COVER

Johnny Orlando

Is Coming Into His Own

By Gabby Sgherri

S

Standing with both arms outstretched, a fashion assistant adjusts the creases and folds of a white T-shirt underneath a textured Issey Miyake vest, Johnny Orlando remains still. He patiently waits for her to finish, in the middle of Universal Music’s Toronto offices, then pivots to look at an iPhone camera documenting the look for our cover shoot, before quietly walking back into the other room to change. If I didn’t know any better, I would have mistaken him for a supporting character, demure and humble, not the main character that just had fans eagerly waiting for him at the airport in Jakarta during his first official work trip to Asia. “When I went to Asia [for] the first time [it] was a month after I started YouTube. So, now being back and [having] fans it’s kind of funny that [it was] crazy,” Johnny says to me, later on, referencing a family vacation when he was 8 years old. This time he returned as an artist with 4 million monthly listeners on Spotify, 10.5 million followers on TikTok, and 6 million followers on Instagram. Despite the overwhelming numbers, he’s well acquainted with his fan base and knew Jakarta and the Philippines had lots of love for him but wasn’t prepared for the frenzy that ensued. “I remember I showed up and I was like we don’t need security, this is ridiculous, we’re fine….but we needed security—it was bad,” he says bemusedly at his own star power before cracking a smile and laughing at the memory. “I really appreciate it, if I took away one thing from the Philippines and Indonesia it’s that they’re the nicest people in the world,” he softly continues with an air of modesty he continued to carry throughout the day. 

Sitting across from me during glam, makeup artist Nate Matthew dusts powder on Johnny’s T-Zone as he apologizes for his low-energy explaining he’s been working non-stop since returning from Asia. His jet lag has him in a haze melding all the days together but the day of our shoot coincides with the release of his debut album, all the things that could go wrong, which plays in the background letting the melancholic melodies and lush soundscapes soundtrack our shoot prep. This may be Johnny’s debut album but he’s no newcomer to music, with over 10 years of experience and multiple EPs under his belt, he grew up in the spotlight. Still, the release marks an important shift for him. “With all the previous projects it’s just been I’m going to do sessions for a while, deliver some songs, and that’s the project. For this one, it was 2 years of, right before we go into a session [checking] back to the PDF we made of concepts and things we needed to hit in order to keep everything cohesive.” The overarching concept kept things streamlined but not rigid, allowing Johnny the creative freedom to experiment with sounds and vocals resulting in an album that truly showcases his talent—exactly the way he wants.

Standing with both arms outstretched, a fashion assistant adjusts the creases and folds of a white T-shirt underneath a textured Issey Miyake vest, Johnny Orlando remains still. He patiently waits for her to finish, in the middle of Universal Music’s Toronto offices, then pivots to look at an iPhone camera documenting the look for our cover shoot, before quietly walking back into the other room to change. If I didn’t know any better, I would have mistaken him for a supporting character, demure and humble, not the main character that just had fans eagerly waiting for him at the airport in Jakarta during his first official work trip to Asia. “When I went to Asia [for] the first time [it] was a month after I started YouTube. So, now being back and [having] fans it’s kind of funny that [it was] crazy,” Johnny says to me, later on, referencing a family vacation when he was 8 years old. This time he returned as an artist with 4 million monthly listeners on Spotify, 10.5 million followers on TikTok, and 6 million followers on Instagram. Despite the overwhelming numbers, he’s well acquainted with his fan base and knew Jakarta and the Philippines had lots of love for him but wasn’t prepared for the frenzy that ensued. “I remember I showed up and I was like we don’t need security, this is ridiculous, we’re fine….but we needed security—it was bad,” he says bemusedly at his own star power before cracking a smile and laughing at the memory. “I really appreciate it, if I took away one thing from the Philippines and Indonesia it’s that they’re the nicest people in the world,” he softly continues with an air of modesty he continued to carry throughout the day. 

Sitting across from me during glam, makeup artist Nate Matthew dusts powder on Johnny’s T-Zone as he apologizes for his low-energy explaining he’s been working non-stop since returning from Asia. His jet lag has him in a haze melding all the days together but the day of our shoot coincides with the release of his debut album, all the things that could go wrong, which plays in the background letting the melancholic melodies and lush soundscapes soundtrack our shoot prep. This may be Johnny’s debut album but he’s no newcomer to music, with over 10 years of experience and multiple EPs under his belt, he grew up in the spotlight. Still, the release marks an important shift for him. “With all the previous projects it’s just been I’m going to do sessions for a while, deliver some songs, and that’s the project. For this one, it was 2 years of, right before we go into a session [checking] back to the PDF we made of concepts and things we needed to hit in order to keep everything cohesive.” The overarching concept kept things streamlined but not rigid, allowing Johnny the creative freedom to experiment with sounds and vocals resulting in an album that truly showcases his talent—exactly the way he wants.

That was the first principle I laid out for myself, I will not compromise on anything. I’m not going to take anyone’s shit about my own music which I did before and it’s ridiculous—it’s my music.

That was the first principle I laid out for myself, I will not compromise on anything. I’m not going to take anyone’s shit about my own music which I did before and it’s ridiculous—it’s my music.


Marni sweater & Adidas x Raf Simons sneakers from Boketto, Mad mfg. by Eske denim

 

Another variance from previous projects is Johnny’s newfound self-assurance, the type that only comes with age and experience. “I knew what to ask for [and] I knew what to look for. I didn’t compromise and that was one of the highlighted goals. I have a group chat called ‘No Compromises 2021’ that I made at the end of 2020 with a couple of people on my team. That was the first principle I laid out for myself, I will not compromise on anything. I’m not going to take anyone’s shit about my own music which I did before and it’s ridiculous—it’s my music,” he says firmly, unshackled by the naivety that allowed the opinions of others to be louder than his own. Charting his experience by the numbers, he says, “I’ve been doing meetings for 8-9 years, sessions for 6-7 years, producing somewhat for 3 years, and mixing my own vocals for 2 years. I know what I want and I’m old enough to know how to say it in a way that isn’t rude [or] too nice—because you can’t be too nice. I’ve made that mistake, I’ve spent 40 seconds saying sorry before I said something.” The inclination to doubt yourself and unnecessarily apologize is a people-pleasing tendency many can relate to, sometimes taking years to unlearn and replace with assertion. At the age of 19, Johnny’s already figured this out. 

We get to the shoot location, Toronto’s High Park, as gloomy clouds hover above the lush greenery surrounding us. Johnny remains unbothered when raindrops start descending, running his fingers through his hair, with a boyish grin, fixing the messiness created by pulling on a yellow mohair Marni sweater. The rest of his look comprised of Mad mfg. reworked denim jeans, a simple white tank, and green Adidas x Raf Simons strapped Stan Smiths. Although Johnny’s styling is the brainchild of Priya Howlader, he pulls it off effortlessly nestling himself on a log amongst overgrown grass as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Prompting me to remember my questionable fashion choices at his age, most of which I’d like to forget. He laughs when I bring this up later and sheepishly admits it took some wearing down from Priya and his visual content producer, Kyla Mah, to ditch the skinny jeans in favor of baggier silhouettes. His confidence in his evolving style is also somewhat recent. “It was during covid because I didn’t have to leave the house, I would take photos in these clothes that I was very uncomfortable wearing [for work]. Then people started making edits of my clothes and were like omg his style is improving so much and I was like oh, really, is it?” he says, raising his eyebrows amusedly to mimic his initial reaction. “That became what I wore all the time and thank god because it was awful, now, looking back.” He continues, “I’ll wear anything, what’s somebody gonna do—tell me I look like a moron? I know but it’s cool [laughs]. I don’t care, I’ve just become a lot more confident.”

The wisdom of knowing what you want, coupled with the assertion to ask for it, and the confidence to pull off anything, are markings of maturity. That’s not to say Johnny hasn’t grappled with the typical coming of age challenges, he divulges ages 14-17 were filled with doubts while trying to find his footing in his identity. “I was insecure and not very happy. I didn’t want to take risks, I just wanted to fit in but now I don’t really give a shit, I’ve graduated, I’m not going to school tomorrow,” he says lightheartedly. Appropriately, his debut album reflects said maturity, introspectively exploring topics such as anxiety, love, loss, and familial hardship. “In my mind, each song [has] a light and a dark side but [with] a different perspective on a similar topic. It’s either I’m being broken up with, I’m telling someone fuck you, or I’m so in love—just flip-flopping around. It very much tells [the] story of a young man going through life and ultimately, at the end, meeting somebody he really loves. So it’s all the things that could go wrong and then the last song is like oh shit I wonder what the next chapter is,” Johnny says speaking about the closing title track and the aforementioned cohesiveness.

 

There’s one thing they’ve stressed [and] it leads back to there are 2 people. There’s Johnny Orlando and there’s John—that’s what I am to my friends, my family, and my girl.

Marni sweater from Boketto, stylist’s own tank, Mad mfg. by Eske denim, artist’s own jewelry

 

As we’re wrapping up shooting the first look, the sun starts to peek out from under the clouds bringing some much-needed light to what was supposed to be a clear skies day. Johnny has the mohair Marni sweater hanging around his shoulders, itching to change into something more breathable for the humid 27 degrees Celsius (80 Fahrenheit) weather until we realize we have to reshoot it due to unforeseen film difficulties. The day could have felt like all the things that could go wrong but Johnny takes every obstacle in stride, smiling between takes, and everyone on set stays positive. The title song is one of his favorites on the album because it’s deeply personal, while others are a medley of his experiences and those close to him, he shares with me. “At the time, I just started dating this girl. It was 2 weeks in, I was so happy—peak honeymoon stage—and then the doubts started creeping in. I was like I really don’t want to hurt this girl [and] all I could think about was I’m so happy, I wonder when this is all going to go to shit.” Spoiler alert, it didn’t go to shit, Johnny and his girl are good but the tales of how the relationship has unfolded will have to wait for his next album. Inadvertently, the relationship sparked inspiration for another song on the album via her brother and his experience of falling out of love. On “someone will love you better”, Johnny captures the gruesome feeling of being in limbo knowing you need to end a relationship yet guilted by the idea of hurting that person. 

It’s surprising the various perspectives on young love aren’t solely based on Johnny’s life. One of the members on set whispers “he looks like such a teenage heartthrob” as he stands in a field of grass, basking in the sun, shooting the second look. We agree he does have that modern James Dean-esque look—tousled swept back hair and chiseled bone structure—enhanced by the vintage-inspired outfit. Still, his music is giving sad boy not serial dater, likely influenced by his familial surroundings. Growing up in a household with three sisters and a mother intrinsically taught him to honor the opposite sex. “I’ve realized the biggest thing is respecting women and not talking shit about women. That was always so off limits to me and then I went to high school and I was like uh, what’s going on, you guys are mean,” he shares. Whereas, his ability to emotively express the experiences of others in his lyrics is an inherited characteristic. “I feel like I’m good at empathizing with people. That’s the majority of my dad’s job, being able to emphasize with his clients. He’s always told me there’s an innate ability for somebody to be able to do that, it’s not something that can be taught or learned in this way. Maybe he passed it on to me, I’ve always been the advice giver in my friend group.” Johnny’s reflections, connecting the dots to his dad’s occupation as a personal injury lawyer, ring true as empathy isn’t something that can be turned on or off like a learned skill.

 

Vintage jacket & creepers from MHC Vintage, stylist’s own tank, Marine Serre denim

 

As we approach our third hour of shooting, trying to beat the impending sunset, Johnny’s learned skill of being comfortable in front of a camera prevails over his jet lag. It’s a rarity to meet interviewees in person these days, though the changeover to Zoom across the industry during covid was more of a shock for older generations. Johnny’s an “internet kid” by birth year but he’s aware of the pros and cons of online connectivity. “It’s more comfortable, you can talk to them on your own time, think about what you’re gonna say, [and] strategize the sequence of messages you’re going to send. That part of it is useful but you’d build a deeper and more genuine connection in person.” Comparatively, it was the real-life encounters that impacted him growing up, not the comments of others online as his subscriber count steadily grew. Citing a combination of changing schools and consequently friends, he pinpoints the differences in himself timestamped by grades before conclusively saying, “it was weird for a while, I don’t think the music stuff affected me much but the stuff that really messed me up was going to bad schools and not having great friends.”

The curiosity of how Johnny navigated being in the public eye during his developmental years commonly comes up during interviews. Aside from brute force, because he couldn’t plan or strategize the way his career and life unfolded, his parents always instilled an important distinction in him. “There’s one thing they’ve stressed [and] it leads back to there are 2 people. There’s Johnny Orlando and there’s John—that’s what I am to my friends, my family, and my girl.” He continues, clarifying, “I’m still very much true to who I am, I’ll give the same answers as I would to my family about certain things but it’s a different person.” His key to staying grounded lies in this division. “I don’t let one dictate how the other feels about himself—usually,” he says, shedding light on why he’s sidestepped the typical controversy and drama known to plague young stars. For one of the last shots, before we wrap, he lies down in the grass with his hands underneath his head, wearing the Issey Miyake vest from earlier sans T-shirt. It’s one of the only moments of rest Johnny Orlando has had all day and there’s stillness amongst everyone, as the sun sets, for a few seconds feeling the sense of accomplishment when all the things that could go wrong—go right.

Issey Miyake vest from Boketto, Mr. Saturday pants



Photographer: Jacqueline Ashton
Stylist: Priya Howlader
Makeup: Nate Matthew


Fashion Assistant: Vanessa Popoli & Kyla Mah

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