After An Unexpected Rise, Earl St. Clair Is Ready For More Surprises | WABE 90.1 FM

After An Unexpected Rise, Earl St. Clair Is Ready For More Surprises

Mar 9, 2017
Originally published on March 11, 2017 10:40 am

Earl Johnson II didn't grow up dreaming about becoming a famous singer: For a long time, he didn't even know he could sing. He discovered his talent almost by accident one night, at the recording studio he was working in as a producer.

Now, Johnson performs under the stage name Earl St. Clair . But it was hard at first, which he sings about in the song "Ain't Got It Like That." He recalls, "I was producing the single while people was trappin', chasing the dream and living for free. A whole lot of people helped the hell out of me."

"I was doing production and writing where the money doesn't come consistently," Johnson explains to All Things Considered. "A lot of my friends, you know, they were doing some illegal activities in order to keep their funds up. And that's not my choice... so I had a lot of people who allowed me to stay on their couch, sleep in their basement, borrow their money to keep me afloat while I'm trying to chase my dreams..."

Hear the rest of Earl St. Clair's conversation with NPR's Audie Cornish, including his impression of Ray Charles and philosophy on self-medication, at the audio link.

Alyssa Edes produced the broadcast version of this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF EARL ST. CLAIR SONG, "AIN'T GOT IT LIKE THAT")

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Earl Johnson II didn't grow up dreaming about becoming a famous singer. He didn't even know he could sing. He discovered his talent almost by accident one night at the recording studio he was working at as a producer. Now Johnson performs under the stage name Earl St. Clair, and he's even written for pop stars. But at first, it was really tough. And this song, "Ain't Got It Like That," tells the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T GOT IT LIKE THAT")

EARL JOHNSON II: (Singing) Moving and shaking and making it happen, producing and singing while people was trapping, chasing the dream and living free. A whole lot of people helped the hell out of me.

I was producing and singing while people was trapping, chasing the dream and living for free. A whole lot of people helped the hell out of me. So I was doing production and writing where the money doesn't come consistently. A lot of my friends, you know - they were doing some illegal activities, you know, to keep their funds up.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON II: And that's not my choice.

CORNISH: Hence the reference to trapping (laughter).

JOHNSON II: Yes, yes.

CORNISH: OK.

JOHNSON II: And that's not really my choice, so I had a lot of people who allowed me to stay on their couch, sleep in their basement, borrow their money to keep me afloat while I'm trying to chase my dreams.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T GOT IT LIKE THAT")

JOHNSON II: (Singing) And I don't let it (unintelligible). And one day, I'm going to finally get paid, yeah.

Music wasn't on my radar at all growing up. I really wanted to be a actor and a comedian 'cause I used to sit around and impersonate Bernie Mac and any voice I could pick up on. I still do it to this day.

CORNISH: Impersonations - did you do musicians? Is that how you realized you could sing?

JOHNSON II: No, I didn't realize - I didn't know I could sing when I was - like, I used to impersonate Ray Charles when I worked in this warehouse in Alabama. And I'd be riding around the warehouse on my Towmotor singing (singing) Georgia, Georgia. I just mimic him all day.

CORNISH: You nailed it. You just nailed it.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON II: And people would be dying laughing. And I was not producing quite yet, but I started fiddling around with it. And when I moved back from Alabama to Cleveland, I really took it serious and buckled down.

CORNISH: So Ray Charles is an interesting choice. It makes me wonder what kind of music you did listen to growing up. If people in your family weren't musicians, weren't singers, what were the songs that were coming out of, like, your parents' speakers?

JOHNSON II: My mom listened to a lot of Erykah Badu, Kirk Franklin. My dad listened to War, Al Green, Otis Redding.

CORNISH: So were you ever, like, doing little performances? Like, I imagine you being, like, a little kid running around doing (laughter) these...

JOHNSON II: Yes.

CORNISH: ...Songs in the voices.

JOHNSON II: Yes, especially MC Hammer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "U CAN'T TOUCH THIS")

MC HAMMER: (Singing) Can't touch this.

JOHNSON II: Like, when the video would come on TV, I would be front and center...

CORNISH: Of course.

JOHNSON II: ...In front of the TV, hitting every move - uh-oh, uh-oh (vocalizing).

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Who among us did not...

JOHNSON II: Man.

CORNISH: ...Try and do the Hammer dance?

JOHNSON II: Man, I'd go wrap a sheet around my waist and make it seem like I had the parachute pants.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "U CAN'T TOUCH THIS")

HAMMER: (Rapping) When you know you're down - a super dope homeboy from the Oaktown. And I'm known as such, and this is a beat you can't touch.

CORNISH: So now you're at the point where you're, like, actually writing your own songs. And one of the things I read is that you consider writing a good song like therapy.

JOHNSON II: Yeah.

CORNISH: And not everyone feels this way - right? - about - there are some people who write songs about characters. It's never about them.

JOHNSON II: Yeah.

CORNISH: That doesn't feel like you.

JOHNSON II: No, it's not. The studio is my therapy room. I'm able to get whatever I'm feeling off of my chest at the moment, whether it's something that I'm going through at the moment, whether there's something that I've been through. It just honestly depends on how I'm feeling and what's being played musically while I'm in the room.

CORNISH: Is there anything that you are scared to share in a song?

JOHNSON II: No 'cause I'm not - I accept myself for who I am full and through. So there's nothing that I'm ashamed of or I haven't done that I'm scared to speak of because it made me who I am today.

CORNISH: All right, with that in mind, I want to play a little bit of the song "Pain"...

(SOUNDBITE OF EARL ST. CLAIR SONG, "PAIN")

CORNISH: ...Because this felt very raw to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF EARL ST. CLAIR SONG, "PAIN")

CORNISH: This opens very blues.

JOHNSON II: Yes, it is the blues. I - if you listen to the lyrics, I got the blues.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAIN")

JOHNSON II: (Singing) I don't think I need any help. I got this all under control. At least that's just what I tell myself as an excuse to I can indulge. At the first sight of pain, I'm running, yeah. I'm running down to the liquor store.

Self-medication.

(Singing) And if I'm really, really, really, really hurting, I might burn through a whole pack of smokes.

CORNISH: This is one of those songs where any of us with any kind of addiction (laughter) - right...

JOHNSON II: Yeah, any sort.

CORNISH: ...Whether it's food or alcohol or cigarettes or too many hours on the couch...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...In front of the television, it's a thing you reach for to make yourself feel better when times are really dark.

JOHNSON II: Yep, and I personally don't see anything wrong with self-medicating unless you overindulge because sometimes you just need something to just give you that (exhaling) - that exhale. But the thing is just keeping a handle on it and making sure that it doesn't go to the wrong place, especially when you're going through tough times. Like when I lost my parents, I started smoking. And I'm...

CORNISH: And we should say you lost both of your parents, right?

JOHNSON II: Yes, yes. My dad went first. Then my mom came not too long after. But yeah, self-medicating, man - it - that's what that song was about - dealing with the pain that I was going through.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAIN")

JOHNSON II: (Singing) My daddy died before I turned 25, but he left me a little money.

CORNISH: Or not dealing with, right?

JOHNSON II: Yeah.

CORNISH: It's like your parents have passed on, but you're talking about how this pain can come back at you precisely 'cause you're not taking it on.

JOHNSON II: Yep. I have to deal with it, or it's going to deal with me. I take it and put it into my music, and I try to use that as my driving force.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAIN")

JOHNSON II: (Singing) I got to deal with the pain, pain, pain before it deals with me. Tell 'em.

CORNISH: Thinking about how far you've come, you know, from joking about Ray Charles in a warehouse (laughter)...

JOHNSON II: Yeah (laughter).

CORNISH: ...To writing and producing, at this point, are you surprised?

JOHNSON II: I'm surprised every day 'cause every new thing that happen is something I've never done. So it's like an adventure every single day. And I'm so grateful, and I'm so blessed. And I just try to take every opportunity that comes my way. I never want to take anything for granted. And I want to continue being surprised.

(SOUNDBITE OF EARL ST. CLAIR SONG, "FEELING ALIVE")

CORNISH: Earl St. Clair, thank you so much for speaking with us and sharing your story.

JOHNSON II: Thank you for having me, man. It was an honor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEELING ALIVE")

JOHNSON II: (Singing) My friends say I should live a little.

If you ever need me back, you need me to sing some jingles, do some radio intros, you need me to come do a little set for you, you know, do a 3-to-6 slot, just let me know. I'll come through.

CORNISH: You know, it's good that you're saying that because the song we're going to go out on is "Feeling Alive"...

JOHNSON II: Aye (ph).

CORNISH: ...Which is pretty much about putting your head to the grindstone, man. And it seems like that's what you're doing.

JOHNSON II: Yes, it is - got to stay positive, take those opportunities.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEELING ALIVE")

JOHNSON II: (Singing) I'm feeling alive. I'm feeling alive, alive, alive. I'm feeling alive. I'm feeling alive, alive, alive. If you feel what I'm saying, say, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. If you feel what I'm saying, say, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. I'm afraid if I try something crazy, I'm going to end up in love, love, love. I learned to keep an open mind. I was holding up my blessings, dog. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.