In a local (New Zealand) context, every once in a while, our own next big thing goes on to become a very big thing on the global stage – in recent times think: Lorde, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, perhaps Broods and one or two others. I suppose “very big thing” starts to become subjective, relative, and a little cloudy beyond only the most obvious of names (Janine and The Mixtape, anyone?) …
And so we come to 19-year-old Wellingtonian Eddie Johnston, aka Lontalius, aka Race Banyon, aka New Zealand’s latest teenage prodigy; an unassuming young man with an enormous amount of genuine talent. I’ve seen Johnston perform live a few times wearing his Race Banyon hat, in Auckland and in Wellington, and it’s fair to say I’ve walked away from the gig on each occasion utterly convinced that I’ve just had a rare glimpse into the future.
It’s under the Lontalius guise that Johnston has just released his official debut album, I’ll Forget 17. I say “official” because he released something akin to an album as Lontalius on Bandcamp a few years back (a giveaway set of very short tunes), he’s released several digital-only albums of covers, and he’s also put stuff out under the Race Banyon moniker, most notably, the terrific Whatever Dreams Are Made Of EP release of mid-2013.
I have to be completely honest here though: as much as I’ll Forget 17 showcases just how talented Johnston is as a songwriter and as a composer, it doesn’t really speak to me as a grizzly middle-aged man (read: cynical greybeard). I much prefer the Race Banyon work – intense warm electronic glitchy techno.
In all fairness, I get that I’m probably not the target demographic for Lontalius, and although the album doesn’t grab me – it’s a little too Drake-influenced, too heart-on-sleeve “emo” (for want of a better description), and I’ve a natural aversion to all things autotune, of which there’s an awful lot – that doesn’t mean I don’t see it or appreciate it for what it is: beautifully crafted pop music made for the generation of its creator. I’m pretty certain this one will hold huge appeal for my teenage daughters, for example.
Johnston shapes these ten songs with all the precision and maturity of a production veteran, giving them requisite amounts of drama where needed, and vast swathes of space when they need to breathe. Songs like ‘All I Wanna Say’ and ‘Glow’ are things of rare beauty, heartfelt and intimate, close and claustrophobic, and there’s a very real sense that this is Johnston putting it all out there, laying it bare as honestly as only he knows how. This is bedroom pop taken to another level.
Dare I say it, putting aside the notion that autotune or processed vocals represent something of a cop-out to listeners of a certain generation, we may all look back on this release one day as the first giant stride towards the pop masterpiece that Eddie Johnston (in whatever guise he chooses) is surely destined to make. I’ll Forget 17 isn’t quite all that (yet), but you’d be foolish not to acknowledge the massive potential on show.
One of the pesky issues confronting those lumbered with that awkward “next big thing” label – and it isn’t a tag always welcomed wholesale by the bearer – has always been the tendency for young artists to become typecast too soon, or to be stifled by an inability to move on or evolve musically. I really don’t think we’ll see that with Johnston. There’s real talent here and certainly enough self-awareness to make the often difficult transition to the next phase of his career. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, just as Johnston himself surely isn’t. That’s for the future, and pop music is nothing if it’s not all about the now, the present, and living in the moment. So watch this space.Postscript: The Wellington version of the album release party takes place at Prefab this Friday, April 15. It’s officially an “all ages” gig but I had to laugh when Johnston joked on social media a few days back that he was going to put a “cool teens only” sign up at the door. Clearly he knows his market. I also know my place, so I’ll stick to Race Banyon sets for now.