AJ mitchell

As a child, AJ was surrounded by music. His father was actively learning to play the piano and those beautifully crafted sounds spurred the artist to start taking lessons at the age of just four. It was the moment that lit a burning passion, quickly consuming his every thought.

 

Get to know AJ in the SS22 Print Issue, available for pre-order exclusively at our shop

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Photography: Anthony Giovanni

Fashion: Edwin J. Ortega 

Grooming: Nathaniel Dezan

Production Assistant: Andrew Barrios

Cinematography: Sasha Rodionov

Words: Jake Wright

 Shot on location at 2576 Aberdeen Avenue, Los Feliz, CA currently on the market with @chasey614 and @Michaelosworld at

@douglaselliman

Belleville, Illinois’ very own lyrical superstar, AJ Mitchell, has experienced a searing rise through the music industry in recent years. The arrival of his debut single ‘Used To Be’ in 2018 was accompanied by a worldwide appraisal and has collated over 160 million streams on Spotify alone to date. It was a track the artist wrote when he was just 13 years old, and showcased a highly skilled songwriter, with an ability to effortlessly delve into personal and introspective themes. Those traits were only elevated further in 2021 on his debut album Skyview, where the artist harmonized his creative journey to date, placing key emphasis on his family and hometown across 12 tracks. Just like ‘Used To Be,’ the album was produced by the legendary Mike Dean, whose complete understanding of Mitchell’s unique artistry has made for a beautiful relationship. It’s already been a crazy journey, yet at just 20 years of age, it’s only just beginning, and to think, it all started by singing a few covers on Youtube and Instagram. 

As a child, AJ was surrounded by music. His father was actively learning to play the piano and those beautifully crafted sounds spurred the artist to start taking lessons at the age of just four. It was the moment that lit a burning passion, quickly consuming his every thought. There aren’t many kids out there that know, confidently, what they’re going to do when they grow up, but AJ was certainly one. “My dad was writing songs for my Mum and singing all the time. He’d get my sisters to sing, and they’d all be harmonizing. I grew up around that and wanted to do it myself.” AJ explains, “I wanted to learn how to write songs. I wanted to sing better than anyone in my family. I really took it seriously. I wrote my first song when I was four years old, after that moment I realized there was nothing else in the world that made me feel that good. I just loved writing songs; it was therapeutic to me. Just to get out my emotions, what I was thinking and feeling. I’ve always channeled that through my songwriting and my melodies.” 

That passion for music was perhaps best translated through the music he was seemingly absorbing, endlessly. Whether influenced by his parents or his two sisters, AJ soon became a sponge, taking in music from every genre possible. It set an early precedent for his creative approach, where no sound is ever off the table. “I loved music, there was never just one genre that I listened to.” He explains, “Pop, R&B, Hip-Hop, all sorts of music. Artists like Il Divo, opera singers, Eminem, Lil Wayne, Chief Keef, Bruno Mars, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and The Beatles. So much music. Those were some of my favorite artists, and they definitely inspired me.” 

Those first unknowing steps towards making that burning love for music into a career came when AJ was just 12 and he started posting videos of himself singing on the internet. Uploading both cover renditions of popular songs, as well as his own material, the artist quickly found out that there was a market out there for what he was doing, and a fanbase steadily built. “My friends didn’t really know I 

was singing and writing my own songs, so I decided to start uploading them online.” AJ proclaims, “My girlfriend at the time said I should post my songs on Instagram, so I started posting them and covers, and after a while, I began to build a fanbase. It took four or five months, but these random Instagram pages started shouting me out, out of nowhere, and I started gaining followers from that.” 

At that time, no one yet knew the future power that social media would hold, and the artist's courageous move to venture into the unknown so early paid dividends. Even now, AJ is under no illusion of that period’s key significance, as he states: “I think it was one of the most important things I did at the time, just putting myself out there. Whether it was one of the songs that I wrote, or it was a cover, if I didn’t post them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.” 

Instagram soon offered AJ a world of opportunities, the first of which would see the artist move to California, and reside in LA. In a giant leap of faith, then still just a teenager, the artist joined Team 10, a marketing group specializing in social media. It soon became a vital learning experience that would pave the way toward a more focused direction. “Someone reached out to me from LA, with an opportunity to join this social media kind of group.” AJ explains, “I ended up joining, but quickly realized that wasn’t the route I wanted to take, it was more focussed around social media stars. I wanted to go down the route of being an artist, that’s how I’ve always been: I was writing music, I was singing, and I was never making content just to make videos. That’s when I met my manager. We wanted to take it independently at the time and do things on our own.” 

If that move to LA offered AJ anything, it was the chance to meet someone who had a clear vision for his future, that didn’t simply revolve around money. That person was his manager, who from day one understood the artist, and gave him the opportunity to start over in LA and focus solely on the music. “He had one of the biggest impacts on my life out of anyone.” He passionately states, “When we met, I was 14, he saw the situation I was in, how much I didn’t want to do it, and how much energy it was taking out of me. He’d seen other artists in the past get screwed over by labels, and he said he saw a young kid and he didn’t want anyone taking advantage. He took me in, I actually lived with him for a year. He’s been a huge part of my success, he’s like my big brother. I’m blessed, now it’s just family.” 

Things took a crazy turn for the artist when he released his debut single ‘Used To Be’ in 2018. After years of teasing the single online, the track quickly lived up to its hype, becoming a worldwide hit. Now sitting at just over 160 million streams on Spotify, it represents the starting block for AJ’s career, and boy did the cannon explode. “Even before it was released, I had put it out on Youtube.” AJ proclaims, “It started to blow up, I took it down. Someone re-posted it, and it blew up again. So, when I actually released it, it had a huge impact.” It also marked the first moment in which the artist started working with renowned producer Mike Dean, which opened his eyes to the power a true specialist holds. “I was working with a producer who was Mike Dean’s right-hand man at the time.” He explains, “I worked with him for a couple of years, he showed Mike Dean ‘Used To Be’ and he explained how I’d written the song at 13, and Mike Dean really wanted to be a part of it. I remember going to his studio, he laid down a piano one time, and I was shocked. He’s legendary.” 

Beyond the beautifully catchy production style, ‘Used To Be’ also displayed AJ’s elegant songwriting style. Deeply introspective in its design, the artist manages to effortlessly pour his heart out in a manner that translates into a beautiful piece of art. It’s an ability AJ has honed from the offset, where the activity quickly became a therapeutic experience, offering the chance to display feelings he’d otherwise avoid. “All my songs just start with a thought. ‘Used To Be’ was written about my girlfriend back then, the same one who said about Instagram. I remember coming home one day, I think we’d broken up, I was sitting there at my piano playing some chords, and I was just thinking about her, and it came to me.” AJ explains, “She’s not the girl she used to be. I remember thinking that could be a good concept for a song. A lot of my songs start this way. It’s a way for me to get out everything I’m feeling about that situation. It’s a therapeutic moment where I can turn that struggle and pain into something beautiful. It’s something I really love about music.” 

As the artist has grown older and gained evermore life experience, he’s realized that songwriting holds even greater personal power than in those teenage years. Perhaps elevated further in recent years thanks to the worldwide pandemic, AJ holds his artistry close to his heart as his greatest asset that enables him to escape from personal demons, and the complex world we live in. “I think it’s more important than ever.” The artist states, “Especially going through quarantine, and all these times where I’m sitting with my thoughts. I have so much to talk and write about. If I didn’t have music, then I don’t know what I would do.”

Last year the artist released his debut album, Skyview, a collection of 12 tracks that showcased AJ’s ability to tell a convoluted story. Residing over the last few years of his life, the album represents a journey both sonically, and literally. It was a long-awaited moment for fans of the artist, who were desperate to get their teeth into a project containing so much complex material, and it sure didn’t disappoint. “It was inspired by my artist development – from when I first moved to LA, to the point where I’m at now. Skyview is actually a drive-in movie theatre in my hometown.” AJ explains, “The first single ‘Cameras On’ was about moving to LA and living in that house, and it ends with ‘Used To Be,’ and it was all produced by Mike Dean. It felt like a full circle moment.” 

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However, there was a theme in particular that stood out for its importance – his hometown. Determined to tell a truly genuine story, AJ put great emphasis on a period where he didn’t necessarily fit in with the status quo, but a time that offered him great insight into the many different avenues this world contains. “I didn’t grow up in the suburbs, there was poverty, you know, I saw a lot of things that I wouldn’t have seen if I lived in California.” AJ states, “I feel really blessed that I had the friends that I did at the time. I knew people who were in gangs, selling drugs, but I realized that we’re all just human beings at the end of the day. I was blessed to see that other side. Those people also really supported me and thought it was cool I was doing something different. It’s something I really love about my hometown – people don’t really judge you, if you’re doing something for yourself, or something different, people will support you.” 

As AJ earlier stated, Skyview was executively produced by Mike Dean, who had such a key impact on the artists debut offering that it seemed as though fate bought them back together once again. What AJ realized in the two years they spent apart was Dean’s natural talent to genuinely understand his music. Famed for his work throughout the hip-hop world and beyond, working with the likes of Kanye West, Kid Cudi, and Madonna, Dean stands in his own lane, and AJ is grateful to have him onboard. “I’ve been in the studio with plenty of producers and when I go to Mike Dean, there’s just something about him. He understands music to its fundamental core.” He explains, “Whenever he sees an artist, he gets exactly who they are, and he knows what to do with the music. I think that’s so important to have as a producer because some producers see an artist and will create in their own style, as opposed to what that artist's music feels like.” 

At the end of last year, AJ returned with a deluxe edition of the album, one that offered further insight into his vast array of talents. Skyview was extended by three tracks, which included live renditions of ‘Miss You,’ ‘I Choose You,’ and ‘Cheap Red Wine,’ each accompanied by its own scintillating music video. It was a moment that saw the artist passionately prove any potential doubters wrong, that his talents are genuine, and he’s here to stay. “At the end of the day, I’m a singer and songwriter, and I want to show people that I actually sing. I feel like a lot of people just see a kid that releases music and think industry plant or he’s singing someone else’s songs. I write my own music and sing my own music and that’s why I wanted to do the live renditions. We wanted to make it looks beautiful too, like a music video. All three of those songs were shot live on the same day.” AJ states, “People will always say something, but in due time they’ll know. I’m not worried so much about the now, I want to do things for the future. I know that people will look back and know I was singing live, I was doing music videos, not covers. I want to be known as a true artist and musician.” 

Above all, Skyview displayed just how mature the artist was at just 20 years old. Consistently wearing his heart on his sleeve, AJ managed to project numerous touching, and motivating messages through his sensitive lyricism. “There’s definitely a couple of messages.” The artist shares, “One would be ‘love’ - love your people, your family, your friends. Also, I wanted to teach people lessons regarding things I’ve been through, I wanted to let them know and hopefully let off that spark. I wanted it all to feel nostalgic in a way. I feel like the production and the lyrics did, at least to me.” The key to this level of maturity lies within his alternative route into adulthood. AJ was thrown into the music world when he was just a teenager, spending vast periods away from his family and loved ones. It contributed to a level of life experience unheard of at such an age, fuelling his creativity in the process, as he explains: “I didn’t have the typical childhood, I got in the industry early and went to work. I grew up fast as I was working a lot. I was going to studios, meeting up with people twice my age – writing with them and learning from them as well. Traveling across the world by myself. I’m happy I did because I’ve gained so much experience from all this.”

 

A lot of that experience has come through the theme of collaboration, a subject the artist holds close to his heart. AJ has had the opportunity to work with some huge artists across the industry, including Meghan Trainor, Ava Max, and Cheat Codes. Often it sees the artist delve into unknown territory, making for a whole new artistic statement. But for the artist, that list is only the start, with numerous others being lined up for future projects. “I think collaboration is one of the most important things in this industry. Especially with people you actually fuck with and like their stuff.” AJ proclaims, “Then you’re sharing your fans with their fan base, and vice versa. Plus, you get to work with incredible people – Ava Max, she’s amazing, an incredible singer. The likes of Cheat Codes, and Meghan Trainor, it’s so fun to be able to work with people like that. I’m ready to do more. I want to work with JID, Benny, I definitely have a list of people I want to get in the studio with and create from scratch, a whole new world.” 

AJ’s rapid ascent through the music industry has offered more than just a few pinch-yourself moments. The artist consistently refers to his beloved hometown as a reference to the polar opposite world he now lives in. What’s obvious is the artist's humility, and sheer gratitude to be where he is today. What was once a fantasy, and a far-off dreamland has become his day-to-day life, and he couldn’t be prouder. “It feels surreal almost every single day. Honestly, I wake up and see the amount of fans I have, the amount of people who support me on a daily basis, it’s so surreal to me.” Proclaims the artist, “Especially coming from a really small town, I didn’t know how in the world I’d ever get to this point. You know, I was just posting videos to see what happens, and now I’m 20 and I’m in LA, and everything is going smoothly and I’m happier than ever.” 

In a further twist of surreal fate, thanks to the alternate reality caused by the worldwide pandemic, AJ’s relationship with social media collapsed. What had been the spark that ignited his career became his kryptonite, perhaps understandably so. The artist now sits at 1.2 million followers on Instagram, and there’s a significant level of pressure that comes with that many eyes on you, particularly during a time when few of us had much better to do than sit on our phones. Thanks to a series of self-caring activities that offered nothing as far as social material, a level of imposter syndrome ensued, thankfully something he’s getting over now. “There’s definitely a little bit of pressure, which is something I’m beginning to get over. Before Covid there was definitely a lot of pressure, I was working so much, I was traveling so much, then I was at a place where everything completely stopped.” AJ explains, “I had this weird moment with social media where I didn’t really know how to do it. I felt so much pressure. People were watching me, and I wasn’t doing anything, just watching anime at home. Now, I’ve just got to show my life and make it fun again. Make it a place where I share my memories. Doesn’t need to be anything crazy or serious because I used to take it way too seriously. I’m going at my own pace and working out what that pace is.” 

Music undoubtedly plays a vital role in AJ’s life, and to see him do anything else is an unimaginable reality. However, the artist has quickly realized a burning passion for fashion as well, often interpreted on stage as a refreshing gender-fluid take on masculinity. On the day we spoke, the artist preferred more of a pop art approach, repping a sesame street hoodie, where Bert and Ernie took stage on the back. It was a representation of his love of nostalgia, and just how integral his youth was to the man he is today. “When I was younger, I had no swag, no style at all. My friends would always tell me I need to switch up my hair – I had a mushroom top head, I looked like I was going to rob somebody.” The artist laughs, “I think when I hit 7th or 8th grade that’s when I was like it’s time to step it up. It wasn’t until I moved to LA that I realized I really enjoyed fashion. I love going to Dover Street Market, Comme des Garçons, and Balenciaga, I think it's super cool to express yourself. I’m just trying to do something different and have fun with it. Why take it so seriously?” 

The last four years have represented a total transformation in AJ’s life. Despite the early groundwork the artist made on social media, and the subsequent fanbase he built, the impact of ‘Used To Be’ was astronomical. Skyview only elevated his reputation further and he now stands as one of the hottest prospects in the music industry. For his fans, the wait for a second album might not be too far away, as he explains: “I’m thinking about moving to New York. I’m ready to start writing there, I want to make a beautiful New York album. I’m ready for the second album. I’m just pumped to just get going, I feel like the world is opening up again and the doors are open.” What strikes the most is AJ’s hunger to keep pushing forward and innovating. To prove not only to himself, but to the world, that he’s even better than his early work suggests.

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