Josiah Hawley wears cowboy boots when walking the streets of Nakameguro. He listens to gospel music on the Yamanote Line. When he jams out on his acoustic guitar in the basement of Garret Interior furniture shop he apologizes for stomping on his tambourine too loud.
It has been seven years since the Fort Smith, Arkansas native brought his aw shucks smile and 24-hour, five o’clock shadow to the national spotlight as a top-10 finalist on the NBC singing competition show The Voice. Since 2017 he has worked as a recording artist and model in Tokyo, where handlers ask him to shave mid-photo shoot.
In September 2020 Hawley released his latest EP, I Just Want Your Love, which includes his single, “Gonna Let You Go.” On October 31, he makes a special guest appearance on the TW Live House Halloween special.
Ahead of his big TW debut, we chatted with Hawley over Zoom to talk about his life, loves and the 10 songs that changed his life.
You wanted to be a musician since you were six years old. What was the song that first got you hooked way back then?
Have you ever heard of the California Raisins? My parents got us a VHS tape, I have four brothers and a sister, a lot of kids, and my parents got us a VHS tape of the California Raisins. When I saw that, I was done. This is it, man. The last scene is “Sign, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” by Stevie Wonder. It’s this amazing montage of the band, and it shows their careers in stages, and it ends with this huge sold-out arena. It’s just epic. The whole California Raisins thing is soul music. It’s soul and Motown and funk and, for me, that’s the jam.
You learned to play guitar at 12 – what was the first song you wanted to learn?
My dad is a jazz pianist, and so I grew up just always hearing music. I started playing piano when I was 6, but when I was 12, I did the not-so-smart thing of going, “You know what, guitar is so much cooler than piano.” I should have kept playing piano is the moral of the story. I didn’t. I started playing guitar instead. My first guitar was a Premier. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up. I think we got it out of a Musician’s Friend catalogue. It came with an amp, a strap, a tuner, everything for under $200. I put little designs on it. It was all black. That was my baby.
The answer to your question is two-fold, honestly. At that time, if you said you played the guitar, there were two songs you had to at least sort of play. One, “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. And two, “It Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. It’s not like it’s hard, but if you didn’t know how to play those songs, then you couldn’t play guitar.
What was the song you blasted on your radio that your parents hated?
The problem is, when you repeat something enough times, because you want to learn it, it just gets annoying. I remember hearing this song by Weezer in passing once at a friend’s house, and I was like what is that song? I have to know this song. It was “Say It Ain’t So.” When I finally found it, I had to listen to it again and again and again. Of course I would have friends over and be like, “Hey, do you know this song?” and I’d play it. And my parents would be like, “No, please play anything else, just please play something else.”
What song reminds you of your first love?
So funny you ask, and instantly I know. There is no doubt about it. At the time I was 16. I had met this lovely girl, who was an incredible singer, put me to shame. I had already been singing for a couple of years and this girl was just on another level. So she said to me, there is this song that I really love and if it would be possible to learn it and play it, it would be everything. And I was like, what song? What song? And she goes, um, “Yellow” by Coldplay. I’m like, Yellow Yellow Yellow, what is that song, I don’t even know that song.
So, man, I worked so hard at that song. It was the hardest song for me. Not the chords, but learning how to sing. That song taught me falsetto. Then I took her to a little park with a little lake and I brought my guitar, and I played that song, and oh yeah, we started dating. We started dating. Then she broke my heart. What are you going to do?
What song did you submit for your audition to The Voice?
Full disclosure, I did not want to audition. I had a friend, a vocal coach. I went to a welcome party at his apartment complex, and he spots a friend of his and this guy’s a gospel singer who was on season two of The Voice. He goes, I think you should be on it. And I go, no, yeah, I hear ya, but no. At music school I studied an American Idol contract. The contract you have to sign says they can own you for up to seven years, and you have to sign it… So that’s what I knew, so there was no way I would do The Voice. He said no, they’re different. Different mentality. He put me in touch with the casting director, and the casting director calls me the next day and … she said if I put you in touch with the lawyers will that put you at ease? Sure enough I get to talk to the lawyers later that day and go over all of my questions. That was a Tuesday – Saturday I auditioned.
I was already in LA. I brought in a friend I had never played with before, and we did not do well. I was so nervous. I did “Sunday Morning” by Maroon 5. I think I might have done “Roxanne” by The Police. The thing is, when you get to the audition, they give you a list of songs that have been pre-approved. “Sunday Morning” – Adam (Levine) was on the show. They were like we think that’s a good song for you, and I was like, “Yes, I do too.” I love that song. So that worked out well.
What is your favorite performance from The Voice?
They basically have you on a seven-day shooting schedule. It is kind of crazy. Monday is when the show airs. And then Tuesday is when you would get your song. Wednesday you rehearse it with the band. You have to be ready to go. Thursday is when they film it with your coach. They are already filming, and you just got your song like 32 hours ago. Friday, you record the song in the studio. Friday you also get up at 4:35 because you have morning interviews. Later in the day you might have another vocal lesson. You work with the choreographer to work on your staging. Saturday is a dress rehearsal with the band, lights and everything. Sunday is more prep, wardrobe and maybe you’ll have a few hours off. Then Monday is the day. And it’s live. Here you go. And you get one chance. If you screw up, too bad. You get one shot.
I sang six songs officially before I was off the show. Muse had not allowed any of their songs to be used previously, and then they somehow got permission, so I was the first person to be able to sing a Muse song. So I sang “Starlight.” I love that song. I remember the music video and hearing the song for the first time, and thought this is the best. I just love it. It has so much drama and so much heart and so much excitement. It has soaring vocals and I didn’t realize how hard it was to sing, especially when you’re playing guitar. It was quite a challenge. It was very fun.
After The Voice, you recorded five songs, including Gonna Let You Go. What does that song mean to you, and looking back, how does it represent that time in your life?
So, as soon as I got off the show, it was like OK, it was an amazing experience, it was a high, but I don’t think I was represented very well as an artist. Because, you are singing songs that aren’t your own. At the end of the day, great, you are really good at singing, congrats. But as an artist, who are you? So it was a time of self-exploration in the most incredible way. I ended up working with a good friend of mine named Casey Skinner. He is a real eccentric dude. In the studio, he installed dry erase boards, floor to ceiling, just to take notes. He was like OK man, who are you as an artist? What are the things you like? Genres? Names of songs you like, artists, instruments, even clothes. A big brainstorming session of who are you as a person. So we started to go through it, what is similar, what works, and we started circling everything. What is the vibe?
I realized there was so much more R&B than I realized. I was only listening to rock for years. Punk, heavy metal, classic rock like Queen and later Muse and Radiohead. It’s like OK, what really makes my heart go, “Yes,” and it was straight R&B. It’s Stevie Wonder. It’s Ray Charles. It’s Blues Brothers. It’s James Brown. That’s the vibe. That’s everything to me. When I wrote “Gonna Let You Go,” I went back to my childhood when I was introduced to “The Blues Brothers.” There’s a lot of blues, funk and soul, and there is one scene in particular when they are like, “Ya’ll boys need to go to church,” and they go to church and guess who the pastor is, James Brown. I wanted to create something that is me, but has that energy and vibe. I was like, let’s do this. I wrote this EP. It was awesome. We just went there.
You arrived in Tokyo in 2017. What song reminds you of this new life transition?
It was really interesting move. It was really exciting, but also there were some things that were difficult that I didn’t know to expect. It took four months officially to get the visa finalized and approved. I only had a three-month tourist visa, so I had to go to Korea for a few days, come back on a new tourist visa. I finally got my visa approved, but it’s an entertainer visa, and they only approved it for three months. By the time I was actually able to start making money it was six months of being in Tokyo. All of the money I had saved up was gone. Nobody would rent to us, so we were going from Airbnb to Airbnb. In seven months we lived in six places. In a way it was this beautiful amazing exploration of a new city, but it was also stressful.
Do you know CeCe Winans? She’s a gospel artist. Epic singer, incredible. I’m going to name drop a little bit. CeCe Winans is from Nashville. I went to Belmont University School of Music in Nashville. I became good friends with another singer and producer named Alvin Love, and it turns out he is CeCe’s son. We were in a couple of music groups together and we became really good friends, and I met his mom. After college and after LA and I move to Tokyo and find her new album, and I find out he wrote the majority of it and produced the whole album with another friend. It’s like, he wrote and produced this whole album and won a Grammy for it. So, I’m so proud of my friend and and here I am just struggling, not even able to get a visa. I can’t get anybody to rent to me. And there’s this song by CeCe Winans, it’s called “Run to Him.” It’s beautiful. When I hear that song it just gives me peace instantly.
What song keeps you calm when you’re riding a Tokyo subway?
There’s a song Drake did. It’s called “Get It Together.” The vocals are by Jorja Smith. She has this amazing soulful voice. The beat is driving but you have these laid-back vocals and it’s so soothing. Luckily I am taller than most people on the train. When it’s crowded, your arms are up like this [holds up arms], and there’s no place to stand, but at least my head is above everybody else’s head, so at least I can have some breathing space. And I’m just like, let me put my headphones in real quick, and reach my phone like this, and no I’m not touching you, give me a second, OK, hit play.
What song are they going to play at your funeral?
Honestly I hope it’s one of my songs. I would want it to be a celebration of the life that I’ve lived. I want them to walk out of the service saying, “He did it with everything that he has. I want to do the same thing.” I hope it would inspire and encourage others, so I hope they play a song that would fit that vibe.
And if not, I think it would be funny to play, it’s an original, but I really love it, it’s called “Now It’s Christmas.” Right after The Voice, I worked with a couple of managers. One of their ideas was to release a Christmas project. Long story short, it didn’t work out at all. They said we have producers. They didn’t. So I produced it myself. They said we have studios. They didn’t. So I found a friend with a studio and he engineered it. I got my friends to record it. We did it in a day. It’s just crazy, but I really love the song. It’s about remembering the purpose of Christmas and the season. It’s a time for relationships. It’s about people and the ones you love. That’s what it’s about. It’s a happy song in a way, and I think it would be funny to play that at a celebration.