Singapore-raised, L.A.-based artist Mark Johns was the first solo singer signed to Skrillex's OWSLA imprint, with massively streamed songs like "5 South" and "BTFU (Mommy Issues)" blending soul, hip-hop, Nineties R&B and dance-pop. That was enough, perhaps, to surprise some OWSLA followers who might still have – mistakenly – associated it only with grinding, festival-ready dance music.
But with her latest EP, Molino, Johns has offered up another twist. Instead of exploring the electro-pop leanings of her earliest releases and popular YouTube covers, she's gone down a starker path. Inspired by loneliness, urban anomie and by the frustrations of the music industry, the new six-song collection takes a stripped-down tack. It's what Johns refers to, only half-jokingly, as a "sad project." But even amid their minor keys, longing-heavy lyrics and gloomy synths, new tracks "Molino" and "Before You" offer glimmers of hopefulness. You can hear them below or download them at the OWSLA site.
Rolling Stone caught up with Johns before Molino's October 28th release to find out why she "had" to put out this project before heading back into upbeat turf.
When you talked to RS in February, you said your EP was going to be really different from your stuff that had already come out. How much did that difference come to pass?
Yeah, it's so different; I'm kind of nervous, actually. There are no real singles on this project, and the songs are a little bit grittier, which I love, because it just focuses on the writing. The music I was putting out before was never really writing-focused, I guess, because I would put out a lot of covers and stuff. It was always really scary for me to put out original stuff.
Where did you find the courage to make that shift?
It took a really long time, honestly. I was just making so much different music. I didn't really start writing until a few months before I moved to L.A., honestly. I was just doing so many sessions every day and working with every type of producer. I had just moved here and everything was new – I had no fucking clue what I was doing.
And stuff takes so long as well. Everything takes longer than you think it will, and lots of people kind of let you down, and that sets you back as well. … I think I wrote "Molino" out of frustration more than anything. I was like, "Well, this is all taking so long, and I don't know what I'm doing, and I'm so scared. How do I feel about all of this? I'm a songwriter, I should be able to write about it." So from that song, I kind of made that shift.
When I wrote that song and sent it to people at the label, everyone got kind of nervous, like, "What's wrong? Is everything OK? Are you sad?" They like, called a meeting and stuff. And I was like, "No, I'm just ready to talk about shit, you know?"
How did you convince them everything was OK?
I was just kind of like, "You guys need to trust me on this. This is something I need to put out before anything else that's coming." I think before I even started submitting these tracks to them, I was scared to have this project be a "sad project," because that's a scary thing to be putting out to the world, I guess. We do have so many other songs coming out after that are a little more happy and positive, or at least more upbeat. But I needed to be able to express how I felt before making the happy stuff.
How accurate is it to really call this EP a "sad project?"
It's definitely not a happy project. There are some hopeful bits to the songs as well, but for the most part, they're sad feelings. That's where they come from. [Moving to L.A. and getting settled] was a great time as well; it was so new and I was meeting all these awesome people. It was crazy, but it as just a lot all at once, and sometimes it was just too much.
I was really at a point where I was like, "What am I doing here? Is this worth sacrificing these relationships, with this way of living? Am I gonna stay here? Am I gonna do this?" And that's where "Molino" came from. There's a lot of fun an excitement that comes with all of these new experiences, but there's also a lot of sadness. This is my first time living alone in one spot at one time by myself.
There's that polarity of being with people all day and sometimes all night, and then coming home to nothingness was a lot, and I think one of those nights was probably the breaking point where I was like, okay, I need to process this and get this out.
Besides these two, what's the next track on the EP that you hold dearest?
The weird thing is that all of them are love songs, technically; on first listen, you would immediately assume they're love songs. Some do stem from some sort of love interest inspiration, but a lot of them are about my feelings about music, and the industry, and artists I've worked with.
There's one song on there, "Wait Til Tomorrow," that's written towards my parents, and I think that's my favorite one. That's the only hopeful one on the EP as well; it was has a positive note at the end, which I like.