By Leslie D. Rose
It’s a running joke among musicians aspiring for fame that they’re “big in Japan.” Many adopt the label to cope with a lack of local prominence.
But when area pop singer Justin Garner says he’s big in Japan, he means it. When Garner recorded his album I Am, he wasn’t aware that the words ‘number one’ would soon follow the title.
Garner released the project internationally in February, and just hours later it had surpassed Beyonce’s celebrated self-titled album to grab the number one spot on iTunes Japan.
Back in America, however, Garner is an everyday guy who just knows how to use his Southern University marketing degree to the benefit of his music career. It’s that knowledge in marketing that’s opened many doors for the young, ambitious singer.
One newly opened door is to MTV Studios, where Garner was flown out as a contestant on its upcoming show Copycat.
Set to air on June 2 – Garner’s birthday – Copycat is an episodic singing competition series hosted by Jonathan Bennett (Mean Girls). The show features up-and-coming singers who think they sound like some of the biggest voices in pop music. Each episode features two amateur vocalists going to head-to-head as different artists, vying for the $5,000 cash prize.
“This show is unique from the traditional singing show – it’s a lot of fun,” Garner said. “The contestants actually have personalities, we have voices – we can actually talk, we can take jabs and have fun.”
Garner said his favorite part of the show is that the audience’s first interaction with the contestants is through song only, as the show opens with the singers behind black screens appearing as silhouettes.
“No one can see us, they can only hear us. For that moment, people can really only judge you by your voice. I think nowadays in this industry everything is about the gimmicks and the image and all of that, but sometimes when you turn on a song, you hear it first – you don’t see anything.”
Garner is not yet sure when his episode will air. But to tide you over, he is preparing for a farewell concert in Baton Rouge.
“Basically I’m going out with a bang.”
Since the release of his coveted album in Japan, Garner said he has been getting calls from movie and music executives. So the farewell concert is a bit of a ‘see you later’ to his hometown while he spends the summer traveling to the opportunities he’s been offered through his online presence.
“After the concert, I’m going back to California to film some movies and then I’m going to Yokohama to perform for and meet with the fans that helped me get this success.”
Much of Garner’s success comes from a string of YouTube videos he posted singing cover songs from his favorite pop artists. But that’s not his only stairway to fame. He was discovered on the now not-so-popular social media website Myspace by a Japanese record executive, and so began his international rise.
And Yokohama has an estimated population of 3.7 million, making it Japan’s largest incorporated city. Not too shabby for a Baton Rouge boy, whose face is now plastered on billboards all over the Japanese city.
Garner had previously toured parts of Japan, earning him that energetic fan base that purchased his album to the number one spot. So he said he found it only necessary to spend another week with those fans before returning to Baton Rouge to continue building his brand in the U.S.
Baton Rouge hadn’t been so bad to him anyway. From his computer at home, he was able to get himself listed as Amazon.com’s Artist on the Rise and as New & Notable in 2012 – triumphs typically reserved for artists signed to major labels. In 2013, he was listed as New & Noteworthy and Artist to Watch on iTunes.
And he has recorded two full-length albums, I Am (2014) and Year One (2013). His most current project is 7, a seven-track EP that he said he believes will be a great introduction to his new American fan base.
“In preparation for Copycat, I want state-wise, to give people a chance to hear and get a taste of who I am and let them know there’s more to come, especially here in the states,” he said. “I’ve had great success internationally and I want to give my home-country the opportunity to hear me, so I have this seven-song EP so they can check out my sound, especially from coming off of this brand new show. ”
But what’s most remarkable about 7 is the process in which Garner created it.
“I wanted to record seven songs in seven days,” he said. “I locked myself in the studio and just wrote about everything that came to my mind. Instead of focusing on industry sounds, I went in a more organic direction and incorporated live elements. Lyrically and vocally, I wanted this body of work to be more passionate, heartfelt and soulful.”
Even with the release of 7, I Am still holds the acclaim. Yet even with so many accolades outside of the Red Stick, Garner said he has no immediate plans to move away.
“Home is where the heart is, number one, and then Baton Rouge – Louisiana, as a whole – is a big untapped music market, so I feel like I definitely want to continue to be a representation of being from Baton Rouge. Going to other places and taking advantages of opportunities is cool, but I still always want to be that guy from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.”
When Garner returns home from his California and Japan trip, he said he will begin work on his #GiveBack campaign with the American Red Cross. He said he hopes that the 2014 version of the campaign he helped the organization build to assist its volunteers will grow larger due to his newfound successes.
He also plans to be a mentor to other up-and-coming artists in the area.
“I want to have some kind of workshop,” he said. “There are a few things I’ve learned that I don’t have a problem sharing with someone else. I want people to know that you can always be yourself – put the music first and you’ll be fine. Perfect your craft and do your best.”
Garner said he learned those things through interviews with record labels as he refuted to fit the molds presented to him. Now as a more mature artist who’s set in who he will be, he said he knows that he wasn’t ready to be signed at that time.
“The labels are calling now. Now everybody is like, ‘Who is Justin Garner?’ So now I know it’s time for me to go and venture out into the music world. And I deserve it. After having the number one album in Japan, it’s time for me to basically claim that success here in the United States.”