Alternative-R&B singer-songwriter, MJ Ultra has accomplished a string of successes over the past few years, including multiple music placements and a successful European tour in support of his independent debut album, “Ocean Drive.”
His music has been included in multiple feature films and his collaboration with Barcelona-based DJ duo, Boxinlion, has garnered over 50 million streams worldwide, amassed more than 14 million YouTube views and 8 million Spotify plays.
We had the chance to chat with the LA-based singer about his new single “Moonlight” and his thoughts on the current state of R&B.
First of all, where does the name MJ Ultra come from?
The name of my former brand was known as “Ultralove”. When things begin to change for me professionally, I felt motivated to rebrand myself so I went with my initials MJ (Michael John) and kept the “ultra” because that’s what fans and friends had come to call me. Also, it’s a bit of a play on MK Ultra, the government mind control experiment (laughs).
You recently released your new single “Moonlight”. I always love hearing about the songwriting process, could you give us a glimpse into what it was like specifically for this song?
Most of my music is written on a guitar or an instrument initially. “Moonlight” came about when I was writing to an instrumental for another project, which I ultimately ended up not doing. The melody and the lyrics stuck with me and I couldn’t get it out of my head, so I picked up a guitar and created the three cord thing that you hear on the record now.
I know this is the season of quarantine and chilling but can we still expect a visual for the single to be released later on this year?
Yes, you can! In fact, I shot the video for the song prior to the quarantine. And believe it or not, our first editor for the video ended up getting stuck in Thailand as a result of the travel restrictions associated with the virus. So that’s why the video is a bit delayed. Irony abounds (laughs).
Although you are quite versatile in terms of genre, you do define yourself as an R&B artist. What do you think of the state of R&B right now?
I think R&B is the top genre when it comes to popular music right now.
Unlike the better half of the last decade or so, “alternative R&B” hung out on the fringes of popular music thanks to artists like Frank Ocean, Leon Bridges, BJ the Chicago Kid, etc.
Now it’s well represented in the top 40 with Jessie Reyez, Anderson .Paak, and Daniel Caesar… So… I’d say it’s kicking ass right now.
Let’s talk about Ocean Drive. Tell me a bit about the process of putting the album together.
Ocean Drive kind of came together out of necessity. One day I found myself with a handful of songs that seemed to fit so well together that my producer, Travis James, and I decided that they MUST come out and be packaged together. I took that core group of songs and tried to create other tracks to glue it all together. Once you kind of envision a sound for an album, creating the supplementary pieces is really quite fun, and probably my favorite part of the whole process.
Out of all the tracks on the album, which song would you say you had the most fun writing?
I would have to say that “Roxy“ was my favorite track to record on that album. I was able to recruit all of my favorite musicians for that one. We built that song in the studio, the nine of us, together, and that was an awesome experience. It has all of the elements and instruments that have ever inspired me in one place, on one tune.
You have scored original music for multiple feature films, what drew you to scoring and how does the process differ to you creating music for an album?
Well, the first dollar I ever made in the music industry, was when I was hired to write a song for a scene in the movie, “Friends With Benefits”. I find it a lot easier writing for a scene, or to a “brief“ for a commercial, movie, etc. Sometimes when you’re writing for yourself you have to dig deep and figure out what kind of song you are writing, or what it is that you want to say.
When that idea or that sentiment is already hashed out for you, all you have to do is fill in the blanks and put your spin on it. Like a paint by numbers.
Finally, if we were to look at the artists you are listening to right now, who would be on your playlist?
I like to re-discover artists and albums from the past. So lately, you would find a lot of Harry Nilsson, John Prine, and early Van Morrison.