Within a week of starting college at the University of Southern California in 2011, Justin Jay had been signed to Dirtybird Records. As the youngest artist on the nascent house music label’s roster, Jay’s star rose for years alongside Dirtybird, which was named "Underground Label of the Year" at the 2013 International Dance Music Awards, along with various other honors.
After consistently releasing tech-house hits between classes at USC -- Jay aimed to produce a new track every week during his freshman year -- he graduated and released a series of Fantastic Voyage EPs in 2016 with the help of college buddies who doubled as his lyricists and bandmates. The sun-kissed, rock-influenced efforts expanded Jay’s audience beyond Dirtybird’s house-head fan base. He even started his own label, also titled Fantastic Voyage.
But just as he was coming into his own last year, Jay pressed pause on his career as a DJ. He moved back home with his parents in Los Angeles, canceled a string of tour dates at the last minute and fired his manager, who was also his good friend.
It was an unexpected series of moves from Jay in several respects.
Firstly, it’s rare to see a musician in his early 20s turn down the chance to make some money by touring with his mates, especially when they’d already grown somewhat comfortable playing together live.
The humble, shaggy-haired Angeleno is also fiercely loyal to his friends; Jay loves to rave about the creative firepower and unique artistic voices possessed by the companions who influence his work. But the canceled shows meant that the pals he’d planned to tour with suddenly had a source of income go up in smoke.
“That was a super s----- feeling to kind of let a bunch of my homies down,” Jay said. “That was really intense.”
But what felt even more intense to Jay at the time was his desire to stomp the brakes on a stressful travel schedule that’d seen him DJ around the world on two separate tours during his fifth and final year at USC.
“I was feeling this pressure to grow my career quickly, and quicker than maybe I was ready for,” Jay said. “It was hard because I really did like [my manager], and he cared and was working really hard, but I had to let him go so I could focus on what I wanted to do.”
During that “super senior” college campaign, Jay earned a songwriting minor that ignited an aspiration to create his own songs from scratch -- compose lyrics, guitar chords and percussion progressions, sing vocals, the whole shebang -- and reconstruct his live shows.
“I really only ever made house and techno music for a long time [in college],” Jay said. “I wanted to find some really substantive ways of performing live, and instead of being able to explore those, I felt like I was going to be thrown into the fire in a way I wasn't ready for.”
So, Jay returned home. He often stayed up until 2 a.m. and played the piano he grew up with in his parents’ living room in the dark of night, figuring out the chords that would become the core of Home (released on October 12). He also consulted the friends he’d let down, and found they were more than willing to forgive him for prioritizing a long-term outlook on his career over their short-term financial gain -- especially because that decision resulted in some pretty excellent music.
Fantastic Voyage was a four-part mish-mash of funk, disco, house and techno that was released on four different labels, since the songs crossed genres and could’ve jarred listeners who tried to take it all in during one sitting.
Home is a much more cohesive collection of tracks, a deeply introspective affair filled with aching nostalgia in tracks like “Time” (The time, where did it go?/The people, they don’t know) and the gorgeous, piano-driven ballad “Flowers” (You can’t rewind/We ran out of time/Yeah I know, it’s hard to lose control/And go our separate ways).
But that doesn’t mean it’s a bummer of a record -- far from it. Jay’s house background can be readily felt through tenacious bass grooves and thumping drum beats on the Tame Impala-influenced “Cool,” “Apologies” and lead single “Can’t Hang." And Jay’s chopped, distorted vocals impact each song in a unique manner, effectively conveying the wistful yet hopeful tone Home often takes on.
After his self-imposed break from touring, Jay is eager to get back on the road and treat fans to his new indie-dance sound while still maintaining the manic energy associated with his tech-house DJ sets.
“When people go to a DJ performance, the vibe can be so different than a live performance, where people are sometimes just kind of standing around,” Jay said. “[DJ shows] are so physical. There's dancing, it's high-energy and very visceral. I'd like to deliver those types of moments, even if I'm not DJing and it's a band performance.”
The unassuming 24-year-old is once again living with several of his friends/collaborators on one side of a large duplex in central Los Angeles. They even have plans to take over the other half of the duplex so more of them can move in.
But first, they have a tour to get to this fall.