GREATEST / Josh Levi
The Houston-bred musician opens up about going solo, finding strength in vulnerability and embracing a new life in LA.
At 23 years old, Josh Levi has spent the majority of his young career hyper-focused on chasing artistic freedom. Following his breakout role on the hit NBC show Friday Night Lights, the Houston-bred musician spent the next few years exploring his identity as an artist. He eventually pivoted to music and became a finalist on the third and final season of The X Factor US at age 15, earning his first taste of national attention.
Levi then joined Citizen Føur, a group consisting of brothers Carson and Conner Boatman, former X Factor contestant Austin Percario and himself. The quartet amassed millions of views and a sizable following on YouTube for their covers of songs by Rihanna, Justin Bieber and Rae Sremmurd, leaving many to wonder whether the boy band could fill the void left by One Direction’s indefinite hiatus. The project never fully took off, however, and Levi left the group in 2017. It was only in venturing out as a solo artist that he began to discover the artistic potential he’d been seeking from the beginning.
Levi debuted his first solo EP, DISC ONE, in 2020, an eight-track collection of songs that riffs on themes of nostalgia, longing and euphoria while blending together a variety of genres spanning pop, rock, hip-hop and R&B. The project resulted in a quarantine-produced music video for its lead single, “If the World,” a direct response to the “new normal” set by COVID-19 and captured the solitude and creative challenges he, and many others, felt while living in isolation. The single garnered attention from fans and the media alike, positioning Levi as an artist on the rise.
With the momentum of his latest single, “NASA,” the Atlantic Records signee is continuing to refine his voice while establishing a new life in LA. Ahead of dropping DISC TWO, Levi opens up about his creative process, the necessity of love songs and the power in vulnerability.
Now that you’re transitioning from being in a group [Citizen Føur] to going solo, has your confidence been put to the test?
No, not at all, actually. I've always been an independent person. That phase of my career felt right at the time but it also helped me realize what I do and don’t want . I'm grateful that it happened but I've always been a solo type of guy, very independent and trusting in myself.
What’s it like collaborating with people like Normani that have been in a similar predicament as you?
It's a blessing. That's my girl right there. She's also from Houston and we've known each other forever. She's almost as crazy as I am—but I think I'm still crazier [laughs]. We both value attention to detail and push ourselves and are passionate about artistry and have similar inspirations, but we’re also opposites in some ways. It's a beautiful opportunity to bring so many sides of the spectrum together. I love that there are so many incredible artists from my hometown. It's almost become a goal to collaborate with each one. Beyoncé’s number one on the list.
On DISC ONE, you asked, “Does anybody make love songs anymore?” Even if the love song isn’t currently reigning in the music industry, you have a very tender perspective in your work.
Everyone's interpretation of love is different. In that song I was referring to romance and selflessness. Love has become so distorted, especially with my generation, but a lot of people still yearn for the more sincere aspects of love that seem to be missing.
How many songs about self-love do we have? How many songs about embracing self-confidence and being true to yourself do we actually have? You’re one of those artists working inward and just letting go. You don’t hold back.
My goal is to let go in every aspect of this life. I'm really spiritual so I try to surrender to things I don't have control over, but balancing that while pursuing what I do want in life and from God is something that I've been aggressively trying to achieve. There's power in letting go, leaning in and being vulnerable, especially as a man. There's a lot of beauty on the other side of whatever walls you have.
Was there a moment early on in your career where you felt like you didn't have any control?
I don't know if I see it that way. Even if I was in circumstances where I didn't have control, it's not anything I would necessarily have changed. I'm very grateful and I think if things had happened differently, it would have changed where I am now.
Most times, I don't have control. I feel like that's a theme in my life. When I was on X Factor, I wasn’t in control. When I was in a group, I wasn’t in control. My mom currently has stage five kidney disease and I’m her primary caretaker. God continues to teach me that I can't control everything, but I've become really good at making that work in my favor.
Are there times when you can just be Josh, not Josh Levi the singer?
It’s the hardest thing. It's hard to balance being the man I need to be and being the artist that I need to be. Sometimes they coincide and other times they’re completely separate. People don't want to see or hear a sob story from me all the time. That doesn't make up my entire identity, but it does make up a lot of my life today and yesterday, and most likely tomorrow. I take it day by day, sometimes hour by hour. Some days are worse than others. But I'm a mama's boy and my mom has invested so much into my career, so when she's down, I'm down. I've had to continue pushing through, even when a part of me is stagnant.
You say people don’t want to hear a sob story; well some people do. Some want you to be open and talk about these things. You know who makes great sad songs? Frank Ocean.
True. And he's a rock star. Everybody loves him, including me. I think some of my favorite artists are some of the most vulnerable. So I don't shy away from that. Like I said, everything in life is a balance. I'm also a Libra, so that’s supposedly a part of the scales. It's a balance of being a strong and hustling workaholic, and also being vulnerable and imperfect.
Was there a moment in your career where you said, “I'm going this way because this is my freedom?”
It was more so moments of being bold and expressing what I felt the whole time. When I listen back to music I made in Houston, or even just as a kid, it still has a bunch of the elements that my music has today. Some people disputed my sound or questioned it, but this is what I feel in my heart and hear in my head. I'm going to stick to this even if it doesn't make sense to you.
Growing up, people tried to convince me that my music has to make sense. How can you be pop but also rock, hip-hop, R&B? It took me really up until last year to realize that music isn’t calculated. And when I understood and accepted that, I was able to unapologetically focus on the feeling and not the category. Thankfully it resonated with a lot of people and got me signed to Atlantic and on the radio.
There’s a track on DISC ONE, “Voicemail,” where someone tells you she’s become a full-blown fan of yours. Why add that to the project?
A couple of different reasons. One, it was completely unsolicited. I literally got that voice message the day after I put out my first song in 2020—it made my day and encouraged me. People don't really leave voicemails, so there was a nostalgic element that felt really special. With DISC TWO, which I'm getting ready to put out, and with my sound in general, it's always a combination of the past and the future.
And what about you? Do you leave voice messages?
I'm an in-person guy. Some girls hate that about me. I actually don't even like voice messages to be honest. A lot of people like to text me voice messages and I either read a text or see them in-person. Now I make it a point to reach out to people and let them know that I appreciate what they're doing. That goes such a long way. Giving people flowers or applauding them, even if I’m not close with them, is just the right thing to do; to recognize people for what they're doing and who they are. I pride myself on being consistent with that.