JBL Emerging Interview: Magic Whatever on writing music for his younger self

In this Emerging Headliner interview powered by JBL, L.A.-based alt-rock solo artist Magic Whatever – whose 2021 hit Speak Of The Devil saw him go viral – reflects on why he’s still making music to keep his 14-year-old self happy.

Magic Whatever has been rapidly building a reputation as one of the most inventive emerging talents on the west coast, blending his rock roots with a variety of styles and genres to create a truly unique, rapidly growing body of work.

In this candid interview conducted at the Harman Experience Center in Los Angeles – where he also gave an exclusive performance of a yet unreleased track – Magic Whatever delves into his musical influences, songwriting process, and what he’s been working on recently…

I like to really hang on by the seat of my pants.

Firstly, congratulations for your two million streams of Speak Of The Devil! How does an artist get to two million streams, and at what point did that track look like it was going to go viral?

By keeping it pure, and just doing what you want to do. I think music happens whether you like it or not, and as long as it's pure to yourself, other people will attach to it. That’s the compass I try to keep in mind.

With that song, we thought we had something special in the studio. My agent is close friends with Eddie from a band called The Score - he offered his help on the song and sang on the second verse. That gave me a platform to start on, which I'm eternally grateful for, but as soon as the song gained a little momentum it just kept going and kept going. Now I have fans and friends all over the world that listen to that song, and I’m very grateful for that.

Can you describe your songwriting process?

I like to really hang on by the seat of my pants. No matter how many ideas I have going into a writing session, they all just leave my mind once I go in there. It's just a moment in time that happens for me; it's not a lot of preparation where it starts on acoustic guitar or piano and then slowly inches forward. I just get thrown into the fire with a producer who's a great friend or who I work well with, and we just riff off each other.

Since early conversations started about music, it just never changed for me. I never wanted to leave that world.

When I go into a session producers like to ask, ‘what do you want as the artist?’ And I always respond with, ‘it's not about me, it’s about what are we doing in this moment in time?’ I think that's how I keep my music pure and make my 14-year-old self very happy. I don't like to overthink it. I think ignorance is bliss with a lot of it; show up and find that first spark, and just ride it.

What do you think your 14-year-old self would think of where you're at, and the music you’re making right now?

It's at the centre of everything I do - trying to make teenage me happy. My grandma got me this Green Day hits album for Christmas one year, and after hearing that, I wanted to wear black nail polish and a tie on a t-shirt. I was just a kid trying to explore that; I realised it's not all about Frank Sinatra and Etta James that my grandma was always listening to, and that you can have distortion and be kind of cool. That kid was excited about this avenue of music, and I try to hang on to that now. It’s like I'm writing songs for that kid in a way.

As I get older, I still get inspired by so many artists but in a different way - where I’m more appreciative of the craft. It all helps me to navigate this massive sonic space.

I keep my music pure & make my 14-year-old self very happy.

How much of an influence was your grandmother on your music growing up?

I was raised by my grandmother. She was a ticket scalper for all the rock shows at The Forum, and that's how she raised my dad, my uncle and my aunt. When I was seven or eight years old, my grandmother took me in and we moved up to a very small town in Oregon called Junction City. Somewhere along the line my aunt became really close friends with Etta James, so music was always in the conversation and those classics were always around us.

Meanwhile my uncle was always around visiting his mom and he was listening to Dead Kennedys, The Clash, Ramones - old punk bands. These two very different worlds crashed into each other, and so not only was I hearing these classics, from which I take a lot of melodic elements, but we also had this grunge element in our family. Since early conversations started about music, it just never changed for me. I never wanted to leave that world.

When did you start playing an instrument?

To this day I've always been surrounded by best friends and people that excel at instruments, and I've always been the one that excelled at vocals. I’ve got to where I am writing vocals on instruments, not performing with an instrument, but I will in the future. 

For my 13th birthday my grandma got me a baby blue Fender Squire. I don't think I ever got past power chords with that thing, but then I had a friend who would come over with his guitar and I’d just let him play and we’d write together. I mostly take lead on the lyrics and the melody, and the overall bigger picture.

Now I feel like an equal at the table with these guys that make big things happen in the industry.

When you start writing a song, is there always a narrative in mind, or is it all just spontaneous?

A little bit of both for sure. I have this ongoing note that is just top line ideas - like what the song is about in a few words. When I start hearing an instrumental, I’ll often start with a mumble, and sometimes those mumbles sound like a word. Then I often have this battle in my head of, ‘was that just a mumble? Or was that some sort of conscious thought bleeding through that maybe I need to sing about?’ Some artists say you're just the antenna in the room; all the ideas are coming to you in the moment, and it's your job to just filter them and put them out.

When did you start performing live as a singer, and at what point were you able to start doing music full time?

I think I was about 15. We played a battle of the bands in Portland, Oregon at the Roseland Theater. It's one of those iconic venues where all these huge names have played, and it was the first time I realised that I was actually sharing the same space with the likes of Kurt Cobain, and all these huge musical icons. 

That was when it really became real. And then to flip it on its head - it was never something that I wanted, but I didn’t want anything else. It was just the only thing that made me feel something.

My whole 20s were spent counting pennies, but now the light at the end of the tunnel is bigger than it's ever been.

Lots of friends and band members have come and gone, and a lot of it is about who's willing to stick it out through the hard times. My whole 20s were spent counting pennies, and I’m still doing that to an extent, but now the light at the end of the tunnel is bigger than it's ever been. 

It's a lot of years of trial and error, being proved wrong, and having the will to get back up and be wrong again and again. The real thing that matters is that I'm making that teenage kid happy, and I'm writing songs that he would listen to. If I keep it pure like that, I'm not going to worry about the logistics of the whole thing, because you get burnt out.

Over the last couple of years you’ve started doing a lot more touring. How has that experience been for you?

Up until last year I was my agent, my manager, and had to book every one of my shows. As well as being the artist, you have to find the bands and be the promoter just so you can go do your dinky 25 minute set and have fun. 

After a decade of that I’ve finally got an agent who’s working on a tour of my own, and who believes in me and wants to help. Getting that was everything to me, because tour booking is of course a big business and I was on the outside looking in for so long. Now I feel like an equal at the table with these guys that make big things happen in the industry.

My first US tour was really easy to make happen. We also did some international shows with the same kind of workflow, and now we're planning another US tour in a few months. Something that I didn’t realise growing up in music is that it all comes from people just wanting to be around other people that they like, or that they feel comfortable with. 

It's not about who wants it the most. Just be a friend. Especially when you're on the road for 30 days, no one wants someone who's going to be a pain. And so to be someone that people like to be around is so much more valuable than I knew.

What’s in the pipeline for you?

I just finished recording my debut EP which is going to be seven songs. The songs and album artworks are ready to go, so now we're just thinking about the marketing strategy and picking a release date. As soon as that's out you'll see me on tour and doing the whole album cycle thing, hopefully!

You’ve recently started using JBL 305P MkII powered studio monitors. How has your experience been working with them?

For my little singer-songwriter studio setup in my apartment where I need to hear a balanced mix, they’re awesome and I love them. Prior to that, I hadn't made the plunge to get monitors for my home studio, so I couldn’t hear the true sonic quality of what I was writing. 

The 305s have helped me a lot in my home studio; the obvious thing for me is just actually hearing what the song sounds like, instead of listening to it on headphones. It literally took them showing up at my doorstep for me to be like, ‘alright, it’s home studio time!’

Interview conducted by Will Hawkins / Harman L.A. experience centre photography by Michelle Shiers.