JBL emerging interview: maryjo on life after American Idol and new music

If maryjo looks familiar to you, it’s because you recognise her from season 19 of American Idol where she got three yeses from the judges after her emotional performance of You Broke Me First by Tate McRae. Mary Jo Young sailed through to the next round and reached the top 24 in the competition. In this Emerging Headliner interview powered by JBL, she explains how she’s been carving out her post-Idol identity, which also includes a slight rebrand of her artist name, which is now simply: maryjo.

“Honestly, I have no idea,” she admits, bursting into laughter when asked why she dropped her surname. Relatable and honest and with an endearing tendency to blurt out what’s on her mind, the singer-songwriter hailing from Cleveland jokes that she needs media training.

“I'm also wondering why I made maryjo lowercase? It's like when you get a tattoo and you like it, but you don't know if you're gonna regret it later. But now it's like, ‘Well, whatever. Let's just see how it goes.’ Obviously, I felt strongly about it in the moment, so there must be something positive behind it,” she smiles.

In her Idol audition video, maryjo admits she has never sung in front of her mother, prompting the judges to coax her into the audition room to hear her daughter’s gift. Despite boasting a seriously impressive TikTok following at the time, maryjo never performed in front of people.

“That was genuine,” she says of the unscripted moment where her mother watches her sing. “When I was little, I always imagined that I would be doing this, I just didn't know how. I would ask for a guitar and a piano for my birthday and I would hide in my room and sing. So I bet she's heard me do little things and just pretended like she hasn't. But I'd never sang for her, so that was my first time actually standing in front of her and singing. 

"With TikTok, I could post videos and hide it from people that I knew, so that I could find out from strangers if I was good – and that boosted my confidence. Once I met my managers, it was like taking a baby bird and throwing it out of its nest.”

Even though being on TikTok is amazing, I always want to be taken seriously as a musician.

On the subject of her TikTok account, maryjo’s videos have seen her accumulate more than 1.3M loyal followers, which she says has been a huge help in terms of steering her content.

“They've kind of felt like friends,” she says, “because you can tell when they like videos so I know what to post. Sometimes it's hard to know what your fans like; it’s not just about what you like if you want to keep growing.”

maryjo is certainly a master at making TikTok work for her, but is also aware of the bubble the app exists in. Does she worry that fans will only show her love on the app?

“Honestly, yeah. I worry about that because I started on TikTok and even though being on TikTok is amazing, I always want to be taken seriously as a musician,” she says. “I think they have been taking me seriously as a musician though, and Idol also helped with that. A lot of the fans have been going to Spotify to listen. My goal is to just be a musician, not categorise on every app, so it's just trying to break that wall down.”

If you can't take opinions, you probably shouldn't be in this industry.

maryjo has a powerful voice made for heart-melting piano ballads, nurtured by listening to the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Rascal Flatts and Adele while she was growing up. Idol is undoubtedly a phenomenal platform for any artist to launch their career from, but with its format being based around covering other artists’ songs, it can be a challenge post-show for singers to find their feet. maryjo has a pragmatic outlook to her post-show releases:

“When you're an artist, it's not just about your technique or being a singer,” she considers. “You have to take on this whole job. A lot of people think it's just recording a song, when really you’re a whole package or a product. I wanted to get across that I was. I don't think it's been hard to transition; it's been more fun. You have the platform, and then you see what your fans that follow you like and what you like, and then you combine it all into one.”

maryjo wasted no time after Idol, swiftly landing a deal with Atlantic Records and introducing her own sound with her debut single, Love Fools – a stripped-back ballad featuring the piano work of two-time Academy of Country Music Award-winner Gordon Mote. It wasn’t all plain sailing though: when she first went into sessions and was trying to explore her sound, everything was coming out “cookie-cutter pop. 

"Finally I had to stop and say, ‘This isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing.’ I took a step back and asked myself why I was trying for something that didn’t feel right, and because of that we honed in on a sound that feels like me: something I can put so much emotion into when I’m singing, so that I can give the audience something real to connect to.

“I was thinking about the kind of artist I wanted to be,” she continues. “I was looking at all of the pop singers that I actually enjoy singing along to and feel a connection to, and these are big songs. You can hear the emotion, but they're fun to sing. They're all slow. Then it just clicked and the sessions after that completely changed. I had a completely different mindset on where I wanted to go.”

I like to write stories, not just little songs.

Produced by Logan Maggio and co-written by maryjo with Maggio, Beau Bailey and Knox Morris, her immediately compelling (thanks to a powerful, singalong hook just three words in) recent track, Traffic was written about being in a long term relationship and feeling that things aren't moving forward.

“At first, it was kind of hard to sing – the ‘love’ part,” she clarifies, “but I've been with my vocal coach and we’ve got it down now. When we wrote it we were sitting in Logan’s studio and we were writing a completely different song. Knox looks out the window and he sees a bunch of construction workers, and he sees a traffic cone. He's like, ‘Oh my gosh, guys, I just got the craziest idea!’ And he's like: ‘Traffic,’” she pauses. 

“Then he explained the comparison between it and saying you love somebody, but you're not falling more in love, but you're not falling out of love and it’s kind of boring. We just started going and we got the song like that.”

And the reaction online so far?

“It's honestly been really good and positive. I don't think I've got any hate yet! But if I do, so be it,” she shrugs. “If you can't take opinions, you probably shouldn't be in this industry or be an artist.

Her social media followers have been anticipating the release of maryjo’s brand new single, DON'T CALL ME since she’s been teasing it of late. maryjo reveals it’s written by the same team that she wrote Traffic and Love Fools with.

“We were like, ‘We've been writing a lot of ballads so let's do something fun.’ I have the saying where I'm always like – I mean, a lot of people say this – but it's, ‘I'm Mary Jo, but you can call me tonight,” she says in a mock pick-up voice. “So I was like, ‘How could we twist that?’ We sat down and came up with, ‘You can call me a psycho. You can call me a liar. You can call me an arsonist, I should set you on fire…don't call me tonight.’ It's funny because I'm actually a really chill person,” she insists.

“I mean, I'm crazy, personality-wise, but in relationships, I'd say I'm pretty chill. I wanted a fun, crazy song that seemed out of the box. It was really fun to make a song where I was mad. It's like those stages of grief when you go through a breakup: you have Love Fools where it's toxic, Traffic where you're out of love and DON’T CALL ME where you're mad.”

My JBL PA is my little travel buddy. It completes the song.

Anyone seeing maryjo on stage recently will spot her JBL EON ONE compact portable PA that she’s recently started using, which has been a game-changer for hearing every note of her tracks in preparation for her upcoming shows.

“I actually brought it to Nashville with me,” she enthuses, “and I'm gonna bring it to L.A. It's so nice because when I listen to my songs or when I show people my songs, I usually just put my AirPods in, and it's annoying because I want them to have the full experience of the song. Now when I get to play it on the JBL PA, everyone's there in the moment and they're listening to the song. You can hear all the mix and the full experience, plus it was so easy to set up,” she points out. 

“I didn't even have to ask my mum for help,” she grins. “The sound quality is beautiful too; it’s perfect. And it's definitely not too heavy, so you can easily bring it around. It's perfect. It's my little travel buddy. It completes the song, if you will.”

With a few single releases under her belt and a staggering social following, surely the next step in her career is to release an EP, or perhaps even an album?

“Honestly, both,” she reveals, deciding how much she wants to share. “We have a crazy amount of songs. We didn't know we were gonna have this many songs done by now, so we’re just gonna keep 'em coming. I don't know if I'm allowed to say that, but I already did….”

Is there anything she’d love to write about in a song, but hasn't got round to it yet?

“Maybe Austin Butler? He’s pretty hot,” she deadpans before collapsing into laughter, then pulling herself together to answer.

“I like to write what anyone can relate to,” she says. “I like to write stories, not just little songs. My whole goal is bringing out songs that have stories behind them.”

Listen to the full interview with maryjo on Headliner Radio, here: