We’re excited to announce that the next artist to be highlighted as part of Apple Music’s Up Next Local series is James Johnston. 

Apple Music’s Up Next Local series is dedicated to identifying and showcasing up and coming talent across Australia and New Zealand, hand-picked by Apple Music editors from around the world.

It’s extra notable for Johnston as he’s the first Up Next Local country music artist. A country boy born and bred in Wingham, NSW, the singer has built a sound that is capturing the hearts of listeners around the country.

His latest single, ‘Small Town’, came out today, November 19th, and it’s a song marked by yearning: to return to his roots, away from the bright lights of the city skyline to the endless starlight of the bush.

Johnston will be hoping ‘Small Town’ is as big a success as his previous single ‘Raised Like That’ which, with over 5 million streams, is now regarded as the fastest selling single by an Australian Country artist ever.

Despite making a name for himself in music, Johnston remains the unassuming, down-to-earth country boy he’s always been. “I think so often when you grow up in a small town you think there is something  so much bigger and better out there,” he said.

“Only until you step away you realise the magic of a small town and a close community. My family farm is still on the outskirts of my small town of Wingham and it’s  still one of my favourite things to go back to.”

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We spoke to Johnston to get the country star’s thoughts on his new single, his musical style, and what’s coming up for him in the future.

For more on this topic, follow the Country Music Observer.

What is one thing that has helped keep you going during this global pandemic?

Songwriting and the idea that if I was in Nashville right now as I was supposed to be, what would I be doing. I know if things hadn’t changed I would be in Nashville writing everyday. So I took that ethos to being stuck at home and woke up everyday and worked on my craft and wrote songs.

Take us through how you developed your music style?

I grew up singing country music up until about 16. But I feel I truly developed my style when I went off and tried lots of different genres (played in a funk band, wrote indie acoustic music, played rock ‘n’ roll covers).

So when I finally came home to country at about 25, my upbringing was rooted in country music and songwriting but I got to pull from all different genres to craft my own unique sound.

What do you see as your secret weapon when it comes to your music?

I believe there isn’t so much a secret weapon but more just time on the clock. I’ve played 1000’s of shows as a live musician, and in 2020 alone I wrote over 200 songs. Just through the act of doing it you start to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t.

When I truly started to feel like a songwriter was only when I stopped trying to write everyone else’s story or copy a sound and started to pull from my life and my stories. Only then did I feel like I had something to say and know how to express it.

Tell us about your latest single; how it started, what it’s about, and anything else you’d like to share about it.

I wrote ‘Small Town’ on the drive back home to my hometown of Wingham. I had been spending quite some time in the city and I was just so excited to get back to my family farm. I wanted to capture that feeling of excitement and anticipation in the song. That build up as I was on that drive to get back home.

I think so often when you grow up in a small town you thinks there is something so much bigger and better out there. Only until you step away you realise the magic of a small town and a close community. My family farm is still on the outskirts of my small town of Wingham and it’s still one of my favourite things to go back to.

What are five attributes you think an artist needs to have in order to have career longevity in this music industry?

I think you have to really want it and not the kind of want that is a fun weekend hobby but the kind of want that if you could only ever do one thing ever again you would choose making music.

Longevity in the music business means a lot of ups and downs, a lot of being away, a lot of self-belief, and a lot of hard work.

Why do you make music? What’s your great big ‘why’?

I think I somewhat answered it in the last answer. For me it truly isn’t a choice. When I’m happy I pick up a guitar and sing, when I’m sad I write music to get out my emotions. When I have a weekend off I want to go and jam with my mates. I just feel it’s not even a choice it’s just what I do and love.

As I’ve grown into a songwriter my ‘why’ has become clearer. I want to write music that brings joy to people. Songs that are written from my life but that others can put their lives into. To feel proud of the person they are, the life they live, and the place they come from.

What’s something that you’re really excited about right now?

I’m excited about the unknown of what’s to come. In the past 3 months my life has changed so much and so many of my big boxes that I wanted to tick have been ticked (playing my first major festival, having my first number one Australian country song).

I’m kind of excited to see where else this road will take me. I love the feeling of uncertainty and not truly knowing what’s around the corner. It keeps me going to work hard to make that next thing as cool as it can be.

If we gained access to a few songs you have on repeat at the moment, what would we find?

I love discovering new music. I actively go searching to find new artists and songs that just make me feel something. Songs that make me want to stop whatever I’m doing pick up a guitar and create.

The latest Cody Johnson record did that for me. I thought it was just incredible with some incredible song writing. Jordan Davis is always on high rotation and as of yesterday I found a song by a new duo Ya,Boyz called ‘Stomp Your Boots’ that my son and I have played about 20 times in the car since we heard it. It’s a jam!

What’s something your fans don’t know about you, but you want to share with them?

I’m expecting a baby boy in about six weeks. It’s incredibly exciting and a little nerve racking. But I am truly excited to meet the little guy. So the past few months alongside releasing my single has been setting up nurseries, and doctor appointments with my wife.

What does Apple Music’s support through Up Next mean to you?

I think the Up Next program is just such a great way to get to know artists a little more. What inspires and drives a musician to create has always fascinated me. I feel very honoured to be chosen for this opportunity and hopefully I can bring a few new listeners along on this journey with me.