With his recent release ‘Brooklyn Nights’ and the music video to accompany it Johnny Gates is making his introduction as a singer-songwriter one to look out for. His ability to capture thoughts and feelings we have all experienced and beautifully put them to word and song set him apart early. GIGsoups Thomas Darro had the chance to sit down with Johnny and talk about how he got started songwriting and in a band, secrets from his time on NBC’s The Voice, and about some of his exciting releases coming in the near future. Check it out.
So you’re from Rhode Island I recently went to Rhode Island for the first time and found it is a really underrated state. I wanted to give you a chance to back me up and tell you a little bit about where you’re from.
Where did you go? Providence?
We went to Providence and then we went to Newport.
JG: Those are like the two spots you wanna go. I was lucky to grow up there because you have like Brown University is there, RISD is there. So you have a ton of international students going to Brown and then all these art students so I feel like they keep the city kind of cool, and then there is a great culinary school there so Providence has its own great restaurants. I think it is because we are tucked between Boston and New York so its like people only pick one or the other. Then you have Providence in the middle but we’ve always had this great music scene.
Oh it is super cool when we were there we left one of those cool restaurants you mentioned and stumbled into this free concert with just the coolest energy.
Yeah and it’s funny even walking around here in Brooklyn it kind of reminds me of walking around parts of Providence. Like Providence isn’t the biggest city but its super old and has the cool cobblestone streets and that old feel.
So speaking of Brooklyn your single ‘Brooklyn Nights’ it was a song you wrote before a show right?
Yeah! Before a show and in New York. Not to far from here actually. It was at the Mercury Lounge. Its wild man. So I came from Providence and I came to New York all the time because it was only 3 hours away. So it’s like I always wanted to come and live here and do that thing. That’s why it’s cool that you did it. So like me and a girlfriend at the time would come into New York and be like “I wanna live here” and we’d come to Brooklyn and just kind of walk around Williamsburg and we’d say “It’s so nice around here. We are gonna live here and work there and have this life” But then… it didn’t work out like most of those relationships when you’re like 20 years old. Then I ended up moving to Nashville and she actually did live here for awhile but then she moved to Boston.
So then I was on tour and it was my first time back in New York since the breakup and we had some time off before the show. So I came back into Brooklyn and kind of just hung out, without her for the first time. And was just like “this is weird.” So then I went back to the club and went downstairs and the green room is really interesting there it’s super old and small and like a train comes by and everything rattles. It’s not the best place to write a song and there is just like the worst stuff written on the walls. My parents came to a show there once and I like told them not to come down there I’ll meet them upstairs. So I did the song down there. Then we started playing it with my band (Runaway Saints) We had like a demo and we still kind of would play it and I don’t know it was always this song live that stuck with people So when I decided to do this solo thing we were like Brooklyn has to be one of those songs that we have to include. And so we just did the video here.
Oh amazing. When can we expect to see that?
This Friday! We filmed most of it here in Brooklyn. So we flew out to New York and did the whole thing in Brooklyn. It was crazy though we were only here for two days and so we literally ran out of all of Brooklyn.
Is there a favorite Brooklyn neighborhood?
Ah good question. I love Williamsburg. We filmed a lot of the video out in Bed-Stuy. I had buds that lived in Park Slope and we hung out a lot there. But Williamsburg is definitely the quintessential. I mean I love seeing the graffiti everywhere and the old school vibe and I just feel like everyone seems really happy and pursuing what they want to do.
Oh that is the perfect way to describe it. I was trying to explain it to a friend this week but you put it to words much better.
What neighborhood do you live in?
I actually just moved to a really cool apartment last week to an apartment near Prospect Park. On the border of Crown Heights and Prospect Lefferts Gardens.
But you talked about High School earlier and not really knowing what you wanted to do, It was your senior year your got invited to audition for your first band and you had never thought of doing music? And that the main reason for the invite was because of your hair?
Yeah (laughs) that like odd but that’s how it happened. We went to this all boys Catholic Prep School so we had to wear blazer, tie, all that stuff. Its tough too because everyone that was there leaves to go to really good colleges, like that’s the point of going there. But we did not we started a band and were playing like YMCA’s and my parents were like “awesome.”
But yeah I needed to take a couple more classes just for electives to get the credits to graduate. The options were like a math class and then there was a theater class so I said “oh that’s cool. I did a play in junior high lets do the theater class.” So I sat behind this guy Jamie which was funny too because it was a sophomore class and I was like the oldest person in there. But I just loved music from a fans perspective and I would go to every show. I really loved bands like Taking Back Sunday and that world, Dashboard I was obsessed. So I was definitely known for being that guy that liked all of those bands and Jamie just turned around and was like “Hey man… do you audition for this band that we’re putting together.” Dude I had never been in a band, never sung, definitely never played guitar!
Oh wow. Never?
No never, I was not a musician. Then I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, I knew I wanted to end up here but I didn’t know how that was going to happen. So I had nothing happening that summer so I went. I remember showing up at this house out in like East Greenwich, Rhode Island in this garage and they had me sing like a Hoobastank song. So I’m like “I don’t know if this is cool…this is kind of weird.”
Wow that’s a story. Which Hoobastank song was it?
I think it was ‘The Reason’. So I was just like “I don’t know if this is what i’m into.” I didn’t really write at the time so it was just a band. But between Jamie, the drummer Matt, and myself I’ve been in a band for fifteen years and it definitely changed along the way. That’s when I kind of became obsessed with songwriting, singing, and guitar, and that stuff. But that’s definitely how it started.
So literally like one class that you were taking to fulfill credit requirements for graduation Senior year kind of changed the course of everything for you. Did you know you could sing at that point?
I mean I knew my thing was I loved to go to those shows like Taking Back Sunday and sing along, in the car…sing a long. I would kind of like mimic what they did. It’s funny too because I feel like a lot of those guys have higher voices and stuff and I feel like even now with me you can kind of hear what the inspirations were. There is such a signature tone of that stuff. But in the car I knew I could kind of sing. I mean I could do what they did but it was completely different when I was just in this garage. But we just started playing shows and writing songs and slowly playing shows in our town which had an awesome scene. It was sick like all in the suburbs of Providence there were all these local bands. We would all press our own CD’s and make t-shirts and these local bands would have fans, it was nuts. Then slowly we got into Providence and we became the like local opener for the national acts coming through. So we got to open for all these great bands and then that is kind of where our journey started.
So with your band Runaway Saints were you doing a lot of the songwriting? Or how did the transition into songwriting go for you?
Totally so at first we kind of wrote as a band and I would do the lyrics. Then I was like okay I need to learn the guitar because I have these ideas in my head that I can’t really get out like sonically so finally I bought a guitar and slowly learned. I did take like one lesson and was just like I don’t even know what this guy is talking about and luckily my band mates were like there’s an easier way to play. So then I was like okay I can do this. But that is where I became obsessed with songwriting which was a big reason why we ended up moving to Nashville which was like the next chapter for us. Nashville is like a songwriters paradise.
The move to Nashville came in large part from you hearing a Taylor Swift song right? An early song of hers that made you reach out to her producer?
Has there been any other song that has inspired such a spur of the moment change like that?
Umm not necessarily a song, the Taylor thing was like this weird I like to call it this divine intervention moment. I was like who is this girl? No one even knew who she was at this time it was that new. I remember like telling people that we were like when we were moving to Nashville and people asked why because we were like this punk band. But I would tell them that we were working with Taylor Swifts producer and literally the response was like “the guy from American Idol?” cause there was like this guy…
Taylor Hicks the gray haired guy! (laughs) that’s so funny.
Yeah! So there was a time in life when I would say Taylor Swift to people and they would think Taylor Hicks so to watch her kind of blow up too and even Nathan our producer at the time who was like such a mentor. Just to see like this could really happen and lives could change. Like Nathan at the time was working at like a Christian bookstore making that record as a cashier. So this stuff happens you know?
But I will say when I moved to LA and the band was kind of taking a break…they weren’t really feeling living in LA but we had just moved there we had to give it a shot. I went and saw Butch Walker live at this place Hollywood Forever its actually cool it’s like a cemetery but they have like this venue back there. I think its like an old Masonic lodge or something and I just went with a friend and he played for like two hours kind of by himself this set and it kind of just Inspired something in me and I was like “Okay I want to do this I can see like this guy was in bands but now he’s a little older and he up there solo” and it kind of just started in the next chapter for me doing the solo stuff.
Wow that’s amazing. What would you say has been the toughest part from going to a band all those years to now approaching it solo?
I mean like it’s definitely weird like even being on stage and like looking over and they’re not there. You know what I mean? Or like if something funny happens you’re like looking over and they’re not there. I did a tour last fall and it was my first solo thing and its funny it definitely felt more like a road trip. It was just like me and my buddy in a van but just the two of us. Where we were used to like fighting to see who was going to be in a bed or on the floor tonight on tour. So that’s been a little different. But like we still have a group text going and if something funny happens I like text them.
Okay so you were on NBC’s The Voice. My mom is a super fan of The Voice I wanted to see if I could get a show secret? Or something I could bring home and tell my mom when I go home for Thanksgiving.
Yeah man The Voice is nuts. I mean like I didn’t realize the show aside, we basically lived with each other for like six months. We have roommates, that’s interesting and it switches every round. I will say like you would never think that it was a competition. From day one there is so much positivity around that show and however they cast it they make sure that everyone is so chill. Like tonight I am hanging out with two friends from the show.
But okay here I have a good one for you. So it’s hard to find places to warm up because you don’t even think about it but you’re in a hotel and there are other people around like tourists or whatever that don’t want to hear you singing like Rod Stewart at seven in the morning. So I stumbled across this bathroom, it was like this maintenance bathroom at the hotel. It was downstairs by this weird pool no one ever used just like this maintenance bathroom. So it was like this perfect warm up spot. So all of a sudden word started to spread that we were using this bathroom and literally all day long we’d have to like text each other, we’d have this schedule. So we would like each go in there for like a half hour and be like I’m going to be in there from 9:30-10:00. But you’d get like this knock on the door and you’d have to go out and this maintenance guy would go to the bathroom.
(Laughs) Do you know if this has caught on with the other seasons?
I feel like I told someone in the next season. I think I told my friend Whitney that there was a bathroom down there.
So what is next? What’s to come for Johnny Gates?
So since the show I have signed my first like solo deal with this record called Amuse. We’ve been finally like putting music out. It’s so funny because I’ve been in bands forever but we never really like released stuff properly you know it was always kind of just doing our own stuff. So with Amuse we are finally starting to put stuff on Spotify and it’s been crazy to see streams come in. We put out ‘Wish I knew you’ which you stumbled upon and then ‘Cliche’ which was the first song we did with the label. It’s been amazing, like that song is probably going to go over a million streams. So that’s when we were like okay something is happening here. And then we put out ‘Brooklyn Nights’ which the video is coming back Friday and that one is like crushing it right now. It hit like 100,000 in three weeks, and it’s because they’ve been landing on these cool Spotify playlists the official ones you know. So it is getting all these new listeners all over the world which so new to me and it’s awesome.
So we have the ‘Brooklyn Nights’ video coming out Friday, the next single is a song called ‘Baseball’ and it’s about going to a Yankee game, so I like that you are wearing a Yankee hat. I’m a big Yankees fan. There’s nothing like going to a baseball stadium and that’s kind of what this song is…it’s funny it is like another New York themed song. So yeah it comes out December 7th and it’s basically about going to…so I grew up definitely around Red Sox fans except for my grandfather who is really Italian and all the old timer Italian guys love the Yankees because of Joe DiMaggio. So I was the first grandson and he saw me and was just like “Yankee fan!” But we grew up going to Fenway just because it was closer and we would go see Yankees road games against the Red Sox. But when Yankee Stadium the old one was closing I knew I needed to go. So I called up an ex girlfriend that lived in the city and she was a Red Sox fan and it was kind of this cool moment and even though she didn’t like the Yankees she still came. We had this cool moment.
Then we have an EP coming out in January which is called ‘Not a burnt cd’
I love that title.
Thanks! Yeah I feel like every record I’ve released this far has been a burnt cd so like we are doing it the proper way and it’s not going to be a burnt CD. Then we are going to put a single out off of that too to highlight the EP. But then it is all about getting back on the road, so we have a couple tour things planned for next year. Then fill in the gaps and try to be back on the road as soon as possible. We just played a really cool one of those So Far Sounds concerts have you ever been to one of those.
I haven’t yet but I’ve heard about them and think I’m going to one on Monday next week.
I have two last questions that I like to ask every Interview. I am big into karaoke and I am so curious which songs touring musicians choose to sing in the karaoke setting. Do you have a go-to karaoke song?
Oh cool! To be honest it is kind of Rod Stewart ‘Maggie May’ and it always kind of was because my mom is a big Rod Stewart fan. So it was always like a joke that my moms like obsessed with Rod Stewart she goes to every show so I know all of his songs, and its just a good karaoke song. But then I did the show…and now it’s a little weird when I do it. It’s kind of like I’m that guy.
Because that was what you auditioned with on The Voice right?
Yeah, yeah so usually like its cool we have those private karaoke rooms so if it’s like a birthday party i’ll do ‘Maggie May’ but I also like to do Kings of Leon as well. ‘Sex on fire’ is pretty good. What about you?
So I pretty much stick to Destinys Child songs like ‘Say My Name’ and ‘Independent Women, Pt. 1 will get a crowd going at all times.
It sounds like a show, we are going to have to do karaoke sometime!
Oh yeah for sure. (laughs) So the other one is when you’re on the road what is your food guilty pleasure on tour?
Oh man, it is definitely hard because you want to eat healthy but it is almost impossible on tour. But i’m a big pizza by the slice guy so I feel like in every city I definitely try to find what the pizza situation is like. That’s why its always good being in New York its the best! But I try to keep it as healthy as possible but i’d say my guilty pleasure food wise is always pizza.
Where is the best New York Slice?
I like this place Rosarios, Lower east side. Orchard and Stanton right on the corner. It is right by Mercury Lounge and is just on the corner. What is your favorite?
My go-to is the Prince St. Pizza, the Sicilian Square. Or if you go Julianas by Brooklyn Bridge.
I’m staying right by Prince St. So i’ll have to check it out.
Anything else you want to close with for anyone reading?
Just the video for ‘Brooklyn Nights’ Friday, ‘Baseball’ in December, the EP in January, and tour dates to come. Thanks for listening and for finding me.
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