GREATEST / AJ Mitchell
The bedroom-pop sensation talks small-town antics and navigating the industry in conversation with legendary producer Mike Dean.
Belleville, Illinois is located nearly 300 miles south of Chicago and has all the trappings of a typical small town in flyover America. Marathon winters, chain restaurants, abandoned buildings and boundless cornfields, it’s about as far removed from the sun-kissed glamour of Los Angeles or fast-paced thrills of New York as you can get. For some teens, this setting would be ripe for all sorts of boredom-abating mischief. But Belleville native AJ Mitchell had bigger aspirations for himself than purely weekend partying—ones that would land him an Epic Records deal before graduating high school.
Music was always part of the Mitchell household. Encouraged by his oldies-loving father, Mitchell began taking piano lessons at the age of four, which eventually led to an interest in songwriting. Like most suburban teens with a passion for performing, he enrolled in the school choir and sang at various open-mic nights around his hometown. By 13, however, Mitchell’s side-hustle of posting pop and R&B covers on YouTube and Instagram had taken off. He amassed millions of streaming views and a sizable following on social media, which piqued the interest of Hollywood talent managers who beckoned him to the West Coast in 2015.
Fast forward to 2017 and Mitchell found himself collaborating with legendary producer Mike Dean, who has created beats for the likes of 2Pac, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Madonna and The Weeknd. The two joined forces on "Used to Be," Mitchell’s first independent single, and shortly after, the rising pop star inked a contract with Epic, with whom he dropped his inaugural studio EP, Hopeful, in 2018. Now, a billion Spotify streams later, Mitchell’s success has come full circle. For his debut full-length album in October 2021, the 21-year-old singer paid homage to his midwestern upbringing, naming the record after Belleville’s lone drive-in theater, Skyview, where Mitchell spent much of his youth.
Mike Dean, who executive-produced SKYVIEW, sits down with Mitchell five years after their initial partnership to chat about their collaborative process, small-town upbringings and getting into trouble as young kids.
So, you're interviewing me?
No, you're interviewing me! [Laughs]
I’m curious to hear your thoughts about when we first met. Do you remember?
I came over to your place and you were going to play some chords over a song I was working on. You listened to the song, hopped over to the piano and literally just started playing while I tracked it. I thought, “Holy shit, he just did that one time. What the fuck?” That's when I was like, “He's the fucking GOAT.” I obviously listened to a lot of the music you produced growing up; you're one of the best producers of all time, and knowing that you were about to work on the first song that I wrote when I was 13—it didn't seem real to me.
That was a good day. That was on “Used To Be.”
The first time you heard it, you just went on knowing exactly what to do. I was like, “Man, this guy is music.”
That was a nice collaboration. Very free-flowing. On the flip side, I was impressed by your energy and your voice. You’ve got a crazy range and can really get up there.
I remember I was recording some vocals and you slowly peeked your head in the room and you had like the fattest weed plant I've ever seen and just smiled, pointed at the plant and dipped. I was like, “What the fuck?”
That's when I had those plants in the backyard and we were cleaning them, right?
I didn't know you smoked weed until last year.
Yeah, man. I'm from a really small town where not a lot is going on, so we start smoking weed at a young age.
I smoked once when I was like 15 and then didn't smoke again until I was 27. I'm really making up for it now though! How has your life changed since [“Used to Be”] dropped?
What was that, 2017? That's when I signed with my label [Epic] and started getting introduced to other songwriters and producers. I started traveling the world; I did two headlining tours across Asia, Australia and Europe. I met fans all over the globe. My life has drastically changed for the better. I'm so grateful for it.
I remember when you had that event at The Grove and there were what seemed like thousands of screaming girls. I thought, “This kid's going to blow up.”
It was crazy. There was a line around the block.
What was it like growing up in a small town? Especially compared to where you are now, in LA and Palm Springs, being a baller.
I couldn’t wait to fucking leave. There's nothing to do but smoke weed and go into abandoned buildings and break shit. I got to a point where I really didn't know what to do, so I just started writing songs.
In Texas we used to break shit in abandoned buildings, too. I also drove somebody's tractor off a boat once. We're both from small towns. You get into trouble when you're out in the middle of nowhere.
Made it out alive though.
How did that experience affect the type of music you make?
It gave me a lot of perspective. Where I grew up, you saw a lot of poverty, gangs, drugs. I found something positive to focus on with music and draw from those negative experiences to tell people what it’s like in certain parts of the country.
What did your family think about you wanting to go to Hollywood?
They all think it's crazy, but in a good way. We're all from small towns, so for something like this to happen is an insane opportunity. But my family's super chill and all my friends are really supportive. I'm blessed with the people I have in my life.
How has your relationship with social media changed since you blew up?
In the beginning I was on it pretty much every day, which definitely helped then because I needed to sustain a fan base. But now I could use a break from social media, just for a little bit. Every once in a while I’ll hop on and post something, do an Instagram Live or talk to people, but right now I want to focus on myself and worry less about posting content all of the time.
How did your process of making music change after getting signed to Epic?
Before, I was always writing alone. Now they put me in sessions with other songwriters and producers, so I had to learn how to collaborate. That was super weird at first because I had to be vulnerable and tell my stories to other people. But collaborating is key in the music industry, so it was a good learning experience.
That was super weird at first because I had to be vulnerable and tell my stories to other people. But collaborating is key in the music industry, so it was a good learning experience.
I’m big on collaboration. Two heads are better than one, five are better than two.
Especially when you're with talented people that actually understand collaboration and give you different perspectives.
What do you think about our collaboration on SKYVIEW?
The album sounds exactly how I wanted it to and more. The crazy beautiful outros, those drums and everything. I think you really brought this nostalgic pop element to it.
It was great working on it with my whole team. I remember at first some of the tempos were wacky and then we slowed stuff down a bit. Pretty much the opposite of what the labels usually want; they're usually like tempo, tempo, tempo.
It's cool how you can start with one song and then end with something completely different. Like with “Growing Pains,” I originally wrote that hook on the piano then brought it to you where you put an upbeat EDM spin on it and slow-tempo drums.
Who or what is inspiring you right now?
Lately, I've been really inspired by a lot of oldies; Stevie Wonder, The Beatles. I feel like a lot of contemporary music is the same old four chords. I want to hear some seventh chords finished and I want to hear some real musical shit. I even go back to listening to classical music, just to calm my mind.
Do you have any set goals? Or are you just going with the flow and seeing where the journey takes you?
I'm the type of person that just goes with the flow.