,” he says, “It’s where I am at in my life right now and where I put that in context to where I feel my whole generation is right now. I would look at Twitter and Tik Tok and you see this anxiety about the world. The cover art is this kid, who looks like me with long blond hair and he’s sitting on this front lawn, in front of this house and the sky around him is lit up all in this orange smog, which is a bit of reference to when the sky in San Francisco was all lit up by the forest fires in the summer. In my mind, it’s this idea of trying to figure out what you want to do in the future and how uncertain it is. I was sent this tweet from a friend once, and I’m paraphrasing here and said, ‘People love to ask kids, What are you gonna do when you are older? And it’s like, don’t worry buddy, you aren’t getting any older.’ On one hand we are here trying to figure out our lives but how much can you actually plan with the way the world is right now.“
Hopefully, the amount of time, effort and planning that Lenox has put into his career and his wonderful debut album will pay off soon enough. He’s going to embark on a tour to promote the record and when talking about it all, you can hear the excitement in his voice. Just listening to Lenox describe what he is planning and hopes to show the world, makes his excitement genuinely affecting. Couple this with hearing about the journey that he embarked on to get to where he is now is something that can help make you stop thinking about the anxiety that permeates the world and helps you to embrace the optimism of it all putting a whole new spin on the question, what do you want to be when you grow up.